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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Discovering Angkor Wat and their People

After my bestfriend came home from a vacation in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I was fascinated by her travel story.  All along I thought Siem Reap is just ruins, but by her stories, Cambodia is about its people, scarred by being victims of the worst human tragedy of this century.
In a snap shot, the Khmer Rouge period (1975-1979), ruled by Pol Pot, saw the deaths of approximately 2 million Cambodians through the result of political execution, starvation and forced labour.  The Khmer Rouge regarded traditional education with undiluted hostility, teachers were executed, a few survived by hiding their identities.  The civil war soon ended in 1998.  As a result, Cambodia has a very young population, too young to remember the Khmer Rouge years. The younger generations would only know the Khmer Rouge through word-of-mouth from parents and elders while the latter scarred by their history struggle to continue their shattered life. Since 1990s, continued conservation efforts and massive restoration were sponsored by foreign government like the Indians, French, Japanese...  while tourism flourished under the management of these foreign countries, they reap the fruits of their labor. Only recently was it turned over to the Cambodian government under the ASPARA (Authority for the protection and management of Angkor and the region of Siem Reap).  But the tale doesn't end there, ticket sales is managed by Sokha Hotel Co. Ltd. with a controversial deal.


If there's no direct flight from your country like ours, one can fly into Siem Reap - Angkor International Airport via:
AirAsia (Kuala Lumpur), Asiana Airlines [3](Seoul-Incheon), Bangkok Airways (Bangkok), Cambodia Angkor Air (Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh), China Eastern Airlines (Kunming, Nanning), China Southern Airlines (Guangzhou), Jetstar Asia (Singapore), Korean Air (Seoul-Incheon), Lao Airlines (Luang Prabang), Malaysia Airlines (Kuala Lumpur), Silk Air (Da Nang, Singapore), and Vietnam Airlines (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Luang Prabang).

Best option would be flying in from its neighboring countries, Bangkok, Thailand or Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam for about $350 round trip.  I flew in through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Air Asia.  Flying in from KL from Manila wasn't the best route, it's farther, flight was about 3 hours, but it was the cheapest option at that time when budget airline Air Asia went on sale for less than $100.

Siem Reap airport terminal
The airport is less than 15 minutes from the town centre by taxi ($7) or motodop ($4). If you have an advance booking in a hotel, ask the hotel for a free airport pickup (in one of their tuk-tuks).  Our guide charged $12 for an early morning send off for two.  A new airport is under construction which is an hour away, that would spike up hotel transfer costs.

Alternatively, one go in by land by bus or chartered van from Thailand.  It takes about 2 hours from Bangkok to the boarder of Phom Penh and another 3 hours from the boarder to Siem Reap.  One has to go down at the boarder and change bus or chartered van, public vehicles are not allowed to cross boarder.


Visa is not required for citizens of the Philippines, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. Other nationalities where visa is required are charged $20 upon entry.  Visa can be acquired online through


There are separate terminals for international and domestic flights. International departure tax is $25, or $13 for children, payable after check-in and before clearing immigration. Note that usually this must be paid in cash because the credit card facility is unreliable, so have cash with you. Domestic departure tax to Phnom Penh is $6.  It pays to know this and set aside a budget for this, a foreign national in front of me was mumbling why he had to pay for visa upon entry and has to pay for more before exiting.


Through a blogger's recommendation, we opted to rent an airconditioned car/van for $25 through Kim Soryar which includes airport pick up.  We were met by a driver holding my name waiting for us at the airport,  we were delighted to see an automatic toyota camry to pick us up.  Kim Soryar is highly recommended online and I requested for him to drive us personally by booking 10 months ahead of time.  I was a little disappointed because he sent another driver who can't speak english fluently.  But this young man made up for it, he's very courteous and drove us around until nine in the evening with no extra charge.  In between, we had to make calls to Soryar to translate for us.

All along I thought Kim Soryar will serve as a guide and driver at the same time, but unknowingly he is only a driver.  At the last minute, we had him find an english speaking licensed guide for us.  It was peak season, so we had to settle with one who speaks broken english.

On day two, Kim Soryar promised to drive us to Kulen Mountain and find a better english speaking guide named Khoun Vuthy.  Khoun Vuthy is Soryar's history teacher and he sure does speak english fluently and a war survivor himself who has nothing but high hopes for those shattered dreams.

Here was our itinerary, we practically covered all the must see and do in Siem Reap, Cambodia:

DAY 1:

Arriving early in the morning, from the airport, we went straight to the ASPARA ticket office.  It was about 830 in the morning, and there were a few tourists in line.  We queued and had our picture taken and paid $40 for a three day pass.  Tickets are non transferable, your photo is printed on the ticket.

