- Accommodation: Sokha Angkor ($114/night for a double room) – 4 star hotel in Siem Reap, a short tuk-tuk ride from Pub Street, really nice rooms, big saltwater pool, and great free buffet breakfasts. Not for budget travelers though!
When we arrived at the Siem Reap airport we got our visas-on-arrival fairly quickly. All you need is a crisp $20 USD bill and a passport photo. There are a bunch of taxis waiting outside and I think it was $7 to get from the airport to our hotel. Before travelling to Asia I had no idea that Cambodia used US dollars as their primary currency. Technically they have their own currency called Riel, but people only use it for very small purchases, like how we use cents. Everything else they pay for in dollars – in fact if you go to an ATM in Cambodia you will get US dollars back.
We stayed at the Sokha Angkor Hotel, which was way nicer than any of us were expecting! The rooms were really spacious and nicely decorated, plus there was a nice, large saltwater pool. Free wifi is included in the room, and there is a great free breakfast buffet every morning, complete with fresh fruit, juices, pastries, eggs, pancakes etc. Some parts of the hotel were a bit kitschy, but for $114/night this place was a great deal. We got to the hotel around 8pm and my other sister, Julianne, was already there waiting for us when we arrived. She managed to join us on our trip for a couple of weeks in late March when she had a break from school. We were all so tired from traveling that we decided to just eat dinner at the hotel.
My friend, Brit, also arrived later that night around midnight. As planned, she was to meet us in Siem Reap to travel with us for the remainder of the trip, which worked out perfectly! Her last day of work was on a Friday, she went to a wedding in Indiana on Saturday, then came back to Chicago on Sunday, packed up her stuff and left for Asia on Monday. She flew from Chicago to Seoul, had a long layover and then flew from Seoul to Siem Reap. Needless to say she’s the only person I know who could do all of that and not even seem tired!
All the taxi drivers from the airport will try to ask you if you want them to take you around Angkor the next day. Since we didn’t really have a plan my mom said sure. I would have preferred to look at some different options first, but he seemed like a nice guy and he wasn’t charging much so we figured why not. He met us in the lobby the next morning but his car was too small to fit all of us, so he called his friend, Heng, who had a van. Heng first took us to Angkor Thom, a collection of ruins built in the late 1100s-early 1200s. At one point in time the fortified city of Angkor Thom had a population of almost one million people – a staggering amount for an ancient city! Before coming to Cambodia I didn’t realize that Angkor Wat was just one temple among hundreds in the area. Angkor Wat is the most famous one because it’s the largest religious structure in the world and has been in virtual continuous use since it was built. But there are hundreds of other temples part of the Angkor civilization. We went to Bayon, a temple part of Angkor Thom famous for its 54 gothic towers decorated with 216 huge faces. Bayon was really interesting, but there were so many tour groups there that is was difficult to walk around. Next we visited the Terrace of the Elephants, which is a long platform decorated with elephant carvings. It once served as a viewing platform for the King. We then went to Baphuon, which was my mom’s favorite temple. It looked a bit similar to an Aztec or Mayan ruin – a pyramid structure with a long, steep staircase in the center. That was a semi-difficult climb in flip-flops!
We breaked for lunch and then went to Ta Prohm, which was my favorite temple. It looked surreal, like something out of Legend of the Hidden Temples. The jungle has fully grown throughout the complex so there were huge trees sprouting through ancient temple walls. It felt like we were explorers discovering it for the first time. But alas we were not; in fact Ta Prohm is where they shot some scenes for the movie Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie. I can’t believe they would allow a big Hollywood action movie to be shot at this ancient, crumbling, seemingly fragile temple, but then again this is a developing country and I’m sure the movie brought in a lot of income for the surrounding areas, so it was well worth it to them.
For dinner that night we went to Nest, a restaurant that my mom’s friend recommended. It was a trendy upscale restaurant that seemed a little out of place in touristy Siem Reap. The food was eclectic Asian/Western and our meals were pretty good. They also had an extensive cocktails menu so it might be a good place to grab a drink. It’s pretty expensive for Cambodia, and probably not a place for budget travelers, but if you’re looking for a nice restaurant in Siem Reap then Nest is a good option.
The next morning we woke up at 4:30am to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. When Heng picked us up in the morning he asked, “Did my friend tell you that it’s an extra $10 to see the sunrise?” and then “Did my friend tell you it’s an extra $20 to go to Banteay Srei [the ladies temple that is further away]?” and finally “Did my friend tell you it’s an extra $10 to go back to the hotel?” So finally I just snapped and said, “I don’t think so, buddy!” It was 5:00am in the morning and I was in my backpacker mindset where $20 is actually a lot of money. We all knew he was trying to squeeze as much money out of us as possible, and I don’t blame him. He was a genuinely nice guy who makes very little money. But at some point you have to draw the line. I wish he would have just been upfront with us in the beginning and said I’m going to charge you $100 for 2 days and we would have said, “Perfect! That’s a great deal!” There’s just something about being swindled that really drives me crazy. If you’re just straight with me then I’ll give you an awesome tip, but don’t try to take advantage of the situation and rip me off. But I had to remind myself to cool it and to remember how poor these people are and how difficult their lives are. And they can’t rely on gratuity because it’s uncommon for most nationalities to tip. After my “I don’t think so, buddy!” comment I was feeling guilty for being obnoxious, but Heng knew he’d gone too far and he laughed and said “okay, okay” so all was fine in the end!
Even though the sunrise wasn’t too spectacular that morning, it was still definitely worth it to go early to avoid the crowds and the heat. While people were still watching the sunrise over the small pond in front of the temple, we went inside the grounds and walked around. I think technically it wasn’t open yet, but it didn’t matter and there were no guards around. We explored the temple without hardly any other people around – which is really amazing considering how many tour groups go through there every day. Angkor Wat has many intricate carvings, and I’m still in awe at how well the whole temple complex has been preserved given its age and the fact that a lot of it is outdoors and had to weather the elements throughout the century. I think the sheer size of Angkor Wat is what sets it apart from other Southeast Asian ancient temples. There may be larger temples, but few are still standing and in such good condition.
Because we’re obsessed with free breakfast buffets we decided to go back to the hotel and eat breakfast and then head to Banteay Srei which was a 30-45 minute drive from Siem Reap. It got the nickname “ladies temple” because the carvings are very intricate, so they think women probably carved them with their smaller hands. It looked with a miniature Angkor Wat, but the attention to detail was just as impressive. After Banteay Srei we headed back to Siem Reap to relax for the rest of the afternoon since it was so hot out. For lunch we had surprisingly great wood-oven pizzas on Pub Street at a place called Le Tigre de Papier. They were some of the best pizzas we had on our trip (which is a lot of pizza considering its one of the only western staples you can find pretty much everywhere!) For dinner we went to Angkor Palm Restaurant, which was right near Pub Street. It primarily served traditional Khmer cuisine. My food was nothing too special, but I tried some of Rosie’s fish amok and it was really good!
It’s crazy to think that Siem Reap was basically built within the last 10 years. Apparently it was just a small village up until the last decade when the tourism industry boomed thanks to the renovated airport and an influx of new hotels. There are now over 200 hotels in Siem Reap! It’s extremely touristy and honky tonk (or an Asian version of honky tonk) but it’s still fun and the booming tourism industry has provided a lot of economic opportunity for the local people.
We were supposed to take a boat the next day to Phnom Penh but when we went to book our tickets they told us that there was no water in the river. So we went with plan B and took a bus instead. We bought one way tickets with the bus company Mekong Express for $11 each for the 6 hour ride to Phnom Penh.