Where: Siem Reap, Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
When: August 2013.
Why: For our summer break whilst teaching in South Korea, Jeff and I decided to go to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. I travelled there via Shanghai and Bangkok, met Jeff in Siem Reap and then we both flew back from Phnom Penh.
I spent five night and four days in Siem Reap and two nights one day in Phnom Penh.
Money, money, money, mon-ey: The official currency of Cambodia is the Cambodian Riel, but most people use American $s. We found that we paid for most things in $, and if the change was in cents, then we were given riels instead. The value of the riels was so small that we tended to just use this for tipping. There were lots of cash points and exchanges in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
We went to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. I know there are lots of reasons to visit Cambodia, but for us, as I suspect for many people, it was Angkor Wat that drew us there and which was the focus of our visit.
Angkor Wat is … just amazing. It really should be one of the wonders of the world. Again and again I couldn’t believe this place was real. The many temples, walls, bridges, gates etc. of this ruined city lost in the jungle are something from an adventure story. I found it hard to believe they were real and not part of a theme park. When I make my list of the top ten sights I have visited, Angkor Wat is at number one: the sheer size, scale and ingenuity of this place is just stupendous.
Cambodia is a country that suffered atrocities that no nation should ever experience. In the internal genocide of the Khmer Rouge (backed by the west), 2 million Cambodians were killed, whilst the rest of the population were displaced. I have a friend who says that his father cannot believe that we can visit Cambodia – as he knows Cambodia as a place of genocide. I suppose it will be like our children holidaying in Rwanda in twenty years’ time.
Peace and democracy came to Cambodia at the start of the 1990s, and today trials are taking place of the genocide’s perpetrators. The country is slowly getting back on its feet, thanks in part to the huge influx of tourist dollars, though many problems still remain and much of the country still lives in poverty.
For people who want to understand more about what happened in those terrible years, and who want to pay their respects to those who died, you can visit the Killing Fields where many of the brutal executions took place. These are outside Phnom Penh.
And yet Cambodia is not Angkor Wat and it is not the Killing Fields – there is so much more to this country than that – even if these are two of the main things that people come here to see.
I only had a limited experience of Cambodia. I travelled from the border at Poipet to Siem Reap, spent four days in Siem Reap and then travelled to Phnom Penh for a one night, one day visit. In August, Cambodia seemed to be a very flat, water-logged, wet country. We visited in rainy season and so the whole country seemed to be flooded. In fact, travelling through a grey storm, Cambodia reminded me quite a bit of Belgium: it was so flat, wet and misty.
Cambodia is developing but it is still very poor. In Phnom Penh especially there is evidence of huge investment. The railways are being rebuilt, roads improved and bridges built. It’s good to see the country being developed, though I hope that the money is filtering down to those most in need. There seemed to be a lot of street kids and people living in very poor housing without electricity. So, although the country is moving on it still has a long way to go. But, for all the terrible history and the poor conditions, we found the people of Cambodia to be really sweet, and kind and friendly. Everyone was very lovely to us and people seemed to be happy. Driving through the middle of the country, we passed lots of small communities where children played in the water and families sat together, sheltering from the rain.
Siem Reap, where we were based for most of our stay, is the nearest big city to Angkor Wat and the city has grown fat and rich off the tourism dollar. But I liked it. It has an old colonial centre with many restaurants and bars (based around Pub Street). There were markets. There were wide flat roads you could cycle, pretty parks and lots of wonderful hotels. I really liked Siem Reap and I loved the Golden Banana where we stayed.
Phnom Penh is a city of strange contrasts. In some ways, PP is a very poor city with lots of ramshackle housing and homeless people. On the other hand, there is a thriving, funky bar and restaurant scene, lots of modern cafes, golden temples and modern shops and supermarkets. It’s a strange dichotomy.
The river front area where we stayed was a place for relaxed promenades by the river, and people seemed happy, hanging out with their families, playing footie with their friends. And yet, go one or two blocks away from the river and you’ll see crumbling buildings. It felt like a city of great inequality: the royals had their golden, river front palaces, whilst the people are left on the streets. And yet, things are happening, building is taking place; I just hope the boom can benefit everyone, not just the rich at the top.
I always feel very strange about visiting places of recent tragedy whilst on vacation. I also feel very strange about writing about countries that are picking themselves up from recent hardships, as how can I judge them in the same way as I do other countries? How can I comment on the standards of a hotel in a country where the people were being slaughtered until just twenty years ago? Is it wrong for me to go out partying and drinking buckets in Siem Reap, whilst there are nearby orphanages that are in desperate need of funding?
I guess the answer is to be aware of where you are going and the issues in that place, and if you can help, then help. I think with regards visiting places of tragedy, such as Auschwitz, then if you are going there to learn about what happened and to pay tribute to those who died, then this is OK. If you’re going there as it’s a ‘must-see’ then that’s wrong.
But, I don’t want to label Cambodia as a country of tragedy and it’s not fair to Cambodia to let its problems and the genocide define it. This is an amazing country, the infrastructure is being developed, building is happening, people are getting back on their feet – and they want you to come here, they want you to drink in their bars and restaurants, and they want the tourist money. But if you can help a little, then that is great too. (See the ‘How you can help’ section for ways you can help).
I really liked Cambodia. I didn’t love it as I love Thailand, but I did like it a lot and I would love to return here. Especially to Angkor Wat…
It’s probable that if we were to do this journey today we would just fly direct into Siem Reap and out again, as since our visit Siem Reap has become a hub for budget airlines in Asia. Due to it’s location between China and the far east, and India and Malaysia, it’s a great central spot from which to fly to other destinations in Asia.
