Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Siem Reap, Cambodia - Trip Report

Anyone flicking through my passport would notice the many Cambodia visas in it and be forgiven for thinking that it's one of my favourite countries to visit. In actual fact, the reality is that, yes, I have visited Cambodia many times, but on each occasion I've barely crossed the border before doing a 180 and heading straight back in the opposite direction.

All of my previous "visits" to Cambodia were border runs due to my Thailand visa expiring. Recently I decided that for all the times I'd officially visited Cambodia I should actually go there properly and see some of the country. I'd heard a lot of good things from other travellers about temple ruins near Siem Reap. It simply had to be better than my only previous experience of the country, the sketchy border town of Poi Pet, so off I went.

Getting There

There are direct flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap that only take an hour. However, Bangkok Airways has a monopoly on that route and that's reflected in the price. A return ticket would have cost me $545 USD (£339 GBP) for the dates that I wanted to go. So instead I travelled by bus. A lengthy nine hour journey each way but at total cost of only $25 (£15.56) return.

(Update 01/01/15 - The monopoly on the flight route no longer exists and you can travel for around $165 return with Cambodia Angkor Air or $240 with Bangkok Airways).

(When I mention prices of stuff in this blog post it'll all be in US Dollars. Even though the official currency of Cambodia is the Riel, it's barely used for anything other than small change transactions. For everything else it's USD.)

Some people in Europe or North America will spend over a thousand bucks on transport to take a vacation to Cambodia. I'm extremely thankful that by living in Bangkok I have the opportunity to visit truly awesome places like this for chump change. It's something that I should take advantage of more often and it's pretty shameful that it's taken me almost 2 years to take make a proper visit to Cambodia.

During my journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap I managed to fade the many, many scams at  and around the Poi Pet border, because I knew about all of them already.

Cambodian Immigration Police did try to rob me with their standard scam of asking for 1000 Thai Baht for the Cambodian visa. A Cambodian visa doesn't cost 1000 Thai Baht. It costs $20 USD. So why do they ask for 1000 Baht? Well at the current exchange rate 1000 Baht is $33 USD, with that $13 difference going straight into the policeman's pocket.

I pulled out a crisp $20 bill and handed it to the bloke. He immediately snapped "OK, you pay us 300 Baht more!". No mention of what this 300 Baht charge was for or anything, just blatantly asking me to pay him a bribe to do his job, the bastard. I just looked him in the eyes and calmly and confidently said "No, I won't", making it clear that I knew the process and wasn't going to get scammed. He didn't say another word, just took the $20 and I had my stamped and signed visa a minute later.

I can only imagine how much money these scumbags make out of that scam each day from all the inexperienced travellers and people who turn up without any USD on them. For most travellers entering the country through the Poi Pet border, their first experience of meeting a Cambodian will be getting mugged by a policeman before even fully crossing the border. The most successful scams involve the scammer obtaining the confidence and trust of his mark. But hey, you can trust a uniformed policeman right? WRONG, welcome to Scambodia, where even the police try to rob you.

When people hear stories like that it'll no doubt discourage them from visiting Cambodia. Which is a shame, because the country could really use the revenue that tourism brings. However, for most people who are smart and do their research they can easily get through a trip to Cambodia without a scumbag separating them from their hard earned cash. So don't be discouraged, just be smart.

Hotel

I booked one of the top rated hotels on Trip Advisor called Wooden Angkor Hotel for only $30 (£18.67) per night including mineral water, breakfast and fast WiFi. And that wasn't their cheapest room either. I've stayed at hotels in Europe and America where just the WiFi alone cost that amount.

Even cheaper options are available in Siem Reap with hostels and guest house rooms from around $2-$5 per night. I've still never stayed in a hostel in my life though. I figure that if the place I stay at when travelling is below the standard of comfort that I'm used to at home, I'd rather just not travel. Anyway, you'd have to be a right cheap bastard to stay in a hostel when you can get a nice hotel room for 30 bucks per night.

I really enjoyed my stay at Wooden Angkor. The staff were genuinely friendly and helpful. Not like the fake-friendly, fake-helpful staff you get in countries that have a tipping culture. Whenever I returned to the hotel there would be a member of staff at the entrance who would welcome me back and hand me a cold towel. In addition, there was always an endless supply of water, tea, coffee and fresh local fruit for free in the lobby.

