Before we set out on this trip in December 2014, we came up with some ‘pillars’ or ‘musts’ that would guide where we would go and what we would do. Right up there with hiking to Machu Picchu was a visit to Angkor Wat. (I do love a good wall!)
It should be noted that Angkor Wat is just one temple within the Angkor UNESCO heritage site which stretches over 400 square kilometers of the Siem Reap province in northern Cambodia. It’s also where you will find the Ta Prohm temple used in the Tomb Raider movie – famous for the large vines that strangle the ruins.
As this was our only stop in Cambodia it’s worth highlighting some facts about the country:
- Population: 15 million. Religion: 95% Buddhist.
- In 1953 it gained independence from France.
- The Cambodian Civil War (1967-1975) pitted communist Cambodian forces, called the Khmer Rouge, against the US-backed Cambodian government.
- In 1969, the US began a four year long carpet-bombing campaign of Cambodia which was initiated by President Nixon but without the knowledge or authorization of congress. More bombs were secretly dropped on Cambodia than were dropped on Japan during World War II.
- In 1975 the Khmer Rouge seized power and then proceeded to murder almost 2 million of its own people in just 4 years of power.
- In 1979 Vietnam attacked Cambodia and captured the capital Phnom Penh before withdrawing in 1989 but not before pushing the Khmer Rouge across the border into Thailand. A minefield was laid along the 700 kilometer length of the Thai border to prevent them from returning.
- The Khmer Rouge fought on as guerrillas until 1999.
The Cambodian flag, together with that of Afghanistan, hold the distinction of being the only two flags in the world to feature a building (Angkor Wat) in their design.
The following is an extract that describes life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge:
A few days after they took power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge forced perhaps two million people in Phnom Penh and other cities into the countryside to undertake agricultural work. Thousands of people died during the evacuations.
The Khmer Rouge also began to implement their radical Maoist and Marxist-Leninist transformation program at this time. They wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there were no rich people, no poor people, and no exploitation. To accomplish this, they abolished money, free markets, normal schooling, private property, foreign clothing styles, religious practices, and traditional Khmer culture. Public schools, pagodas, mosques, churches, universities, shops and government buildings were shut or turned into prisons, stables, reeducation camps and granaries. There was no public or private transportation, no private property, and no non-revolutionary entertainment. Leisure activities were severely restricted. People throughout the country, including the leaders of the CPK, had to wear black costumes, which were their traditional revolutionary clothes.
During this time, everyone was deprived of their basic rights. People were not allowed to go outside their cooperative. The regime would not allow anyone to gather and hold discussions. If three people gathered and talked, they could be accused of being enemies and arrested or executed.
Family relationships were also heavily criticized. People were forbidden to show even the slightest affection, humor or pity. The Khmer Rouge asked all Cambodians to believe, obey and respect only Angkar Padevat, which was to be everyone’s “mother and father.”
The Khmer Rouge claimed that only pure people were qualified to build the revolution. Soon after seizing power, they arrested and killed thousands of soldiers, military officers and civil servants from the Khmer Republic regime led by Marshal Lon Nol, whom they did not regard as “pure.” Over the next three years, they executed hundreds of thousands of intellectuals; city residents; minority people such as the Cham, Vietnamese and Chinese; and many of their own soldiers and party members, who were accused of being traitors. Many were held in prisons, where they were detained, interrogated, tortured and executed. The most important prison in Cambodia, known as S-21, held approximately 14,000 prisoners while in operation. Only about 12 survived.
Nearly everyone who visits Angkor Wat will stay in the city of Siem Reap which is situated just 6km away from the temple. The city has grown from the size of a village in the early 1900’s (when the ruins was ‘re-discovered’ by the French explorer Henri Mouhot) to around 180,000 people today – mostly due to the growth of the tourism industry.
It is said that Angkor Wat is the primary reason why 60% of international tourists visit Cambodia. For us, it was 100% of the reason.
One interesting aspect of tourism in Siem Reap is that the US Dollar is used extensively for all transactions. The local currency, the Cambodian riel, is really only used in lieu of coins when receiving small change back from a purchase.
We flew directly from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) in Vietnam to Siem Reap International airport with Vietnam Airlines.
Visa on arrival is available for $30 USD and the process seems to take about 30 minutes or so. We breezed through in 5 minutes having already acquired our visa in advance through the official government E-Visa website having paid a $7 premium for the service. In hindsight, acquiring the visa in advance was unnecessary as we still had to wait a long time for our luggage.
For convenience we had pre-booked a taxi to our hotel for $10 USD which seems to be the going rate though one could probably negotiate on arrival for less. Results may vary.
Getting around Siem Reap in the dry season is brutal as temperatures easily exceed 100F/38C. With little or no breeze, it is very uncomfortable, though not impossible, to get around on foot or on a bicycle.
Tuk tuks are readily available – it’s just a pity one cannot walk down the street without being solicited for rides by the idle drivers. It brings back memories of the constant need to say ‘No, gracias’ in Cusco and other tourist sites in South America.
The Mulberry Boutique hotel is located near the center of town; about 10 minutes walk from the popular Pub Street and Night Market. We stayed here for 7 nights, using the first 3-4 days for sightseeing and exploring the town with the remaining days being used to research and book our trip to Malaysia Borneo Myanmar.
- Good location
- Friendly and helpful staff (Complimentary upgrade to a suite!)
- Great pool with reasonable food & drinks
- Nice rooms
- Breakfast not included in room rate
- Terrible WiFi signal coverage and very slow internet speed
- Family friendly. Sorry parents – a swimming pool is not day care!
Places to Eat
As mentioned above, breakfast was not included in the hotel room rate so we sought out a cheaper alternative. It didn’t take much effort to find a really tasty café across the street called Palm Café where we could have breakfast for $2.50 each. Much better value than paying $6 each at the hotel.