Temple pass ticket office is located 2 kilometers outside Angkor Archeological Park, they open from 5am to 530pm.  Next day tickets are sold starting at 5pm the previous day.  The temple pass is valid on all temples except for Kulen Mountain and Bengmealea temple.  Temple visiting hours is from 530am to 530pm.  Children under 12 years old go in for free.

Come join me in my journey:

1.  Dine at ANGKOR CAFE by Blue Pumpkin

Pork with pumpkin at Angkor Cafe by Blue Pumpkin
First on my list was to eat at Blue Pumpkin.  While waiting for our guide to meet us, we went to Angkor Cafe by Blue Pumpkin for breakfast.  It's right across the Angkor Wat.  We had tonle sap fish, pork with pumpkin and fresh orange juice for breakfast.  The fish prepared like a soup, wasn't my type but the pork with pumpkin or I would rather put it as pumpkin with pork since there was more pumpkin slices than pork was a hit... I've never eaten that much pumpkin, it was sweet!

After breakfast we were met by our guide and a swarm of young kids selling hats, books and some accessories.  The breeze was cool but the sun was shining.  I brought a scarf and thought I needed a hat.   I am amazed by how persistent these kids are selling their stuff without being rude.  Their is something about their voice, it's so soft and sweet, you can't resist their charm.  I am in awe that these kids can speak different languages; one spoke to me in english and another in mandarin; and they got the accent right.  I bought a hat for $5 (never mind the price tag).

2. Explore Angkor Thom City Gates.

wall carvings tells the story of Khmer life. (notice those lines?  these are different pieces of stone stacked like puzzles)
 3. Know their history from the carvings at Bayon Temple.

This is a must see and one of my personal favorites.  The walls (outer gallery) of Bayon Temple depicts the tale of historical events and scene of everyday life of Angkorian Khmer,  these stone carvings are highly detailed and informative in themselves.  Our guide highlighted the most important stories, while other tourists came with guide books, trying to figure out which is which, that must be a puzzle.

Bayon Temple's distinctive feature is the multitude of stone faces on the many towers.  The towers, wall, doors, windows, practically any angle around the temple is a photoholic's paradise.  (Photoholic - anyone addicted to taking photos or appearing in them.)

four faced towers of Bayon Temple

a snake crossed my path walking on these ruins!
 4.  A walk through the Terraces of Elephants.

A walk through the "jungle" leads you to many other not so popular ruins and to the Terraces of Elephants.  The 350 meter long terrace was used as a giant viewing stand for public ceremonies and served as the King's audience hall.  Walking past the terraces, a snake came across my path.  Whew, that was close.

5.  The Terraces of the Leper King,  was believed to have been used as a royal cremation site.

roots grew on ruins (Tomb Raider was shot here)
 5. Visit Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm became famous after Angelina Jolie shot a scene of Tomb Raider in this temple.  Actually, the locals do not know much about this movie.  Ta Prohm has been left much the same as it was found with trees growing out of these ruins.

aspara diety inside Angkor Wat
7.  Don't get templed out at Angkor Wat.

After visiting many temples throughout the day, don't get temple out, just yet.  The highlight of any trip to Siem Reap is to visit the temple complex of Angkor Wat.  In my humble opinion, Angkor Wat was actually less interesting than the other temples.  It's made out of sandstone, with less intricate carvings.  Countless diety adorn the walls and the towers are shaped like lotus buds. It is oriented to the west, unlike the many other temples which should be oriented to the east.  Thus it was believed that it could have served as King Suryavarman's funerary temple.  Nevertheless, Angkor Wat has become the symbol of Cambodia because it is the largest and the best preserved temple. King after king built one or more, grander than other in honor of their god.  It was a symbol of power and national pride, taking credit for each - making a name in history.

We entered from the back (east) of Angkor Wat, walking through the jungle where some wild monkeys eat lotus flowers and a vendor selling them.  Going through wall after wall, halls after halls, up on those tiny steps, until you reach the steepest step to the tower.  Wooden stairs were made for easier access (but still steep), this feat is not for those who fear heights and have weak knees.  I am surprised by the number of senior citizens who made it up... and (of course) down!  On top was a view of Siem Reap, a vast land waiting for Cambodia's rise in the future.

going up Angkor Wat

inside Angkor Wat

included in the temple pass is the free use of decent restroom around the temples.

