From Sihanoukville we decided that another 12 hour bus marathon may be a little too much for our relaxed state of mind, so we decided to break the journey up with a visit back to Phnom Penh for an evening en route to Siem Reap.
The journey was again by coach and was labelled at about six hours, but in the end too nearer to seven and a half. This was most certainly a local bus and along the way managed to stop just about anywhere on the road that somebody signalled the driver.
It did not matter whether seats were available or not (they weren’t ) bodies were added to the bus, people shuffled, plastic seats produced from nowhere, and eventually the whole central aisle was filled with an additional 15 passengers perched precariously on plastic stools. As we had pre-booked our seats, we thought we had been lucky in getting the front two seats on the bus. In the end we had about three people sat in between our legs and at times almost in our laps, but you can’t help but smile.
The bus entertainment system was put into action and a Chinese film started. We were hopeful; it looked like it had English subtitles. We settled back got comfy ready to enjoy the film – especially as we were in reading distance at the front.
Sadly, within about thirty seconds we realised that although the film came with English subtitles they made absolutely no sense whatsoever. I am not talking about having to struggle to make sense of them in relation to the images on screen, they were utterly incomprehensible. Bugger; it looked like quite a good film too.
We stayed back at the Hometown Hotel in Phnom Penh, and as we were returning guests, it appears you get moved up the pecking order for the nicer rooms. We were put on the third floor in the nicest of the three rooms we had tried in this place.
We decided to splash out for the journey to Siem Reap and book the Mekong Express. We used them for our journey into Cambodia from Vietnam and they are the most ‘luxurious’ company available for coach travel here. They have a toilet on board so they do only one stop on the six hour journey and fill only the number of seats the bus actually possesses so you don’t waste time with unscheduled stops to pick up bonus passengers for the drivers and his assistants backhanders.
Siem Reap Bars and Restaurants
Siem Reap is Cambodia’s number one tourist spot and visitor numbers are growing exponentially. From around 1 million visitors in 2006 they have now grown to over two a half million in 2011 (mostly in the form of Asian visitors from Korea, China and Vietnam). Thankfully we were visiting in the low (rainy) season so we were hoping that we could at least grab some images without hoards of Japanese and Korean tour groups in the background, we managed it just, although some dodgy weather spoilt some of our photo opportunities.
I’ll get to the temples in a bit, but for now lets just go over what Siem Reap has to offer when you are done with the temples.
Given its visitor numbers the town is way more touristy than any other place we have visited in Cambodia (I guess Sihanoukville comes close, but we stayed out of the main town there so can’t really compare). It has its very own Pub Street a la any Mediterranean resort packed with bars and restaurants offering beer at US 50c a glass and restaurants aplenty. Seeing as there is not enough space on one street the action has now sprawled into the surrounding lanes where you can find a slightly more varied (and quieter) range of eateries and bars.
There are also hundreds of hotels to choose from so competition is fierce, much more so in the low season. We stayed in two different places for around $15 per night and one even included american breakfast for that price, all close to the main market and Pub Street. Siem Reap is popular with an eclectic mix of tourists and travellers from around the world ranging from backpackers to retired couples. It sort of manages to fulfil the differing requirements of this diverse market in a relatively small location. We did watch in amusement at revellers dancing on tables, shaking their booty in the Angkor What Bar.
Restaurants are everywhere and you can get some great value Khmer meals around the market area or virtually any other country cuisine in the centre of town. We had a particularly good Indian Thali at the Maharaja towards the bottom of the market/pub street area. With our new Kiwi friends we were also tempted to try a Khmer grill which included snake and frog. Neither of which I would be in a rush to try again any time soon. Many offer kangaroo, ostrich, crocodile but you’ll pay a slight premium for these.
One local delicacy we would definitely try again is the deep fried crickets. I know this sounds like something from ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’, but we are neither celebrities nor do we have a wish to leave Cambodia. They were really tasty and as the locals advise are to be taken while drinking a cool beer – a perfect combination, they taste chewy and are covered in chilli and other spices and really do go down very easily. Other local dishes that are very popular here are ‘dog’ which is apparently very warming and is particularly popular during the cooler months, but this needs to be drank with wine or whisky. Spider is popular, but is seasonal in Siem Reap, and prices vary depending on where in the country you purchase it.
Gay Siem Reap
Now don’t go expecting any massive gay clubs and bars, but the few that we visited here are small, very friendly and pleasant. Although they’re more expensive for cocktails and beers than Pub Street. Most do some sort of show or cabaret and what they lack in slickness they make up for in enthusiasm. There are also one or two gay hotels, but they tended to be beyond our flashpacking budget, per night room rate.
