Can’t Miss Cambodia: Angkor Wat and Beyond

Can’t Miss Cambodia: Angkor Wat and Beyond

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Coming from Thailand, we almost made the mistake of overlooking Cambodia. Cambodia was our last stop before Vietnam, and Vietnam was a major milestone for us. Diem was born in Vietnam but had never been back since her family left the country when she was two. Vietnam would be comfortable because Diem spoke the language and we loved the food. We weren’t too sure of what to expect in Cambodia but we were happy that the official currency is the US dollar. Cambodia is probably best known for the beautiful Angkor Wat outside of Siem Reap. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Angkor region houses a number of Buddhist and Hindu temples. Most of the temples were built during the Khmer Empire which flourished in the region for over 600 years. However, Cambodia’s more recent history was much more turbulent.

Cambodia gained independence in 1953. The Vietnam War extended into the country with the US bombing of Cambodia from 1969 until 1973. Following the Cambodian coup of 1970, the deposed king gave his support to his former enemies, the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge, under the control of Pol Pot, emerged as a major power. The group took Phnom Penh in 1975 and later carried out the Cambodian Genocide from 1975 until 1979. The effects of the genocide are still prevalent throughout the country and we would see evidence of those travesties during our trip.

Our first stop in Cambodia though was Siem Reap to explore the Angkor region. Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer Empire and was a megacity supporting at least 0.1% of the global population during 1010-1220. We heard that it gets pretty hot visiting the temples so we tried to time our visit in the winter (early February) to avoid the heat. Unfortunately, when we arrived, it was still incredibly hot and humid for our weak San Diego bodies.

Diem fitting in at Banteay Kdei

Day 1 – Phuket - Siem Reap. After leaving early from Phuket, we got into Siem Reap around 8 AM. A tuk tuk driver from the hotel, Johnny, was waiting for us and dropped us off at our hotel, Lemongrass & Ginger. They let us check-in early and we took a nap. We lunch at the hotel and food was delicious! The food was reminiscent of Thai and Vietnamese food. After lunch, we decided that we liked our driver from the airport enough to book the hotel's half day tour of the temples around Angkor Thum. We had researched hiring a driver to take us around the temples or renting a bike and doing a self-guided tour. Since it was so hot out, we opted for the tuk-tuk. During our research, we read that tours usually run between $15-17 for the day. The hotel tour was $16 for a full day and the half-day tour was $10.  There are 2-3 major tour routes around the temples but we kind of did our own thing while still hitting some major spots recommended by our tour guide Johnny. Before our tour, we had to go to the Angkor ticket office to buy our passes. Three-day passes for the Angkor area are $62. Unfortunately, we just missed the cheaper tickets because on February 1st, 2017, prices went from $20/40/60 to $37/62/72 for the one, three, and seven day passes respectively.

 

Ta Prohm

For the half day tour Johnny took us to Banteay Kdei, the Sras Srang lake/pond, Ta Prohm, Ta Keo, and Angkor Thom (Bayon Temple). Each of these sites was amazing but the highlight was definitely Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm was prominently featured in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and it’s easy to see why. The combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor's most popular temples. Bayon Temple, with its giant heads is also definitely worth seeing.

After Bayon Temple, we went to Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset. We hiked up a hill around 3:30 PM because apparently they limit the number of people at the top to 300 hundred visitors. We waited for almost 2 hours to watch the sunset. We waited in the shade for a long time and it was very hot because the floor was still hot from the sun beaming down on it all day. The sun finally started going down around 5:30 PM. The view of the sunset was nice but it probably wasn’t worth the wait because it was hazy out and the sun didn’t set over a temple or anything too dramatic. After we went back to the hotel, showered up, got room service, and went to bed early because we were getting up for sunrise.

Having fun at Bayon Temple

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng, pretty nice but probably not worth the wait.

