October – November, 2014
Without a doubt and as the gateway to the Angkor Archaeological Park, Siem Reap is Cambodia’s mecca!
The Angkor Archaeological Park stretches over 400 square kilometres. The park includes wonderful forested areas containing impressive remains of several Khmer Empire (9th to the 15th centuries) capitals. This includes the largest pre-industrial city in the world. The most famous temples are Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Bayon.
In 1992, the park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. At the same time, the park was also placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, due to looting, a declining water table, and unsustainable tourism.
Decided to use the Neak Krorhorm Transportation Bus Company again as it wasn’t a bad company for the Ban Lung to Kâmpóng Cham leg, so this should be okay the next time right? Wrong!
Caught this bus on time from the company’s office in Kâmpóng Cham’s main street only to drive around the corner and wait half an hour before starting the journey again. This time, the 5-hour journey left a lot to be desired. A broken air-conditioner in the sweltering heat and the bus stopping at every possible stop along the road to drum up more business, made this leg a painfully slow and long journey.
Apart from motor bike tours, Wats, massages, festivals, cultural performances, cooking classes, and more, pretty much, the main reason every traveller visits Siem Reap is for Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.
Having visited the temples in 2004, I did notice changes this time around. Apart from the obvious price hike in the entry fee, the temples were much busier, even though it’s currently the low season. Actually, there seems to be much more tourism throughout the country’s main sites nowadays.
Visitors can still pretty much walk all over the ruins and touch anything as only some areas are fenced off or have walkways built. I find the fact that people need to touch monuments really annoying and feel like telling them to stop touching as it deteriorates the ruins, but who am I to do this?
There’s an abundance of construction/renovation pockets spattered throughout the sites, which is a pain. Especially, when you’re trying to photograph a temple and there’s a huge blue tarp, crane, or scaffolding in the way. The Cambodian government makes too much money from this region and unfortunately, does not limit or control the number of visiting tourists, which is taking an obvious toll on the temples. Perhaps, the government should be like the Peruvian government’s care of Machu Picchu; this site is closed for restoration one full month of each year and only up to 2,000 visitors are permitted to visit per day.
At the time of writing, there was also talk of Chinese 5-star hotels in the pipeline that are going to be built right at the Angkor Wat site, inside the park. This would be devastating! Imagine walking up to this site and seeing a massive ugly misplaced hotel next to a 9th-century ruin?
Visiting the Angkor Temples independently
In addition to many tours at varying prices, it’s easy to still visit the temples independently, which is great and you can do this by hiring a cycle, scooter, car, or a tuk-tuk. All roads lead to the Angkor Temples and you won’t get lost but if you cycle, remember that it’s very hot and you’ll be cycling 30+kms a day to take in all the main sights.
Decided to book a tuk-tuk (USD$15) from our hotel for the temples, which started at 8:30 and returned around 17:30-18:00. It’s a very long day in the heat and if you have a good driver, he will ensure that he takes you to temples in-between the hoards of tour buses. First, you’ll stop off at the ticket gate where your photo is snapped, you hand over USD$40 (for a 3-day pass, which is over a 7-day period); you’re handed your pass, and off you go. You can buy a 1-day, 3-day, or a weekly ticket – Cambodians enter for free. Remember to keep your pass on you at all times; otherwise, you won’t be let into some sites.
If you have time, I recommend doing the temples over 3 days but with a break day in-between, which helps against becoming ‘templed out’. Just remember, doing the temples this way you still won’t see every temple as there’s just too many. With so much to take in, it’s a shame to rush through and not give this region the time it deserves.
The temples will blow your mind; it’s documented that in 2013, over 2 million visitors saw Angkor Wat. This figure is growing by 20% each year. Having travelled through Cambodia twice now, the Angkor temples is really the main lure for me here, so see it before there’s nothing left!
The following is a brief example of our 3-days at the temples:
- First day – our tuk-tuk driver was late so decided to do the Small Tour Circuit then go back to Angkor for the sunset with thousands of other tourists; get there early. Had the following day off as a break.
- Second day – our same tuk-tuk driver from the first day took us around what is known as The Grand Tour Circuit. This takes in Angkor Wat, Bayon, Preah Khan, East Mebon, Pre Rup, Banteay Kdei, and Prasat Kravan. Had the following day off as another break.
- Third day – decided to go further afield to Lolei then the Roulos Group of temples – all wonderful but I did notice that Lolei was crumbling with stones strewn everywhere in the surrounding area. There is renovation going on here but it doesn’t seem fast enough as the ruins seem to be deteriorating faster than the renovations. Nothing happens quickly in Cambodia. Ventured back again for our last sunset at Angkor – it’s a remarkable structure and an ever-changing vista under each different light.
This is the main magnet to Siem Reap and the park; and definitely worth spending some hours here but over several days. As you probably know, this is definitely the grandest temple of all and the busiest!