This flight route was just starting to open up when we visited in 2013. Air Asia flies to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and Air Busan flies to Busan (our local airport at the time).
You can get a full list of the airlines that fly to Siem Reap and their destinations on the airport’s Wikipedia page.
Busan, South Korea, to Phnom Penh/Bangkok
These days, the Busan to Siem Reap route is much more popular and a number of carriers offer cheap flights on this route (you can find them via SkyScanner), but there wasn’t a direct flight when we visited in 2013 and so we had to travel via other cities.
J and I didn’t travel together to get out there, as we had different holidays. J flew out via Shanghai to Phnom Penh; I flew via Shanghai to Bangkok. All of our flights were with China Eastern airways.
Bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap
From Bangkok, I caught a bus to Siem Reap. Until very recently, there wasn’t a direct bus between Bangkok and Siem Reap. It used to be that you had to get a bus to Aranyapathet (the Thai town at the border), walk across the border, then catch some onward travel from Poipet (the Cambodian town on the border) to Siem Reap.
Whilst I was researching this part of the trip, it looked as if it was going to be lots of hassle and that there were many scams surrounding the Poipet to Siem Reap transport options, but then I found out about the new direct bus…
The direct bus is run by Thai Ticket Major and you can book your tickets online, through their website (in English), which I did. You can collect your ticket in one of their outlets in Bangkok centre, or pick it up from the bus station at least one hour before you travel. I collected mine the morning of the journey.
The bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap departed from Mo Chit bus station, which is in the north of Bangkok, at 9 a.m. I caught a taxi from Koh San Road to Mo Chit and it cost me 250bht (about £5).
The bus had a steward, TVs and a toilet on board, and they gave us drinks and some (very basic) meals too, though we stopped en-route a number of times for extra toilets and snacks.
The journey to Aranyapathet took us about four hours. When we got there, they stopped at their travel agent so that people could buy visas if they wanted. Now, this was a little bit scammy, and they did over charge for the service which you can get the visas much cheaper online or at the border; but, the border can get incredibly busy and you could end up queuing for hours to get your visa there, before you even queue up for the hour to get through immigration – so for some of the passengers on the bus, this was a quicker alternative which cost more, but which cut down on the hassle at the border.
At the border, the bus dropped us off outside the Thai exit border and then we walked through to the Cambodian border. The border area is huge and busy, with two large casinos in the middle. Luckily, all of our bags stayed on the bus and the bus parked up in the middle of the border, so that once we had finished immigration we could jump back on to wait. One of the casinos had a coffee shop with wi-fi that a few of us used.
It took me an hour to get through Cambodian immigration, and I had a pre-organised e-visa. Most of that hour was spent queuing in the heat. There were some plastic chairs and fans, but it was still quite a basic set up. The people who got their visas at the border, it took them two to three hours for them to get through the whole process.
After we had all cleared customs, our bus zoomed through a wet Cambodia and straight through a huge thunder and lightning storm. We finally arrived in Siem Reap at about 7p.m. The bus stopped at the travel agents office which was right in the centre of town, and there were tuk tuks to take us to our hotels for only $1.
So all in all, this was a relatively hassle free way to get from Bangkok to Siem Reap.
You can get your Cambodian e-visa online at www.evisa.gov.kh. It takes three days to process but is a really easy thing to do and cuts down a lot of time and hassle. They email the visa pdf. to you, you print two copies and you just keep them with your passport. You can use the e-visa on arrival at the airport or at the Poipet Thai border and the Vietnam land border at Bavet. This visa option costs $25.
You can also buy your visa on arrival. I have heard that there have been problems with visa scams and over-charging. It should cost you $20. You need two passport photos for your visa, but you can have them taken at immigration and this costs $2.
As I’ve mentioned above, those who didn’t get their visa in advance had to queue for three hours, so it’s well worth doing.
Also, they send me a nice message every year on my birthday. Thanks Cambodia.
Bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh
We caught a ‘luxury bus’ from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, though it was just a normal coach to me. It didn’t even have a toilet. The trip took about six hours and we stopped twice, once for food. They showed movies on the bus and it was quite a comfortable ride, though the roads weren’t great.
We travelled with Giant Ibis bus company. We booked the bus tickets and paid for them through our hotel. The tickets cost $12 each. We were collected from our hotel in a shuttle bus which took us to the bus station. At the bus station there were a few dodgy stalls and some terrible toilets. In PP, our coach dropped us off in the centre of Phnom Penh, right next to the river and the Russian Market, which was about ten minutes walk from our hotel.
Jeff caught a non-luxury bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and that cost him $6. He travelled with Sorya bus company.
You can also catch a boat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. This sounds fun, though I have heard that there are often problems with this journey, such as the boat getting stuck in the dry season, late departures, people being scammed, terrible toilets, little seating, it’s a very basic boat and it’s not that safe. Looking at the blogs and forums, some people say that if you can ignore all of the problems, then the scenery is gorgeous and the trip can be fun.
Phnom Penh to Busan
Phnom Penh airport was quite basic in some ways, though it was nice. We weren’t allowed into the terminal building until they had announced our flight, but there were some cafes and restaurants outside, so we could get some food and a drink (I had intestines pho by accident). Airside, after check in, there were some pretty nice shops, a good bookstore with lots of English titles, duty free and some expensive food options. www.cambodia-airports.com.
