Inquiry Submission By Bruce A
I went to Siem Reap in early December. I used this forum a lot for my research, and I always try to post trip reports to give back to the TripAdvisor community. My trip report will be very detailed: I tried to add the kinds of details that would have been helpful to me while I was planning. Hopefully, at least one person will find this useful while planning their trip to this amazing place.
Day 1: Sunset at Pre Rup
I arrived at Siem Reap International Airport on Friday, Dec 6 at 2:25 PM. My hotel offered one free airport shuttle (that is, they would either pick me up at the airport for free when I arrived, or would drive me to the airport for free when I left) and I decided to do it when I arrived, figuring that by the time I would leave I would know more about how to cheaply get local cars. I had no problem getting into the country with my eVisa. The airport is very small and I got through customs and immigration quickly. I found a man holding a sign with my name on it, and he drove me in a van to my hotel. All of this took about 45 minutes to an hour, the drive to the hotel was longer than I anticipated.
Before arriving in Siem Reap, I arranged my tuk-tuk driver for Angkor Archaeological Park with my hotel. I realize I could have negotiated a cheaper price on the street, but I don’t like haggling/negotiating and the prices my hotel was offering seemed just a few dollars more expensive than the going rates reported on this forum. Perhaps because I provided my hotel with detailed, well-researched itineraries for what I wanted to do, they decided they needed to offer a less inflated price.
At 4:00 PM, I met my tuk-tuk driver in the lobby of my hotel and we went to our first destination, the ticket office. My wife and I bought our 3-day passes. The ticket office was nothing like what I expected. I envisioned a small booth standing in an open field, but the “ticket office” is a massive building, it might even be larger than the terminal at Siem Reap International Airport. It is air conditioned and there are dozens of windows selling tickets.
Once we had our tickets, we went to the old temple of Pre Rup. Why Pre Rup? I read that it has the second best sunset in all of Angkor Archaeological Park. Phnom Bakeng, which is said to have an even better sunset, sounded like a logistical hassle to get to, with its 300 person cap and having to climb a hill to get there. Pre Rup was still filled with tourists, all crowded on the side facing the setting sun. The sunset was indeed pretty, though nothing compared to the spectacular sunset I saw a few days later on Tonle Sap. At Pre Rup, I also bought a copy of “Ancient Angkor” which was a very good investment. I read it the night before seeing the other temples and it was incredibly helpful in giving me historical and cultural context. They sell this guide for as little as $1 all over the park. I paid more than $1 for it at Pre Rup, a mistake.
?Day 2: The Small Circuit + Bambu Stage
We decided not to do sunrise at Angkor Wat. My wife and I are not morning people and waking up that early to stand in a large crowd seemed unpleasant.
We met our driver at 7:00 AM in the lobby of my hotel. We began the day at Angkor Wat itself. The causeway was closed for repairs and so we crossed the moat via a temporary pontoon bridge, which was an interesting experience. Angkor Wat was not yet extremely crowded. Notably, when we arrived there was almost no line to get into the Bakan. I waited less than 5 minutes to get up there. When I was planning the trip, I told myself “I won’t wait 30 minutes to climb to the Bakan, it won’t be worth it to wait that long”. But the Bakan was incredible, a visit to Angkor Wat would not be complete without going up there and seeing the views. Apart from the Bakan, the galleries with bas-reliefs were the highlight of Angkor Wat. I strongly recommend reading a little bit about Hindu mythology before going to Angkor Wat, it will help you appreciate what you are seeing and identify. Actually this will be helpful in Thailand, Malaysia, and other southeast asian countries too. Just learn the major gods, what kind of animal each of them rides (to help you identify them), the plot of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and, for Angkor, the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Just as we left Angkor Wat, the massive Chinese tour groups began arriving: we encountered them entering the temple as we left it.
After Angkor Wat we entered Angkor Thom. The bridge and gate into Angkor Thom is very impressive and photogenic and we stopped there for 5 minutes to take pictiures. and our next stop was the Bayon. I personally found the Bayon to be the most visually stunning temple in the entire park. The design is a bit more repetitive than Angkor Wat. There are reliefs at the Bayon too, though fewer than at Angkor Wat, and they are entirely secular/historic scenes rather than myth.
From the Bayon, we walked past the Bauphon temple (but did not go in) and then walked through the ruins of the Angkor Thom royal palace before ending up at the top of the Elephant Terrace. As cool as it is to pretend that you are Jayavarman VII reviewing a parade of tuk-tuks and tourists from atop the Elephant Terrace, where you want to be is the base of the Elephant Terrace because that is the part that looks impressive and has the namesake elephants. Next door, the Terrace of the Leper King looked even more impressive because of how finely carved the entire surface is. You can walk all the way around the Terrace of the Leper King (the corridor gets quite narrow) and I recommend doing this. It puts the Elephant Terrace to shame.