Many of the Trip Advisor reviews stated that the hotel was extremely trustworthy and would book tours, transport, provide guests with honest taxi drivers and guides or whatever you need without colluding with the service provider to charge you a high price. In a region where so many people are looking to scam or overcharge the tourists this was the main selling point for me. It made my trip all the more relaxing knowing that I could trust the hotel staff and I didn't have to worry getting screwed over or have the hassle of negotiating to get the fair price for whatever I wanted.



I've stayed in hotels before that offer massages in the hotel spa, and occasionally in your own room. I've never used their service due to the price being around three times more expensive than going to a massage shop outside of the hotel. It's usually just another way to overcharge stupid tourists who don't know the fair market price for the service or who are rich enough to pay tons extra for the convenience of not having to walk down the street.

This hotel had a deal with one of the local massage shops to provide massages in your hotel room at the standard market rate in Siem Reap, starting at $6 (£3.74) for a one hour Khmer Massage. Result!



Day 1

After leaving Bangkok early in the morning I was settled into my hotel in Siem Reap before 3pm, so still had half the day free to explore and get a feel for the place.

I thought the hotel was going to be in the town centre but it turned out it was on a quiet street five minutes walk away from the action. This turned out to be a good thing as I didn't like the town at all.

The town of Siem Reap has been completely built around tourism. It seems like every business is either a hotel, guest house, spa, bar or restaurant. Almost all of the Cambodians living and working there come from other areas of the country and go to Siem Reap to work.

Where there are loads of tourists in a concentrated area there seems to be an equal number of people trying to separate them from their cash. It's impossible to walk down the street in the centre of Siem Reap without being constantly hassled by touts and tuk-tuk drivers. Nightmare.

"tuk-tuk sir?"
"where are you going?"
"tomorrow where you go?"
"you want tour guide?"
"you want hashish?"
"want massage?"
"what you want?"
"what you look for?"

STFU!

I'm not sure why anyone would entertain these guys with their unsolicited offers of services. If I want or need something, I go get it myself. Similar to my motto for getting a taxi - "I chose the taxi, the taxi doesn't chose me". I simply don't trust anyone that is standing in street harassing tourists.

I checked out the "old market", expecting it to be a market for locals and something I would be interested in seeing. Instead, most of the stalls were selling a load of old tat aimed at tourists like fake leather wallets and T-shirts with unfunny slogans printed on them. Loada crap.

Fortunately my plans for the trip to Siem Reap were to visit the temple ruins and the floating village, so I had no real need to visit the town centre again and was very pleased that my hotel was in a more quiet location.

When I got back to the hotel I asked them to send a massage girl to my room. 15 minutes later a cute 19yr old Khmer girl knocks on my door. Happy days.

My hotel room had two queen-sized beds, rather than the one king size bed that I wanted. That turned out to be ideal as I used one as my sleeping bed and one as my massage bed. Otherwise, I wouldn't have wanted an oil massage on the bed I was going to be sleeping in.

The girl, Lea-something her name was, gave a great massage and was really friendly. I was asking her questions about her life and she handed me her mobile phone so that I could flick through her gallery of photos. Her house was a wooden shack, with a cow tied to it and some chickens running around. A fairly standard Cambodian home.

She and her family were obviously poor, as most are by western standards. Still, I couldn't help but laugh at the fact that I was viewings all of these photos of her family, sitting in a house made of twigs, on a nice Samsung smartphone. Hardly the latest model mind you, but still funny that even in one of the world's poorest countries teenage girls simply have to have a cool cellphone.

After the massage I had an early night, getting to sleep very quickly in my relaxed state. Having the massage in my own hotel room rather than having to walk anywhere afterwards was fantastic in that respect.

Day 2

I hired a private licensed tour guide, driver and air conditioned car for 3 full days. The total cost including fuel and unlimited bottles of cold mineral water was $160. Seems like a good deal to me!

I could have done the tour even cheaper as hiring a tuk-tuk and driver for a full day only costs $14, However only licensed tour guides are allowed to accompany tourists into the temple sites, so going without one would have been pretty boring. I knew very little about the temples and needed an expert to show me around and tell me all the stories.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the main draw for all the tourists staying in Siem Reap, so I woke up very early in the morning to try to beat the hoard of visitors. It's the ruins of a Hindu temple built in the 12th century and is the largest religious building in the world.