The morning crowd at Angkor Wat

Day 2 – Siem Reap. Today we booked the sunrise tour of Angkor Wat. We left at 5 AM and made our way with flashlights in the dark to get to the lake in front of the temple to watch the sunrise. Sunrise was scheduled for 6:30 AM and we got to the temple around 5:30 AM. There were lots of people there already and we didn’t get that good of a spot. It was probably unnecessary to wake up so early because we could have gotten there at 6:30 AM and gotten the same pictures. People started clearing out just after sunrise to go inside the temple. We got up close to the lake to take some pictures after people left and then went inside. I would say it is worth seeing at sunrise because the temple is gorgeous with the reflection of the lake. It’s also good to start the day early when it’s not so hot out. Once inside the front gate, we got in line a little before 7 AM to go up to the main temple of Angkor Wat. Security was pretty strict and wouldn’t let girls up with tank tops even if they had a scarf to cover their shoulders. They also won’t allow kids under 12. The people behind us had a daughter who was 11 and they wouldn’t let them in. At the top of the main temple is a spectacularly preserved array of statues and Hindu and Buddhist carvings. We stayed around and explored for about 45 minutes before heading back to Johnny.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Trying to get a clear picture at Banteay Srei, this tour group didn't seem to care

After Angkor Wat we went to Pre Rup temple for a quick stop then made the long drive (1 hr) to Banteay Srei. Banteay Srei is built largely of a hard red sandstone that can be carved like wood. We got there just after a big group of Chinese tourists came so it was a little crowded and hard to move around the complex. Banteay Srei had the most detailed and intricate carvings and the dark red color really made it stand out. The entire complex was a little smaller than the ones closer to town but it was really beautiful. After, we went to Kbal Spean which is an archeological site along a river that has a little waterfall and some carvings in the stone. It’s about a mile walk from the parking lot for Kbal Spean, it’s not too difficult of a hike but it was hot so it wasn’t very pleasant. We were hoping that we’d be able to get in the water and we saw some pictures where people were in a watering hole next to the waterfall. However, our guide told us there wouldn’t be much water this time of year and he was right. It wasn’t really worth it to drive all the way there and then hike, but maybe it’s better when there is more water. When we got back to our tuk tuk, we made our way back toward the city and went along the rest of the Grand Circuit tour. On the way back we stopped for lunch at Khmer Kheng recommended by our driver. The restaurant was pricier than what we would have liked but it was delicious. After lunch, we drove to Jayatataka and walked across the land road to the temple in the middle of the lake.

Our favorite spot of the day was probably Preah Khan. It had a beautiful temple and huge trees that went right up against the ruins. One of the tree trunks called elephant trunk because it comes down from the wall but not all the way to the ground. It is pretty similar to Ta Prohm but a lot less crowded. We took our time walking around this beautiful temple and after we went back to the hotel, showered up and took a nap. For dinner, we took a tuk tuk to the city and walked around downtown Siem Reap. Our first dinner choice, Khmer Grill, was full so we just picked a nearby restaurant. Dinner was decent and after we walked around the Night Market and Pub Street. Our guide Johnny picked us up and we went to bed.

Elephant trunk at Preah Khan

More pics around the temples of Angkor, can't get enough!

Day 3 – Siem Reap. After all the exploring we did the last couple days we decided to sleep in. We started the day at 1 PM with lunch at Khmer Grill, our first choice from the other night. The food was definitely better than what we had for dinner last night. Today, we didn’t have that many places to see so we headed east to Bakong Temple. The temple complex is outside the major tourist routes so our driver took us to several temples in that area. They were pretty standard temples and didn’t stand out compared to the temples we saw the last two days. It was another hot day but we wanted to get some more pictures of Angkor Wat so we asked our driver to take us back there. After taking some more pictures, we walked around for a bit but we wanted to get back to air conditioning. We headed back to the hotel, called it a day and ate dinner at the hotel.

Day 4 – Siem Reap – Battambang. Today we slept in again and had lunch at the hotel before we checked out. We got picked up by the Mekong Express Bus for our trip to Battambang at 1:30pm. The trip was a 4 hour drive to Battambang and we actually arrived earlier than expected. When we arrived there was a crowd of tuk tuk drivers waiting for us and we ended up just picking one to take us to our hotel (Angkor Comfort Hotel). The trip cost us $2 and we just checked in and walked to dinner at the About the World restaurant. After dinner we just went back to the hotel and chilled for the night.

