I can’t believe it’s been a month since we’ve had a post around here! For my part, I’m gearing up for my crazy opulent, international first class flight on Cathay Pacific that I booked as an American Airlines award prior to the devaluation. For 67,500 miles (less a 10% rebate), I’m going to fly in…let’s just say ‘style.’ Of course, I’ll have trip reports for that and my return flight on Singapore Airlines (sadly, no suites), which I will be sharing with my friend Jacob.
In advance of the trip, I asked one of my friends who just got back from Cambodia for recommendations on what to do. The response I got was incredibly detailed, so I asked if I could share it with y’all and he agreed. So, without further ado:
4 Days in Siem Reap
Quick summary of high points before going into more detail:
- Watermelon juice is the shit.
- 3 nights was plenty.
- 1 day of temples was plenty.
- Angkor Wat, Ta Phrom, Bayon, and Banteay Srei are the temple ‘musts’.
- Try to arrive during daylight to ease into the city.
- Tuk tuks are cool but vary wildly, plan appropriately.
- A driver is worth the $30/day, Synon was awesome at firstname.lastname@example.org
- A licensed temple guide is worth the $30/day.
- Bring good hiking shoes/socks.
- Get a local SIM for $6 for 1.5GB data.
- Circus was pretty awesome, would recommend.
- Floating village was a weird tourist destination, wouldn’t recommend.
- Have at least 1 high quality meal ($12/person), curry chicken and amok fish.
- Think this is a given outside the US, but haggle, usually you can get about a 40% discount or more from sign/sticker/initial price.
- Their iced coffee is no joke.
- Try/bring home fresh palm candy.
- Seriously, why is watermelon juice not a thing in the US?
Overall I think 3 nights 4 days (2 really) was plenty of time, landed Saturday at 8 PM and left Tuesday at 10 AM. Honestly I wish we would have got in during daylight, as it’s a ‘softer’ introduction to REP and its a bit of a different experience if you haven’t been to a true 3rd world country.
I had arranged a driver for the time we were there, and through him a guide for our temple day. I originally found him on Flyertalk, where he’s highly recommended, and I also will say he was extremely friendly and personable, and highly recommend Synon. He drives a Lexus rx300, and always had cool mint towels and cold water on hand for us. He spoke good English, was knowledgeable, and we didn’t get the feeling he was actively working an angle (like all else in REP) outside of obviously trying to do as well as possible for further referrals. He can be reached at email@example.com or through WhatsApp at +855 98 921 280.
[My friend was adamant that I leave in Synon’s contact info; that’s how highly he recommends him]
Overall you could probably get by without a driver, but I wouldn’t recommend it as it was great to have a solid, trusted source for information and to arrange the ‘main’ things we did during the stay. It was just a great thing to not worry/think about and for the $30 or so a day he charged, well worth it. Total for Synon and the temple guide for our 4 day/3 night trip including airport transfer was $120, of this the temple guide standard rate is either $30 or $35, don’t recall which. Ended up giving Synon $150 total as it was well deserved.
Our experiences with tuk tuk drivers were wildly different during the time spent, as we took a few for impromptu outings, some were great, not pushy, and spoke reasonable English and knew their way around. Others were extremely pushy, shady on the price, only spoke basic English, or didn’t know their way around well. We later learned there’s no requirement to get a license or testing for motor bikes or tuk tuks, and it definitely showed for at least one of our rides. Also, traffic laws are essentially non-existent, so don’t be too surprised by what seems to be kind of crazy and very haphazard driving. Didn’t witness any accidents but could definitely see where they’d occur frequently.
The very tourist area is called Pub Street, overall the standard of what you expect, a ton of tuktuk drivers, tourist restaurants, shops, and massage places with people trying to usher you into their shop/restaurant/tuk tuk, also adjacent to one of the 3 main night markets. Keep in mind most of the souvenir type places have a soft closing starting at 10 and they’re all closed by 11, other than during the high season (Dec – Feb) they may be open til midnight.
First night we were picked up at the airport at approximately 8, got to the hotel rather quickly and checked in. Synon made sure to show us the way to walk and the general area to get back and forth to the night market and Pub Street. We went to a Khmer grill on pub street, where a propane grill is on your table and you/they cook your food as you want it, with 6 meat option and several sauces to choose from. Charged on a per person basis, although the guy at the front was willing to do 3 ppl for price of 2 to get us in, so total was a bit over $20 including a few 50 cent beers. Was a solid meal, nice to control portions and sample different fare. Other than that we wandered the night market and walked back to the hotel.
