Tuomas: Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor
Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
This entry is about our stay in Siem Reap, the whole of it. If you just want the temples, skip to that headline, although I do blabber endlessly there too…
I'm not sure if it's dawned on the Finnish readers of this blog yet that all of the countries we've visited so far (and most of the ones we'll visit later) are on the travel show Madventures' first season… The mad adventures of Riku and Tunna have been an awesome inspiration for us and even though their first filmed RTW trip was already in 2001 to 2002, much of the information is still valid. It's a great show, especially the first season. One of the countries they visited was Cambodia with all of its grotesque history of colonialization and the later massacre of countless lives. But there was beauty there also, particularly so in the nearly millennia old temples of Angkor near the border to Thailand. We really wanted to see it for ourselves.
I covered the hard decision making process about which mode of transportation to take in the last post, but putting it short again, for us the choice was between taking a direct bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap, or flying. If other blogs and things on the internet can be believed, the land crossing can be daunting. It takes most of the day, costs at least over 50 USD (for round trip in direct bus) and you need to face all the hagglers, touts and cheating officials on the border. We opted for flying, and were glad. The flight was a little expensive at 130 euros per person (round trip), but it was quick also. They give you three forms to fill while in the air, we just managed to fill all of ours with the one pen we had, before they turned the "fasten your seatbelt" light on again. After landing we filled yet another form before entering the line for the visa. You need to pay 30 USD and have a passport sized photo with you as you enter, but the process was quick and painless. Then it was just a matter of getting to our hotel. What do you know, the free pickup we had asked for was there waiting for us, ready to take us to our reservation. As a side note, they have the best tuk tuks here (they're always different), normal moped attached in front of something that looks a little like a horse carriage and can easily fit four people or the two of us with our backpacks.
We had made reservations in Tom & Jerry Hostel ([email protected] or owner [email protected]), which had great reviews online. We liked it very much as well, the room was big, the bed was soft, and there was a fridge. All of this for 8 USD per night. Our room was fan cooled but it also had an air-conditioning unit on the wall so I'm guessing that for extra fee you could get the same room cooled down. Other great things about this place was that there was a restaurant (we didn't eat there) and a huge fridge in the lobby where they had soft drinks, beer and the cheapest water in town, 0,50 USD per 1,5 liter. Even supermarkets couldn't match that. They also advertise cable TVs and DVD players in all rooms, but apparently the cable was somehow broken so the TV reception was awful and our DVD player had a disc stuck inside it. Also, the small DVD selection they had consisted of mostly Bruce Lee movies and romantic comedies. We didn't come here to watch TV though, so none of this mattered one bit, it was a good place to stay, within a walking distance of the action of the city center and at a great value.
The temples are coming, trust me, but I'll cover some of what we learned of Siem Reap first. It's a party town, sleepy during the day, alive by night. The first time we got out after arriving, the very first tuk tuk we turned down offered us marijuana instead of a ride. That happened a lot. Booze is fairly cheap and can be found anywhere, all of the minimarts sell tons of different types and the bigger stores have huge selections from snake wine (rice wine with a poisonous snake stuffed inside the bottle), to actual wine, to Finlandia vodka! And yes, beer too, but it's cheaper in the restaurants, we had 0,50 USD draft beer pints on every dinner (stores sell 640ml for 1,55 USD). We found the best place to buy alcohol to be Ankor Market in the corner of the main Shivatha St and Oum Khun St, where our hotel was. It could have been the best place to buy anything else too, with two floors of merchandise angled towards tourists and expats. If there are cheaper local stores, we didn't find them. Somewhat similar stores are found in the Lucky Mall 200 meters north and Asia Market a little more towards the south. Angkor Minimart is found a little more south still, in the center of the action, and open 24/7. There are no 7 Elevens, these just look like them.