Day 5 – Battambang. Battambang has a number of tourist attractions but we were only interested in seeing the bats. Every night at sunset, millions of bats leave their cave outside of Battambang and go out hunting for the night. There are a number of temples outside of the city but we were templed out after Siem Reap. The hotel tried to sell us on a Bamboo Train tour but it didn’t look too interested. Ultimately we decided to visit one of the temples along the way to the bat cave. Also, next to the bat cave we decided to visit Phnom Sampeu, a hill with the Killing Caves of the Khmer Rouge, a few others caves adorned with Buddhist statues, and a monastery with two Buddhist Stupas on the hilltop.

Temple on top of Phnom Sampeu

We started the day by having lunch at the Lonely Tree Cafe. After, we headed back to hotel for a bit before the start of the tour. Our tuk tuk picked us up at 3 PM and we headed north to Ek Phnom Temple. We actually wanted to go to Banan Temple but our tuk tuk driver said we started too late and we didn't have time to go there. We were quite bummed because Ek Phnom Temple was run down and not what we were hoping to see. Banan Temple would have been better. After, we headed to the Killing Caves. The ride was a little rough and really dusty but at least the wind kept us from getting too hot.

When we arrived, we walked up Phnom Sampeu hill and got lost a few times before finding the Killing Caves. Apparently, they were doing some renovations so there weren't many bones or remains like we expected. We also didn’t see any signs or exhibits explaining the history. It was just a musty cave that smelled of urine so we were a little disappointed, especially after the climb up. We left and headed down to the bat caves since the sun was starting to set. We ordered a cold coconut from a stall along the street and cooled off while we waited. The bats finally came streaming out of the caves at around 7pm. It was a glorious sight. There were millions of bats flying out of the caves in formation. I had previously seen the nightly bat exodus by the Sydney Opera House, which unfortunately no longer exists. However, these bats were smaller but there were so much more of them. You could hear them chirping and they actually changed direction at one point and flew directly above us.  We were scared we would get some bat guano on us so we decided to leave. We also wanted to beat the crowd out of there so we headed back to town where our driver dropped us off for dinner and walked back to hotel.

Day 6 - Battambang > Sihanoukville via Phnom Penh. The Mekong Express bus picked us up at our hotel around 7:30 AM to take us to the beach town of Sihanoukville. Our bus actually had to stop in Phnom Penh for a transfer around 12:30 PM. We had a quick lunch of instant noodles and coffee while we replied to emails and checked the internet. We got back on bus around 1:30 PM picking up other guests on our way to Sihanoukville. The bus didn’t arrive in Sihanoukville until around 8 PM.  After we checked in at the hotel, we ate dinner at Nyam and called it a night.

Sihanoukville claims to have the most beautiful bays, not so much

Day 7 – Sihanoukville. We came to Sihanoukville for two reasons: to relax at the beach and to get our visas for Vietnam. We had read that the visas could take a couple days so first thing in the morning we took a tuk tuk to the Vietnam consulate to get our visas. When we got to the consulate, we filled out paperwork and the officer told us we didn't need passport photos like we thought. The whole process took less than 5 mins and we were out of there. Since it was Saturday, pickup was scheduled for Monday after 4:30pm. We took the tuk tuk back to the hotel and had breakfast. Afterwards, we headed to the beach for a bit and then back to the pool to chill. The beach was decent but there wasn’t much shade so we didn’t stay too long. We bought a bottle of red wine from the mini mart across the street ($3.80 USD) and relaxed. For dinner, we ate at a restaurant next to the hotel. After, we had the hotel call a tour company and book us a day trip to 3 islands for the next day ($15 pp).

Our snorkeling spot for the day

Day 8 – Sihanoukville. The tour company picked us up at 8 AM. The shuttle drove us to a restaurant to have breakfast (included with the tour) which consisted of omelet, baguette, and coffee. It was simple but good and fresh. There were also some cute puppies walking around the restaurant so we played with them for a while. We waited around for other guests to show up and then walked to the pier to board our speedboat. Unfortunately, this was when Diem dropped her iPhone in the water. One of the staff kindly jumped in after it but we knew it was already dead. It was not the best way to start the tour but we tried to put it past us.

