Tip #01 – Get a Reliable and Experienced Driver/Guide
As public transportation around the city and heritage sites are not very well developed, I can never overemphasise the importance of getting an experienced driver/guide as the no.1 tip for an enjoyable trip. There are no scheduled aircon buses nor electric trams that you can hop on and off, so the best ideal choice is a private driver. I have seen some intrepid travellers who rent bicycles or scooters to brave the sites at the ancient ruins. While tuk-tuk can be hired for the temple visit, the dust from the roads and stifling heat will erode enjoyment. As the cost is very reasonable, I would fully recommend a private driver in view of safety and convenience (and it keeps someone in a job too).
With our driver, Pan Na at the Angkor Wat just after sunrise. In Siem Reap, licensed tour guides usually pair up with a driver to serve their clients. As this is my 2nd visit, we make do with a driver from a registered company so that vehicle insurance and accountability matters are taken care of. I would caution any reader considering a self-drive vacation, to be mindful of the relatively chaotic traffic in Cambodia. There are very few traffic lights and vehicular flow is generally “self-governing” like a river that flows continuously. Lots of streets are not tarmacked and plenty of roads undergoing repair. In short, Siem Reap roads are not for the faint-hearted.
Our ride for the trip- the Lexus RX300, is a very popular vehicle used by many private transportation companies in Siem Reap. A car booking typically provides for airport pick-up and send off option. Most good transport companies also include cold drinking water and scented face towels during the tour. This is especially a ‘lifesaver’ when you visit during the scorching hot months between Mar-May when the temperature can soar to 35-36ºC (but feels like 40ºC with 90% humidity). The comfortable months would be from December to February, averaging around 25°C. The least rainfall months are from December to January. More details on the costs can be enquired with Jetabout Holidays for the best competitive rates.
Our driver was a careful driver and spoke reasonably good English, apart from being service-oriented and honest. He even goes beyond his duty as a driver by sharing local culture and information as we drive around, making the journey more interesting. In many travel forums, I have heard of drivers or guides who cream extra money from their passengers through various means, like selling exorbitantly marked-up stationery packages for donation at orphanages etc. So when it comes to engaging a service provider, do it through a bonafide travel agency.
Tip #02 – Get Good Accommodation
Visitors to Siem Reap are spoilt by a wide range of good accommodation at reasonable rates. A nice hotel room with good sleep quality recharges you after a tiring day out and gets you ready for the next day. You can select your hotel location based on proximity to the Angkor Wat or Pub Street, the city main night entertainment venue. Either way is good as the difference in travel time is marginal. Some visitors chose hotels near to Pub Street for accessibility to night entertainment but still end up taking tuk-tuk even though the walking distance may just be 500-600 metres, as the pedestrians pavements tend to be narrow and the tuk-tuk low fare of USD2 per way to most hotels within 3km ride in the city.
A good choice is to stay at boutique hotels, which have mushroomed throughout Siem Reap. Boutique hotels can be well-furnished and represent great value for money. The savings can be used for meals or trip expenses.
Our boutique hotel even has a fully equipped gym to work away the extra weight gained along the trip.
Choose those with a swimming pool in case you want to cool down in the afternoon heat. Quite a few hotels come with salt-water pool, which has lower chlorine levels and are much gentler on the eyes and skin.
Tip #03 – Explore and Experience Local Culture
Exploring local food is a great way to get acquainted with local culture fast. While I would not recommend feasting on roadside street food in view of the hygiene factor, there are however some local staples which you can attempt safely.
The sugar palm juice, a must-try when you visit during November-April period. Many families sell this refreshing juice as an extra source of income. Typically, the young men in the family climb up the tall trees and secure bamboo containers around cut part of the stem of the male and female flowers (in the pic above, the male stems are on the left, female on right). These bamboo containers fill up overnight and are collected early next morning. The fresh juice is then strained, poured into plastic drink bottles and chilled in an ice box. A cup or bottle typically sells for USD1 (to tourists). It tastes best in the early morning when it is naturally sweet but may get slightly sour in the late afternoon due to fermentation.
On the way to Kompong Khleang, you should try bamboo sticky rice along National Highway No.6 in the small village of Khchass. There are rows and rows of vendors selling the snack along the road. The vendor makes this snack by filling cut bamboo stem with a mixture of glutinous rice, black beans, coconut milk and palm sugar. The bamboo is then roasted over an open fire made with burning bamboo stalks.