Temple Blog can be found after this gallery
The Wonder of Angkor Archaeological Park
While Angkor Wat is the largest and most famous of the temples set around the town of Siem Reap it actually only refers to one of the dozens of temples here. I would have to spend the next four months researching and two weeks writing if I were to produce a quality blog on what they have to offer, so instead I will provide you some links that I found useful, and instead leave you with some of our images and overall thoughts from our trip here.
Angkor literally means Capital or Holy City and this part of Cambodia was the Khmer capital between the 9th and 12th centuries. More than a million people lived in the city at it’s peak and is astounding when you think that was the total population of the whole of the UK in the 11th Century, London’s population was around 20,000 – astonishing.
The temples complexes consist of not only stunning temples built in this era, but some astounding and huge waterworks and reservoirs, dug by hand, that surround many of the larger temples. A real feat of engineering and architecture.
One of the highlights for us was being directed to one of the carvings in one of the oldest temples that clearly depicts a dinosaur looking remarkably like a Stegoaurus - how the …… There is a picture in the gallery if you don’t believe me.
If you want to read more I found this summary of each of the sites, the history and some useful maps produed by Canbypublications. Not the prettiest site but the information is great. In fact the whole of this web site has been very useful during our trip through Cambodia, bookmark it if you are on your way here.
If you like a good read you can download this pdf guide to the temple park http://www.theangkorguide.com/
We decided on a three day pass (for US $40) to the park (one day costs you US$20, seven day will set you back $60) giving us freedom to visit as many of the sites as we could manage before getting ‘templed out’. You may think that this state of mind would come upon you quite quickly but each of the temples is pretty unique and comes with its own story and differences in terms of architecture and restoration.
We did both the Grand Tour and a trip farther out to see Banteay Srey and walked up a very steep hill by foot to see a waterfall (which was a trickle at this time of year). We had hoped for a cooling dip at the top, but alas it would have cooled no more than our little toe.
Our ever forgetful tuk tuk driver (he ran out of fuel after our hotel pick up) also whizzed past the Landmines Museum which we both really wanted to see. He did offer to take us back the following day free of charge, but but due to other travel commitments we were unable to take him up on this offer. We had to experience this vicariously through our Kiwi friends later in the week who assured us we had missed a remarkable organisation supporting the clearing of Cambodia from landmines.
We also did the Petit Tour and were up at 4:45am to get to Angkor Wat for the sunrise that never happened. However, we made a quick getaway from Angkor Wat and continued our tour ahead of all the crowds so managed some relatively uncluttered viewings of some of the most interesting temples at the Angkor Archaeological Park. The temples are truly astounding given the time in history when they were built and there are some quite impressive restoration underway at some of them, funded by overseas development funds from India, Japan, Canada and a few other countries.
There is talk of restricting visitor numbers, and/or the unfettered access we had during our visits at some point in the future, but for now you have a most amazing access to this magnificent architecture, history and culture in this other worldly part of Cambodia.
However, we were both troubled on our visits at the sustainability of the sites. Although we both really enjoyed our days touring around the temples and would highly recommend this trip to anybody who hasn’t visited before. Hopefully, the private company running the sites and the international community can quickly improve the management and safeguard Cambodia’s amazing cultural heritage for it literally turns into dust.
Siem Reap is a fun town to spend a few days both before and after your temple tours and the Temples are just incredible and no set of pictures can do justice to the sights you will see there. If you are pushed and only have time to visit one place in Cambodia this has to be it. A true wonder of the world and I am not talking about Pub Street there.
For those who like detail, these are the Tuk Tuk guided tours we took over two days temple trekking. By the way the stones and ruins are not good in flip flops so put on some sensible shoes, we didn’t and regretted it a few times. I believe rubber soled shoes are less damaging to the artefacts. Tuk Tuks are widely available, and can be booked through your hotel or off the street. Trips range from $8-$35 dollars depending on driver and km covered.
Our Grand Tour
The Grand Tour Plus the Trip to the Waterfall – Day 1
- Bantay Srey Temple
- Kbal Spean Waterfall and hike
- Landmine Museum
- Banteay Samre
- Preah Khan
- East Mebon
- Pre Rup
The Petit Tour Day 2
- Angkor Wat – Sunrise
- South Gate
- Terrace of the Elephants
- Chau Say Thevoda
- Ta Phrom
- Angkor Thom