If you know me, you know I don't care much for religion. But this is history, fascinating history. I very much enjoyed imagining what life would have been like in that very place a thousand years earlier and how the hell they managed to build such a grand building with basic tools.

Angkor Thom

After a few hours at Angkor Wat I visited the rest of Angkor Thom (The great city of Angkor), which was the last capital of the Khmer Empire. It's a 9 km² area that used to be home to an estimated 80,000 - 150,000 people, by far the most populous city in the world at that time. In the 12th century the largest cities in Europe, including London, were home to less than 20,000 people.

Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider temple)

I ended the day with a visit just outside of Angkor Thom to Ta Prohm, otherwise known as the Tomb Raider temple as it was used as a location in the movie.

Ta Prohm hasn't been renovated so much, unlike the other temples. It's mostly been left as it was found. Huge trees are growing out of the temple ruins and it looks like it's being swallowed up by the jungle.

My good camera ran out of battery in the middle of my visit to Ta Prohm which pissed me off as I had to use my cellphone to take photos of some of the coolest parts of the temple. Not that I'm a great photographer or anything. I see other people's photos of the temples online and they look so much better than mine.

One problem I had was that the sky would always look bright white in my photos. I simply couldn't figure out how to stop that. Anyway, I will take some professional photography lessons soon as I think it would be a good investment for me.



Peace Cafe

After my trip around the temples I visited Peace Cafe. It's a non-profit vegetarian restaurant that gives 10% of profits to it's staff and the rest to support a yoga / meditation hut in the garden. There was even a room where you can chill and watch a movie and other stuff such as free Khmer language lessons.

I chose this place because I'm currently on a Raw Vegan diet, and they make fresh vegetable juices to order and nice big salads with a lot of fresh and varied local produce. It was also in a nice quiet area and very cheap, so it was absolutely ideal.

I ended the day with another fantastic in-room massage (how could I not at those prices?) and early night.


Day 3

Another early morning. This time to see some temples that were farther away. Most of the tourists come to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat but there are plenty more fascinating temple ruins to visit, and with far less tourist zombies getting in the way.

My guide was fluent in English but his pronunciation was sometimes difficult to understand. As we were driving through some village he pointed and said "Look sir, on the left, there's a paedophile."

"What the f...., a what, were?"

I looked out the window expecting to see Gary Glitter holding hands with some little Cambodian girl. Instead there was nothing. The guide said "right there, a paedophile!!!"

"WHAAAAT?"

"that there, it's a paddy field" he pointed.

"Ahhhh, a PADDY FIELD, ok I understand now."

Not that I can really say anything bad about other people's pronunciation of the English language. When my guide was asking me what I did the previous evening I told him I had a massage girl sent to my hotel room. He asked how much it cost and I told him "It was eighteen dollars for a 2 hour aroma oil massage, but you can get a 1 hour Khmer massage in your room for six!"

"Wow, REALLY?" he asked, with shock and surprise.

I told him "yeah, but that's standard here, right?"

"No sir, no, not standard in Siem Reap" he replied.

I though that was weird because I'd seen a gazillion massage places in town and they were all around that price. Then he randomly burst out laughing. He explained that he thought I said "massage in your room for sex", rather than six (dollars).

With dry wit I looked at him and asked "yeah, but isn't that standard here too?"

Bantaey Srei

The first temple I visited that day was Bantaey Srei. A much older temple than those in and around Angkor Thom. It was built way back in the 10th century.

It was created out of pink sandstone and has extremely intricate carvings all over it. The level of detail is amazing, much more detailed than Angkor Wat. It was well worth the hour long drive to go see it.

Again the guide was great, taking me through the best route to see the temple, telling me the stories that the carvings represent and showing me the best spots to take photos from.

East Mebon

Another 10th century temple. This one was built on a man-made island but the whole area is dry now.

What I loved about East Mebon were the huge elephant statues in each corner. Elephants are awesome and I had to have my photo taken with them, so having a guide with me proved handy again as I made him my photographer.

Ta Som

Ta Som was built in the same era as Angkor Wat in the 12th century. A much smaller temple that the Khmer king dedicated to his father.

It's similar to the Tomb Raider temple in that there are all sorts of trees growing out of it and it's been left in that state rather than restored. The main entrance door has a huge tree growing from it and looks incredible. Check it out in my photo album below.

