Whether it was a certain moment in Lara Croft Tomb Raider, the game Uncharted, or a throw back to my university studies in south-east Asian history, I’ve wanted to see the ruins of Angkor Wat for a long time.
If your impressions of Cambodia have been formulated by years of bad news stories, especially about the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot or the civil war, it is time for a reboot. If you like the feel of south-east Asia, and are a bit curious about some of its glorious history, Cambodia is a nice change to the modernity and commercialism of other parts of the region.
Wedged between Vietnam and Thailand, with Laos to its north, and lying on ancient inland trading routes between China and India, modern Cambodia represents a mere echo of its former significance as a regional hub of commerce. As a foreign tourist, the impression is something of a less developed Vietnam, a friendly yet more conservative Thailand.
Just in time to celebrate my birthday, I organized a 5-day trip to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, taking in 1.5 days of roaming the ruins of Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples.
While an interesting itinerary might be to enter via the Thai border, take a bus to Siem Reap, and then head south to Phnom Penh, followed by a trip to Sihanoukville, I had to keep my schedule short and focus on Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Many tourists seem to even skip Phnom Penh, instead focusing on the ruins around Angkor Wat itself.
I designed an itinerary based on information in the 2008 edition of The Rough Guide to Cambodia. Generally, prices seemed to be US$2-3 more expensive than those quoted in the book. But with fairly volatile inflation (as high as 20% in 2009, around 4% in 2011), it is no surprise prices have risen recently.
Cambodia runs on US dollars as well as the local Riel. US$1 has the equivalent value of 4000 riel. As Cambodia doesn’t use coins, you can use riel to pay for amounts less than $1. For example, something that cost $1.50 would be paid using $1 and 2000 riel.
TIP: Bring lots of small denominations of NEW notes, such as $1, $5 and $10. Reject anyone who hands you damaged bills. Many shops will not accept torn or even badly worn currency.
Siem Reap, so close to Angkor Wat, is a far more tourist-friendly city than Phnom Penh. The Pub Street and shops around the old market make it a great place to finish for the day. A huge selection of things to eat, drink and buy are tightly located in an easy walk of each other.
Places in Phnom Penh are a bit more spread out, though relatively easy to walk to, with the landscape being flat and many of the streets wide enough for pedestrians to walk without competing with traffic. Covering further distances by tuk tuk is another convenient and inexpensive way of feeling the local atmosphere without too much effort.
Here is my 5-day travel itinerary:
12:30 pm arrival at Phnom Penh international airport. $9 taxi ride to The 240 guesthouse on 240 Street. Organized my mini-van bus trip to Siem Reap for the next day: cost $11 with pick up from guesthouse by the Seila Angkor Khmer Express Co Ltd. Delicious organic and French style lunch at the guesthouse $6. Self-guided afternoon tour of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, entry $6.25.
Stroll along 240 Street and a drink at The Shop cafe ($1.5-3). Bought some delicious pastries for around $1 each. Back to the guesthouse for a rest before heading toward the Tolne Sap river for dinner. Based on a recommendation at the guesthouse, found the NGO-run project restaurant called Friends, which is teaching eager street kids the skills needed to run a restaurant. Excellent Khmer and French tapas dishes for about $4-6 each.
Breakfast included with accommodation. Cost: $45 per night for a double room. Mini-van pick up at 8 am. Returned to Seila Angkor Khmer Express company head office waiting for other passengers. Started out at 9 am on our way to Siem Reap. 30 min lunch time stop (possibly at Kompong Thom). Arrived at Siem Reap about 2 pm. $2 Tuk tuk ride to Sofitel Angkor. (Rooms $130-170 per night, breakfast included).
4 pm pick up by friendly and punctual tuk tuk driver and guide Sopheara Pheav ($35 for 2.5 days of reliable service and English explanations). A visit to a local memorial for victims of the Khmer Rouge’s mass murders. Followed by a stop to buy a 1-day Angkor pass for the next day’s tour of the ruins: cost $20. Hike up to Phnom Bakheng to join the throngs for a few photos and catch the hill-top views before sunset.
7 pm buffet dinner and Apsara dance performance ($12). 8:30 pm ride to Pub Street for drinks at the nearby Linga bar. Back home to the hotel at 11 pm.
Breakfast buffet at Sofitel. 8 am pick-up by Sopheara. Visit to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom including exploring the eerie multi-faced Bayon. Lunch near Preah Pithu for $6, including a drink. Wandering through the Terrace of the Leper King and The Terrace of the Elephants. Afternoon exploring of Ta Prohm, the jungle covered Buddhist monastery made famous by Tomb Raider.
Ride back into town for dinner at Pub Street. Very nice Khmer dinner at Amok Restaurant for two people $21. Back to the Sofitel for an early night.
Simple breakfast of different types of bread bought the night before at the Blue Pumpkin bakery near Pub Street. Morning swim in the pool, followed by an easy lunch of sandwiches, salad and pizza on the hotel terrace (about $5-7 each). Late check out at 2 pm, with tuk tuk driver Sopheara taking us to Bodia Spa near the old market area for an oil massage: $38 per person for 1.5 hours.
Tuk tuk trip to the Siem Reap domestic airport for a connecting flight to Phnom Penh ($112 per person, including taxes, one way). Back in Phnom Penh, $7 for tuk tuk trip from the airport to the Blue Lime guesthouse ($50 per night for large room and breakfast for 2.) Night stroll on foot, with dinner at the French restaurant le Pistou ($9-12 for a main).
Refreshing breakfast of muesli and a fruit platter, coffee and juice at the Blue Lime, sitting around their backyard pool. Visit to the National Museum of Cambodia ($3), for a view of their collection of stone sculptures, relics, and internal gardens. 11 am check out of the Blue Lime for a booked taxi ride to the airport ($10).
Here are some ideas that would have made the trip even better than it was:
- Add 1-2 more days to the Siem Reap section of the trip to see some of the less-visited ruins or check out Tonle Sap Lake. Also, have a drink at the Foreign Correspondents Club.
- Add half a day to allow for a bus trip back to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap. The bus ride is an easy way to check out parts of the countryside in relative comfort. It also saves the expense of the domestic airfare for what is only a 40 minute flight.
- Add 1 day for more time to explore Phnom Penh, including a visit to the Genocide Museum and to wander the streets near Wat Phnom.
PS: On returning home, I rented Tomb Raider again just to see how the movie and the reality differed. As you’d expect, the movie took a lot of license with various elements, amalgamating the most famous sights into one big location. What took 1.5 days of driving and walking was condensed into a parachute drop and a quick jeep ride. But it was cool to see how the movie had incorporated the faces of Bayon and the statues of monkeys, elephants, and garudas into their storyline.