Travelling from Phnom Penh to Busan with China Eastern, we had a few problems. When we checked in at PP, we were told that our bags would go all the way through to Busan. I pointed out that they had only put a Shanghai ticket onto our bags and they told us (and everyone else on the flight) that it was OK, we just needed to go to the transfer desk in Shanghai where they would transfer our bags for us.
Imagine the surprise of the transfer lady in Shanghai when pretty much everyone on our flight turned up and she had to tell all of us that No, she couldn’t transfer our bags – and that what we would have to do is re-enter China, i.e. go through immigration again, collect our bags, then check them in again at the special transfer check in desk. It was 4 a.m., we hadn’t slept, and I was not happy, I can tell you.
So we collected our bags and then were directed to a transfer holding area which contained toilets, a drinks machine and some hard, plastic seats; and we had to wait here for two hours before we could check in again – and even then it was chaotic as they checked us in for flights but couldn’t take our bags for another twenty minutes.
If this happens again, I think I’ll just re-enter the airport and go check in at the check in hall upstairs, as there are more facilities there and I think that check in is faster.
We were based in the centre of Siem Reap, so for getting about the city we mostly walked. I did get a tuk-tuk to my hotel when I arrived (mostly because I was not sure where the hotel was), and this cost me $1. A tuk-tuk within Siem Reap should cost between $1 to $2.
We had a tuk-tuk take us on the Angkor Wat little circle tour. This was organized through our hotel, the Golden Banana Boutique Resort, and cost us $10 + tip for four hours.
Siem Reap is a very flat, spacious city and so is a good place for cycling. Some of the roads are quite busy, but there was usually a space by the side of the road for cyclists. Most hotels provide bikes or you can hire one from a hotel which is part of the White Bicycle Project. This is a project sponsored by the Norwegian government, who have donated 100 white bikes to guesthouses and hotels around Siem Reap. The guesthouses and hotels then hire these out for $2 – $4 per day. The money raised through this scheme goes to help educational and clean water projects in rural Siem Reap. For a list of participating businesses, visit www.thewhitebicycles.org.
We stayed in the centre of Phnom Penh so we walked to all of the sights.
We got a tuk-tuk to the airport. The cost was $7 and the journey took about 30 minutes.
Jeff arrived at Phnom Penh airport quite late at night. He caught a taxi to his hotel near to Sorya Mall, and this cost him $10. There were a number of booths by the arrivals gate at Phnom Penh airport: an exchange booth, a tourist information booth and a pre-paid taxi booth. He used this.
Phnom Penh street numbers: The streets in PP are numbered. The horizontal roads that go east-west are even numbers. Numbers increase as you go further south. The vertical roads that go north-south are odd numbers. Numbering runs east to west, from the river. The Royal Palace is about road 200 and 17.
What we did on our holiday
Visited Angkor Wat (UNESCO) – the little tour
So the first thing to know about Angkor Wat is that Angkor Wat Temple is only a small part of a huge archaeological complex, and Angkor Wat Temple is not even the largest part of the site. The Angkor Wat archaeological park is made up of many temples and the old ruined city of Angkor Thom, plus many, many outlying temples. Even now, they are still discovering huge, important parts of the site, lost in the jungles.
The site is huge and you would need to make at least two visits to the site to do justice to this amazing place. Sadly, I was only able to do the small circle temple tour of the key sites on one day, so I will definitely have to go back.
There are lots of ways to visit Angkor Wat: you can go with a tour group; you can hire a tuk-tuk to drive you between the temples; you can cycle around the site and you can even hire an elephant. The park is probably too spread out to walk between the temples and there didn’t seem to be any public transport to the site, but tuk tuks are so cheap that most people travel this way.
Jeff went on the large circle temple tour before I arrived. He hired a tuk-tuk driver through his hostel for $15 (£10ish). On the large circle tour Jeff first went to Wat Thom, the main city. He entered Angkor Thom through the south gate (see more about this below). Next, J stopped off at Preah Khan (sacred sword temple), which is one of the largest temples in Angkor. Jeff says he liked it as he could crawl all over the temple and walk through it, to explore.
Jeff next stopped off at Neak Pean, which used to be a large pool surrounded by four smaller pools, but which is now three ponds. To get there he had to walk over a marsh and a bridge. Jeff says it was cool, but there wasn’t much there.
After this, Jeff visited Ta Som. This temple looks like Ta Promh, which is the famous one with trees growing out of it. Apparently, the children touts here would not leave him alone, so he left quickly, without exploring that far.
Next he went to East Maebon, which is a 10th century temple with cool elephant statues and really nice views. Apparently the temple used to be located on an island. He says the temple was really high up, he could see rice paddies and stuff and it was a great spot to catch a breeze. Apparently it was really hot on the tour and this was a good place to cool down.
Finally, Jeff ended the day at Pre Rup. Pre Rup is like East Maebon, but it had steeper steps and no elephants. I think by this point, Jeff was templed out and just wanted to go back to the hotel for a beer.
We hired a tuk-tuk driver through our hotel, the Golden Banana and we went on the small circle tour to to Angkor Wat temple, Angkor Thom, the Bayon, the Terrace of the Elephants and Ta Promh (which is the temple from Tomb Raider). Our tuk-tuk driver was brilliant. He waited outside each of the attractions for us, listening to his i-pod, and even drove us through a torrential downpour on his motorbike, poor thing. He charged us $10 for the whole tour (which probably took us four to five hours), and we paid this and the tip through the hotel.