west entry, outside Angkor Wat

sunset at Bakheng Mountain
8.  Sunset at Bakheng Mountain.  Our itinerary was kinda hectic, but since we explored fast enough, we had time to see the sunset.  We rushed to the foot of Bakheng Mountain where we hiked for a good few minutes up to its top where  Phnom Bakheng lies.  The steps up was no joke, if the steps up Angkor Wat was steep, this was steeper and tinier!  I did not walk on these steps, I climbed.  These steps are more like walls.  The crowd was overwhelming, finding a spot and a clean shot of the sunset was not easy.  The sunset was perfectly round and fiery red, a sign of good weather.  Oh, I love sunsets and taking snap shots of it.  Just before it hit the horizon, we had to rush down before the rest of the crowd does.  With that much crowd, it was a good move, there's no other way down but on those steps, we reached the foot of the hill just before the sunlight was out.
the crowd at Bakheng Mountain, waiting for the sunset
9.  Try Cambodian food and watch the ASPARA Dance.

After checking-in Tara Angkor Hotel, we were escorted by our driver to Koulen II Restaurant for a $12 buffet dinner with a Aspara Dance, on the next block just 5 minutes away.  I'm not sure if this is the best place for it but it was recommended by our driver.  The restaurant was indoors, in an open air hall.  It was full but they were kind enough to find us a seat since we did not make any reservations.

They had a generous selection of Cambodian and other asian cuisine but not necessarily palatable.  I tried their signature chicken amok (chicken in coconut milk and shredded celery) among others.  Cambodian food may not be my thing.  I feasted on some spring rolls and noodle soup instead.  Drinks are billed separately, at $2 to $3 for a can of coke or a bottle of Angkor beer. 

The show started at 7:30pm, just in time when we finished filling our plates from the buffet table.

12 dollar buffet dinner with Aspara Dance at Koulen II Restaurant
 Koulen II Restaurant
N50 Street Sivatha, Mondul II
Svaydangkum, Siem Reap
Phone (855) 12897105
(855) 92630090


After breakfast, we were met by Kim Soryar and our new guide Khoun Vuthy at the lobby.  We are headed to a long land trip to Banteay Srei and Kulen Mountain.

10.  Long ride to Banteay Srei was worth a visit.

On the road, Khoun Vuthy was telling us so many things, an hour passed, we already reached Banteay Srei before 9am, just before the rest of the tourists arrived.  The temple is small but the intricate carvings on Banteay Srei was fabulous.  Outside Banteay Srei was a gallery which exhibits how restoration was executed.

intricate carvings at Banteay Srei

lotus outside banteay srei.  an hour drive to Banteay Srei was worth the trip.
 11.  Go rustic in Kulen Mountain.

our guide Khoun trying to illustrate the carvings underwater.
With good service, at the end of the day, I promised to link him up here and promote his services.

After Banteay Srei, we headed up to Kulen Mountain.  It took more than an hour to get there.  Phnom Kulen is considered as a holy mountain in Cambodia for religious significance to Hindus and Buddhists who come to the mountain for pilgrimage.  The site is famous for underwater carvings representing fertility and its waters which hold special significance to Hindus.  We could not see clearly the carvings underwater, the river water was high and the sun's reflection made even harder to spot.  We could spot some images and the rest would be imagination.  Our guide tried to illustrate it by drawing on his palm.  It was a carving of the Hindu god - Vishnu laying on his serpent with his wife on his feet.  Over a thousand of linga etched in sandstone on the riverbed the river runs across the mountain ending with a waterfalls.

going up Kulen Mountain temple was a depressing sight

Quick stop at Kulen Mountain waterfalls.  Hmm... it wasn't worth the 2 hour trip.
 We left Kulen Mountain in time for lunch.  Half way we stopped by furniture shop with a restaurant.  While waiting for our food to be served, we enjoyed viewing the BBC documentary on Angkor Wat at the restaurant.   It was selling for $11, but I thought I should find this in youtube, and yes I did!  I'm delighted to know that we practically covered everything featured here.

12.  Revisit Angkor Wat and get this shot.

We had to be back in town before sundown, I thought I was templed out, but I badly wanted to go back to Angkor Wat to take this shot:

can't miss this angle, I had to go back for this.
shot in BW because those scaffoldings with green nets used in restoration are an eye sore.
 12.  Have a stroll at the Old Market.

After a quick rest in our hotel, Kim Soryar drove us around the old market.  He dropped us off on one of those streets and shopped for a few scarves. He gave us tips how to get on a tuktuk back to the hotel, he has to leave to attend language and history class in the evening.  The locals' yearn for knowledge is very evident.

