Trip to Siem Reap & Angkor Wat, Cambodia -
Churning of the Sea of Milk, The Khmer Rouge, Apsaras, the temples of Angkor Wat, King Jayavarman VII, Pol Pot, The Killing Fields, Tomb Raider – this is a trip report from Angkor Wat and Siem Reap in Cambodia.
A short summary
Planning the trip
Although we agree that the hotel
is simply a storage space for our suitcases/valuables and a place to crash
at night, the hotels in Asia afford one more luxury than e.g. most of
Europe. More quality for the price you pay so we got a little carried away
and in the end we decided to go for Le Méridien Angkor as I’m a Starwood
Preferred Guest. Le Méridien Angkor was 153 USD including taxes, breakfast
etc and you can read our
review of the hotel here.
When it comes to vaccines you should check with your authorities’ recommendations. e.g. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Siem Reap is considered a malaria area so you have to also look into this. After consulting our local vaccinations authority we chose to not go for malaria pills this time.
The trip begins – from Ho Chi
Minh City to Siem Reap
The weather was hot and sunny as you would expect from South East Asia. Note that you can check what weather to expect on Weatherbase.com.
Getting a taxi when we got out was not a problem – the price was 7 USD for getting to the hotel and we didn’t have a problem with that. I guess I was expecting that the driving would be similar to what we experienced in Vietnam but the driving experience here was totally different. In HCMC they did drive pretty crazy but the taxi from the airport in Siem Reap to our hotel took it slow and easy. Cambodia is regarded as a third world country with a GDP per capita of about 2000 USD (while the same number for Norway is 53 400 USD). Housing we saw along the way to the hotel was quite modest – shacks, plastic chairs, people selling stuff along the road, cows walking on the fields etc.
Our taxi driver did ask us if we had gotten a guide for our stay in Siem Reap but we had decided to go for a tour guide through the hotel so we turned down his offer. It’s quite common to get such requests so don’t be afraid to take him up on the offer. Just ensure you organize a certified guide in addition to the driver. The drive to the hotel was only 20 minutes and on the way we got glimpses of the ruins around Angkor Wat. As I mentioned earlier we stayed at Le Méridien Angkor. The hotel is quite new and was a very relaxing and pleasant experience.
What to see and do in Siem
We started out by going to Psar Chaa, the Old market in town. It only took us 5-10 minutes on the tuk-tuk as it is about 3 km (1.8 miles) from the hotel. The drive took us along the Siem Reap river, past a royal palace, restaurants and shops etc. Siem Reap seems to be a quiet little town or maybe we drove around in the middle of “siesta” time. We were also there in connection with the Cambodian New Year and maybe that slowed down things as well. People were preparing for the New Years by buying decorations for their homes. People seemed to be friendly and they would bring out the smiles when we looked at them. We just walked around the Old Market area to familiariase ourselves with the place and we walked through “pub street”, “the alley” etc.
We walked over to Artisan D’Angkor which is a center where unemployed/uneducated youth from outside of Siem Reap get educated and trained in wood carving, stone carving, making silk products etc. We got a tour around the school from one of the students and we got to see the different products in the making. In the end there is also a store where you can buy some of their products so if you want to give some money back to the community; this is the place to buy. You can read more about this on artisansdangkor.com
Finding a place to eat in Siem Reap is not a problem. Pub street and the alley consist of lots of bars and restaurants to choose from. On the first night we decided to go for dinner at the Butterflies Garden as this is a “dining for a cause” place e.g. sell products to help communities that are affected by HIV/Aids. When we came there we thought we had come to the wrong place as there was no one else there. But we had come to the right place and got a table in the garden amongst the ponds. We had also chosen this restaurant as there was supposed to be a show of traditional dancing there….but of course with so few guests the show never did happen. Sitting all alone in a restaurant is a bit sad – a restaurant should be filled with lots of people enjoying good food. We had spring rolls (the same kind we had in Vietnam) and chicken in ginger to start with and the chicken was excellent. For main dishes we chose chicken curry and chicken in tamarind. There are a lot of similarities between Thailand and Cambodia (I will get back to this later on) so we were very surprised to find out that Cambodian food is not spicy! The main dishes were also quite good and together with a big Angkor beer and a big bottle of water the bill was 23 USD. And we were not all alone by the way – a frog jumped out of the pond and landed on Nikki’s chair before it jumped from table to table. We never did see any of the butterflies – I guess it was past their bedtime :-) We had also made an arrangement for a roundtrip from our hotel with a tuk-tuk driver but as we were alone at the restaurant the food came quickly and we were done before the scheduled pick up time. But we solved this by leaving some cash at the restaurant for the poor driver and took another tuk-tuk driver back to the hotel. We did run into the tuk-tuk driver the next day and he seemed pretty happy with the arrangement. Might be a good idea to visit this restaurant during the day - might even see some butterflies then.