The first place we stopped off on our tour was the ticket office. When we visited we could have bought a one day pass ($20), a three day pass ($40, which we could use over a period of a week) or a seven day pass ($60, which we could have use over a month). For all the passes, you had to stop at the ticket office to have your photo taken so that it could be printed onto your ticket.
After the ticket office, we zoomed through the jungle to Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the biggest religious building in the world. It’s a bloody big temple and we spent ages crawling all over it, looking through windows, walking through doorways, climbing steps, and taking photos of the fab decorations.
The temple is surrounded by a moat, so we first walked over the causeway to get to the temple, then through the outer walls into the central courtyard. We could have walked around the outer walls, but to be honest, we knew we were going to get templed out and that there was better stuff to see further on.
In the inner courtyard there was a huge grassy area, with a horse, trees, some grass, two libraries, a bad pond, which apparently is the famous reservoir, some cafés and shops, and at the back of the complex, the temple proper.
Inside the central temple there were doors and windows, corridors and pretty decorations. All of the walls seemed to be covered in amazing friezes of semi-nekid ladies and crazy dudes. There were also some Buddhas.
We climbed the crazy steep steps up to the top of the stupas and saw great views over the whole complex. It was interesting and gorgeous and well cool, although it was bloody hot when we were there. The views over the temple were great because you could appreciate the scale of this building, the surrounding wild jungle and the other temples poking up out of the foliage.
After this, we popped to one of the cafes for lunch (a cheese sandwich and pop) and then we went to have a look at the scrappy lake reservoir. I thought the reservoir was supposed to be really beautiful. People rave about the view of the temple from here and the photos you can get, and it’s true, you can get some great reflective photos from here, but the lake was a bit rubbish and just looked like a big puddle, and this was in rainy season.
After visiting Angkor Wat, we jumped back into our tuk tuk which tuk-tuked us to Angkor Thom, the ruined capital city. Now, I really liked Angkor Wat, but I was expecting to like Angkor Wat and I have seen photos and models of it many times over. Angkor Thom though, was a complete surprise. I had never even heard of this amazing city, which forms a much larger part of the Angkor Wat archaeological park.
Our driver drove us to the edge of Angkor Thom and dropped us off at the south gate bridge (by the elephant rides). Angkor Thom is surrounded by a square moat, which apparently used to be inhabited by fierce crocodiles. The south gate bridge is lined by the most amazing warrior and demon statues. These stone guards are an impressive, intimidating, scary entrance to this unreal city. The immense gates of the city are so unreal they are almost Disney. Each gate is bedecked by the huge stone head of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who watches over you as you walk or ride into the city (see above).
Our tuk tuk met us on the other side of the south gate and then he took us to the Bayon, passing some other temple en-route, although we didn’t stop at these.
The Bayon is the temple which is in the very centre of Angkor Thom city. It’s a huge temple covered in amazing friezes and hundreds of male heads. I mean, seriously, everywhere you look there are these huge heads looking at you. I didn’t notice them at first, I just saw the big stone blocks, but then I realised there was a nose here, a chin there and that each stupa or pinnacle had a head or two on it. I believe the 216 heads show King Jayavarman 7, who built this temple in the 12th century.
Also on the Bayon were amazing friezes of elephants and slaves: really detailed carvings showing the might of this city and its warriors, its power and strength.
The Bayon was cool in that it was a temple which we could crawl all over. There seemed to be two or three levels to the temple and lots of rooms you could look in. We did hear about a room where if you beat your chest it has the perfect pitch so it does not echo – but we didn’t find this – though we had a lot of fun beating our chests all over the temple like monkeys as we were trying to find this supposed spot.
Whilst we were at the Bayon, it started to rain, which was a little bit scary as we had to climb back down to the lower levels. Once we got back down, a torrential downpour set in (it was rainy season). We waited five minutes to see if the rain would abate, but as it just seemed to be getting stronger and stronger and we were limited on time, we decided to keep going and to just get wet (it wasn’t cold, so we didn’t mind too much, though we did get absolutely soaked through).
Our fab tuk-tuk driver had put up a plastic curtain around the outside of the tuk-tuk and was wearing a poncho to protect himself from the rain (poor thing), so we ran to him and set off again.
We pulled up at the Terrace of the Elephants, and took photos from the tuk-tuk. The Terrace of the Elephants is a walkway covered in elephant carvings and decorations. This is where Jayavarnam 7 used to survey his victorious armies. If it had been a nice day we may have gotten out for a walk along the terrace, but it was too wet.
We then tuk-tuked through the city of Angkor Thom, past houses, cows and another huge temple, out of the east gate, over to Ta Promh. After Angkor Wat, Ta Promh is the most famous temple in the complex as this is the temple that starred in Tomb Raider and is the ruined temple with a couple of ruddy great trees growing out of it.
It was still raining as we got to Ta Promh, and the sales kids outside the temple chased us about with plastic ponchos, but we were so wet by this point, we just didn’t care about the rain anymore. We made our way through the gate, over the stepping stones in the huge puddle and walked to the temple.
Here, I think, the rain just made our visit better. The temple was flooded in a few places and so looked even more wild than normal. There were streams running through the rooms, and we had to jump on stones and over rocks. It was so exciting.