As far as the hotel, we stayed at the Petit Villa Boutique & Spa. I don’t know that I’d necessarily recommend it, but it didn’t look any worse than the other local, smaller boutique type places. I couldn’t justify the Park Hyatt given the price in comparison to the rest of the area, but to a degree I almost wish I would have. There again, I wouldn’t call it bad, but not great either, although it seemed as good if not slightly better than the other options in the price range, around $50 a night for 3 beds and included breakfast.
First day, had American breakfast at the hotel, which was eggs, piece of bacon, ‘sausage’ (like a fried hotdog in most Asian countries), bread, and a croissant. Also had watermelon juice and iced coffee. Honestly the favorites were the watermelon juice (had at least 6 over 3 days, new favorite that I wish the US would adopt), iced coffee (seriously strong stuff), and the fresh croissant.
Moved on from there and wandered the downtown area a bit more around Pub Street while my dad and brother went for a massage at the Comfort Spa, which was pricey at $20 an hour, then our driver picked us up for couple errands and lunch.
Definitely make sure your phone is unlocked prior to traveling and go get a local SIM card, think this is pretty much par for the course for international travel but it is well worth it to have reliable data while you’re here. Synon can bring you to a mobile shop (Smart mobile) in order to get one, where a rep will get you all squared away. It was kind of funny, as she saw my iPhone 7+ and got a bunch of her coworkers to come look and said how lucky she was. Most places have wifi, but it was seriously $6 and 15 minutes to get one for 1.5GB data, and was amazingly easy to use. Also has hotspot so others can connect.
On his recommendation, went to a great Khmer restaurant a little out of the way. Synon dropped us off and was just going to hang out in the car, as I think is the standard expectation, but we invited him for lunch and he almost seemed shocked. We had Amok fish, curry chicken, a salty Khmer dish I don’t recall the name of, shrimp, and a whole red fish. Awesome meal, but a bit on the pricier side for the area at $48. Favorite was probably the curry chicken, although the Amok was a close second.
From there, we ended up going to the floating village of Kompong Phluk. This involved a 40 minute or so drive out to the lake, $20 ticket, then an hour or more boat trip (driven by kids) down a canal to reach the village in a very cobbled together boat. I guess I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this, as it just seems very odd for a tourist ‘destination’, since it’s basically going and checking out the way some destitute people live on the large lake in Cambodia. It was a very humbling experience, as these people live their lives in these rough houses on the water. Children were at play and happy, which is great and amazing, but a bit hard seeing them play/drink/bathe in the same water that refuse goes in. There again, it was an experience and greatly puts things into perspective for how fortunate we are, but just an odd thing to be promoted and wouldn’t be high on my list.
Following this we went back to REP and had Synon take us to a shop for some Cambodian silk and silver. Main reason we didn’t go to the night market for this was that most wares we found were pretty poor quality, and found out later were mostly Chinese origin rather than made in Cambodia. We got some things for our wives back home (scarves, purses, earrings), don’t be afraid to haggle or walk away, as discount I got off ‘sticker’ was about 40% and I’m sure I could have pushed for more.
Following this, we went to the circus, which was a great experience. We had a quick dinner there before the show, which was a solid meal, then headed in before the 8 PM curtain. Make sure to arrange tickets beforehand (Synon can help), as there were maybe 4 or 5 empty seats in the place. I won’t go into much detail, as I don’t want to ruin the story, but it was a play/acrobatics rolled into one. Very moving and a bit dark at times, but it tells a bit of the history of Cambodia, which is both of those. They do have some light hearted moments and make sure to end on a great display of impressive acrobatics. What’s very impressive is the show is at the school of arts there, where orphaned or poor children attend and are trained in the arts. They also travel the world and perform all around. Great way to spend an evening in Siem Reap.
The next day we had a very early start, as we were hoping to see sunrise over Angkor Wat. On Synon’s suggestion, we asked the hotel to pack a breakfast for us, which was some cut up fruit, fresh croissants, and bottles of water. Honestly this was great and the exact right amount, as you definitely do not want a heavy meal. Synon picked us up from the hotel at 5 AM, and we drove only about 10 minutes to get a one day pass from the ticketing building, which has your picture and you have to show each time you enter a temple area.
Some general recommendations for the temples: get good hiking shoes and socks that fit well, seriously don’t skimp here as you’re gonna be walking a ton and that’s the last thing you want is hurt feet. We walked over 20,000 steps (10 miles) just going to the 4 temples and 8 hours we did. Personally went for some Columbia hiking shoes and Darn Tough socks. Other than that, don’t eat a big breakfast, bring a dry cloth to wipe your face, don’t bring an enormous water bottle as you have to lug the thing around or leave in the car, and try to take a minute to just absorb and enjoy it, don’t hide behind your camera the whole time.
Our day consisted of the 4 main temples, Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Banteay Srei, in that order. Banteay Srei is a bit further out, and Synon will charge an additional $10 to drive out there, but definitely worth it and was actually our favorite temple by far.