Is it still an ‘English’ breakfast when you forgo pork?
Bayon Pastry School
The Bayon Pastry School is a free vocational training center for underprivileged women in Cambodia. The students learn the skills necessary to find employment as professional pastry chefs in local hotels and restaurants.
The school is funded by a French Non-Governmental Organization that also runs a local school for 400 students. You can read more about those projects here. It is a GREAT cause. I should also mention that the pastries are indeed delicious!
Located just a short walk from the hotel is a small grouping of restaurants frequented by the locals. On our first night out we randomly picked one and thoroughly enjoyed it. Soup, main course and fruit shake for $2.25 per person. Awesome value.
We ended up coming back almost every night for dinner and got to ‘know’ the staff in the smiling, nodding, hand gesturing way!
Awkward smile moment…
Great soup and mango smoothie…
Hair salon / restaurant combo…
Extensive market research revealed that $1.50 was the perfect price point…
As dirty as some places appear, the food emerging from the kitchen looks quite appetizing so don’t let that put you off. Interior design is not a major consideration when operating a small restaurant as seen below…
The majority of bars and restaurants catering to International tourists are located on the appropriately named ‘Pub Street’. It looks like someone took a few blocks from a street in either Cancún or New Orleans and dropped it in the middle of Siem Reap.
Rest assured, we did not have dinner in the touristic Pub Street. But we did have time to get off our high horses and have very tasty ice-cream at Gelato Lab.
And all while downloading the final 3 episodes of Mad Men onto my computer using their blazingly fast free WiFi!
Now that’s how you find your inner peace while traveling. OMmmmmmmm…
Things to Do
Simple! Visit the Angkor temple ruins.
Angkor Visitor Pass
A single day pass costs $20 USD and you will need to present it at various checkpoints throughout your visit.
If you intend to visit for two or three days it makes sense to pay $40 USD for the 3 day pass (non-consecutive okay, one week validity). The ticket office will take your photo and print it on the ticket for you.
Hire a tuk tuk driver for the day ($15 – $20 USD) and be sure to negotiate EVERYTHING up front (hours, distance, stops, TOTAL price for ALL passengers etc.)
Believe it or not, getting from one temple to another is more enjoyable by tuk tuk than by car or van. And it’s much cheaper too.
Alternatively, if you don’t mind the heat, one could rent a bicycle, motorcycle or e-bike to get around. There are some lovely shaded roads on the outskirts of town…
I would highly recommend hiring a guide to provide historical context and answer any questions you may have about each temple site. Depending on your interest level, one day with a tour guide may be totally sufficient. Sometimes less is more!
To that end, we booked in advance the very highly rated Sun Same Tours after receiving a glowing recommending from our friends, Leya and Steve, who used his services some years before. In fact Mr. Sun Same even picked us up at the airport to introduce himself and make a plan for the next day!
Midway through our tour, Alina had a suspicion that the man who was guiding us was not in fact Mr. Sun Same. When confronted, he sheepishly admitted as much, having briefly lost his command of the English language.
It turns out he was just a brother cousin colleague of the real Mr. Sun Same who supposedly was double booked. We weren’t happy with the needless deception and let him know. Our guide (who we now refer to as: “Mr. Sun Same But Different”) was a nice guy and we managed to put it behind us and enjoy the rest of the day such was the quality of the information he was dis-same-inating.
That evening we expected a call or message from the real Mr. Sun Same, not only to apologize, but to arrange our second day of our tour with the guide. Unfortunately it was left to us to reach out to him which proved a little exasperating listening to excuse after excuse and lie. You’d have to be insame (!) to trust anything he says!
Later as we went back over old TripAdvisor reviews we discovered a number of complaints from people who had suffered the exact “same” (!) bait-n-switch. He should be asamed (!) of himself.
Thanks to Kanha at Angkor Journeys, we were able to secure another guide at short notice to take us on our second day around the ruins including a trip to the Landmine Museum.
The temples of Angkor were crafted by the Khmer civilization between 802 and 1220 AD. Angkor Wat was first a Hindu religion temple and then later it was turned into a Buddhist temple.
Our first day started at 4.45AM with an early pickup for sunrise…
Our guide suggested we leave immediately after sunrise to visit other temples and return in the afternoon when many of the tour buses had departed. This proved to be a good plan as we avoided the crowds in almost every ruin we visited during the day.
The Angkor complex serves as a sanctuary for monkeys and other animals as it’s illegal to hunt here. Not the only monkey business we encountered this day…
The walled city of Angkor Thom is home to the Bayon temple.
The man-made moat that surrounds Angkor Thom…
The Bayon was built nearly 100 years after Angkor Wat temple and is best known for the gigantic face sculptures that adorn its thirty-seven surviving towers.
Banteay Srey is built largely of red sandstone and is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
The Landmine Museum is located 25 kilometers from Siem Reap. It’s definitely worth an hour of your time to visit especially if you are already planning to see Banteay Srey temple which is just a further 10 kilometers away on the same road.
Over 64,000 landmine and UXO casualties have been recorded in Cambodia since 1979. With over 25,000 amputees, Cambodia has the highest ratio per capita in the world.
Some information about Aki Ra, the founder of the Landmine Museum…
Angkor Wat was one of those places on my ‘must see’ list and it didn’t disappoint. I would highly recommended doing at least one day being led (but not ‘led on’) by a guide. Two days is more than enough to avoid being ‘templed out’.
The Landmine Museum is definitely worth a visit if you are passing by. And be sure to dine at the local restaurants rather than at the overpriced restaurants in and around Pub Street.
Finally, when visiting in the hot season, do not contemplate staying at a hotel without AC or a swimming pool.