Siem Reap is the Las Vegas of Southeast Asia. As opposed to quieter destinations in this part of the world, Siem Reap is all about neon lights, loud noise, and sensory overload. If the temples of Angkor Wat are on your list of must-see destinations, then this town is a necessary evil as there is no other place to stay. In today’s blog, I recount my tales and give you a few Siem Reap travel tips to help you navigate the chaos.
Siem Reap Travel Tips: Airlines, Documentation, and Arrival
I think the best part of arriving in Siem Reap is the spicy aroma you encounter once you step off the plane. Perhaps that’s just the scent of Southeast Asia, but this is what I miss most about my trip to Siem Reap. While this lure of mystery and adventure definitely carries over throughout your visit to Cambodia, the thrill is dampened a bit by all the noise and whirlwind action of motorbikes everywhere that hits you once you arrive in the city proper.
The Siem Reap airport itself is quite small, but beautiful. Because to so many visitors venture to the city to visit the Angkor Wat, the city is awash in tourist dollars and it shows in the elegance of the airport’s architecture. I traveled to Siem Reap via Singapore Airlines. I flew coach, and can’t recommend this airline enough: kind staff, good movie selection, and decent leg room. If you have any connections (and it took me nearly 48 hours and three connections — through Frankfurt, Singapore, and Da Nang — before I finally arrived), then I recommend only taking carry-on luggage. I had some tight connections in my itinerary, but knew I would be ok because all of my luggage was with me at all times. By the way, if you are flying through Singapore and have a long enough layover, make sure to take advantage of the free city tour. I had four hours to kill, and took the bus tour led by a crazy woman who helpfully pointed out some of the more odd aspects of Singaporean culture. Singapore seemed like a shiny, fake metropolis in the middle of the jungle. Four hours was enough for me though perhaps the city warrants another look.
In terms of documentation as a US citizen, you should get your e-visa online before you arrive. It takes all of an hour and is an easy form to fill out. When you arrive at the airport, you will have to get in one line in order to receive your visa, then get in another line to go through immigration and have your passport stamped. The entire process took at least an hour. The Cambodian immigration staff are not in a hurry.
If you have visited Southeast Asia, the prices you encounter in Siem Reap will be a shock to your system. Rich tourists (and government taxes) have driven up costs in Siem Reap to a shocking degree. As case in point, to get from the airport to the city you need to take one of the (very few) taxis available. While the prices listed online say from $10 to $20, I seem to remember paying $30 and that there was only one taxi company available. It took a while for the taxi service to sort out transporting all of us to our proper hotels, and the cost seemed exorbitant for the distance and service provided.
Siem Reap Travel Tips: Costs, Hotel, Food, Shopping
Nothing comes cheap in Siem Reap, at least by Southeast Asian standards. If you have traveled through Vietnam and Thailand, consider yourself spoiled by the prices there. In Siem Reap, the locals know that rich tourists are sitting ducks and are there for one reason, and one reason alone: to visit the Angkor Wat temples. The cost for everything from a simple meal, to a tuk tuk drive (really the only way to get around town), and especially for a hotel stay are expensive in comparison to the value provided.
I stayed at the ChengLay Guest House. The cost was $18 a night and it included a double bed, private bathroom, and air conditioning. That may sound like a great deal, but the hot water did not work for two days, and quite frankly, the bathrooms were never fully clean. In comparison to what $18 will buy you in Thailand, the ChengLay Guest House was not worth the money. Don’t stay here. My recommendation is that you pay at least $30 a night to get a decent hotel room.
The one selling point about the hotel is that it was centrally located to Pub Street, the main thoroughfare for tourists in Siem Reap. The hotel was located for enough away from Pub Street to avoid the noise but I was able to walk to restaurants, temples, and the old market. Most of the swankier tourist hotels are situated on Charles de Gaulle Boulevard. This location seemed isolated to me because there aren’t any non-tourist trap restaurants nearby. If you stay on Charles de Gaulle, you are basically on an island with other rich tourists. To reach the center of town from Charles de Gaulle you would need to take a tuk tuk or walk a far distance to get to the heart of the city.