As with almost every temple we visited over 3 full days (including Angkor Wat), Bayon had some sort of blue tarpaulin, crane, construction site, huge white sign, or something ugly/out-of-place at the site. I visited here in April 2004 and can remember a crane here and there but not in the same numbers as today.
As a photographer, it was extremely disappointing as these ‘added features’ ruined some of the best vantage points. No thought or time management whatsoever in restoration work.
I firmly believe that Cambodia should close all the Archaeological sites for a month of the year for restoration work, then pack all the construction work up, and re-open for business (similar to what occurs at Machu Picchu). However, this will never happen in Cambodia as the mighty dollar is more important than truly treasuring and preserving this amazing area – sustainable tourism doesn’t come into the equation. With over 2 million tourists each year to Angkor Wat, sadly, you can see why this money-churning machine will never be closed!
Gorgeous! Apart from the intrusive supporting frames, timber railing, and walkway, which can’t be helped (not there in 2004). This site is a must see site. Famous for the tree roots growing out of the ruins – you must have seen these iconic photos?
You can buy everything here – food, clothing, trinkets, souvenirs, jewellery, but also many gems. Be careful that you know what you’re looking at before buying as there are many cut glass substitutes. If you need any gems (Siem Reap is full of gems), venture to the Old Market, which has changed since 2004 – so much more organised now and mainly for tourists; and more expensive.
I did pick up a few gems at a good price at stall D1 whilst nervously leaving my silver pendant there to be replicated. On returning a few days later, I was delighted that the stall was still there but also that the pendant was replicated perfectly in silver and the workmanship was excellent! Not too expensive at USD$30.
As Cambodia’s destination hub, Siem Reap offers a plethora of restaurants serving Khmer and various global cuisines for every palate and budget. Don’t always go by the guide books either, just take a punt and try a restaurant for yourself. My golden rule is that if there are locals eating there, then it’s good enough for me. The local food is scrumptious in Cambodia, and for me, nearly on par with Thai food.
- The Blue Pumpkin (563, Mondul 1, Svay Dang Kum) – Although food and drink prices are on the high side, the pastries are excellent and not too expensive; good Coffee served. The fresh carrot juice is great but for the price, a little more quantity would be perfect! Clean place (especially toilets), good atmosphere, and free wi-fi. Good location to everything and opposite the markets.
- Sister Srey Café (200 Pokambor street, Riverside – old market area) – A couple of Australian ladies opened this great café. Lovely tasteful decor, atmosphere, and good music. Coffee is good but you must try the sweet potato wedges served with a tangy dip – divinely delicious! Average prices for this side of Siem Reap. The cause is brilliant…raising money for the under privileged and “at risk” children.
- Chomnor Siem Reap Restaurant – Delicious local food at reasonable prices – order from the menu or try the Set menu (entrée, main, and fruit) for US$7; the fish Amok is scrumlicious! This restaurant is busy with locals, especially families so you know it’s well-priced and serves up good food. Didn’t see many tourists at this restaurant, which is always a good sign.
- Golden TaKeo Guesthouse Restaurant – Dinner at the roof top restaurant is delicious and reasonably priced; everything is fresh. Great spot for watching a sunset or sunrise. There’s also a free fish spa tank in the rooftop area so try this out – bizarre feeling! Think one of these spas sets you back USD$3 in town.
Golden TaKeo Guesthouse (#123, Wat Bo Road, Wat Bo Village, Sankat salakamreuk) – Although booked on Agoda for 5 nights, stayed 7 nights (cheaper price for walk-ins). Excellent value-for-money in Cambodia especially as our room included a wonderful breakfast (coffee/tea, fresh fruit, and meal) and you can choose from an extensive menu list.
All of this Guest House is spotless. Ladies clean everything and anything, every day. Good-sized quiet room; comfy bed; AC; good hot shower; bottled water; toiletries; TV (didn’t turn on once in 8 days); good-sized clean bathroom, even a hair dryer is provided. Wi-fi is one of the best in Cambodia so far (travelling here for over two weeks). Great service from everyone and lovely genuine staff. Prom (owner) goes out of his way to assist with any of your questions. Prom even sent his tuk-tuk driver to buy our bus tickets for Battambang as it was late in the evening and we were starting early the next morning.
Hiring a tuk-tuk for a day to the temples from this Guest House is USD$15 (small circuit, large circuit, or to Roulos). Had a great stay here and felt at home; a great place to unwind after a long hot day at the temples.
Leaving Siem Reap
To break up the journey to Phnom Penh, decided the next stop would be Battambang. Also wanted to experience a cooking class in a quieter city than Siem Reap, so decided on Battambang. Not only because the price is cheaper than Siem Reap, but I believe the course delivery would be more traditional and personal.
The Siem Reap to Battambang Capitol Tour bus (USD$8) leaves at 09:30 – let’s hope so…