After exiting Angkor Thom, our tuk-tuk driver recommended we stop (very briefly) at Chau Say Tevoda and Thommanon, which are directly across the street from each other. We spent about 5-10 minutes at each, enough to take a few pictures. These are very small temples and this was enough time to get a feel for them. Our driver then offered to stop at Ta Keo and let us climb to the top, but we declined because we had already done a lot of walking. I also read later that Ta Keo is quite similar to Pre Rup.
The next stop was Ta Prohm. It was as photogenic as described, with trees growing on the walls etc. We had our first uncomfortable incident inside Ta Prohm. A security guard began following us around and pointing out various spots where we could take a good photo. (He actually pointed out where the Buddha face covered in tree roots was, I couldn’t find it by myself earlier). I was very worried that the guard would demand a tip at the end of this, and I also worried that if I tried to tip him he might threaten to arrest me for bribing a security guard, etc. But in the end he left us without asking for anything.
The final stop was Banteay Kdei. At this point I was tired and was skeptical that yet another temple would add much value. But Banteay Kdei was worth seeing, and different enough from the previous temples that it did not feel repetitive. From Banteay Kdei, we were driven back to the hotel and got some rest.
In the evening, we took a PassApp to the Bambu Stage, where they had a traditional Cambodian shadow puppet show. PassApp was very easy to use and most trips within Siem Reap are less than $1. I was somewhat worried about Bambu Stage, because the tickets are very expensive by Cambodian standards, and the theater itself is not very large. But the show was great. It was odd that it was delivered half in Khmer and half in heavily accented English, but it helped me understand what was going on. It’s definitely not for kids: there are some serious-ish themes. The show we saw was about two farmers who bet on a fight between their water buffalos, and one of the buffalos does not survive, which caused a small child in the audience to cry. However, after the show they allowed everyone to go backstage and play with the puppets, which the kids (as well as all adults) absolutely loved. We also got to see a puppet being made. I recommend seeing a shadow puppet show at the Bambu Stage.
?Day 3: Banteay Srei, Landmine Museum, Psar Chas, Kanell Dinner Show
We again met our tuk-tuk driver at 7:00 AM in the hotel lobby. The itinerary was Banteay Srei followed by the landmine museum. The driver suggested that we probably had time to add one more temple, and advised that we visit Preah Khan en route to Banteay Srei. I agreed, and I am glad that I did. Preah Khan (which like Ta Prohm is a temple intentionally left in a state of disrepair) was one of the most atmospheric things we saw in Cambodia. I think it’s actually better than Ta Prohm, and because it is not part of the Small Circuit it was MUCH less crowded. I highly recommend Preah Khan.
From Preah Khan, it was a very long trip to the Banteay Srei area. We stopped at the Landmine Museum before we arrived at Banteay Srei. I wish I had pushed back and asked my driver to do Banteay Srei first, because by the time we arrived at Banteay Srei it was very crowded.
The landmine museum was smaller than I expected. One of the most important things I learned there is that landmines account for only a small percentage of the problem in Cambodia: a much larger problem is Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) which are bombs, missiles, artillery shells, gernades, etc. that did not explode when initially dropped or launched, but explodes later when somebody disturbs it. The museum has an enormous collection of landmines and UXO, manufactured all over the world. There are also placards talking about landmine design, the history of the various wars in Cambodia, the tragicomically ineffective tribunal for Cambodian war criminals, and efforts to ban landmines. The gift shop sells soap that looks like a landmine, which seems tasteless until you learn that the proceeds go to help remove landmines (get it, they are “cleaning” the land of mines and UXO?)
The museum can be done fairly quickly. It also has very nice bathrooms, so if you do stop there en route to Banteay Srei I recommend using the facilities.
Finally, we were off to Banteay Srei. At the entrance to Bantey Srei, there is a chart of when all the major temples in the park were built chronologically, which was nice and helpful. I found the entrance to Banteay Srei confusing. When you first go in, you can either turn right into a series of souvenir shops or straight ahead into what appears to be an open field with nothing in it. The correct move is to go straight ahead: once you get into that open field you simply turn left and Banteay Srei is right there. (The gauntlet of gift shops, we later learned, is the EXIT).
Banteay Srei is very different from anything else at the park. Everything is on a smaller scale (this was not a royal temple, after all). The carvings are exquisite, probably the best of any temple in the complex. It does not take particularly long to tour, so I recommend going through it at least twice to see if there’s anything you missed the first time around. As with Angkor Wat, a basic knowledge of Hindu mythology and iconography helps a lot.
That evening, we went to Pasar Chas and Pub Street. We bought a few souvenirs: for the most part the vendors were nowhere near as aggressive and scammy as advertised. I got good deals on t-shirts and magnets. The only issue we encountered was one vendor who gave my wife a great deal on the first item we bought and then tried to charge us exorbitant prices on the second item we wanted to buy. I guess she thought she had earned our trust, so perhaps look out for this tactic. We did do the Fish Pedicure (at the $3 place, we didn’t find the $2 place until later) and it was a really memorable experience. Beware, it tickles at first! Our feet really were soft and smooth afterwards, the fish do a very thorough job.