So there's booze and there are drugs. The Madventures mentioned the four G's of Cambodia: gambling, guns, ganja (marijuana) and girls. We found one Night Market street (there are at least four different night markets) close to Pub Street, running west, that had a bunch of people advertising massage. Mostly to male tourist traveling alone. We did a test: I walked about 20 meters before Sini and got harassed by herds of women aged 15 to 40 years, offering me "massage". They would surround me, grab my hand and pull on it, tell me about their air-conditioned rooms… and squeeze my nipple through my shirt. Walking with Sini, no-one cared to notice me or us.
Not quite so lovely…
A few fast facts: some research have shown that in the neighboring Thailand a shocking 10% of prostitutes are HIV positive. Also, there is rapidly increasing resistance for antimicrobial treatment in the bacteria that cause gonorrhea and chlamydia. If that doesn't make you think twice, you might want to have your head checked along with your burning nether regions.
Moving on, we found the best place to eat to be the street on the north side of the Old Market, just south of Pub street. They have three similar looking restaurants selling about the same food for about the same price. They didn't even seem to have cockroaches, which were abundant in one place where we had breakfast. Draft Cambodia beer is 0,50 USD in all of the three. We frequented in the middle one that had most mains for 2 to 3 USD, a side order of rice could be had with any dish for no extra cost. The Old Market was an interesting place to visit with shoes and clothing being sold on the same isle as the fish were being cleaned. There's just about anything to be bought there, from hammocks (they use them widely here) to jewelry, from clothes to toys, from fish to fruit, from frogs to maggots. Fried maggots… Yummy. Some say that in the future we'll all need to start getting our protein from insects for the sake of the environment. I'm OK with that as long as I know where the things come from. These I just suspected to come out of some steaming pile of dung somewhere…
Other culinary delights to be had are crocodile burgers and pizzas on Pub St, frog dishes nearly everywhere and the ubiquitous snake wine, to name a few. I had the frogs, skinned, gutted and grilled, but otherwise intact. Those critters have massive thigh muscles, there's some good eating in those. It tasted something like a mix between chicken and fish, not in any way bad… Once you get over the fact that after the frog-like muscles are gone, the remaining carcass looks like a tiny headless human… We didn't try the crocodile or the snake wine for a multitude of reasons. First is money, as always, the burgers and pizzas were 5 to 10 USD, the smallest snake wine (65ml) 4 USD. They sell stuffed crocodiles and clothes made of their skin everywhere in here. I'm not sure that's cool, or their export legal for that matter. Eating them might not be that much better. And the snakes in the rice wine are poisonous, though supposedly the alcohol denaturizes the poison to the point of being harmless. But they still kill the snake and stuff it in a bottle, mostly for decorative purposes. Also not cool. I'm no saint any more than I'm a vegetarian, I try to eat as little red meat as possible, but chickens die by the flocks to feed me. Still, unnecessary killing is unnecessary.
A word about the money they use here: it really is United States Dollars. They have their own money too, called Riel, 4000 of which make one USD. Prices in all the stores and restaurants are in dollars, but you can use either currency or both at the same time. You'll receive Riel as change for smaller purchases, they don't have US coins here, the smallest USD bill is one dollar. Supposedly Canadia Bank is the only one that doesn't charge extra for withdrawing currency. You can find two of their ATMs on the main street, right next to each other near the Asia Market, on the other side of the street. Be clever of what you withdraw though, try 180 USD instead of 200 in order to get some smaller bills instead of just two 100 USD bills. Bigger ones can only be used in large stores and when buying the tickets to Angkor.
I'm finally getting to the point! Of our visit at least, we didn't come for the four G's. People travel to Siem Reap to see the millennia old temples that dot the landscape here like nowhere else in the world. The Khmer civilization built massive stone temples to honor both Hindu and Buddhist gods and beliefs and many survive to this day to draw masses of tourists into their midst. The most famous one is Angkor Wat, the second the Tomb Raider temple, which really pisses me off. They shot a couple of scenes of Angelina Jolie in the jungle ridden Ta Prohm Temple and now the site is famous for mostly just that. It was a good game in the 90's, not that great of a movie in the 21st century, I'm guessing King Jayavarman VII didn't have the new naming in mind in 1186 when he commissioned it. Anyway, you need a ticket to see the temples, and there are a few types to choose from. The one day tickets cost 20 USD a piece, three day tickets go for 40 USD and one week ones for 60 USD. All are valid in all the temples, the three day tickets can be used on any three days during the time period of one week, the one week ones in one month. They are strictly personal, they take your photo and print it on the ticket.