Preah Khan

Another largely unrestored 12th century temple with vegetation growing from it. All the heads of the statues lining the entrance way have been cut off. That seems to be common amongst these temples.

My guide told me that Cambodia has been invaded many times in the past and enemies have destroyed or stolen from these sites in that manor.



Day 4

Roluos

On my last day I visited the old town of Roluous which was built back in the 9th century and home to some of the earliest permanent structures built by the Khmers.

These temples were quite smaller but worth visiting for how old they were. Over 1100 years old and still standing there.



Kampong Phluk (Floating Village)

I enjoyed the temples but wanted to do something completely different for the rest of my last day in Cambodia so we went to visit Kampong Phluk, a floating village in the middle of the great Tonie Sap river.

Again, this was another time I was grateful for having a trustworthy tour guide. I read about a different "floating village" which is a bunch of boats, not houses, called Chong Kneas that a lot of the scammers take tourists to to scam them. This thread on the Lonely Planet forum details a hilarious account of some tourists being pressured in to buying boxes of noodles for $25! for the local school kids. LOL..

It was a long drive and then a 1 hour boat ride to get to the village but it was well worth it. What an incredible place. 3000 people living in houses built on massive stilts, miles away from any land.

People went to live there decades ago when there was a lot of trouble in Cambodia and there's been a community there ever since. There are business, schools and churches, a whole functioning community. It's fascinating to observe all the goings on while cruising through their village.

I was concerned that this community was being exploited. It can't be so pleasant to have a constant stream of tourists floating past their homes taking photos of them as if it's some sort of zoo or safari with humans instead of animals.

I put that point to my guide but he completely dismissed it, saying "these tourists bring so much money to the community, so how could they think like that?". Personally I would doubt very much that all the revenue from these boat trips are distributed equally amongst the community. More like the lion's share of it ends up in the greedy hands of one fat bastard.

Anyway, the people did seem quite friendly for the most part. Most of the kids would wave and seemed to enjoy the visitors. Just a few of the adults seemed less than impressed.



Ox Cart

When we were on our way to the floating village we drove past a guy with an Ox Cart that looked like it was for tourists. I told my guide I wanted a ride on that so we went there on the way back.

I got a ride for half an hour, in the blistering heat, through some rural village. Again, I felt a bit weird about cruising past people's gardens and taking photos of them and their living space, as if it was some sort of human zoo. Regardless, it was fun and interesting.

Apparently this wasn't such a poor village. Even though they are all living in wooden shacks, they do have electricity and I even seen a satellite dish on one of the shacks. Almost all the homes had produce growing and their own free range live stock, so these people are quite self sufficient. Even if they don't have much money they are able to live and feed themselves well.



Local Market

On the way back to the hotel my guide pointed out the local market, which is far away from the tourist area and is only used by locals. I asked him to stop and show me around the place.

I found it much more interesting that the stupid "old market" selling tourist tat in town. It seems pretty standard for them to leave meat lying around in the open air, no refrigeration. So if you take a trip to Siem Reap and you eat meat, make damn sure it's well cooked!



I went into town again for my last night. I was recommended to check out Pub Street for some good night life  They may as well rename it to Restaurant Street, because that'd be more appropriate. Wasn't feeling it at all so I just go a massage then went back to my hotel and got another massage. In total I had 10 hours of massage over 4 nights in Siem Reap.

My stay in Siem Reap was fairly short. I had planned for spending 5-6 days there, but I did everything that I wanted to do in 3 days. I look forward to visiting Cambodia again but next time I plan on visiting areas less affected by mass tourism. It seems like there's a lot more cool stuff to see in Cambodia and your money certainly goes a long way, if you are smart and do your research to avoid the scams.

3 comments:

  1. i wanna go to they temples and drop shit loads ov acid waaaaaaaa

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  2. Great trip report (as usual). Wanted to get over to Siem Reap when I was in Thailand but didn't quite make it there.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Bill.

      Everything I read about Siem Reap / Angkor Wat said to go there sooner rather than later, before the expected masses of tourists flood there.

      I think that point in time is already here to be honest. I wish I visited 2 years earlier.

      But still, getting up at the crack of dawn every day and visiting the most popular temples first was a good strategy to be able to wander round without so many other tourists ruining the experience.

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