Cambodia, was purely magical. It was a spur of a last minute decision – what was supposed to be my last leg of travel destination became my first when I decided to cross the border from Bangkok.
Instead of heading up north to Chiang Mai as planned, I went ahead to see the temples instead. I wasn’t sure of hitting Cambodia if I made it the other way round, but I figured that I wanted to see Cambodia more than the elephants and the wondrous nature of Laos. I only had a month, so time was the limiting factor – and I’m really glad I made the trip.
THAT BEING SAID, CAMBODIA REALLY DID HIT ME CLOSE.
I’ve never been so emotionally affected by any country, up till I went to Cambodia. Everything was just heartbreaking yet somewhat beautiful, a haunting remnant of the past. The struggle, reconciliation, remembrance, and hope. Armed with a bloody history, Cambodia has went through intense French colonization, civil war, the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge and literally being sandwiched throughout the Vietnam – US war.
But what made Cambodia truly beautiful is the optimism of its people and the desire to move forward, and the grim history only makes up a small part of the country itself. Cambodia was rich in its own ways, and I loved every moment of it.
HOW TO GET TO SIEM REAP
I started my journey from Bangkok, at the heart of Khao San road which is the hub of all backpackers galore. A bus ride from Bangkok to Siem Reap will set you back roughly USD 10, which can be easily bought from various travel agencies around Khao San. But there were warnings regarding these buses – especially on visa scams at the border. I decided to opt for the more expensive Thai government bus, although I must say I did overreact on the whole safety issue. Because obviously a lot of travellers made it to Siem Reap safe and sound.
The government bus cost me a whooping USD 23, plus an additional cost to get to Mo Chi bus station for USD 6. For the additional price I didn’t think it was worth it. The reason why I was willing to pay extra was to avoid the whole visa fiasco – and that didn’t happened. We did stopped for ‘visas’ on the way to the border.
You see, visa scams are done by touting travellers into paying extras – even when you can get your visas done at the border. There’s huge commission in doing this, so don’t be surprise if they make short stops and demanding everyone to get off the bus for visas. To avoid this you can either get your visas done in advance, or to simply stood your ground while waiting for the actual border itself. Malaysians generally do not need to pay for visa in any ASEAN countries (though the touts tried to convince me otherwise). The border itself was a smooth process, and despite the long line there really wasn’t much to be worried about.
Alternatively you can opt to fly to Siem Reap, or to take the train from Bangkok to Ayutthaya (and another connecting bus to Siem Reap from Ayutthaya). But if you asked me what’s the best option on a budget – just go for the direct bus ride and save yourself from all the hassle.
WHERE TO STAY IN SIEM REAP
I normally opt for backpackers hostel, as it provides the best buck for my budget. Plus I get to meet a lot of cool people along the way. I had a real good time staying at The Siem Reap Hostel, with basic dorms starting as low as USD 6 and that was one of the cheapest rate I’ve paid throughout my trip. Staffs were really friendly and facilities were basic at its best – with clean rooms, decent wifi and not so much of hot showers (the water temperature fluctuates throughout the day).
Location wise, it was pretty central. A little bit off from the Old Market, yet just 20 minutes away from the temples of Angkor Wat. Breakfast buffet are widely provided for just USD 2, with pancakes, cereals, yogurt coffee and fruits making up the top list.
They also had a lively bar that offers good food and cheap beers for USD 2, and it’s a really good place to meet new friends. There was a big pool at the back in which you can use to your full advantage (just don’t jump in when you’re drunk), and it’s especially helpful to cool off on a hot day. Tours were widely offered at the travel desk, with just USD 15/day of any route of your choice, and you get to split the fare with three other travellers as well. They had this sign up tour system where you can put down your names if you’re a single traveler, in which I found to be incredibly helpful in terms of splitting up the cost, and also to meet new people.
Another option is the Mad Monkey Hostel, although I stayed in their sister branch in Phnom Penh instead of in Siem Reap itself. Alternatively there are also boutique hotels and resorts all around Siem Reap, although at a much pricier price tag.
Don’t like hostels? You can try out Booking.com for more options.