Time to check out the temples
When I first heard about Angkor Wat I thought it was just one temple. Well, if you are of the same impression, think again. The Angkor temples are a vast temple complex and Angkor Wat is just one of many temples. Angkor Wat is located just north of Siem Reap and it was only about 3 km from our hotel.
So how can you check out the temples of Angkor? If you have lots and lots of time you can of course walk but I would not recommend this as it is a vast area and it is hot. There are two circuits that are made that you can bike which are 17 km (10,5 miles) and 26 km (16 miles). You can also rent a tuk-tuk to take you around – or an airconditioned car. Whichever mode of transportation you choose you still have to pay the entrance fee to Angkor. There is a gate on the way from Siem Reap and the one day pass is 20 USD and the three day pass is 40 USD. Passes are made on the spot as they take photos with a digital camera. Remember to smile! ;-)
We decided to go “all the way” on
this trip and we went for a guide and a driver. The car/driver cost 30 USD
per day and the guide was also 30 USD per day. This seemed to be the average
price whether you booked through the hotel or directly. One thing we
appreciated was not feeling like we were being duped. Pricing in Siem Reap
for e.g. tuk-tuk seems to be standard. We were picked up at 9 am by Mr. Noun
Chansarak (you can reach him on
email@example.com) and a driver in a Toyota Camry and it only took a
couple of minutes to the check point where we bought a three day pass to the
The temple of Angkor Wat
Walking across the causeway over the moat towards the temple is quite an experience. It is amazing to think that we were walking on a bridge laid down over 800 years ago – just clearing this area to build the temples and moat must have been a monumental task. Keep in mind that there are no quarries in the area – the stone had to be brought in from the Kulen Mountains some 50 km (about 31 miles) away. After we crossed the moat we reached the outer wall. Our guide seemed well informed and he told us about the ruins, the legends, the symbolisms, the different figures….but to be honest it was hard to keep up. There were stone carvings everywhere, the ruins are impressive – it was just hard to digest everything at once. We walked through the outer wall, looked at the 3 meter statue of Vishnu carved from one sandstone block and got an introduction to the different figures. Some of them are apsaras: heavenly nymphs who are shown in a dancing mode all over the temples, the linga which is a phallic symbol, the naga which is a multi-headed serpent, the garuda which are half man half bird etc.
The outer walls are about 1025 meters by 850 meters (3360 ft by 2790 ft) so once you pass through the wall you get to quite an extensive court yard with a view to the Angkor Wat temple – the symbol that you can see in e.g. the Cambodian flag. We walked the causeway and our guide lead the way to some of the better photo spots and even helped us take photos of us with the temple in the background. We walked over to the temple and the first wall stretching around the temple is covered with panel after panel with carvings displaying various important histories – the first thing that came to my mind was of course the Ramakien at Grand Palace in Bangkok. The bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat are amazing – there are thousands and thousands of figures and stories with amazing details. None of the photos we have taken can give a sense of how grand this is – you have to see it with your own eyes.
After a few hours at Angkor Wat it was time for lunch and there are a few places to eat outside the main entrance. Alternatively, you can return to your hotel or a restaurant in town. Our guide took us to a place called Angkor Reach where we had a small lunch – I tried some sort of Cambodian soup served in a coconut but the food was not really the focus here - we were just eager to get going as there was a lot more to see.
Angkor Thom and Bayon
Walking around in the temple is a
bit eerie – wherever you go, whatever you see there is always a huge stone
face looking down at you – with a strange smile. I guess it was a hint to
all in the city that the king was always watching them – a great way to
remind people who’s in charge.
