One of my goals for the beginning of 2017 was to explore more of Southeast Asia because even though I grew up in the Middle East and now spend half of my time in Asia, I haven’t been exploring it.
The two countries I wanted to visit this year were Myanmar and Cambodia. Initially, my plan was to solo-travel through Myanmar for two weeks and then meet my friend, Karla, and spend a week exploring Cambodia with her. But as travel plans can often change, I ended up spending a month in Dubai and had to scrap my plans for Myanmar. And, with the current government committing genocide against the Rohingya, it’s not a place I want to visit.
I’ll start off by saying a week in Cambodia gets you just a taste of the rich history, food, and culture that it has to offer. The country is only just starting to recover from the effects of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime, so in addition to being a developing country, imagine what it’s like having the country’s brightest minds and their families being mercilessly wiped out. The effects of the genocide are definitely something you need to keep in mind when visiting Cambodia, especially when it comes to where you choose to spend your money. There are some great non-profits and companies with CSR models in place that want to give back and help build Cambodia and her people back up again.
48 Hours in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Karla and I decided to start in Siem Reap and make our way to the coast and islands before heading to the capital, Phnom Penh. From our research on the activities and things we wanted to do, we decided 2-3 days would be enough time to get a feel of the city, and most importantly, explore Angkor Wat. Looking back, I would say a solid 3 days, or even 4 would be good especially because I felt a little rushed temple hopping (we only did one day).
GETTING TO SIEM REAP
Air Asia was the cheapest when it came to flights out of Bangalore to Siem Reap. On my way there, I stopped over in Kuala Lumpur airport and on my flight back, my layover was in Bangkok. It was my first time flying a budget airline internationally, and you basically get what you pay for (or don’t). On my way there a checked bag was not included in the price of my ticket and ended up costing me $80 to check-in, even though it weighed 7kg (which was the carry-on size limit…but they only let you in with one carry-on). But, on my way back the checked bag was free!
Cambodia offers a 30-day visa on arrival for a number of countries, which is what I chose to do. You can also apply for an e-visa online here on the official Government website. Siem Reap International Airport is very small but new and their visa on arrival counter is a well-oiled machine and goes very fast. I think I got my visa and went through immigration in less than 45 minutes.
A single entry visa is valid for 3 months with 30 days of stay and will cost you $30 + $6 processing fee (if you get it online). At the airport, you’ll need to pay in cash and transactions are made in US dollars. Make sure your passport is valid for more than six months at time of entry, and you have a recent passport-size photo. I also had my return ticket ready, in case they asked…but they didn’t.
GETTING AROUND SIEM REAP
Cambodia’s version of a tuk tuk is a motorcycle pulling an open-chariot which is how we primarily got around. Tuk Tuks are cheap and Siem Reap is small, so most rides won’t cost you more than $2. But you have to haggle because they tend to overcharge foreigners.
If you fly in to Siem Reap, there’s a metered taxi and tuk tuk booth that you see right after you collect your luggage. If you’re in a group then hiring a taxi/larger car makes sense. If not, then pre-paying for a tuk tuk, which cost me $9, is the way to go. It was a 30 minute ride from the airport into the city and the ride is beautiful. Compared to India the roads are way less hectic and people only use their car horns when they need to…which was a surprise!
WHERE TO STAY IN SIEM REAP
Like I said earlier, there are companies that are working to make Cambodia a better place for Cambodians. It was important for Karla and I to make sure our $ were being spent in a way that benefits Cambodians. That’s why we chose to stay at the Mad Monkey Hostel in Siem Reap (as well as in Koh Rong Samloem). The hostel is located right in the city center where all the action happens, making it very convenient. If you’re looking looking to meet a ton of people in a fun, party atmosphere, then staying here is the way to go.
Mad Monkey Hostels are located throughout Cambodia, the Philippines, and most recently, Thailand. And in addition to providing affordable accommodation that focuses on fun and partying, they also place importance on bettering the communities they’re in. The Mad Monkey Education fund helps disadvantaged children learn and the Mad Monkey Clean Water Project brings clean drinking water to rural families across Cambodia. They have some amazing programs, if you’re interested in knowing more, read this.
WHAT TO DO IN SIEM REAP
Angkor Wat Sunrise
Angkor Wat has been on mine and Karla’s travel bucket list for as long as we both can remember. We started off Day 1 of our Cambodian adventure by waking up at 4:00am and taking a tuk tuk out to the Angkor Wat temple complex in order to catch the sunrise.
If you know me you know that I never wake up that early for anything, so if you’re asking was it worth it? The answer is yes. Even with the hoards of tourists all waiting to get the money shot, I’d say it’s worth the wait. Watching the colors of the sky change and the bright, orange sun rise over a 12-century architectural masterpiece really made me feel the wonder of this place that we live on called Earth.