This is the coolest temple we saw. The ruins and the trees give the temple a wildness that is not so apparent in the other restored temples. Being here, you can appreciate that these ruins were lost in the jungle and lost to the jungle for a long time. A lot of work has taken place to rebuild the jig-saw puzzle of the ruins, to restore them to their former majesty. Ta Promh is a temple from a movie (literally). It just looks amazing. I’ve not actually watched Tomb Raider, but I had heard that Ta Promh is where the tree of life is located so all through the visit I was going to Jeff: ‘Is this the tree of life? Is this the tree of life?’
Ta Promh was the last stop on our little circle and after this, we jumped back onto the tuk tuk for our ride back into Siem Reap – which took us about half an hour. The sun had come out by this point and it was lovely pootling along on the wide, flat roads, past bikes and traffic-counting monkeys. We went past the back of the Angkor Wat complex, which was cool.
All in all, visiting Angkor was a most excellent adventure. It was wild and interesting, mystical, magical, historical, surprising and fun. I don’t think that I have ever visited such an amazing, unreal ruined city (and I’ve visited a lot of ruined cities). I think that the site is so well managed. I love that you have the freedom to move about the park as you will, that nowhere was really crowded and that there was minimal modern infrastructure about the temples. I liked the wide roads and that you could visit the park at your leisure in the method of your choosing. It was a very relaxed trip and we had hardly any hassle around the site.
I so did not do justice to this amazing place and I swear I will be back. Next time, I think I’d like to tour the site by bike and to take my time to discover these ruins by myself. It can be an Indiana Jens adventure.
Sunset and Sunrise: Many people want to visit Angkor Wat at sunset or sunrise. Apparently the best temples to watch the sunset from are Phnom Bakheng and Pre Rup, and the best place to watch the sunrise is by the reservoir at Angkor Wat temple. If this is your bag, then go you. If you buy your ticket after 5p.m., you can go watch the sunset at the temple, and they don’t count this as a day on your ticket. Going to watch the sunrise or sunset is probably only worth it in dry season. We visited in wet season and there was really flat light, and no real sunrise or sunset – the day just got lighter or darker with little fanfare.
SCAM ALERT: Quick note about a common Ankor Wat scam. In a few of the temples, there are statues and shrines which have offerings and incense burning in front of them. If you see these, often there is someone there who will offer you incense to light in offering – for $20 – which they only tell you, after they have lit it.
I also heard lots of stories about touts and criminal children, but we had minimal hassle. I think this is because the rain had scared everyone inside.
Lazed about, pootled around Siem Reap, went shopping, drank, ate and partied
Siem Reap is just a nice town to be in. There was a really relaxed, unpretentious vibe to the place. It wasn’t a huge party place, though there were certainly a large number of bars and restaurants on pub street.
Siem Reap is a colonial city with a few streets of colourful, balconied town houses in the centre of town. The centre of the action is focused around the bars, restaurants and markets of Pub Street (I wonder how it got that name?). There is a lazy river with some statues and bridges, which light up prettily at night; and on the edge of the town centre there is a wonderful park (the Royal Gardens).
We saw the not-so-nice side of town when we departed for Phnom Penh, and there is obviously a lot of poverty in Siem Reap, but the areas we were based in were very quiet and peaceful, and also quite rural. Our hotel was on the other side of the river to the town-centre, and this seemed to be a much quieter, more residential district.
We spent some time shopping in Siem Reap. We went a bit crazy in the supermarket as they stocked loads of western products that we can’t get in South Korea. We also had fun exploring the markets, though some of the stall holders did get a bit hassley. One man wanted to show me that his silk was real, so he burnt it right in my face. We did manage to get some bargain T-Shirts though.
In the town centre, there are lots of masseuses and I did have a foot rub ($1), which was quite nice. The bar area was nicely busy, there was lots going on and it had a good atmosphere. At least twice that we were there they had a black-out, which was kind of spooky, but it also made the town feel slightly wild, which I liked.
We had lots of long, lazy lunches and we went to a charity pub quiz at The Warehouse Bar. Mostly though, we just relaxed at our amazing hotel. We had a wonderful pool for lazing in and on; we had our own outdoor living room and outdoor bath on our balcony – and it was great to just not work and to watch movies and relax…. Basically, we just enjoyed being on holiday.
Siem Reap has good bars. Wat Bar serves buckets of booze. That is all.
What we didn’t do in Siem Reap
There’s a few things I regret not doing in Siem Reap, one of which is hiring a bike to cycle around the outer temples. Travelling by bike is such a slow, gentle way of getting around the archaeological park – and had I had the extra day – this is what I would have done.
I would also have loved to have gone for a ride on an elephant – which you can do by the South Gate to Angkor Thom. From what I understand, they just go for a twenty minute wander along the moat, but I think this could be a lot of fun. Next time Nellie.
South of Siem Reap, on the Tomlé Sap lake, is the floating village. Before we went here, this was something that I did want to go see, but I have heard so many stories about scams to do with the village, that it put me off. If this is something you would like to go see though, lots of travel agents run trips to the village and if you catch the boat to PP, you will go past the village.
Wat Ounalom (or What Oompa-loompah? as we called it)
Wat Ounalom is just north of the Royal Palace and it’s a pretty impressive temple with beautiful grounds and a great, colourful, spiky roof. We went in here thinking it was the Silver Pagoda, but that is actually in the Royal Palace.
Everyone was very friendly, though it seemed to be a working temple rather than a temple to be visited, so we got out of there pretty quickly to go to the correct destination.
Wat Ounalom is home to the Buddhist patriarch and is the oldest temple in the city. Its foundations date from 1422, which is before Angkor Wat was abandoned.
The Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda (Wat Preah Keo Morokat)
The key attraction to visit in Phnom Penh is the Royal Palace. This complex of buildings sits on the river front near to the confluence of the Tomlé Sap River and the Mekong.
The palace is made up of six or seven ceremonial halls, which you can visit , and the private side of the palace where the king still lives, which you can’t visit.
The palace is not particularly old: it was founded in 1866, but it is quite pretty.
The first hall we saw was the Moonlight Pavillion, as this building sits alongside the palace walls and you can actually see it from outside the palace. This is apparently where they have performances of traditional Khmer dance. We couldn’t see a lot, but there appeared to be some very nice ceilings.
After this, we bought tickets and entered the outer courtyard. In the outer courtyard there is the Midnight Pavillion and the Throne Hall. We went to have a peek in the Throne Hall, which had thrones in. We weren’t allowed to go in, or to take photos, but we were allowed to lean through the window. It seemed to be very pretty.
We then wandered over to the second courtyard. This had a lovely shaded, decorated walkway running around the outside, and as it was super hot, Jeff sat down here for a rest in the shade whilst I went to peek in a little temple.
Once Jeff had cooled down, we both went to look at the key attraction, the Silver Pagoda, which is the royal temple. The Silver Pagoda has silver floors, which I thought sounded amazing, though they are mostly covered up with carpets and you only get the occasional glimpse of them. Inside the Silver Pagoda there was lots of stuff, but it was all jumbled together without much explanation, so I didn’t really like this section. I was more enjoying running from fan to fan.
I don’t think the Royal Palace is actually set out very well. It wasn’t very well sign-posted, there was little explanation of what you were seeing or why, and they seemed to mis-use the rooms somehow. I feel the Silver Pagoda should be set up as a temple, in all its glory, with the silver floor revealed. Then the treasures should be set in a separate, well laid out museum, with air-con and information, so that you can appreciate them.
I also don’t understand why they wouldn’t let us take photos in the buildings. I do understand some people restrict photos to protect places, because they are sacred or for security reasons, but why couldn’t we take photos of the Throne Hall? That annoyed me.
I also feel that they could bring the palace alive by having demonstration of traditional Khmer culture in the palace. At the moment, it’s just a bit slap dash, a bit sterile and a bit dull.
Truthfully, neither Jeff or I particularly enjoyed our visit to the palace: Jeff because he thought it was boring, and me, because my expectations for the palace had been quite high and I felt quite disappointed.
There were some interesting exhibits at the end of the tour. They had a few rooms which contained information about the royal family and about riding on elephants. This bit was good because it was informative and interesting, the rest of the visit wasn’t.
Between the Royal Palace and the river is the Royal Palace Park. On the Sunday we were there this was a cacophony of people having fun, crowds, pic-nics, people feeding the birds. I don’t know if it was a special occasion, but there did seem to be a lot of barriers around and the traffic was just nuts.
Unlike the Royal Palace, the National Museum was a delightful surprise. This crazy, red, spiky building is a wonderful open building, full of treasures, statues, Buddhas etc.
The centre of the museum is a lovely courtyard garden, with ponds, koi carp and statues. All around the garden are benches you can chill out on, next to huge heads and treasures from across Cambodia.
We spent a lovely hour here, giggling at the funny statues, enjoying the garden and looking at treasure.
Entrance was $5.
Walked along the river
There’s a lovely promenade along the banks of the Tomlé Sap river, and in the early evening this was where most of the people of PP seemed to be.
Like an Italian evening promenade, families came out for a stroll by the river in the cool evening air. This is where the life and soul of the city was. This was where families picnicked and young men played street soccer. This was the bustling, busy heart of the city.
The road that runs along the river front is stupidly busy, though it’s only two lanes, so most of the time the traffic was stop start stop start. Lining the other side of the road are the colonial houses, restaurants, bars and pubs of the Riverside District.
One of my favourite things to do whilst travelling is to go to the supermarket, to see what interesting food products they have. Also, as we were living in South Korea at the time, we wanted to see if there was anything we could get in Cambodia that we couldn’t get there, so we went shopping on our last day.
We had a giggle at the funny pop names (Kick-a-poo) and we brought snacks etc. for our flight, cheap booze and bright red hair dye (for me).
Ate and drank
Phnom Penh has a surprisingly cool café and bar culture. Especially around the river front area, there were loads of wonderful pubs, colonial cafes, Irish pubs, nice restaurants etc. Maybe it’s a result of their French heritage, but there are loads of good places to eat by the river.
We picked up two really useful booklets from our hotel: Phnom Penh Out and About and Pocket Guide Cambodia – Eating and Drinking Phnom Penh. Both these books are produced by Cambodia Pocket Guide. These listed all of the bars and restaurants, contained maps and loads of useful info about Phnom Penh. We saw them all over the city, so if you can, I’d pick one of these up.
We went out to eat twice and to a great Irish pub for Sunday lunch (Paddy Rice’s Irish Pub), but the place I really want to tell you about is the Foreigner Correspondent’s Club, FCC or F for short. This river front bar is located on the top three stories of an old colonial house. It’s a colonial dream, with rattan furniture, huge fans and strong cocktails. You could picture Raffles and Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn sat at the bar, drinking their gins and quinine, with bullets whizzing around them.
