06 Nov Discover: Siem Reap
The trip to Siem Reap started out with booking a roundtrip flight to Kuala Lumpur for under US$100 for a duration of about 9-10 days (depends on how you count, lol). But later I realised 10 days in KL is too much – especially that it’s not the first time I’m seeing the city – so I found myself booking a flight to Siem Reap in between because (1) it’s cheaper when compared to getting a direct flight from Manila [yes, including the flight to KL], and (2) WHY THE HELL NOT; THAT’S THE ANGKOR WAT.
And so I went. And did some temple running. :p
About Siem Reap
Occasionally called “Temple Town,” Siem Reap is the (main) gateway to the famous Angkor region in the Cambodian province. It is located in the northwestern part of the country – at Siem Reap Province – and is home to the capital city of the Khmer Empire. Recently, Siem Reap has been a popular point of interest in the Southeast Asian Backpacker Circuit (idk if that’s a legitimate name for the ~circuit, but that’s how I like to call it lol) due to the Angkor (of course) and its proximity to the Thai Border towards Bangkok, the Laotian border, and the Vietnamese Border via Phnom Penh. More than the temples of Angkor however, Siem Reap is to be enjoyed through many other cultural sights and experiences, including the famous nightlife at Pub Street and the rather incredible grilled street food (sans the road dust). The province is highly touristic (more on that later), but is well worth a visit.
Something to note – Angkor Wat is in Angkor. They’re not used interchangeably; the Angkor Wat is the famous temple and the temples are in the Angkor region (and it’s h u g e).
Also – although they have their own currency, it seems they prefer that you pay in US Dollars. Much less of a hassle for tourists, too, but if you plan on going, make sure you bring in all bill denominations (maybe US$50 as the biggest note) for easier transactions. Oh, and they don’t accept centavos; should your total be US$2.50, pay US$3 and they’ll give you the change in Cambodian Riels.
Siem Reap is accessible in various ways, the more popular means being (1) a commercial flight to Siem Reap International Airport and (2) a long cross-country drive through borders in Thailand, Vietnam, or Laos. Obviously, I chose to go by air from Kuala Lumpur on an AK flight. Other options for layovers (or cities to fly from) include Saigon, Xiamen, Seoul, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, among many others. Personal opinion – it’s best and cheapest to fly from Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok (read: AirAsia is your best bet, except AirAsiaPH cos it appears they haven’t caught up yet with the global standard of AirAsia Berhad).
I had a 36-hour layover in KL before my morning flight to Siem Reap, which TL;DR was spent eating, seeing a bit of the city, and catching up on sleep and work. AirAsia flies to Siem Reap daily from KLIA2.
Where to Stay
While planning the visit to Siem Reap, I had no idea which area to stay at. In my head, I wanted to stay “near” the Angkor area which later proved to be a useless decision (read: getting around). In Siem Reap, you basically have three options — a resort-hotel / hostel / poshtel at (1) the Angkor area, (2) in the city, or (3) everywhere else around and in between. I happened to chance on a small boutique hotel – Kiri Boutique Hotel – that was marketed to be at option 1, but turned out to be at option 3.
The good – I was in a less busy and rather quiet residential area. Beautiful morning vibe, no morning prayers to wake you up (it’s known to be a deterrent; read: Dutch national on holiday in Myanmar charged for unplugging speakers during morning prayers), a nice pool to jump into after a long day of traveling.
The (kind of) bad – you need to take a tuktuk (US$2) to town for food and whatever else you need, which isn’t all too bad if you know how to go about your day and maximising your hired vehicle (read: getting around). It’s just that once you’re back in the hotel, that’s all there is to it. It’s a staycation kind of life in this part of town. If you want to go out for a drink and socialise, you need to take a tuktuk to Pub Street (great place, but it’s US$4 past midnight).
My suggestion – stay in the city, near the old market and Pub Street. It’s busy – VERY BUSY – but all the life is there. You can walk to Pub Street and have a nice meal and maybe a drink, or splurge on the markets nearby; there just seems to be more things happening in this part of town.