Another local product you can buy home is palm sugar (similar to Gula Malaka). It is not as sweet as normal sugar and tastes a bit like caramel. Palm-sugar can be used to create delicious sweets, sauces and desserts. It has been praised by nutritionists for being rich in various vitamins and minerals as for it’s healthy properties.
Street food in Cambodia isn’t quite as safe as it is in Thailand and you should exercise more caution here than you would in other countries. Food poisoning is not only confined to street food so please don’t eat it freely as you would elsewhere. That said, it always interesting to have a look at the offering occasionally. We stopped at this stall selling palm juice and also BBQ meats. The skewered Toman fish and frog legs came right from the farm just behind the bushes, while the chicken was from the vendor’s village. While I refrained from buying the meats, I did try the palm juice which was harvested from the palm tree right behind the make-shift stall. It was indeed slightly sourish as it was already late afternoon.
While not as iconic as Bangkok’s version, Cambodia’s version of the tuk-tuk is the way to go. These two-wheeled carriages are pulled by a motorcycle and are readily available everywhere. When tuk-tuk drivers see foreigners, they inevitably feel more upside with their asking price. Hence, it’s a must to negotiate a price before starting the journey to avoid quarrelling over USD1-2 at the end of the ride. The usual flag down rate is USD2 for a short 3km around town. You might like to check out price indicator here.
Do what the locals do. Go slow and enjoy the lovely sunset around the 190m wide moat which formed a giant rectangle measuring 1.5km by 1.3km at Angkor Wat. It’s one of the nicest activities to do at sundown and it’s totally free. Cambodians typically set up picnic spots around the moat come weekends.
Pub Street, the ground zero of Siem Reap night entertainment and dining. This is the venue where you can get a local beer at USD50c, USD1 foot, body and fish massages. It’s a tourists magnet that any visitor simply can’t miss. Khmer cuisines, local produce, souvenirs and a wide range of curios can be found right here.
For the adventurous, Cambodian exotic ‘cuisine’ like fried snakes, scorpions, tarantulas, water bugs and insects might be considered as an after-meal snack. But chances are, like me, you will prefer to shoot pictures for keepsake (photo-taking chargeable at USD50c).
A visit to the city largest local market, Psar Leu (pronounced Sa Ler) is the best way to observe authentic local culture. It’s the equivalent of Ho Chin Minh Ben Thanh or Bangkok Chatuchak. You will see local way fo life as it is, natural and untouristy. For once, you will not be asked for a dollar when you shoot a picture. This market is unlike the smaller Old Market which is geared towards tourists.
At the market exterior, wet passages are just wide enough for pedestrians and hawkers but do watch out for motorcyclists who weave effortlessly between the stalls and the shoppers. There are also food stalls inside the market itself if you are really keen to eat like a local, with the locals. Although they are not located in one specific area, some popular stalls lie either side of the central jewellery area where you can enjoy some freshly made noodles and stir-fries.
Tip #04 – Buy the 03-Day Temple Pass
For the first-time visitors, the archaeological marvel of Angkor can be an unnerving affair while the expectation of slick adventures a la “Tomb Raider” does not help either. For the best experience, I would fully recommend buying the 03-Days Temple Pass (USD62) and let your experienced driver whisk you around the heritage wonderland. There are “peak and trough” timings between the temples, so a savvy driver is necessary to navigate around the throngs of tourists for a more pleasant visit. There are more than 50 temples dating back to the 12th century in the site, so I list six famed ones that you should visit and not get zone out.
Of course, you have to visit the Angkor Wat and especially the sunrise trip to enjoy the iconic landmark. Certainly worth waking up early for the 5 am hotel pick up, then park yourself at the edge of the pond for this ‘customary’ reflective shot. Do note if, in the dry season, the pond may dry up. If you’re eager to capture a photograph of the sun rising right behind the ruins of Angkor, you’ll want to time your visit for one of the two Equinoxes, which are around 20 March and 22 September. Take your pick of a rainy or dry season Equinox.
Being early meant we were the first few to arrive and able to secure prime shooting spot, right at the edge of the pond with no one blocking us. By 6 am, it seems the bulk of tourists in Siem Reap have descended at the area.
There are 1,200 square meters of intricately carved bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat, depicting different Hindu stories and historical events. Remember, all these impressive carvings are handcrafted with just rudimentary tools by skilled artisans.