Cambodian food is not my cup of tea. Amok, a fish (though it can be made with chicken or pork) curry dish, is the most popular local dish. I found that it was pretty tasteless, and the mushy texture wasn’t appealing. Again, I consider myself spoiled by Thai food. Cambodian food overall seemed similar to Thai food in terms of the description of the menu items, but without the superior taste and texture of Thai food. All of the restaurants seemed overpriced. Your better bet is to stick with street food, which is safe and cheap. In terms of alcohol, if you are looking for a crazy bar experience, then Pub Street is for you. Personally, I found the street to be like Times Square – filled with loud, ugly, drunk tourists who are the very thing I came to Asia to get away from. Take a walk down Pub Street to see what it’s like, but then search out the darker alleyways of Siem Reap to find a quiet drink.
As for shopping, I didn’t find anything in Siem Reap that that called to me. The city sells a lot of hand-dyed fabrics and “antiques” that you can find all throughout Southeast Asia. Nothing struck me as truly unique to the city, and I don’t feel like I missed anything on the retail front.
Siem Reap Travel Tips: Attractions and How Long to Stay
The highlight of my trip to Siem Reap, aside from the temples of course, was the local markets. I’ll have a separate post on what I saw there: the sights, the smells, and the women butchers. Other attractions I visited while in the city was the Cambodian Cultural Village (a hilariously authentic Cambodian amusement park of sorts), the miniature temples of Angkor Wat, and the main temple in the city, Wat Preah Prom Rath. I’ll have separate posts on the miniature temples and the Cambodian Cultural Village, but I will leave you with these photos from Wat Preah Prom Rath. Cambodian temples are similar in style and structure to Thai temples. Wat Preah Prom Rath, however, has these morbidly curious sculptures in the garden area that asks visitors to stop and ponder their fleeting mortality, or simply to ask WTF??? This temple is not to be missed, not just for the sculptures, but also because it is a working monastery. It was interesting to see the monks go about their daily business, not to mention take a gander at the construction skills of the local builders. (Yes, those are tree limbs holding up the second floor.)
I spent seven days total in Siem Reap, and I think this was the perfect amount of time. While there I bought a seven-day pass to see the Angkor Wat complex. A week in Siem Reap allowed me to visit all the temples at a somewhat leisurely pace on separate days and at separate times of the day in order to catch the best light for each temple. Bear in mind that I was visiting Siem Reap during the height of Chinese new year, so the area was chock-a-block with Asian tourists – something I hadn’t counted on when planning my trip. While I knew to avoid Vietnam during Tet (or the Vietnamese name for Chinese new year), I hadn’t counted on all the Chinese tourists visiting Angkor Wat. There were pros and cons to my timing, but I’ll give more details about that during my discussion of the temples. I will say that there was a palatable high energy level during my stay that was wonderful, and translated into some great street photography opportunities. I was ready to leave Siem Reap after seven days, but I don’t think I could have spent less time in the city in order to fully photograph the Angkor Wat temples. It takes time to drive to each temple, and the heat is exhausting. I visited Siem Reap February 14 to 21, and the heat was just beginning to build. I had days where it was over 95°, and humidity was sweltering. Just being upright was an exhausting experience with the heat, but it was worth it. With the exception of some outlying temples and the Kompong Phluk floating village (which I read was not worth the trip), I feel like I fully experienced the city of Siem Reap and photographed every aspect of the city.
Siem Reap Travel Tips: The People
The people of Siem Reap are kind and welcoming. Indeed, on my visit to the miniature replicas of the Angkor Wat temples, I stopped for an iced coffee and got to chatting with a woman from Battambang. She bought my coffee for me for no other reason than to be nice. There is, however, a real sense of desperation in the city. Because Siem Reap is such a mecca for wealthy tourists, you can feel how thirsty the vendors, and especially the tuk tuk drivers, are to separate you from your almighty dollars. In comparison with Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok, the Siem Reap tuk tuk drivers obnoxiously pestered you to hire them as a driver. Just accept the fact that this is life in Siem Reap. I recommend scheduling Cambodia as one of the first locations on your Southeast Asia trip. If I had to deal with the Siem Reap tuk tuk drivers at the end of my trip when I was tired of traveling and ready to go home, Siem Reap would have been a completely different experience. But because I started my trip here, I was tolerant of the cultural differences and more willing to look past the desperation in order to still have a good time.