We took a walk outside Bayon afterwards and visited Terrace of Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King etc. before we drove out of the gates in the east wall (the Victory gate). We made a short stop at Ta Keo and as Nikki and our guide were ready for a break from climbing steep temple stairs, I went to the top alone. This is an unfinished temple built by Jayavarman V (968-1001) and they speculate that it was not completed due to the king’s death. Anyway, being about 50 meters high it is still impressive. The staircases leading to the top are steep so be careful on the way down.
We continued on to Banteay Kdei – a Buddhist monastery from the 12th century built by King Jayavarman VII. This was about 500 meters by 700 meters and we just walked through it and were picked up by our driver on the other side. Towards the end of the temple walk I was approached by a young lady that asked me if I wanted to buy stuff and I said no with a smile. But she kept on following me asking if I wanted to buy this for my wife, that for my mother etc. As it seemed like her English was pretty good I started talking to her. She told me that she was 16 and when I asked her if she was still in school she said yes but at the moment it was school holiday because of New Year. All of a sudden I saw something glittering in her smile and I was like “what is that?”. I think she got a bit embarrassed as she pressed her lips together in a smile. It turned out that she had some sort of diamond (or similar) inserted into one of her teeth and it was glittering in the sun. I take it that this means that there is some money in selling stuff to the tourists and I hope that it means that some do live a comfortable life.
We did ask our guide about buying stuff from kids and he was like “yes, it is not a problem buying stuff from kids” and he claimed there were lots of kids there due to the school holidays but I’m not completely convinced. They all seem to have the same selling technique – on several occasions kids would ask me if I wanted to buy and I would say no. And then they would say “Ok, I will wait here and maybe you will buy on the way out” and I would innocently reply “Maybe”. And then when I came back out the kids would be like “But I have waited here just for you and now you don’t want to buy? You promised you would buy when you come back” In the end I guess it is better to buy stuff from kids rather than giving money to begging children.
As is it was nearing the Khmer New Year a lot of Cambodians from surrounding areas were in Siem Reap to visit family, take wedding photos at Angkor Wat, take coming of age photos at Angkor Wat, etc. Fortunately Cambodians have free access to Angkor Wat. It seemed like a few of those out of towners (i.e. not used to tourists) were fascinated by Nikki’s dark skin. From time to time people would keep on staring at her which can be a bit uncomfortable. Some would stop and stare - like they had seen a ghost. It seems like the Cambodians also have a complex about darker skin - i.e. light as their ideal skin complexion – just like Thailand, where you can find lots and lots of beauty products with a whitening agent in it. Certainly a test of Nikki’s patience and a topic of discussion considering a number of those out of towners had complexions just as dark and darker than Nikki’s.
After a long day of walking around in blazing heat and high humidity, it was great to get back to the hotel and jump into the pool to “cool down”. Well, the pool was like 30 degrees as well so there was not much cooling down to be done there. April is one of the hottest months in this part of Asia – maybe that is why the New Years is celebrated with splashing of water (as with songkran in Thailand). In the evening we went back to downtown Siem Reap and had dinner at an Indian restaurant called Kamasutra :-) The food was excellent and we paid about 28 USD for onion pakora, a couple of main dishes, two large Angkor beers and a big bottle of water. We also stopped by the night market and here you can find masks, t-shirts with various funny texts, fish spa (you know…where you stick your feet into a pool of small fish and get them to nibble on you), jewellery etc.
There are places with internet connection/wi-fi in Siem Reap. In some places you have to buy something and then you get the access code to the wi-fi. Just walk around Pub street and the Alley and you’ll see the signs. I think we stopped at a place called Temple Club as they had free wi-fi so that I could blog a few photos from my iPhone and at the same time we got too see a show with traditional dancing – and I have to admit that it looked quite a lot like the Thai traditional dancing.