The temples are spread out on a large area and even though we usually opt for walking, we wouldn't have liked to do that here. The most used option seems to be hiring a tuk tuk for a day, our hotel offered one for 15 USD. I'm not sure if you can hire a normal moped for the viewing, there's mixed information about that, but electric mopeds are fine. There are some bus tours too, but our favorite and hence clearly the best choice is to go by bicycle. We rented ours next to the Angkor Market for 2 USD per bicycle per day, we negotiated helmets to be a part of that deal (we had to leave 30 USD or a passport per bicycle as a deposit; we left dollars). They also gave us a lock and a free map. Another store on the same street closer to Tom & Jerry's had similar or better bicycles for just 1 USD per day, but they didn't have helmets. We seemed to be the only ones using them. I've seen a man's helmet crack in two from falling, I'm going to keep on using one no matter how stupid it looks. The bike prices here are all for worn out single-speeds with grandmother-type baskets in front. That is the type you want, trust me. The mountain bikes are more expensive at 4 USD per day, but you get nothing more out of them. The ground is completely flat, there might be an elevation difference of 30cm somewhere, but that's it. And you don't want to go fast, because it's so hot in there! If you can keep your speed as low as possible, you'll find yourself looking forward to the bike rides during the times you walk amongst the ruins. The strain is only minimal and the breeze is to die for. You also want to have the ridiculous basket in front of you, because that's where you'll store your water bottle (and action camera gear) during rides instead of your back. Remember to put the straps of your bag around the handle bars though, Cambodia is notorious for theft performed from the back of a passing moped.
We liked our bicycles, all of them. We bought the three day passes, but didn't want to rent bicycles for the whole time to save us from worrying about their safety during the nights. So we got new ones each day. Pick one yourself and test the brakes and the tire pressure before starting. There's no point testing the gears, you don't need them and they won't work. Try to find a saddle as big as possible, your butt will thank you. Going slowly it took us about half an hour to get from town to Angkor Wat, remember to take the right road (east of Sivatha St) north to stumble upon the ticket counter (as always in Asia, it is nowhere near to the place that you buy tickets for). Once you have the tickets you continue north a few more minutes, until you encounter a crossroad. The water in front of you is the moat of Angkor Wat, to reach the temple you need to go left (west).
The roads in the area create two circular routes through which one can visit the different temples. "The Small Circuit" shows off the big hitters of Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm (The Tomb Raider Temple…), among other smaller ones. "The Grand Circuit" takes you further north to Preah Khan, East Mebon and Pre Rup. Both pass by Banteay Kdei. I'm writing down all these weird names to tell you our favorites. We did the small circuit on the first day and the grand on the second, and liked this order. I'm guessing we avoided some of the crowds by seeing the main attractions on a Friday and the further ones on Saturday, weekdays could be less busy. Angkor Wat is large and well preserved, but not one of our favorites. A little to the north Phnom Bakheng is said to be a great place to see and photograph Angkor Wat during sunset, but it actually closes already at 17:30 (an hour early), the Wat is far away and it's a long climb up the hill. Further north (passing minor places) you enter the ancient city of Angkor Thom, of which only the large stone ruins remain. Bayon with the faces in the towers is great, one of our favorites. The Terrace of the Elephants and the adjoining Royal Palace area are good but consist of a whole lot of climbing steep stairs to get the best views. The small circuit continues towards east, past Ta Keo (under renovation), to mainly Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider!), where the large pale trees that have grown in amongst the ruins make for spectacular photo opportunities - If you can dodge the crowds, which you can't. It really is a cool place, but possibly the most crowded, at least as we were there. Other than that, it could have been our favorite. Next you'll come to Banteay Kdei, another spectacular, although a little smaller spot. There are ruins that have fallen apart or are going to, there are a couple of trees sprouting from walls, etc. One of our favorites, that one. We actually visited it only on the second day to leave something so be seen on the way back from the grand circuit. From there it's 12 kilometers to Siem Reap, we made it in about 50 minutes.
