Siem Reap and Phnom Penh 2009

I guess there is a little of Indiana Jones in all of us. The allure of exploring ancient ruins and discovering lost treasure always makes for a great adventure story. Luckily, it’s not necessary to go on an adventure to explore ancient ruins nowadays. With cheap airfares and hotels it’s possible to travel to Cambodia to marvel at the ancient temple of Angkor Wat easily without the help of Indiana Jones.

With a few clicks of the mouse, we booked ourselves a flight and hotel through the internet. We also got ourselves a local guide through recommendations of friends who had been there before. On a warm sunny day we flew into Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor Wat and surrounding temples.

Siem Reap airport is a small airport and everyone has to walk in the open if they want to get to the terminal or plane.
Siem Reap airport is a small airport and everyone has to walk in the open if they want to get to the terminal or plane.
The hotel arranged a pickup for us at the airport. The mini-van had just turned out of the airport and we ran into a bunch of cows.
The hotel arranged a pickup for us at the airport. The mini-van had just turned out of the airport and we ran into a bunch of cows.

After checking into our hotel, Tara Angkor, which is a 4 star hotel, we decided to explore Siem Reap town. The hotel was located outside from the town centre and we had to ride a tuk tuk to town. There are no taxis here and tuk tuk’s are the only form of transport for getting around. Each trip costs US$1-2 and you have to bargain with the driver depending on distance. You can pay in US$ or Riel (Cambodian currency), but US$ is preferred. Yes, US dollars is king here.

Siem Reap Town

The downtown of Siem Reap is pretty small and most of the action takes place on Pub Street. As the name suggests, you will find most of the pubs and restaurants here, along with some small hotels and backpacker inns. Handicraft and souvenir shops also abound.

Pub Street in the day time. It was hot and everyone was hiding in the restaurants. The tuk tuks wait along the roadside for passengers.
Pub Street in the day time. It was hot and everyone was hiding in the restaurants. The tuk tuks wait along the roadside for passengers.
We had our lunch in the back street as it was cooler with the awnings and fans. I'm pretty sure the NYDC restaurant is not even the real thing.
We had our lunch in the back street as it was cooler with the awnings and fans. I’m pretty sure the NYDC restaurant is not even the real thing.
Pub Street only comes alive in the night. That's when all the tourists have come back from visiting the temples and everyone is hungry for dinner, and thirsty for beer.
Pub Street only comes alive in the night. That’s when all the tourists have come back from visiting the temples and everyone is hungry for dinner, and thirsty for beer.
Al fresco dining along the street.
Al fresco dining along the street.
We tried the Cambodian food which was mainly barbequed or in a hotpot with spicy soup.
We tried the Cambodian food which was mainly barbequed or in a hotpot with spicy soup.

There is also a small local market which you can visit to see the daily life of the locals. The market (Psar Chaa) is located at the end of Pub Street. The market is divided into many sections, ranging from fresh food to jewelry.

Dried sausages hanging from a shop in Psar Chaa.
Dried sausages hanging from a shop in Psar Chaa.
The fresh fruits and vegetables section. It looks very similar to the wet markets in Singapore.
The fresh fruits and vegetables section. It looks very similar to the wet markets in Singapore.

For night activities, besides hanging out at Pub Street, there is also a night market. But it was kind of a disappointment to me as I found mostly shops selling tourist souvenirs, pirated DVD’s, cheap handicrafts and antiques.

The night market was a disappointment to me. But if you are looking for souvenirs to buy for folks back home, this is the place.
The night market was a disappointment to me. But if you are looking for souvenirs to buy for folks back home, this is the place.

The Temples

The next day our guide came early to bring us to see the temples. This is what we had came here for. But first things first. In order to enter the Angkor Archeological Park, each person has to pay for an entry permit. There are permits for 1 day, 3 days and 7 days. We bought the 1 day pass for USD20 per person. The 3 days and 7 days permits costs USD40 and USD60 respectively. Their usage is quite flexible and if you want to spend more time seeing the temples then these would be more suitable.

This is the entry permit. Your photo will be taken on the spot and printed on the permit, so it's not transferable.
This is the entry permit. Your photo will be taken on the spot and printed on the permit, so it’s not transferable.
Our first stop is the Victory Gate.
Our first stop is the Victory Gate.
We visited Bayon Temple first which is in the center of the ancient city of Angkor Thom.
We visited Bayon Temple first which is in the center of the ancient city of Angkor Thom.
The walls of the temple are covered in stone carvings.
The walls of the temple are covered in stone carvings.
The Apsara is a common figure in the carvings.
The Apsara is a common figure in the carvings.
Bayon is also famous for its giant stone Buddha faces.
Bayon is also famous for its giant stone Buddha faces.
The Buddha faces are always smiling, even if viewed from the side.
The Buddha faces are always smiling, even if viewed from the side.
The Elephant Terrace. It's said that the king would sit here and watch his war elephants parade past.
The Elephant Terrace. It’s said that the king would sit here and watch his war elephants parade past.
Another of a couple of smaller temples near Bayon which I can't remember the name.
Another of a couple of smaller temples near Bayon which I can’t remember the name.