Walking in the footsteps of
We started out by driving to Ta Prohm. I guess this place got real famous when Angelina Jolie was running around as Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider film. We walked through this temple built as a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of Jayavarman VII in 1186. The fascinating thing about Ta Prohm is all the huge trees that seem to have taken over the entire temple. Some trees have stretched out their roots to take over walls; roots have grown into walls etc. It almost seems like some of the trees were out for a walk and got frozen right on top of some of the buildings. A lot of the structure is also in ruins and there were some restoration work going on. But that didn’t matter…the atmosphere is quite unique with all the huge trees that are taking over the temple. We were also shown an echo room by our guide – in this room you would get quite an echo when pounding yourself on the chest. I guess it looked pretty stupid for people standing outside the echo room :-)
We continued to Preah Khan and there is no prize for guessing that it was also built by King Jayavarman VII and it is believed that it was his residence while Angkor Thom was built. It reminded us a bit of Ta Prohm as there were some huge trees here too taking over some of the walls. But it seemed to be in a better state as it has been restored (and I guess the restoration is still in progress). There are even a ruin here of two story building.
After a lunch stop at Rumduol Angkor restaurant we took a bit of a drive to get to Banteay Srei. We had to pay a bit extra due to the long drive but as the guidebook called it “the jewel in the crown of Angkorian art” we decided to go for it. The about 20 km drive was not boring as there is always something to look at – all of a sudden we saw one guy on a moped carrying a live pig at the back of the bike. I guess he was on his way to a market to sell it. Along the route there were small stalls selling a brownish liquid in all sorts of bottles (ranging from Pepsi bottles to Jack Daniels bottles). It turns out that this was gas for the motorcycles.
Banteay Srei is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva and it contains a lot of stone carvings. I guess the pinkish stone must have been of better quality because if these are the originals, then the details are just mind-blowing when temple is believed to be built in 967 AD! It is a small temple so it does not take that long to visit it but it was quite amazing to see all the details in the carving. When we were walking around we were also followed by a young girl but she was just too shy to talk to us.
On the way back to the hotel we made a stop at Pre Rup – a pyramid shaped temple that we climbed. The view from the top was quite good in the flat landscape. As we were taking photos of the exterior a young girl came biking on a HUGE bicycle. It was so big that she was not able to sit on the seat while biking as she wouldn’t reach the pedals. But when she saw us she made a stop of course and asked if we wanted to buy some postcards. And of course…when you are in a place like this you have to send home some postcards so I did buy from her.
Final stop on the way back home was at Prasat Kravan built for Hindu worship in 921 AD. By this time we were getting tired and hot so we just made a short stop. Outside the temple a girl was screaming from something she saw in a corner and I figured that it was a spider or something like that. Well, being curious I walked over and it turned out to be a black scorpion clinging on the temple wall. But the interesting thing was that it just had babies and all the tiny white scorpion babies were crawling all over the mummy scorpions back. Nikki was spooked and held a very safe distance, knowing that baby scorpions are deadlier than their angry mothers. I had to get a close look for a memorable shot, of course.
After that it was back to the hotel and we said goodbye to our guide and driver. We were not sure what the custom is when it comes to tipping – it is always an awkward situation. So I asked in the hotel and they said that tipping was appreciated so we gave our guide 10 USD and the driver 5 USD. As I said, tipping is an awkward subject for most Norwegians as it is not a common thing when paying for services as home. So in our defense: when we don’t tip it is not because we are cheapskates…we are just not used to it.
Blood donation – one way to
Last night in Siem Reap
All of a sudden we were down to the last evening in Siem Reap. We didn’t waste any time after my blood donation and we headed to Angkor Wat to check out the temple atmosphere at sunset. It is said that the best place to experience this might be at Phnom Bakheng but according to the guidebook it can also get pretty crowded there. And to get great shots you also need a good lens as it is located a bit away from the Angkor Wat temple. We just went into Angkor Wat again and looked at all the people and looked at the temples again. Unfortunately it was a bit cloudy so it did not turn out to be a perfect sunset but it was still nice to see the temple one last time. Coming back out again our tuk-tuk was still waiting for us (we paid 6 USD for a round trip from the hotel).
We ended up having dinner at Cambodian BBQ in the Alley and it was a place where you fry and boil your own food at the table. I wouldn’t recommend it – why pay to do all the work yourself? ;-) I think what was bugging me the most was the fact that when we were frying the meat a lot of it got stuck to the “frying pan”, when frying it would create a lot of smoke etc. But anyway, I did get to try snake and it was just like…eh..chicken (what did you expect?) and Nikki had the ostrich. The meal was 43 USD and we had a bottle of wine with the food (costing 25 USD).
Thailand vs. Cambodia – what’s the deal?
Time to go
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