After the grand circuit has passed through the north gate of the city of Angkor Thom, you soon come to Preah Khan, which might win the title of the best ruin there, in our opinion. It's larger than Banteay Kdei, it has a lot of similar trees growing out of places as Ta Prohm and for the most part, it's really ruined! There are piles of stones everywhere where the ceilings have fallen down, the rubble blocks out many of the passages of the otherwise maze like compound. We enjoyed it very much. There weren't that many people either, though that can always be more about luck than anything else. Neak Poan is very small, we got more kicks out of the walk over the bridge through the swamp area than the actual site. Ta Som is similar to other places, fine, but not special in this setting. East Mebon is bigger but not more special, Pre Rup even bigger still and as such worth seeing from the top.
These are the main ones we saw, there are many more. We were out about eight hours on both days, so be sure to pack some sunscreen, snacks and a lot of water. Water can be bought from all the sites though, for 1 USD per 1,5 liters. Also, don't wear revealing clothing, the sites are still used for worship in a small degree and they won't let you in with shoulders or knees showing. On the first day Sini had to pull her skirt way down before walking to the ticket checkers. You also need to keep in mind that the temples are ruins, and while some are under renovation, none of them are in great shape. If you've visited the likes of the "Kama Sutra Temples" in India's Khajuraho, you might feel a little disappointed at first. There are carvings on the walls of Angkor Wat, hundreds of them, but they are chiseled on harder stone than sandstone and as such are less three dimensional and detailed. This doesn't, however, mean that they are any less magnificent. And it's an experience in its own right to travel between the sites and to "discover" the ruins hidden away by jungle.
Worth mentioning: All of the temples described above were to the north of Siem Reap, but there's also the Roluos Group to the east of the city. We saved them for last, which was a good idea. The bicycle ride is a lot less comfortable, following along the main road to Phnom Penh. It's longer too, it took us a whole hour to get to Preah Ko, 25 minutes of which was spent in the traffic of the city. The road to Preah Ko and Bakong is found about one kilometer after the milepost of 300 kilometers to Phnom Penh. There's a somewhat small sign. These sites are older than the other ones, which can be seen from the state of the buildings. Preah Ko is quite small and unspectacular, Bakong is larger but not as large as many of the more famous ones. We only spent about two hours here, some of it eating our snacks, before returning to the city. Lonely Planet recommends doing the Roluos Group on the first day, we would advise against this, especially if you're on a bicycle. The drive is long, tedious and probably more dangerous since you're driving next to cars going 90km/h. They have right side traffic here, but the very right side of the road seems to be reserved for the mopeds and bicycles that opt for going the wrong way for one reason or another. They do their best not to hit you though, unlike in India, where bicycling along a road like this would be nearly suicidal.
Wow, I just passed the magical point of over 4 pages! I write these first on Word to avioid mispeling (heh). Siem Reap was a great place to visit, there's a whole lot to keep you busy, we never even began to look into all of the gibbon treks, shooting ranges, museums, deactivated minefields… The temples of Angkor are spectacular and without a doubt should be on every traveler's bucket list. The tickets to the temples cost some, but otherwise it's cheap to stay there. There are crowds in the temples, but the sites are so large and spread out that you can almost certainly find your own secrets spots and favorites among the ruins. The night life of Siem Reap was lively, but not for us, but whoever you are, be it young, old, nerd or a hippy, you'll find something to see, something to do and more to experience.