There are virtually no original Buddha heads in the entire complex of temples. Archives showed that the Khmer Rouge when it was on the run in defeat, would cut off the Buddha’s heads. While decapitations seems an ideology of the Khmer Rouge, the chief reason was that the Buddha’s heads fetch good money. Frequently, whole statues and other antiquities in their thousands were looted and sold to buy arms.
When you are lucky enough to spot a group of visiting monks during your visit, do ‘tail’ them and watch out for some pictures with a difference.
Visitors will best remember this temple as a beautiful spot for sunset. The temple consists of a pyramid-shaped temple-mountain with the uppermost of the three tiers carrying five lotus towers. Pre Rup means ‘Turning the Body’ and refers to a traditional method of cremation in which a corpse’s outline is traced in the cinders. This probably means that the temple may have served as an early royal crematorium.
This temple is one of the most popular spots to enjoy sunset around Angkor, as the vantage view over the surrounding rice fields of the East Baray is beautiful although some tall trees have somewhat obstructed it these days. Best to arrive here at 5 pm to get the best spot before the crowd leaves you with just standing room. It’s also a great place to capture silhouettes of people in the retreating sun if that’s what you like.
Sun-worshippers arriving in droves to celebrate the end of a beautiful day at the ‘sun theatre’. Instead of avoiding people in your pictures, use them as your ‘props’ in this gorgeous setup.
The Bayon Temple, with over 200 faces showing varying degrees of erosion and wear, endears itself as one of the crowd-favourites among all the structures in the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park. There are some 50 towers around the ruined temple and each face is 4 metres high and faces one of the cardinal points of the compass.
All the smiles have the similar characteristic closed eyes and serenity, alluding to a state of enlightenment. Around the temple walls are also intricate carvings depicting scenes that tell a story. Do have a look at this video for a great insight.
South Gate@Angkor Thom
South Gate in Cambodia is not one of the Angkor Temples in itself but one of the five main gates into ancient Angkor Thom, and it is the best preserved and most commonly visited by tourists. This venue is also a very popular site judging by the constant stream of tourists shooting wefies and selfies. Built by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th Century, it served as 1 of the 5 holy Buddhist gateways to Angkor Thom. Some of the sculptured heads from the ‘naga avenue’ are now stored in Angkor conservation museum.
Angkor Thom City itself, the avenue approach is the first sight for any visitor. On the left side is a row of gods…
While on the right side, are demons with the alternate contrasting expression of welcome and grimace as they “watch” your approach.
This temple is acknowledged by many to be the crown jewel of Khmer art. Banteay Srei is unique as it is cut from deep red sandstone and features some of the finest stone carvings found anywhere on earth. Built in AD 967, it is one of the smallest sites at Angkor but what it lacks in size it makes up for in stature. It has many nicknames but the “Citadel of Women” sticks and it is said that the details on this temple are so intricate that they could only have been carved by the hand of a woman. This temple can be reached after about a 35min drive from Siem Reap city.
The site consists of three concentric rectangular enclosures constructed on an east-west axis. A causeway situated on the axis leads from an outer gate to the third or outermost of the three enclosures. The inner enclosure contains the sanctuary, consisting of an entrance chamber and three towers, as well as two buildings commonly regarded as libraries.
The ideal time to visit Banteay Srei is in the early morning or late afternoon when it is cooler as the site is fully exposed to the sun with little to no shade. The temple does not have mazes like Bayon nor coolly shaded alleys like in Angkor Wat. The unique charm of this temple lies in its remarkable state of preservation, small size and excellence decoration.
If there is a “3 must-visit” list for Angkor, Ta Phrom will be one of them. Its appeal lies in the fact that, unlike other monuments of Angkor, large parts have been swallowed by the jungle. Without a doubt, this the most surreal of ruins. Incidentally, this is the temple made even more famous by the “Tomb Raider” movie starring Angelina Jolie.
A visit to Ta Prohm is a unique, otherworldly experience. If Angkor Wat highlighted the genius of the ancient Khmers, Ta Prohm reminds us just as much of the immense power of the jungle. The most popular of the many strangulating root formations is that on the inside of the easternmost pavilion of the central enclosure, nicknamed the Crocodile Tree. One of the most famous spots here is the so-called ‘Tomb Raider tree’, where Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft picked a jasmine flower before falling through the earth.
Ventilation towers in Ta Phrom provide for some unique angles anywhere in the Angkor ruins, just make sure to look up or you will miss the angles.
