Cambodia is high on many a travellers bucket lists’. Home to awe-inspiring Angkor Wat, Cambodia is not only ancient temples and devastating recent history. It is also filled with genuine people and reportedly stunning beaches. Even if you have time to only take a snapshot of Cambodia, Angkor Wat is probably the top of your list. But there is more to Siem Reap than what meets the eye (through Social Media anyway)…
I have heard other travellers rave about Cambodia – how beautiful it is, how interesting yet devastating the recent history of this country is, and how you’ve just got to go there. Unfortunately, I am not able to agree with these comments. At least not when I have only BARELY scratched the surface of probably the least Cambodian-like town in the whole damn country. The town I’m talking about is called, Siem Reap (cue shocked gasp), home to magnificent Angkor Wat. Don’t shoot just yet guys, hear me out…
It’s not often that I have had to say I was disappointed with a place I have traveled to. But at the end of the day, we are all human and different traveler’s, I’m sure – which is why I feel the need to share my honest opinion. Sometimes I wonder if people only share the highlights on their blogs. It’s not hard to forget the crappy times when you are writing about a place, after the fact, and remembering only the great times.
The Where, the How & the Who!
Cambodia lies in the middle of South East Asia – bordered by Thailand, Laos & Vietnam. It is a staple in the traditional South East Asian backpacker route – especially Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Getting there from bordering Thailand or Vietnam can be easy and expensive (flying) or it can be long, bumpy and cheap (taking the bus).
If you are flying directly into Cambodia internationally, you will most probably fly with airlines like Thai Airways, Vietnam Airways or Qantas – transiting in their respective hubs. Quick opportunity for a sneaky stop over on the way out perhaps?
Australian Passport holder’s will require a visa to enter Cambodia. It can be attained on arrival at the land borders of Thailand and Vietnam, or it can be attained at the International airports in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. I have also heard you can get it before traveling, however I am not familiar with the process. The tourist visa will be issued for 30 days from date of entry into Cambodia. (As always please consult your local consulate to check up to date visa requirements, as they may change at any moment).
With that, let me give you an honest run down of our time in Siem Reap – the good and the not so good.
What We Did With 3 Days in Siem Reap.
We arrived in Siem Reap, after two long days of pretty much only travelling – hot, sweaty, feeling slightly bus sick, I was ready to relax by the pool for a few days in between exploring the amazing Angkor Wat and getting a feel for Cambodia.
Where to Stay?
We stayed at the Popular Boutique Hotel, just on the outskirts of town and it was perfect for us. For only $17 AUD per night, we had a huge private room with a big comfy bed. The property also has a small, but nice swimming pool for you to relax and rejuvenate in, after your sweaty temple explorations. The restaurant / bar backs onto the swimming pool and made for the perfect afternoon area for me to get some blogging done. I really enjoyed our stay here.
The hotel is also conveniently located only a short walk away from the popular Pub Street, as well as plenty of restaurants and bars for you, if that’s what you’re after.
Do I even have to say it? – Angkor Wat is truly amazing! If you visit Cambodia for one reason only – it should be to visit these magnificent temples. Angkor Wat lies within the Angkor Archaeological Site – 400 square kilometres containing the magnificent remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire of the 9th to the 15th centuries. The most famous of the temples are Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple.
Picking your morning to go to Angkor Wat is paramount – don’t get caught out on a grey day like us 🙁
While Angkor Wat was super impressive, and certainly the grandest of the temples – I also loved Bayon, as well as Ta Prohm (most commonly known as Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider temple). I just found the intricate carvings of hundreds of faces of Bayon to be absolutely incredible!
The Bayon Temple, and it’s many faces.. the weather improving slowly for us 😀
Ta Prohm – Tomb Raider
Many, many blogs will tell you that you need a few days to explore the temples. We spent almost 8 hours exploring the main temples, and I honestly feel that we covered the majority of the highlights. Sure, maybe we didn’t learn the insider stories or get a significant overview of the history of the temples, and to some that may be sacrilege. But we were impressed and satisfied with our time at Angkor. And, do you know how hot it is in MAY in Cambodia? Very, very, very bloody hot!
I guess, if we had have explored the entire Archaeological Park extensively, I can see how 3 days or more could easily be filled (should you have the patience / interest for it).