There are cheaper accommodation options, too, for the budget travelers and backpackers. I had a drink with a friend based in Barcelona (was great seeing you, Sven!) who was also on a holiday in Siem Reap, and he told me he paid nothing more than US$14 for three nights in one of the hostels near Pub Street. I asked if he could take me to his place cos I thought how can a bed be that cheap – surprisingly it was literally around the corner from Pub Street, has a nice (but rather small) swimming pool, and a bar with pool tables. It’s a pub hostel – Siem Reap Pub Hostel (if I remember it right, I’m not sure; I might have had a few too much drinks), perfect for backpackers and groups of friends willing to stay in bunks. They have, however, private triple rooms (and maybe single and twin, too?) for US$18 a night.
TL;DR it’s a matter of choice – do you want a quiet staycation or a slightly busy holiday? Pick your poison.
Have a few $$ to spare? Or traveling with a few other people? Hire a private car and travel in comfort for less.
Soon as you step out of the airport, you’ll be offered with two options – a tuktuk to your hotel or a licensed vehicle. Airport personnel seem to know what’s best for you (or maybe it’s a sugarcoated scam altogether?) – in suitcases? Airport car. In a backpack? Tuktuk. I was told my hotel is “too far” for a tuktuk, so I was directed to the licensed airport vehicle kiosk. Not at all too bad considering the heat and the humidity of the city.
Our driver offered us tours to a number of places at various rates, ranging from US$40 to over US$100. Quite decent, especially if you are in a big group, but don’t forget to haggle and meet at a lower price. Maybe ask for freebies, like a cooler filled with ice and bottled water (will come in handy, trust me)? Ensure you make things clear with your driver, too; where you’re going for the day, at what time, etc; feel free to alter the tours if you don’t feel like going to a particular place – get creative. Oh, and maximise that vehicle and the local that’s driving you around – ask questions, visit marts, eat at local restaurants, see the wet markets.
And don’t forget to be friendly! Cambodians are generally up for a chat as this is also their means to learn and get better at speaking English.
On a budget? Tuktuks are your best bet – at only $2 per trip, you get to go around the city like the locals would (point-to-point). Be prepared to inhale all the dust though, and to travel at a much slower pace when compared to a hired car (say, a car would take about an hour from city to Beng Mealea whilst a tuktuk would take you there at almost two hours + some orange dust along the way). They also have some kind of a “weight limit,” to ensure that the vehicle can brake appropriately. There have been instances where a tuktuk has toppled over after a sudden application of the brakes for being too heavy (you know, momentum and physics and stuff). Else, they’re safe – locals know best, so if they say your group needs to split into two tuktuks, they’re probably after your safety.
Tours around town, especially the Angkor, are also provided by tuktuk drivers. Chances are, you will be offered, and that’s OK – politely refuse if you’re not interested. If you are, remember to always haggle, haggle, and haggle. Make the most out of your every $, Cambodia isn’t after all as cheap as people say it is (more on that later). Oh – remember to pay only after your tour.
I entered Cambodia with little to no idea of what life is like in this part of the world. In my head, I just wanted to see the temples of Angkor, catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, taste Khmer food, and maybe have a drink or two at Pub Street. That’s all. Hell, I even had no idea they accept US dollars (partly my fault, I know). Fast forward to arriving – it turns out to be a great city (packed with tourists!) that’s more than the famous Angkor Wat. Here’s a quick rundown of the places I visited / the things I did during my visit (photos in separate Visual Diary posts):
Kampong Phluk @ Tonle Sap – A floating village on the Tonle Sap; quite a drive from the city, a long boat ride to the village, and appears to be a scam altogether (maybe). BUT!!! It’s a nice way to see how Cambodians live in the rural areas. More on that here.