Tip #05 – Get Out of the City
An hour drive from Siem Reap city brings you to Kampong Khleang, which is situated on the northern lake-edge about 55 km east of Siem Reap town. Being more remote make it less touristy than Kampong Pluk or Chong Kneas, where many unsuspecting visitors fall to scams. Kampong Khleang, during the dry season, will amaze you with its “forest” of stilted houses rising up to 10 meters in the air. In the wet season, the waters rise up to one or two meters of the houses. This is a permanent community within the floodplain of the Tonle Sap, with an economy centred around fishing. With a significantly larger population more than 10 times of Kompong Pluk, it’s the largest village on the lake.
Definitely a refreshing change of scenery after all that temple visit. Kompong Khleang will intrigue visitors with its raw beauty.
A villager doing back-breaking labour skewing fishes for sunning. Sundried fish from this village is well received in Siem Reap and elsewhere in the country.
Prepared fish sunning in the summer heat. There are 300 species of fish living in Tonle Sap. When the Tonle Sap fills with water it also fills with quick-spawning and growing fish. During the height of the dry season, Tonle Sap becomes one of the easiest lakes in the world to catch fish in.
Workers are kept busy repairing the wooden stilts of the houses or building new ones. The forests of stilts are truly mind-boggling. Most of the houses in this fishing community are one-room bamboo huts built on giant stilts. During the dry season, residents enter their home by way of long ladders.
Life along this massive lake is anything but easy. The lake’s dramatic water level changes earned it the nickname “Cambodia’s beating heart”. In the dry season, Tonlé Sap drains into the Mekong River. During the rainy season (May to October), the lake rises 12m and swells to about 20,000 sq.km – five times its dry season size. Existence here is both physically and financially challenging, with villagers, boats and homes constantly subject to the whims of the elements.
The lake basic means of transportation. A flotilla of motorised sampans provides the backbone of the moving about.
This lake is the largest freshwater in South East Asia. It’s so huge that you will be forgiven thinking it’s the ocean. Its dimension fluctuates depending on the monsoon and dry season. During raining season from June to October, the lake is filled with water flowing from the Mekong with 14 meters in depth and expands the surface to 20,000 sg.km. In dry season from November to May its size dwindle to 3,000 sg.km with about two meters in depth and water flows out from the lake to the Mekong. The submerged forest fringing the edge of the lake functions as a nursery for spawning fishes. Five provinces circled the area of Tonle Sap sustaining a population of some 3 million people. With the exceptional eco-systems and biodiversity, this lake was designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1997.
One of many fishing structures at the lake. However, with an ever-increasing population, overfishing is becoming an issue. And hydroelectric dams built on the Mekong may impact the amount of ecosystem. On top of all this, climate change means hotter, drier weather followed by more intense flooding, threatening the breeding and migration patterns of Tonlé Sap fish.
The homes on the lake are designed to float, so it in sync with the fluctuating tides. The floating homes, generally comprised of wood and bamboo, tend to be much smaller than the stilted homes. Lower water level during the dry season meant that the homes are safer than in the rainy season, where choppy water can make them unstable. Some have small motors attached but most of them float freely along the lake and relocate as it swells and recedes.
Cambodia has a difficult history and I can sense a country struggling as it moves ahead. The city and the suburbs heartbeat move on a different plain. Exotic yet enigmatic, happy yet sad. Such is the charm of Angkor. The following are a few more observation which readers might like to take note of. I have not been a victim before as I have been served by reliable guides and drivers. But it’s good to stay alert.
#2 – Don’t let your generosity be taken advantages of, in places like orphanages, etc. Some are tourist traps.
#3 – Standby lots of USD1 notes, it’s a very useful denomination
#4 – Check your USD notes when vendors return change, make sure they are clean and not torn. Many establishments don’t accept dirtied notes. Denominations less than USD1 are returned as Cambodian Riel: 2000 Riels = USD50cents.
#5 – A trip to Siem Reap involves lots of walking. Good covered footwear is recommended for comfort and protection. Flip-flops are not advised.
Thanks for coming along for the pixels journey. I hope the above helps in preparing readers for a more enjoyable trip to exotic Siem Reap. For travel ideas to other of Asia and further, please feel free to check out my other travelogues here.
Footnote: All pictures used in this travelogue are copyrighted to Jensen Chua Photography and all rights reserved. The opinion expressed is factual, objective and that of the author. The trip is non-sponsored.