Here again, I wouldn’t call it strictly necessary to have a temple guide, but you would lose a ton of perspective without understanding the history behind the temples, carvings, and statues throughout. Honestly I can’t imagine how different and worse the experience would be without that additional knowledge and understanding of the historic significance and culture behind these amazing ruins.
We got to Angkor Wat at about 5:20, and walked through to the left corner reflecting pool, which is the recommended place to view. Tons of vendors here, and children as well, pushing very hard to get you to buy something or have breakfast. Some of the kids wouldn’t leave my brother alone, as he made the mistake of engaging with them rather than just ignoring them. It is not recommended to give the children money or buy something from them, since I guess it encourages them to not attend school.
Unfortunately it was too overcast to see the sunrise, so we headed inside Angkor Wat. I won’t go into a ton of detail on any of the temples, as it’s one of those things you really have to experience, and the guide will impart a ton of knowledge in regards to the history of each. Make sure to walk around the outside of Angkor Wat, as it’s a great thing to behold from some distance and outside the wall. Also a note, despite being kinda cute, the monkeys can be aggressive, don’t feed them.
From there we headed to the Angkor Thom complex, which enclosed many temples including Bayon and Ta Phrom. Bayon was probably my second favorite temple with the many faces and reliefs around the temple itself. Ta Phrom was actually built and dedicated to the King’s mother and Apsalar, and was very interesting to see the trees and roots wrapped through everything and the damage they did and continue to do to the stonework and temple itself. You’ll hear it many times, but this is where part of Tomb Raider was filmed with Angelina Jolie.
Final temple we visited was Banteay Srei, which was all of our favorites. Took about a 30 minute drive, but was well worth the time as the carvings here were the deepest and most intricate, and the coloring of the pink sandstone almost made them seem unreal, like wood carving rather than 1100 year old stone. Unfortunately they no longer allow tourists into the temple yard among the libraries and spires, guessing due to general destruction and deterioration.
On the way back from the temples, definitely stop along the road for palm candy, which is essentially pure sugar from the palm flowers harvested by locals. Wonderful way to support the local villagers, and it’s very tasty especially when fresh (they’ll even let you take a washed leaf into the vat they’re cooking, as fresh as it gets). Very cheap and there again, pure sugar and extremely addicting, I took back numerous jars for small gifts for office/family. Seems like it’d go great with coffee.
This was roughly 8 hours of templing overall, which honestly seemed plenty to me. Some people dedicate numerous days to checking out more temples and going to the further out ones, but I think the marginal value was low, as the main ones we saw were great and enough for us all. There again, air conditioning and the cool towels/water from Synon went a long way, but 10 miles of walking, 8 hours of constant sweating in 90 degree heat with 100% humidity was enough.
After our temple morning, we went for a late lunch at a restaurant Synon recommended, there again a bit pricey for the area ($50) but I think that’s what he thought we wanted, and it was very good. Pretty sure he took us to the most expensive places outside of maybe the restaurants in the 5 star hotels, but the food was great and was cheap in comparison to places at home for 4 people to eat a large meal.
Synon dropped us at the hotel and we all passed out for a solid 3 hour nap after a shower.
After the nap and feeling the temples, we decided to go get a massage. Went to a place just off Pub Street that was $10/hour, well worth it although they aren’t as good as a massage place in the US, they don’t really seem to know how to isolate muscles as well. Definitely don’t be shy about telling them the amount of pressure that’s okay, as the standard seems to be a lot, and I even like very firm pressure. Also, guys, don’t be surprised if they literally walk on you. Little 80 pound Asian girl was essentially doing gymnastics on me, and although it felt good it was a little off putting.
After the massage, I hit up a couple of the souvenir shops that were just starting to close up as it was around 10 PM. In general it’s cheap touristy stuff, but I got a couple pretty intricate wooden animal puzzles for my daughter/niece for $5 and a few shirts for $2, there again makes for very cheap souvenirs.
For dinner our last night, we went to a place called Famous Angkor that was in one of the alley ways parallel to Pub Street, kind of a local place that was cheap and still fairly good. Total tab was like $12 for smoothies, dinner, beer, and dessert for 3, definitely more of the standard price although I will say there was a ‘step’ in quality to the other places that were $50 for 4, probably better to do those just once rather than twice.
Following morning, had another breakfast at the hotel with the great watermelon juice, and Synon picked us up at 8:30 for our 10 am flight. We got through security and at the gate area by 9:15, definitely plenty of time to kill for our flight back to HKG.
This was a great trip unto itself, but wrap it up as a side trip with somewhere else in SE Asia, as 3 nights was enough in my book. This is definitely a bucket list item crossed off, and a wonderful life experience that I was happy to share with my dad/brother.