Monday, January 24, 2011

One week in Siem Reap

While we only visited one part of Cambodia, I enjoyed my time in the country immensely. Since we only had one week, we chose to maximize our activities to try to get a feel for Cambodia beyond the temples. After one day of downtime & planning, we spent three consecutive days exploring 22+ temples and the fishing village of Kompong Phluk. We took another day to rest then did a 4-hour early morning horse ride with The Happy Ranch which I highly recommend. We also splurged ($3 each) and got "fish massages!"
Dr. Fish
Getting our visas at Siem Reap airport was handled very efficiently (way better than Vietnam or Laos) and only cost $20. We stayed at TaSom Guesthouse, which is about 15 minutes walk to Pub Street (the tourist-oriented restaurant & bar area near the Old Market). Our accommodation with breakfast only cost $15/night. Good Khmer food (amok, curry, lok lak, etc.) could be had from a restaurant for approx $3-4, and even cheaper on the street. There were also tons of Western & European restaurants, but dishes typically cost at least twice as much. Beer was pretty cheap, too: $0.50 drafts during happy hour around Pub Street; 12oz cans were about the same price in grocery stores. Speaking of money, the U.S. dollar is king here and we paid for almost everything in cash. ATM's dispense dollars and there is really no reason to get any Cambodian riel, although any change less than $1 will be given in riel which can easily be used for tips or small purchases.
enjoying a $0.50 Angkor draft on Pub Street
Here is my brief version of the history of Angkor: It was the Khmer “Capital City” from the 9th-12th centuries AD. The temples served religious functions but were built by kings. The first temples were Hindu; later construction was Buddhist but reverted to Hindu again. Theravada Buddhism has been the Cambodian state religion since the 13th century CE (excepting the Khmer Rouge period), and is currently estimated to be the faith of 95% of the population (per Wikipedia). For various reasons, the capital moved to Phnom Penh in 1432 and the temples remained active but functions changed; they were largely abandoned for almost five centuries but still 270 survived. Angkor Wat was visited by western explorers between the 16th-19th century but Henri Mouhot is credited with its “discovery” in 1860 (Greg & I saw his grave in Laos on the Nam Khan river near Luang Prabang). Mouhot wrote a book which sparked tourism. Cambodia’s civil war, which began in the 1970’s, did damage to the monuments (bullet holes, looting) and prevented archaeologists from continuing maintenance & repair work. After the war ended in the early 1990’s, tourism gradually increased and Angkor Archaeological Park now sees two million visitors each year. Canby Publications Guide to Cambodia is an excellent source for comprehensive info for traveling in Cambodia. You can also pick up a free copy of their guide-booklets at hotels, restaurants and travel agencies throughout the country.
Angkor Wat at sunset

Here is our temple itinerary including the time frame (century) of building and original religious affiliation. A three day pass which can be used on any three days within one week costs $40, however when the ticket agent printed our passes, she dated them as three consecutive days and when I realized the mistake minutes later, refused to make us new passes! As visiting many of the temples requires a fair amount of exertion (lots of climbing), it's hot & dusty, and understanding the history of each temple & uniqueness of the architecture and carvings can be overwhelming, it's nice to break up your temple touring with other activities if you have the time. I have also included the daily cost for transport. We only hired a guide on the first day and did fine on our own (without a proper guidebook) for the remaining two days. The most interesting thing we learned from our guide, Sophan, was his personal experience growing up during the Vietnam War and Cambodia's civil war. He told us his family was always on the move and that he was terrified when he heard helicopters because they were associated with being shot. He survived a napalm bomb but his brother, who had gone to work for the government in Phnom Penh, was hunted & killed by the Khmer Rouge.
Sophan leads us astray
Day 1 - tuk tuk $12; guide $25
South Gate of Angkor Thom
Central Angkor Thom (Bayon, Baphuon - mid 11th Hindu but large reclining Buddha added much later; Phimeanakas - late 10th Hindu, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King) - all late 12th Buddhist except where noted
Victory Gate
Thommanon - late 11th Hindu
Chau Say Thevoda - early 12th Hindu
Ta Keo - late 10th Hindu (Shiva)
Ta Prohm - mid 12th Buddhist
Angkor Wat - early 12th Hindu
Ta Prohm - site of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie
Day 2 - tuk tuk $28
Pre Rup - late 10th Hindu (Shiva)
Banteay Srey - late 10th Hindu (Shiva)
Banteay Samre - mid-12th Hindu (Vishnu)
East Mebon - late 10th Hindu (Shiva)
Ta Som - late 12th Buddhist
Neak Pean - late 12th Buddhist
Preah Khan - late 12th Buddhist
Phnom Bakheng - late 9th Hindu (Shiva)
Banteay Srey
Day 3 - tuk tuk $16
Roluos Group (Preah Ko, Bakong, Lolei) - late 9th Hindu
Kompong Pluk fishing village - $15 admission includes motorboat ride to Tonle Sap
*We also visited Wat Athvea (late 11th Hindu) during our horse ride.
dry season in Kompong Phluk
We chose to travel everywhere by tuk tuk, which is inexpensive and slow enough that you can enjoy the scenery more. However, as with any “open air” transport, you will be covered in dust and will be breathing a lot of exhaust fumes, especially on the busy main roads. I felt relatively safe with exception of the day we went to Rolous & Komplong Phluk. There were many large trucks, buses, etc. passing us at 90kph (we were going no more than 60kph). Cambodian roads are notoriously dangerous and many people are killed every year. On our way back from Banteay Srey, we came upon an accident involving a pickup truck and a moped. It appeared they had collided almost head on. Only a fraction of people wear helmets, almost never children, and there are usually at least three people on one motorbike. One day I even saw a woman breastfeeding her child on the back of a motorbike! Trucks often carry more than 10 people piled on top of various cargo in the bed, so in a collision everyone flies off the top. After I saw three people lying in the road behind the truck, I turned my head.
our driver for the week, S.B., picks us up from the airport
What I liked about the temples (besides the incredible fact of their existence!) & Siem Reap as a whole:
  • There are enough sites that even with over 25,000 tourists/day you can still feel like an explorer climbing around the ruins.
  • Good (clean & modern), free restroom facilities although not at every temple and usually some distance from the temple site
  • Inexpensive food & beverage, accommodation and transport; lots of options
  • There are far more tourists around Pub Street than locals (with the exception of tuk tuk drivers, beggars, shopkeepers & restaurant staff) which is a negative, however it's a great place to meet fellow travelers (we spent a whole evening chatting with three sisters from Melbourne, Australia)
What I disliked:
  • Tourists’ skimpy clothing - yes, it's hot, but these are religious sites and mini-skirts & low cut tops are not appropriate!
  • Too many children selling bracelets, trinkets, postcards
  • Tour groups at the temples should be limited in size (any group larger than 10 people can easily block narrow pathways or prevent viewing of carvings, statues, etc.)
  • Loved the authenticity of Kompong Phluk fishing village but tourist boats should be smaller and limited in numbers so as not to disrupt normal life; scam with mangrove forest boats rowed by locals - a “handler” takes your money instead of you giving it directly to the person who rows your boat
Finally, here are the links to all of my Cambodia photos:

Angkor Temples
Siem Reap area


  1. I don't think those fishes give you massages! They bite your feet!
    I know that because there is the same service in the Panama City hotel I went to.

  2. Thanks for share this post. I like Siem Reap. siem reap is the biggest city in cambodia. This is adventurous and beautiful place.

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