After Bayon, we moved on to Ta Prohm. This temple ruin was left in much the same way it was found, with huge trees and roots growing out of the structure and has also come to give Angkor Thom its eerie mystique.

The entrance to Ta Prohm. There was much reconstruction work going on when we were there.
The entrance to Ta Prohm. There was much reconstruction work going on when we were there.
Can you feel your inner Indiana Jones coming out?
Can you feel your inner Indiana Jones coming out?
The temple has been left as it is as when it was first discovered.
The temple has been left as it is as when it was first discovered.
A favourite photo spot, as this scene was used in the Tomb Raider film starring Angelina Jolie.
A favourite photo spot, as this scene was used in the Tomb Raider film starring Angelina Jolie.
A lot of the walls have collapsed into piles of stone.
A lot of the walls have collapsed into piles of stone.
Some of the trees have become part of the structure.
Some of the trees have become part of the structure.
Leaving Ta Prohm from the back entrance.
Leaving Ta Prohm from the back entrance.

And so we left the eerie atmosphere of Ta Prohm and proceeded to the grandeur of Angkor Wat. This is one of the world’s largest ancient temple complexes and a symbol of Cambodia.

Angkor Wat is truly huge for a temple. It's surrounded by a moat and here you can see the causeway leading to the temple walls. The sky doesn't look very good with all the dark clouds.
Angkor Wat is truly huge for a temple. It’s surrounded by a moat and here you can see the causeway leading to the temple walls. The sky doesn’t look very good with all the dark clouds.
As we approached Angkor Wat, the sky started to darken and rain drops fell.
As we approached Angkor Wat, the sky started to darken and rain drops fell.
We took shelter under one of the long corridors that forms the walls around the inner temple.
We took shelter under one of the long corridors that forms the walls around the inner temple.

After the rain stopped, we continued with our exploration of Angkor Wat.

The inner temple is off limits to tourists and we were just basically walking around looking for interesting photo opportunities.
The inner temple is off limits to tourists and we were just basically walking around looking for interesting photo opportunities.
On the way out, we passed by the reflecting pond that everyone crowds around at dawn to take photos of the rising sun with Angkor Wat. Only this time in the evening there was nobody there and I could take a nice photo.
On the way out, we passed by the reflecting pond that everyone crowds around at dawn to take photos of the rising sun with Angkor Wat. Only this time in the evening there was nobody there and I could take a nice photo.
A group of monks hurried past us as we also hurried to the nearby Bakheng Hill to catch sunset.
A group of monks hurried past us as we also hurried to the nearby Bakheng Hill to catch sunset.
As we took one last look at Angkor Wat, we could see a rainbow forming over the temple. Beautiful!
As we took one last look at Angkor Wat, we could see a rainbow forming over the temple. Beautiful!

Bakheng hill is located not far from Angkor Wat. The hill is popular for sunset views and there also a temple ruin on the top of the hill.

After a rushed and exhausting trek up the hill, you still have to climb the ancient temple to the top for a sunset view. The photo is deceiving as the stairs are the height of your knees and the slope is around 60°.
After a rushed and exhausting trek up the hill, you still have to climb the ancient temple to the top for a sunset view. The photo is deceiving as the stairs are the height of your knees and the slope is around 60°.
You can see Angkor Wat rising out of the trees from the top of the hill.
You can see Angkor Wat rising out of the trees from the top of the hill.
Everyone is waiting for sunset.
Everyone is waiting for sunset.
Despite the cloudy weather after the rain, we still had a magnificent sunset.
Despite the cloudy weather after the rain, we still had a magnificent sunset.
You can see Tonle Sap Lake from here.
You can see Tonle Sap Lake from here.
One last look at the sun before it sinks below the clouds.
One last look at the sun before it sinks below the clouds.

After the sun had set, we had to climb down the hill in the dark. There are no lights, so if you intend to see sunset then it would be better to bring a torch light to see your way in the dark afterwards.

Tonle Sap Lake

This is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia and is unusual for 2 reasons: its flow changes direction twice a year and the lake expands and contracts dramatically in size according to the seasons. The tour is a short one and we left in the afternoon to return in the night after dinner.