WHAT TO DO IN SIEM REAP
1. EXPLORE ANGKOR WAT
The main reason why people traveled down to Siem Reap, was for the majestic temples of Angkor Wat (you can read about my adventures in Angkor Wat here). South East Asia is generally packed with temples galore, but Angkor Wat is the temple you should never miss.
Truly a South East Asia’s gem, Angkor Wat was a league of its own. The religious influence of both Hindu and Buddhism paints the structure of Angkor Wat, reflecting the glory of the Khmer empire back in its prime days.
A day pass to Angkor Wat will set you back a whooping USD 37* and USD 62* for the 3 days pass. I find the 3-days pass to be the better value for Angkor Wat, as you can use the pass on non consecutive days. I would definitely suggest you to take your time to explore the complex, as there is a lot to take in between temples and the structures.
While the day passes tend to be on the pricier side, most of the profit goes straight into conservation and restoration works. It’s a small fee to pay in order to preserve the historical landmark of Cambodia. An average tuk tuk ride should cost you around USD15/day to tour around Angkor Wat, so go ahead and plan your route wisely as Angkor Wat’s perimeter is huge.
*recent price of Angkor Wat as of 2017. In 2014 it was priced at USD 20 and USD 40 consecutively.
2. SHOP AT THE OLD MARKET
The Old Market is pretty self explanatory, in fact it’s the heart of Siem Reap. Market-wise, in all honesty Thailand and Vietnam had it better but if you’re desperate for something Cambodian, do check out their bracelets and Angkor Wat trinkets.
If you’re up for some fresh produce and Cambodia delicacy, there is also a wet market and an open air food court at the back of the Old Market. Here you’ll be able to observe the locals much closely, and probably strike a conversation or two if you found yourself an English speaking Khmer. Do bargain your way around though, as sellers can get pretty ruthless – but that’s common in South East Asia.
3. VISIT PUB STREET & THE NIGHT MARKET
Ahhh Pub Street. Lane of drinking galore, cheap beers and countless shots. With endless bars blaring through loud music and you are definitely up for a good time in Pub Street. Towards midnight the street will be blasted with club music, and depending on your taste of music you’re free to dance between bars – or between the street. In the evening it’s generally calmer, so be sure to pop by during the day if loud music and brash drinking are not your cup of tea.
Photo credited to http://photocory.com/
The Night Market usually pops up around 6.30pm, just within the vicinity of Pub Street. Here, the art of bargaining goes a long way – so if you’re up for some souvenirs be prepare to bargain or two.
4. TRY DEEP FRIED TARANTULA
And while you’re at it, don’t forget to sink your teeth into their deep fried tarantula! For USD 1 per insect, it’s truly disgusting – but if you had fried insects in Thailand and snake blood in Vietnam, this tourist trap delicacy is something not to miss for the adventure lover. Yolo right?
Other notable cool places to explore in Siem Reap would be the Land Mine Museum, Phnom Kulen National Park and a trip down to the floating villages, in which I have not done due to time limit (and budget. Hey, I’m poor) but I heard it’s all pretty good.
CASH, BILLS AND CURRENCIES
US Dollars are widely used in Cambodia, so it isn’t necessary to convert to KHR Riels as everything is quoted in USD (with the exception of loose change in which they’ll resort to KHR instead). While it gets tricky in trying to keep up with all the conversion, it does saves up all the headache of trying to convert everything back once you’re out of the country.
In fact it’s wise to keep USD with you all the time whenever you’re traveling around South East Asia, converting just enough to sustain yourself throughout your stay. Not only does it help in terms of emergencies, USD generally has a stable value compared to the rest of the currencies around South East Asia.
HOW MUCH DID I SPENT IN SIEM REAP?
|Accommodation||Siem Reap Hostel (USD 6/3 nights)||USD 18|
|Transportation||Bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap|
Tuk Tuk to Angkor Wat (USD 15/3 people)
Van from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh
|Activities||Angkor Wat||USD 20|
|Food and Drinks||Assorted||USD 30|
|Miscellanous||Souvenirs (postcards and books)||USD 10|
I spent 4 days 3 nights in Siem Reap, and for USD 116 for 4 days is not too bad considering I am on a USD 30 budget per day. Note that I spent most of my time walking, and had street food to minimize cost.
Hope this helps in your quest to Backpacking Cambodia, and till next time!