13.  Dine and chill out at the Pub Street.

The Pub Street is a short block with row of restaurants serving different cuisines.  Most tourists must be hanging out here after a long day at the ruins.

fish spa at pub street (that guy was giggly all along)

row of restaurants at Pub Street at the old Market

trying out exotic food at Cambodian BBQ: snakes, frog legs, crocodile...  was an experience but not a must.

dessert at Blue Pumpkin at Old Market

TIP: bring lots of small bills $1s, $5s and $10s; everything is billed in US dollars, they prefer it over their own currency

14.  Spend at least two nights in Siem Reap (at Tara Angkor Hotel).

We spent two nights at Tara Angkor Hotel upon the recommendation of my bestfriend.  I was lucky to get a bargain at, the superior twin room was on sale for $50, 6 months before our scheduled trip.  Tara Angkor Hotel is rated four star, the hotel is fairly new, good service, buffet breakfast was average with good selection of fruits, the room was spacious and had wooden flooring while the bathroom had mosaic tiles with tub but a little cramped.  Each of the twin bed was good enough for one.  Tara Angkor Hotel is conveniently located along the highway, 10 minutes away from Angkor Wat.  There's a convenience store and massage parlor next door.  The rest of the buildings are spaced far from the other.  Several luxury hotel are located within the vicinity, like Le Meridien, Sofitel, Raffles Hotel; however, all hotels are not higher than 4 stories, real property is not cheap but the law mandates that no building must be higher than Angkor Wat.

a dollar per person from the market to the hotel,  I was shivering in the cool breeze while the tuktuk was speeding away.

Superior twin room at Tara Angkor Hotel for 50$ with buffet breakfast was a bargain at
 15.  Get a good cupping Cambodian massage.

After a long day, our guide arranged with a massage parlor to pick us up at the hotel.  A tuktuk came for us and took us to a massage parlor tucked on those side streets, several blocks away.  On the third floor, there were several airconditioned private rooms with rest rooms.  The masseuse was flattering me by how smooth my sole and palms are but was giggly at the sight of hair on the legs and was even trying to pull them gently.  They don't have them, she said in broken english and body language.  We had a $10 good cupping Cambodian dry massage (much like thai massage but more coverage). A perfect way to energize those tired muscles.

16.  Leave Siem Reap, Cambodia in awe.

Once a glorious ancient empire, the Kingdom of Cambodia collapsed with a notorious reputation of having the worst human tragedy of the 20th century.  It's more that just the world's largest jigsaw puzzle amidst a vast land mine. I'm in awe how they solved the puzzle.  Knowing their history makes you understand their people. Glad to have the chance to discover the treasures of Siem Reap.

- o -

Khoun, our guide  (left) and Kim, our driver (right) buying bananas on the way up to Kulen Mountain
 To arrange a private tour in Siem Reap, Cambodia, get in touch with Kim Soryar or Khoun Vuthy.  They can arrange for a car with driver and a guide.   They can also suggest an itinerary for you, book your hotel and pick you up at the airport.  They both speak English fluently and since I've had pleasant experience with them, I highly recommend you take their services and do ask for them personally to join you on your tour.

Kim Soryar (driver)

Khoun Vuthy (licensed guide)

$25/day for car or van rental with gas and driver
Add: $10 for Banteay Srei or $25 for Kulen Mountain
$25/day for licensed temple guide
$12 airport transfers only

Foreign visitor temple pass (excluding Kulen Mountain & Bengmealea temple):
  • $20 - 1 day pass 
  • $40 - 3 day pass (consecutive days)
  • $60 - 7 day pass (consecutive days)
  • $20 - Kulen Mountain pass

Post trip accounting (cost per person for group of two):
(forex: 1$:44 pesos, 1MYR:14 pesos)
363 myr kuala lumpur to siem reap to kuala lumpur via air asia

$51 two nights stay at Tara Angkor Hotel ($190/2)
$40 three-day temple pass
$12.5 day 1 car rental around siem reap with airport pick up ($25/2)
$12.5 day 1 licensed temple guide ($25/2)
$7 breakfast at Angkor Cafe
$8 lunch at a local cambodian restaurant
$16 buffet dinner and drinks at Koulen II Restaurant with aspara dance

$12.5 day 2 licensed temple guide ($25/2)
$32.5 van rental to banteay srei and kulen mountain ($65/2)
$20 entrance to Kulen Mountain
$0 free breakfast at the hotel
$8 lunch at a local restaurant
$15 dinner at Cambodia BBQ

$10 for three scarves
$15 angkor wat table runner
$3 ice cream at blue pumpkin
$10 massage
$1 tuktuk ride
$20 tips
$6 one-way airport transfers ($12/2)
$25 departure tax

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