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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
After the rain stopped, we continued with our exploration of Angkor Wat.
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 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.
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.
Our guide stopped at a small town for some snacks and toilet break. He showed us some of the local snacks.
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.
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.
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.
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.