The tour took us to the first island to snorkel. The water was a really nice temperature but it wasn't very clear. Still, there were plenty of fish which were cool to see. The second island was a lot bigger and we actually got off the boat and chilled out at the beach. We made our way to a swing on the beach that looked like fun. We took a few pictures and then had lunch made by the crew (seared salmon, rice, and carrot salad with watermelon). The food was actually pretty good and we had another hour to relax on the beach. We found a couple of hammocks and rested until it was time to get back on the boat for the final island for more snorkeling and swimming. We got back to the hotel around 4 PM, freshened up at the hotel, and walked to the central market to try and find someone to fix the iPhone. Unfortunately, no one could fix it and we got one shop to actually open the phone and try to clean it but he told us the motherboard was dead. Heartbroken, we headed back to the hotel for dinner.

Day 9 – Sihanoukville. Today we were on a mission to get a replacement phone. We had breakfast at the hotel and tried to find out where to go for a replacement phone or if we could fix the motherboard. From the hotel, we walked towards the central market where all the cell phone shops were. We walked in to a number of shops and tried to bargain for a replacement but couldn't find one that was cheap enough or had enough memory for the price we wanted to pay. We ended up not buying any that day so we headed to the Vietnamese Consulate to pick up our passports. The consulate worker was really nice and had the passports ready for us right when we walked in. After the consulate we headed back to the hotel.

Day 10 – Sihanoukville > Phnom Penh. I went for a morning run and bought a used iPhone 5 16gb for $115 that we saw yesterday. We had breakfast, checked out, and then waited for the Mekong Express bus to pick us up at 1:00 PM. There was so much traffic that we arrived to Phnom Penh later than expected. To make it worse, the driver dropped us off at a different station than what was stated on our ticket so we had to pay extra for a tuk tuk to take us to our hotel. We finally checked in around 8 PM, checked in, and had dinner at the Khmer Thai restaurant around the corner.

The cells of the Tuol Sleng Prison. We didn't take pics so I borrowed this one.

Day 11 – Phnom Penh. We had a late start and walked to lunch at a Korean place down the street. Then we headed to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum ($3 usd pp entrance fee). The Museum chronicles the Cambodian genocide. The site is a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. Tuol Sleng was just one of at least 150 execution centers established by the Khmer Rouge. According to historian Ben Kiernan, "all but seven of the twenty thousand Tuol Sleng prisoners" were executed, which is crazy. We spent a couple hours there and it was a pretty sobering experience. The museum highlighted a lot of sad and horrifying stories about the treatment of prisoners and disturbing pictures of the victims. Later, we went back to our room and then had dinner at Fresh Pizza around the corner.

Day 12 – Phnom Penh > Ho Chi Minh. Our last day in Cambodia mainly consisted of travel. We woke up early and took a tuk tuk to the bus station to catch our 8:30 AM bus to Ho Chi Minh. It was a 3 hour ride before we stopped at the border for a break. We were given pastries at the beginning of the ride so we ate that for a light lunch and then bought some cold drinks during the break. Then, we crossed to the Cambodian side. We had to get off and get our passports stamped. Then we got off again to get our passports and run our bags through the scanner at the Vietnam side. It was a bit of a wait and one of the people on the bus forgot to get his Visa so they had to send him back because there is no visa on arrival if you crossing the border by land. Once we got back on, we continued on to Ho Chi Minh city.

Cambodia was one of those places on our trip that really blew me away. I’ll never forget exploring the temples of the Angkor region, the bats of Battambang, the sight of Diem dropping her phone into the ocean and the look on Diem’s face when it happened, lol. The food was much better than expected, the service at the hotels and on the tours was excellent, and everything was so cheap. Every trip to SE Asia should include Siem Reap and the Angkor area. It’s very accessible from Thailand, Vietnam, and pretty much any major city in the region, so no excuses!

See the full gallery of our time in Cambodia here: Best of Cambodia.

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Paul is a lawyer taking a mid-career break focused on capturing all his adventures during his yearlong honeymoon around the world.

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