One final note – and I’ll have more to say on this topic later – Siem Reap is not really a walkable town. You can walk within the main area of the city proper. Visiting the outside markets where the locals go or any of the Angkor Wat temple complex requires a driver, however. When I initially planned my trip, I thought I could walk from temple to temple. I did walk from Angkor Wat to Preah Khan on my first day, but I don’t recommend the trip. Research the going rate of a tuk tuk drive, and be ready to hold fast to your price. See if your hotel can recommend a driver. And if you find a good driver, stick with him the entire trip. One word of caution: I had a driver ask for money upfront to pay for gas to take me to the Preah Bakheng temple for sunrise. We went to the gas station, he bought a full tank of gas, and he did indeed take me to the temple. The arrangement was that he would be there when I came back from the temple and we would spend the day traveling. After climbing down from Preah Bakheng I found that my driver was nowhere to be found, and this was of course after I had paid him for a full tank of gas. Don’t pay your driver until the end of the trip and beware of scams. I felt completely safe throughout my visit to Siem Reap, but locals are looking to separate you from your money. Don’t get drunk and stupid and you should be fine.
Siem Reap Travel Tips: Photography
From a photographer’s perspective, Siem Reap is a fun town for street photography. Note that if you take photos of anyone selling anything special, like bugs or scorpions, then you should pay a token tip. Nothing comes for free in Siem Reap. Also, while you may be aiming for a glorious sunrise/sunset over the Angkor Wat temples, know that the air quality in the city is quite poor. While I was there the haze was constant, and I did not get a solid sunrise or sunset with distinct cloud formations the entire week. If any of your equipment breaks during your stay, there are camera stores in Siem Reap that cater to amateurs with expensive cameras. I didn’t have to deal with these businesses directly, but know that you will be paying an arm and a leg to get any of your equipment fixed. While I was there my hard drive stopped working, and I tried to purchase a new hard drive from a local computer store. The prices were high, and the brands were names I had never heard of. Also, no one takes American credit cards – cash only.
The temples of Angkor Wat are definitely worth a visit. But other than for Angkor Wat, would I travel again to Cambodia? My visit to Siem Reap didn’t really encourage me to further explore the country. As I understand it from other travelers, Phnom Penh has some great temples but is dangerous for tourists in certain spots, and the beaches of Krong Preah Sihanouk are fabulous. But that’s about it. Cambodia still has major infrastructure challenges. Personally, all of your thrills for jungle adventure and temple excursions would be better served by visiting Thailand or Myanmar. And of course, there is always Vietnam. But you’ll have to wait for that trip report.
Coming up in the next blog: tips for photographing Angkor Wat
Where: Siem Reap, Cambodia
When: February 14-21, 2018
Cambodian E-Visa: get this before you leave home if you are a US citizen
Airline: Singapore Airlines (recommended)
Hotel: ChengLay Guest House (not recommended)
- Angkor Wat temple complex: Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm, West Mebron Lake, Jayatataka, Srah Srang, Phnom Bakheng, Ta Nei, Preah Khan, Banteay Kdei
- Cambodian Cultural Village
- Temples: Wat Thmei, Wat Preah Ang Chek, Wat Preah Prom Rath
- Miniature replicas of Angkor Wat
- Markets: Psah Chas, Angkor Night Market, Siem Reap Art Center Market, Made in Cambodia Market, BB Angkor Market, Noon Night Market
Places I did NOT visit:
- I did not visit any outside temples such as Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, or Bang Mealea. Aside from the fact that these temples were perhaps less crowded, at the end of three days, all temples start to look alike and I didn’t find much motivation to make the $50, two-hour tuk tuk ride to get there. Judge for yourself.
- I also didn’t visit the Kompong Phluk floating village. Word on the internet is that the area has become a tourist trap with only a simple boat ride that costs $25+. February is not the best time to visit because of low water levels. Vietnam has more, and better floating village, so I decided to pass on a visit to Kompong Phluk.
- I didn’t take any classes or see any entertainment spectacles, such as the Phare Circus.. The apsara dancer performances seemed like cattle call parades for old tourists, and I had no desire to be part of that. Again, judge for yourself.
If you would like to view my travel portfolio, then please visit my website – www.Kelly-Williams.com