RECOMMENDED ANGKOR WAT SUNRISE TOURS
There are three ticket options for checking out the vast Angkor temple complex, the 1 day pass for $37, the 3 day pass for $62 or the 7 day pass for $72. The front desk at our hostel let us know that if we got our tickets at 5:00pm the evening before we wanted to explore, the 1 day pass would be good for the next day as well. We got to roam around Angkor Wat before sunset, and then spent the next day (after sunrise) seeing as many temples as we could before temple burnout occurred.
We ended up visiting Bayon aka temple of faces right after sunrise and felt a little intimidated by all the huge heads glaring down on us from every angle. I always wonder what people back in the day thought of these larger than life temples…were they afraid? Or in awe?
We were able to cover the following temples in a day and a half: Angkor Wat, Bayon, Banteay Srei, Ta Phrom, Pre Rup, and Preah Khan. If it wasn’t so hot and humid the day we were exploring, I probably would have been able to do a couple more.
One temple I’d highly highly recommend visiting is Banteay Srei. It’s about an hour away from the main temple complex but if you’re into art, it’s worth the detour. Meaning ‘Citadel of the Women’ it is said to have been built by a woman in the 10th century as the elaborate carvings are supposedly too fine for the hand of a man. The temple, made of hard pink sandstone, is a dedication to Shiva and has well-preserved carvings depicting scenes from the epic Ramayana.
RECOMMENDED TEMPLE HOPPING TOURS
Artisans D’Angkor is a Cambodian company focused on helping Cambodian youth finding work near their homes and have even developed their own training program to teach apprentices how to create traditional Khmer arts and crafts. A visit to their location in Siem Reap means you get to see how they’ve revived Cambodian craftsmanship – you get to tour the workshop and see how stone and wood is carved, ceramics are made, lacquering, and even silk painting.
Silk Farm Tour
Artisans D’Angkor also offers two free tours (at 9:30am and 1:30pm) of their Silk Farm that’s located 20 minutes from Siem Reap city center. The shuttle bus taking you to the farm is small – ours had only 10 people in it – and you meet at their Craft Workshop right next to Old Market.
The silk farm produces some of the best silk work in Cambodia and the tour goes into great detail of how the silk is produced – from cultivating the trees, through feeding the silk worms, various dyeing processes, and finally the intricate weaving of the silk. I’ve never appreciated handwoven items of clothing until seeing the women painstakingly at work to create scarves.
If there’s one thing you must do other than visiting the temples of Angkor in Siem Reap, it has to be getting tickets to Phare Circus (and, don’t worry, this is an all human circus, no animals present or harmed). The show is unlike anything I’ve seen before and includes a lot of theatre, story-telling, dance, acrobatics and much more. We saw Sokha which was an incredibly sad story about a child haunted by her memories of the Khmer Rouge and how art can provide a way to heal post-war victims.
The show was completely full even during our off-season visit, so I recommend getting your tickets in advance because they tend to sell out. We got Section B tickets and were able to see just fine. Plus, the theatre is pretty small so you’re guaranteed a good seat no matter what section you pick.
RECOMMENDED PHARE CIRCUS TICKETS (GET IN ADVANCE)
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK IN SIEM REAP
The Hive Siem Reap
The Hive, 631 Central Market Street, Behind Riviera Hotel., Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
I’m a sucker for a good speakeasy-themed bar with great cocktails, and always look for them during my travels. Miss Wong is definitely one of my favorites! While most people head to Pub Street (which is something you have to walk through, it’s kinda indescribable), if you’re looking for to get away from the crowds and noise, head to Miss Wong for some deliciously inexpensive but well-made cocktails. Oh, and dinner, too if you fancy!
Miss Wong, The-Lane, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Gelato Lab & Espresso Bar
We visited Cambodia during the month of May and it was rainy, hot, and terribly humid. Gelato Lab was my savior on a warm afternoon exploring Siem Reap – all their ingredients are organic and locally sourced and they have a number of unique flavors including a couple of vegan sorbets! The dragonfruit sorbet came highly recommended, and on a hot day, it did not disappoint!
Gelato Lab, Alley W, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Nest Restaurant & Bar
Located right down the street from the Mad Monkey Hostel, Nest is a great option if you’re looking to try some good quality Khmer food but don’t want to venture too far. The restaurant is Khmer owned and the staff are friendly and accommodating. I recommend trying the Fish Amok which turned out to be my favorite Khmer curry in Cambodia!
Nest Bar, Sivatha Blvd., Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
OTHER SIEM REAP CULINARY EXPERIENCES
Looking back on our trip, I wish we had spent a third day in Siem Reap and given ourselves more time to explore the temples and take a food tour of the city (there are some seriously good restaurants to dine at) or Khmer cooking class. But if you only have 2 days in to explore the city and temples, this guide is a great reference point for your trip.
Have you been to Siem Reap? What were some of the highlights from your trip? Let me know in the comments below!