How to get around Angkor Wat
There are two popular ways of getting around the temples: hire a tuk-tuk (plus driver, obviously!) or hire a push bike (highly not recommended in summer time!). We hired a tuk-tuk driver named Wundi. He was a lovely, young guy and was happy to drive us around anywhere we wanted. I think we paid him about $20 AUD for the day (which I believe is normal). He picked us up at 4:30am from our hotel, took us to buy our tickets and delivered us to Angkor Wat – ready for sunrise (that evidently hid behind an overcast morning – bugger). I would highly recommend checking the weather more thoroughly, and planning for a sunny sunrise. Not only because we didn’t get that classic Angkor Wat sunrise experience, but the morning light was flat and grey – our photo’s really do not do it justice.
There is certainly no shortage of tukie’s hanging around the main streets of Siem Reap. Just listen for ‘tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk’ (literally, like a chicken), or ‘You want tuk tuk? Go see temple?’. Just be careful you don’t get ripped off – agree on a price for the day with your driver from the get go.
Tips to Dressing Appropriately
This is a big one! As with the majority of temples around South East Asia – respect is paramount – regardless of the temperature or humidity. That means shoulders and knees covered for the guys. And while I believe this is the minimum for the ladies, depending on which official you get at the entry of each temple, ladies may be turned away without full leg coverage and at least half of your arms. To give you an idea, there was a girl behind us in a line to enter one of the areas within Angkor Wat and she only had a shawl over her shoulders – she was denied entry.
Don’t be tempted ladies, to wear that beautiful flowing dress, and let the shawl slink off of those shoulders – just for the perfect insta shot. The temple officials are pretty onto it, and you might just find yourself booted out, with one expensive entry ticket confiscated (just saying).
Local Village ATV Tour
My other favourite part of our short time in Cambodia, was our Sunset quad biking tour around the local villages ofSiem Reap – or what I had
started to call “the real Cambodia”. We chose a locally operated company called Siem Reap Quad Bike Adventure and opted for the Sunset ATV Ride – hoping to catch a glimpse of the sun going down over the rice paddies.
It was just a really cool experience. We were the only two on our tour. We got to drive through the red dirt roads, seeing tiny villages, with houses that look like they could fall over in the smallest breath of wind. And the kids, wearing tattered clothes, yet their smiles shining incredibly bright! It was certainly humbling. This was the Cambodia I had been expecting.
I was just really disappointed with the township of Siem Reap. There, I said it. Let me tell you about Pub Street. I’m sure many backpacker’s love Pub Street. You can get draft beer for 75 cents a pop! There’s tons of bars and tons of restaurants, which I felt were very over-priced (compared to the rest of Asia!). There were westerner’s working in all the establishments, as well as standing in the street trying to get you to sign up to the latest pub crawl.
I feel like I sound really old and ungrateful. I’m definitely not. To me, Siem Reap just did not feel genuine. Not for a town that is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site. And I want other people to know that before going there and having their expectations of Siem Reap dashed.
I guess I should have known better considering Angkor Wat is so famous and a lot of people do go directly to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat.
We also found that every meal we ate in Siem Reap left us feeling somewhat unwell afterwards. The standard of food health and safety is not up to scratch throughout South East Asia in general. However, it was significantly lower in Cambodia. We managed to
survive the whole 4 weeks of traveling without getting food poisoning. And we ate plenty of street food. Of course, on the very last day in Cambodia, my boyfriend was struck down – damn good too.
My advice… 100% without a doubt visit Siem Reap. If you went all the way to Cambodia, and did not visit Angkor Wat, you would most probably die. (Of travel envy obviously)… Just don’t expect a quiet, little town that is full of ancient history, once you’re outside of the temples.
There are actually a few other things to do around Siem Reap. Such as visiting the Landmine museum, getting massages and letting little fish eat the dead skin off your foot (gross!). As well as exploring the new and old markets, among other things. I guess we just ran out of puff (and money) towards the end of our trip. So Angkor Wat and our small hotel pool, were enough for this trip.
You might absolutely love the Westernised vibe of Siem Reap – who knows. All I know, is next time I visit Cambodia, I will be sure to leave enough time to dig in to rest of the country.
What did you think of Siem Reap? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 🙂