Temples of Angkor – Angkor is home to hundreds (or thousands?) of temples, including the famous Angkor Wat. Seeing them is the first item in every Siem Reap visitor’s list. It’s a protected area and you must possess a ticket to get through. Tips on getting templed out here.
Angkor Wat Sunrise – Catching sunrises (regardless where) is one of the many things I’ve always enjoyed doing – although I barely get to do (lol, not that of a morning person), but I try at least – and the famous Angkor Wat sunrise is something I promised I won’t miss. Warning: it’s not for the impatient. Photographers, come early (I mean early) and very well prepared. Details here.
Beng Mealea – Literally means “Lotus Pond,” it’s one of the temples in the Angkor Wat period located east of the Angkor Region. Over the years, vegetation has ruled over the ruins; hence, in layman’s terms, it is sometimes dubbed as a bigger Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider temple). See my temple running here.
Cambodian cuisine isn’t all too special, but it’s not bad either. It’s a lot similar to Thai food (which I love!); rich in curry and always with vegetables. I’m not very sure if I got to eat at the right places, but I made sure to have Cambodian food every time.
For picky eaters, restaurants have very much adapted to the high volume of tourists; western food options are almost always available.
My best bet though is Cambodian grilled street food, chicken bottoms in particular (lol). It’s not the safest place to buy food, but the locals were flocking a local market near my hotel towards dinner time and I thought maybe give it a look. I ended up buying some grilled food from one of the vendors, and it was maybe one of the best meals I’ve had in Siem Reap.
Also – they sell grilled frog … and what appears to be a duckling (they couldn’t tell me cos no habla). It’s also quite interesting how they grill meat in bamboo clips that double as turners. No tongs needed!
I don’t have a comprehensive and complete breakdown of costs (I’m sorry, I’m not that good with money matters. Maybe next year? Lol.), but the key takeaway from this holiday is Cambodia is tourist-friendly, but at the same time it wasn’t as cheap as I thought it would be. Thailand (and the Philippines!), especially in terms of food, appear to be cheaper. I’m not entirely sure if it’s mainstream tourism taking over, but I kind of expected to spend much less.
Flights-wise, explore options especially if you’re based in the Philippines. Wanna go somewhere, but it’s too expensive? Consider a layover. Sometimes you’re better off going on one (and eventually seeing two places), than flying direct (and spending more). It’s a double-edged sword, and again, pick your poison.
To Kuala Lumpur, I spent about US$100 roundtrip c/o one of the many seat sales local airlines offer. To Siem Reap, I spent about another US$100 roundtrip (a wee bit less, around $90-95). Seat sales with low-cost carriers are your best bet if you wanna see more of the world; forget about free in-flight meals and luggage allowance.
Meals range from $6.50 to $20.00, depending on where you eat (and your appetite, lol). Drinks at a restaurant are priced at $1.50 to $3.50. Fresh coconut from places other than a restaurant costs $1 (I may have had a few too many coconuts in my entire stay lol and I never paid more than $2 for one.)
Getting around is tricky – per tuktuk ride is $2 ($4 past midnight, especially from Pub Street). Or you can hire a car for the day (and go on tours in and out of town) for at least $35.
My Two Cents
To some, Siem Reap is just one of the many cities you will visit when you go along the Southeast Asian backpacking circuit. To me, it’s a city worth spending a few days at. Imagine being able to traverse through highly historic places in their original state (albeit restored) – that’s not something you get to do everyday, especially in the middle of industri-globalisation and the rise of consumer demand in the world.
Siem Reap and the Angkor Region are not dubbed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites for nothing. Hell, the Angkor Wat isn’t hailed #1 most visited in Southeast Asia for nothing. Sure, it’s highly touristic. Sure, the city lacks efficient transportation. Sure, the country is way behind its Southeast Asian neighbours. But these all add up to the unique charisma Siem Reap offers. It’s a city that offers something for everyone, regardless of what you’re after.
Visit when you can. Visit while you still can. The city is fast-changing; now is the best time to go.
Find the good in getting lost,