I thought this was a bar that Hemingway had stayed in, but actually that’s the FCC in Saigon, and this place is actually just a modern part of the FCC franchise. It is a very cool place to be though. We sat in a huge window, overlooking the sun setting over the slow moving river. We drank strong sun-downer cocktails and ate nommy pizza, whilst I pretended to be a serious journalist (ha). It was a great spot to watch the crazy traffic and to people watch the river front promenaders.
The FCC is not just a bar and restaurant, it also has quite a snazzy hotel.
I had my first Dairy Queen in PP. I got confused though about why they kept turning the ice creams upside down. Apparently it’s a gimmick to show the quality?
What we didn’t do in Phnom Penh
The Independence Monument sits in the middle of Norodom Boulevard. We saw it from afar but didn’t go up to it, but it looked kind of cool.
There are great malls and markets (Phsar) in PP. Although we did a little shopping, we didn’t visit any of the markets, such as the huge Central Market or the Russian Market. A lot of the guidebooks rave about the cross shaped Central Market, with it’s huge central dome – which is supposed to be pretty good.
We could have gone for a boat ride on the river. Although a lot of the boats didn’t look that safe, the sun set party boats looked like a lot of fun.
What Jeff did whilst in PP
The Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum
From 1975 to 1979, Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge, under the leader Pol Pot. The regime oversaw an internal genocide in which 2 million Cambodians were killed, and the majority of the remaining population displaced.
Many of those killed by the regime, ended up in the Killing Fields: ad-hoc places where executions and mass burials took place.
After the fall of the regime, memorials were set up at these sites. Some of the memorials contain bones and remnants from those who perished in those places.
Most people who visit a Killing Field visit Choeung Ek, which is where 17,000 men, women and children were executed. Many of them had been tortured in the infamous S-21 prison, which is now the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum.
Jeff say there is not a huge amount of buildings at Choeung Ek now, as everything was destroyed after the regime fell, but there is a lot to see and experience. There is the memorial, which contains the skulls of thousands of people; there are trees, and pathways, some pits to show where the mass graves were, and lots of small information signs to explain what happened there. Jeff says the audio-guide is really, really good, and that for your visit you quietly walk around the site, listening to explanations of what happened here. He says it’s the best audio-tour that he has ever heard, and he wouldn’t make the visit without it.
Entrance ticket and the audio tour costs $10.
Until 1975, Toul Sleng was a high school, but the Khmer Regime turned this building into their most infamous prison and interrogation facility: S21. Of the 17,000 people who entered here, less than twelve survived.
The prison was overseen by Kaing Geuk Eav, also known as Dutch. In 2012, he was sentenced to life in prison for his actions.
The Toul Sleng compound is now the Genocide Museum. Much of it has been left as it was when the Khmer Rouge abandoned it. Jeff says that you can see the cells and lots of empty rooms, but he says he didn’t seem to get a lot of information at the complex and so he couldn’t get context about what he was seeing, and it was only after his visit that he could appreciate what had happened here.
Entrance to the genocide museum is $2.
Jeff hired a tuk tuk driver to take him to the two sites, and it cost him $10 for three to four hours.
How you can help
Whilst Cambodia is developing incredibly fast, many problems do still remain and there are a lot of people trying to help this country get back on its feet.
Whilst we were in Siem Reap we went to a pub quiz at The Warehouse Bar. This trivia quiz was in aid of ABCs and Rice, an organisation that provides food and education to children of the region. They managed to raise $100 the night we were there.
Some blogs/websites I’ve seen suggest that you can help by going to visit a school or an orphanage for a day, but truthfully this is a good thing to do. The children in these places need secure, long-term care and they are not a tourist attraction. I’ve heard of orphanages that put on shows in the evening for tourists, and to me that is not OK. These kids need to be kids, not a tourist attraction. In fact, a legitimate charity would not let you interact with the children, unless you are there for the long-term.
Sadly, a lot of scams have arisen around charities and orphanages in Cambodia, with children working rather than being in school, or donations going into director’s pockets rather than to the children. For this reason, I’m not going to recommend any particular charity to support, but I will just say: do your research, and if you can, try to make a long-term link up with the organisation you choose, so that you can continue to support them in small ways over a longer period. Long term small donations of cash are in many ways more valuable than short term donations of stuff.
If you want to volunteer to help, then most NGOs ask that you make a commitment of six months or more.
I personally donate regularly to Oxfam, who have a number of projects in the area.
If you’re not in Siem Reap for a long time, then one of the best ways you can help is by going to one of the charity pub quizzes, where you can meet some of the ex-pats and local people who work for the charities the quizzes are helping. There’s a couple of charity pub quizzes which take place weekly in Siem Reap, and you can find out more about them and the organisations they support at the Latitudes website.
Where we stayed
Accommodation in Cambodia is great value and a lot of it is of a really high quality. We could have afforded to stay in Raffles here, if we had wanted to treat ourselves.
Instead, we found a great boutique hotel in Siem Reap (one of the best hotels I have ever stayed in) and an okay place in PP.
Siem Reap – The Golden Banana Boutique Resort
The Golden Banana is possibly one of the best hotels I have stayed in. I didn’t want to leave. In fact, one guest I spoke to said he loved it so much, he’d moved in six months ago.
The Golden Banana Boutique Resort and its sister hotels, the Golden Banana Boutique Hotel and the Golden Banana Bed and Breakfast Superior Hotel (see below for an explanation of the difference), are located down a Chinese lantern lit alleyway, on the far side of the river to Pub Street, near to Wat Damnak Temple. This is a quieter side of town, but five minutes from all of the action.