It's a roughly 1 hr ride from Siem Reap to the jetty to take our boat.
It’s a roughly 1 hr ride from Siem Reap to the jetty to take our boat.
I saw this little girl sneaking around with her cat on her head.
I saw this little girl sneaking around with her cat on her head.
Sea snakes are a food source for the locals. The woman is skinning the snakes.
Sea snakes are a food source for the locals. The woman is skinning the snakes.
That's our boat.
That’s our boat.
The boat captain's kids. They all live on the boat.
The boat captain’s kids. They all live on the boat.
We passed by several floating villages. The lake was at its highest level when we visited.
We passed by several floating villages. The lake was at its highest level when we visited.
From time to time, the villagers would come to sell drinks and trinkets to the tourists on the boats. I'm amazed at how they can nimbly jump from boat to boat without falling into the water, all the while the boats are still moving at full speed.
From time to time, the villagers would come to sell drinks and trinkets to the tourists on the boats. I’m amazed at how they can nimbly jump from boat to boat without falling into the water, all the while the boats are still moving at full speed.
A closer look at some of the larger floating houses. Actually they are built on stilts and when the lake water level falls, you can see the stilts around 8-9m high.
A closer look at some of the larger floating houses. Actually they are built on stilts and when the lake water level falls, you can see the stilts around 8-9m high.
Washing her hair.
Washing her hair.
Captain Junior shows us how to balance as the boat pulled up beside the floating restaurant where we will have our dinner.
Captain Junior shows us how to balance as the boat pulled up beside the floating restaurant where we will have our dinner.
Yes, you will see many scenes like this as the villagers row up to you asking for money.
Yes, you will see many scenes like this as the villagers row up to you asking for money.
The kids show how it's done floating in tubs.
The kids show how it’s done floating in tubs.
Sunset on the lake.
Sunset on the lake.
The setting sun just above the horizon. Today was a clear day.
The setting sun just above the horizon. Today was a clear day.
Watching dusk fall over the lake.
Watching dusk fall over the lake.

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is more than 400km from Siem Reap. When Tonle Sap Lake is at its largest size, it is possible to travel from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh by boat, but that’s a several days journey. We asked our guide if he could drive us to Phnom Penh with his car for a day trip and he agreed, though he seemed to have some reservations as he wasn’t very familiar with the roads there.

There are long distance buses travelling from to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap but they take 8 hrs to complete the journey. By car would take around 3-4 hrs. The road condition is pretty bad with potholes in some areas. There are no lane markings and its pretty much a biggest and fastest wins scenario out there.

On the road to Phnom Penh. Our guide's ride was an old Ford imported from USA. Left hand drive and speedometer in miles per hour.
On the road to Phnom Penh. Our guide’s ride was an old Ford imported from USA. Left hand drive and speedometer in miles per hour.

Our guide stopped at a small town for some snacks and toilet break. He showed us some of the local snacks.

Fried locusts. Quite common in some other countries like Thailand too.
Fried locusts. Quite common in some other countries like Thailand too.
Now here is something you don't see everyday. Fried spiders, and they are really big spiders.
Now here is something you don’t see everyday. Fried spiders, and they are really big spiders.

After a 4 hour journey we reach Phnom Penh. The city is more well known for the Killing Fields and Khmer Rouge regime which killed millions of Cambodians in the 1970’s. The Killing Fields are located 15km outside Phnom Penh and still contains many mass graves containing the remains of executed men, women and children which have not been excavated yet.

The memorial at the Killing Fields.
The memorial at the Killing Fields.
The memorial is filled with the skulls and bones of victims of the Khmer Rouge.
The memorial is filled with the skulls and bones of victims of the Khmer Rouge.

After this sobering visit, we went into the city and visited S-21. This was a former high school which was turned into a torture and execution center by the Khmer Rouge. Today it houses the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Out of the 17,000 or more people that were imprisoned here, there were only 12 known survivors.

The quiet and innocent looking surroundings hides a dark and cruel past.
The quiet and innocent looking surroundings hides a dark and cruel past.
One of the torture chambers that is preserved. Prisoners were chained to the bed and tortured then left to starve to death.
One of the torture chambers that is preserved. Prisoners were chained to the bed and tortured then left to starve to death.
You can't even kill yourself if you wanted to.
You can’t even kill yourself if you wanted to.

After the visit, it really saddened us to see how people could inflict such atrocities on others.

We didn’t have much time left as we still had a long trip back to Siem Reap. So we went for a car tour of Phnom Penh.

I'm not sure what this symbolizes but it is a prominent landmark at a busy road intersection.
I’m not sure what this symbolizes but it is a prominent landmark at a busy road intersection.
A short photo stop at the Royal Palace.
A short photo stop at the Royal Palace.

We left Phnom Penh at around 5pm and reached Siem Reap after 8pm. The road back in the night was totally dark and I had to help our guide lookout for stray motorbikes and cattle on the road. I wouldn’t recommend travelling at night due to the poor road conditions. At times, we were driving at 80 miles per hour in the total dark with only the dim headlights of an old Ford to light the way. When we finally saw the street lights of Siem Reap, we gave a huge sigh of relief.

General tips on Siem Reap

Although Siem Reap is a tourist town, it still remains somewhat a cowboy town. During my stay there, a group of my friends went into a pub. There was an argument among some of the local customers and one of them pulled out a gun and started threatening everyone with it. So it pays to be careful when you are there. US dollars are widely accepted and is more or less the de facto currency for exchange. Before you arrive, change your US dollars into smaller bills like $1, $5 and $10 for the tuk tuks and restaurants. Breaking a $100 bill is better done at the hotels.

5 thoughts on “Siem Reap and Phnom Penh 2009

  1. I was there in the same year, and the memory of my Cambodia trip were mainly about 2 things: 1. It was ridiculously hot, seriously; 2. no way an agriculture based ancient kingdom could finance such marvelously huge stone palace and still prosper.

  2. Nice post about your adventures in Cambodia. It is till date one of my favorite countries what with its history, people and its culture. Would love to go back again someday!

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