?After Psar Chas, we walked to Kanell Dinner Show, a show with aspara dancing and food. The food was very upscale and had a lot of things that doctors recommend not eating in Cambodia (such as fresh vegetables and freshwater seafood), but three+ weeks after eating it we have not yet felt any ill effect. The show is good, though it is slow to develop with a lot of dead time between dances (I guess so you have time to eat). They also had audio problems during the first dance, though they fixed this before the second piece began.
Day 4: APOPO Hero Rats, Angkor National Museum, Kampong Phluk Floating Village
We slept in a bit later on Day 4. We left the hotel via a PassApp tuk-tuk at 8:30 AM, en route to the APOPO Visitor Center to catch the 9:00 AM tour. APOPO is an international organization that uses trained African rats to detect land mines and UXOs. It was not crowded, it was just us and a couple from French Canada (who asked a lot of skeptical questions that our tour guide was able to handle with expertise).
The tour took something on the order of 45 minutes, and there was only a rat there for about 5 minutes of it. We did get to see the rat go through a simulated minefield and find a bullet that was buried there. When the rat detects explosives, it scratches the ground. The rest of the tour involved listening to the tour guide lecture us or watching videos. We learned that rats are more efficient than other methods of detecting mines and UXO because they smell for explosives, not for metal. Using a metal detector finds a lot of false positives that must be investigated whereas the rats find just the stuff that is dangerous. The rat was adorable.
On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at the Angkor National Museum. It was now about 10:10 AM, and our tour to Kampong Phluk would pick us up at 1:30 PM, so if we wanted to have lunch at our hotel before heading off to Kampong Phluk we needed to do the museum quickly. We successfully saw the entire museum in just 90 minutes, which can be done, even if it feels a bit rushed. The museum has a number of galleries and you go through them in a specific order. The first gallery is one of the most memorable, as it is the Room of a Thousand Buddhas. There are a thousand Buddha statues from all over Cambodia, some are very old and some are 20th century, in various states of preservation. Subsequent galleries discuss Khmer history, everything from changes in religion to the history of the great Khmer kings. One of the highlights is a room where they constantly simulate what sunrise at Angkor Wat looks like on the one day a year that the sun aligns with Angkor Wat. Since we did not see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, this was the best substitute we had. It did look pretty spectacular.
At 1:30 PM we were picked up by the Kampong Phluk tour that we had bought via Klook.com. We had the option of doing either a 9:00 AM tour or a 1:30 PM tour, and we picked the 1:30 PM tour because it would end with a sunset over Tonle Sap. As we would learn, there were other advantages as well.
The tour van drove a long time to the shores of Tonle Sap. We passed through some beautiful rice fields along the way. The roads were just dirt, and it was clear why most recommend taking a car rather than a tuk-tuk. Still, we did pass one tuk-tuk that was taking a tourist in the direction of Kampong Phluk, and the tourist in the back of that tuk-tuk seemed to be having a good time taking photos of the rice fields without any windows obstructing his shot.
December is very much part of the dry season in Cambodia, and Tonle Sap was just a shallow muddy channel where we boarded the blue boats that were taking dozens of tourists per hour to Kampong Phluk. Indeed, our tour guide noted that his company didn’t even refer to Kampong Phluk as a “floating village” during the dry season, preferring the term “fishing village” which they felt was more accurate. Nothing at Kampong Phluk was floating: the houses were all up on stilts and the ground was dry. It was still cool to walk down the main street of Kampong Phluk and see the stilt houses.
After Kampong Phluk, our tour guide took us to the notorious place where you can pay $5 to have a local woman take you through the mangroves in a smaller paddleboat. We did it, and I don’t regret it. The mangroves were gorgeous and it was worth $5/person to see them. The woman who paddled the boat did at one point turn to us and ask us to tip her, which we found unprofessional. At the end, the boat left the mangroves and went out on the real open water of Tonle Sap, where we finally saw water going all the way to the horizon. Our destination was a floating restaurant on the lake. The floating restaurant was filthy and I wouldn’t recommend eating there (or even using the restroom) but seeing the open waters of Tonle Sap in all their glory was worth it. We also got to see fishing boats coming back to Kampong Phluk full of fish, which was a nice treat. Sunset over the lake was beautiful, far more beautiful than at Pre Rup a few days earlier. After sunset, our tour went back to the van the way we came. As we passed through Kampong Phluk on our way back, we saw the locals processing the fish that they had caught that day. This was very cool. If we had gone in the morning, Kampong Phluk would have been a disappointing. But seeing the sunset and seeing the fishing boats coming back made it worthwhile. Also on the way back we saw small fires everywhere: Cambodians light outdoor fires at night.
We were hoping to maybe see the Phare Circus that evening, but we got back to Siem Reap too late to do anything except have a nice dinner at our hotel restaurant.
Edited: 7:44 pm, December 28, 2019