We booked a villa, which was a two floored apartment, bigger than my flat in South Korea. We had a huge bedroom downstairs, with a white washed/stone bathroom (it felt like an outdoor Spanish villa). Upstairs was the outdoor living room and the balcony with sun beds, flowers, and the outdoor bath and shower. It was a room made for lounging and relaxing: from the affordable drinks in the fridge, to the millions of TV channels, to the lounging sofa, long armed fans, flowers, decorations, fluffy pillows. Just thinking about it relaxes me.
In fact, the whole hotel was designed for relaxing, with comfy lounges and hanging chairs dotted around the complex.
Two paces from our front door was the pool, complete with fun toys and trickling waterfall. Three paces from our front door was the bar and restaurant, where we had our free nommy breakfast each morning.
What I really liked about the Golden Banana was the kindness of the hotel, which is a really strange thing to mention when reviewing accommodation. Normally, you’d rate a hotel on the comfort of the beds (extremely) or the food (great), but what got me about this place was that it had heart. First of all, this is a gay friendly hotel which welcomes everyone. Secondly, you could see that all of the staff at the hotel, and the suppliers, were treated very well and the hotel was investing time in training and educating their staff. The literature asked the guests to be patient with the staff still learning the ropes and though the service wasn’t perfect (for example I was given coffee but no coffee cup), it was always fine and we got things sorted.
I also liked that the staff were treated equally to the guests. I didn’t get an us and them feeling with the staff. There were times when they were playing in the pool with us, entertaining the guests children. I liked that.
The hotel wasn’t perfect, for example we had problem with the lock on our door, but when you love something, these things don’t matter. It was perfect to me and like the other guest, I would gladly move in too. I want this to be my home.
Our villa at the Golden Banana cost us $300 for 4 nights/ about £46/night.
PS We had a lot of confusion working out which Golden Banana we were booking and all three are listed on the above website. We stayed at the GB boutique resort, the GB boutique hotel was on the opposite side of the alley. There’s also, at the end of Golden Banana Alley, the Golden Banana Bed and Breakfast and the GB Superior Hotel : www.golden-banana.com.
Phnom Penh – Ohana Phnom Penh Palace Hotel
We booked the Ohana for its location and the gorgeous pool, and whilst the hotel did have a great location and a gorgeous pool, there were a few things about this hotel that let it down.
The hotel is located in the Riverside area, one or two buildings away from the river front and about ten minutes walk from the Royal Palace, so we were right in the heart of the city. This was great for us as we were only there for the one night and we wanted to be really central.
The room was OK, but there were one or two minor problems with the room: the shower had no water pressure, we couldn’t control the air-con very well, the door locked itself open and there was a hidden button to turn on the TV, which they didn’t tell us about. When I went to reception to ask for help with the door and TV, they said they would send someone up, but no one ever came.
The views from the breakfast room were amazing: from here we overlooked the rivers, the royal palace, the museum and What Oompah-loompah? temple; but we went for breakfast ten minutes before it officially ended and there was very little food left, the fruit had flies on it and they told us to hurry up as they were closing.
However, the reception staff were really friendly. The swimming pool was lush and they were great because they let us have a late check out for free and they let us use the facilities (including the pool) until we departed at 9 p.m.
The problems here were minor, but they could be fixed very easily, and for a 4* hotel and the price they were charging they could have upped their game a little. Especially when there are so many great, good value hotels in this city.
The room cost us $65/about £40, and we booked it through Booking.com.
Where Jeff stayed
Phnom Penh – Billabong Hotel
The Billabong Hotel is located near to the Sorya bus station and Sariya Mall. It is away from the river and the palace, but still in central Phnom Penh, in a bit of a backpacker area. It’s pretty close to the central market.
Jeff got in quite late on his first night, but luckily they offered late check-in. He stayed at the Billabong for two nights.
He says he had a big room, with a really comfortable bed and a great shower. The staff were really friendly and nice, and they had free computers and internet. They had a really, really nice pool, though sadly Jeff didn’t get to use it because of circumstances (it was raining).
He says breakfast was included and it was delicious: pancakes, eggs, fresh fruit etc. He did say though that the dinner was overpriced and not that great; that you could get the same food in a neighbouring restaurant for half the price.
Jeff says that there were couples, families and backpackers staying here and that it was a nice, chilled out place to stay.
We decided not to stay here on our return trip, as we were limited on time and so we wanted to be in the Riverfront area. I have seen the photos though, and I think if we go back to PP for longer – we might stay here again.
e Billabong cost about $50 per room, per night.
Siem Reap – The Siem Reap Hostel
Cheap beds, though not the cheapest; perhaps the best value beds though. This hostel had a great atmosphere, comfy beds, good food and cheap beer (Happy Hour was 50c for a beer, although it was only $1 normally). They also did a weekly BBQ, which was $5 for a plate of meat, corn and potatoes. They had a pool table and a swimming pool and apparently it was a great place to meet people.
The Siem Reap Hostel is located close to the Golden Banana, on the far side of the river to Pub Street – so very central, but in a nice, quieter district.
The hostel gets really good ratings on tripadvisor, and if I went to Siem Reap on my own, I would probably stay here too.
A bed in a 6-bed dorm at The Siem Reap Hostel costs $6 per night.
Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
We picked up two really useful booklets from our hotel: Phnom Penh Out and About and Pocket Guide Cambodia – Eating and Drinking Pnom Penh. Both these books are produced by Cambodia Pocket Guide.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
If you think I’ve missed something important or have got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.