I have to warn you all that this post is the longest post I’ve written. Your fingers may hurt from scrolling and reading it may take some time. But I do hope you persevere and enjoy reading about our five memorable days in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Bangkok to Siem Reap
Paul and I had spent a month in Thailand back in 1999, including up in the Golden Triangle where the country borders Laos and Myanmar. So knowing that places like Chang Mai have grown quite a bit to accommodate tourism, we decided that after Bangkok, we would head to Cambodia.
Again we used ground transport. The Giant Ibis bus company has a direct service from Bangkok to Siem Reap for US$32. It would take 10 hours and we wouldn’t have to change buses at the border. For an extra US$10, Giant Ibis also helps you get a Cambodian visa, which costs US$30. You fill out the form, then the bus guide takes it and your passport to the Cambodian visa office at the border and gets the visas for all the passengers.
(I’m quoting US dollars here because in Cambodia, the Yankee dollar is used along with the Cambodian riel. Currently, 4,000 riels is equal to US$1.) We left from Bangkok’s Khoa San Road area at 7.45am and the bus was full.
On a pee break during the bus trip, the little shop sold coffee, ice cream and snacks. I loved that the chip flavours catered to local palates. One was something like lobster, lime and chilli and the other was spicy deep fried fish.
The law in Thailand prohibits gambling, other than on horse racing and government-sponsored lottery tickets. It’s pretty well the same on the other side of the border: it’s illegal for Cambodians to gamble. And yet there are numerous casinos operating there that cater to foreign gamblers. One such case is the former backpacker beach town of Sihanoukville, which is now catering to Chinese gamblers and is full of crime — the reason we didn’t end up going there. The casino above was after the Thai border post, but before the Cambodian post, so Thais could gamble by leaving Thailand but didn’t have to enter Cambodia.
We recommend taking the Giant Ibis service form Bangkok to Siem Reap. The bus was clean, had air con, they gave you a pastry and Nescafe in a can for brekky, and a veg fried rice and water for lunch. The Move To Cambodia website is also very helpful with explaining transportation options in Cambodia.
The Cambodian visas were also seamless. We did have to physically get off the bus and walk through the Thai border post, get stamped, then walk to the Cambodian border post and get stamped. But at least we could leave our luggage on the bus.
Twenty years ago, Paul and I crossed this same border and it was definitely harder as there was certainly no direct bus, we had to walk with our backpacks across the border, pay a bribe, and walk again to find transport to our next destination. Geez, the kids have it easy these days…
We finally made it to our hotel
We arrived in Siem Reap at about 4pm. A very long day on a bus. Our hotel, Hari Residence and Spa, was located near the Old Market area, where colonial buildings still line the streets and there is a proliferation of restaurants. We went mid-range posh with our hotel because I figured that after a hot, sweaty, tiring day touring temples, we’d want a comfortable place to come back to. Plus, it had a pool and included a buffet breakfast.
Pub Street in Old Market
Pub Street in the Old Market is where the majority of the tourists go to eat and drink. And oh my, there were many tourists. There was a wide variety of restaurants; our favourite was a Mexican one. After eating Asian food almost every day, eating tacos and nachos was a nice change. But I was going to run out of my lactose pills sooner than I had thought, as pizza was also on offer.
Siem Reap is now the fifth biggest city in Cambodia, largely due to tourism at Angkor Wat. We walked alongside the river one afternoon.
Interestingly, The Cambodian People’s Party is led by Hun Sen, who has been the country’s prime minster for the last 30 years. He is actually a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected to Vietnam then helped overthrow the Pol Pot regime in 1979.
The temples of Angkor Wat in 3 days
The temples of Angkor are UNESCO World Heritage listed. The Angkor Archaelogical Park covers about 400 sq km and contains many, many temples and dykes, reservoirs and canals, plus the remains of the capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th century. Some of the temples were Hindu to begin with but later became Buddhist temples, which is why you’ll see a mix of Hindu gods and Buddhas.
You can see Angkor with a one-day, three-day or seven-day ticket. We chose the three-day, which cost US$62 for adults. Children under 12 are free. Thank goodness Elina is still 11.
You don’t have to see the site on consecutive days. but there is a dress code here. Although you can wear shorts and a T-shirt for most of the site, there were temples where you were required to wear long pants or a skirt down to your knees, cover your shoulders and take off your hat. This is obviously a big ask for some Western tourists as the temperature was in the high-30s and the humidity at 90%. This is where wearing those cheap Thai pants or a sarong comes in handy.
Angkor Thom South Gate
The carvings told stories of great battles and everyday life. Incredibly, the remaining temple carvings and the account of a year living in Cambodia written by a Chinese diplomat are the only evidence historians have about what life was like there during the Khmer empire.
Terrace of the Leper King
Angkor Thom North Gate
Ta Prohm is our favourite temple. It’s been untouched by the restorers except for some structures to help hold up the temples and the trees. Ta Prohm is also where you can live out your childhood fantasies of being Indiana Jones.
Our tuk tuk driver
Banteay Srei: The women’s temple or pink temple
The temple of Banteay Srei is 30km from the other temples, and about an hour by tuktuk. So on our way to the temple, it was nice to see people and houses outside of touristy Siem Reap. One area seemed to specialise in baskets of all kinds, as you can see in the video below.
Banteay Srei is made form pink limestone. It looks like a pinky-orange.
Templed out yet?
It was nice, albeit hot and sweaty work, to revisit the temples of Angkor again after 20 years. Siem Reap has changed; Angkor Wat has not. It wasn’t as interesting for Elina even though Paul did do a history lesson with her about the Khmer Empire. After three days at Angkor Wat, we were also happy not to see another temple for awhile.
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