← Back to all posts
  • CAMBODIA: Siem Reap, Angkor, and Phnom Penh By Blake Schlaich 2012

    Teaching in Thailand with Super English has many of the same excellent perks as teaching in America does. The best, in my opinion, is the vacation time. In the States, most teachers get holidays and the summer months off. In Thailand, SE teachers are off from the beginning of March to mid-May (Thai summer is hot, especially with no A/C and 55 students per class), as well as all of October (when the rainy season hits the hardest). Teachers at other language schools aren't as lucky. This super bonus allowed me to travel for four weeks last month, paid. I went diving in Koh Tao, raged in Bangkok, experienced the filthy skeeze that is Pattaya, watched a fire show in Koh Samet
    (my eyebrows were nearly singed by a disobedient, flaming bow-staff that decided my face was a better landing target than its owner’s hands), and hiked a five-tier waterfall in Kanchanaburi. I don’t have the memory (thank you, Singha beer) nor the patience to write about each and every one of these places. I do, however, want to share a little bit about final leg of my October travels, which was to Cambodia.

    I was only able to spend about a week in good ol’ Cambo and I wish I’d had more time. To me it’s the wild west of SE Asia. Still recovering from the atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, it is not nearly as developed as its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. The air is constantly filled with dust from the unpaved roads, waterways flood because of the lacking infrastructure, and there’s evidence everywhere illuminating the unbelievably widespread poverty. My roommate, co-worker, and travel dude-bro, Ryan gave a pretty accurate, yet not-so-delicate description, “Cambodia is a dirtier, cheaper version of Thailand”. This is true, but it’s also a lot more.

    Everywhere I went the people were exceedingly friendly and genuinely happy. In guesthouses and restaurants the service was far better than in Thailand (but the food didn’t hold a candle). Everything costs a dollar or less. Everything. Draft beer, 50 cents. Food, a dollar. Tuk-tuk, a dollar. You can even find dorm-style hostels to stay in for… a dollar.

    Because of the floods and my loathing of 15-hour bus rides, I decided to pay the extra 50 bucks and take a flight from big, bad Bangkok to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The flight only takes 55 minutes but it’s a bit more expensive if you’re traveling on a strict budget. The cheapest option is to take the bus from Bangkok to the border, and from there head to Siem Reap in Cambodia. For more on getting there, Mitch wrote a great article on how to get to Cambodia here.

    Siem Reap...

    Which city you hit first depends on whether you fly or take the bus. Most flights go in to the capital city of Phnom Penh, whereas Siem Reap is much closer if you bussing it. I’ll talk about Siem Reap first.

    I ended up spending about a week in Siem Reap and I loved it. Siem Reap is a small, old town in northwestern Cambodia. It’s name means the “Flat defeat of Siam”, referring to a victorious battle the native Khmer people had over the Siamese (of course, Siam is now Thailand).

    It’s a quiet town during the day, but starting around 6 pm, there’s a large night market where you can buy anything from a traditional Cambodian scarf to a knock-off Rolex (I bought a fresh Breitling and some Ray-Bans for next to nothing). Around 9 pm Pub Street comes to life. This is where the tourists convene and where you’ll find restaurants and bars booming until the early morning hours. Even with the tourism, most of the people are still very poor, so you get a bit of the usual bombardment of beggars and street hustlers, but they’re harmless. For the most part everyone is extremely nice and speaks surprisingly good English. Everything is super cheap from food ($1 to $3 USD) to accommodation ($1 to $5/ night).

    Siem Reap is a popular tourist destination primarily because it’s “the gateway” to the Angkor region (where Angkor Wat is located). Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries. The ruins are still there and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, drawing in thousands of visitors each year.

    The best part of Siem Reap was by far being able to see the 1000-year-old ruins and temples of Angkor. I have to say that it’s probably one of the coolest things that I have ever seen in my life. It’s like the Grand Canyon, words can’t describe it and pictures just don’t do it justice.

    We rented bikes for a buck, but you can hire a tuk-tuk for the whole day for as cheap as $6 and they’ll take you where ever you like. There is an admittance fee to the park and you can choose between a 1 day ($20), 3 day ($40), or 1 week ($60) pass. Ryan and I paid $40 each for a 3-day pass and saw just about everything that there is to see. Guides are also available all over town as well as inside Angkor and they usually run around $8 for the day; tours booked through a travel agency will be a bit more. We decided against it because we wanted to move at our own pace, but I am sure that there are plenty valuable pieces of information and history that would make hiring a guide useful.


    I swear if Indian Jones and Lara Croft had an extraordinarily good-looking love child, it would be me (*Speaking of Tomb Raider, they filmed it in Angkor). Nothing is roped off, so you have free reign to hike around and climb on whatever you want (just don’t get caught). Some of the temples, buildings, and walkways have been restored but most of it has been left basically untouched for the best part of a thousand years. It was like being inside of Mortal Kombat. I was half-expecting Scorpion to run around the corner looking for Sub-zero, “Hey man. You seen a ninja ‘round here… wears a blue mask… likes to make stuff cold?”

    Phnom Penh…

    The most efficient way to get from Siem Reap to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, is by bus. Other options are private taxi, by plane, and there’s even a boat; all leave several times daily. Again, for more information on getting there, read Mitch’s article scroll down. Ryan and I traveled by bus and it took about 5 ½ hours to reach Phnom Penh (leaving Siem Reap at midnight).

    Phnom Penh is a big city but it lacks the glamour of a metropolis. There aren’t many skyscrapers, it’s built on a nonsensical grid system, and honestly it just didn’t seem that impressive (to me, at least). The traffic and pollution are horrible. I highly recommend wearing sunglasses and having a scarf or something to cover your face with while riding in a tuk-tuk. The dust and filth in the air, stirred up from the dirty streets, is like nothing I have experienced (not even in Vietnam or Thailand).

    With that said, Phnom Penh is an amazing place and I did enjoy the time that I spent there. It’s located where the Tongle Sap meets the Mekong River and every morning from sunrise til 8 am, you can see hundreds of people on the riverfront beginning their days with aerobics and yoga. There are hotels, guesthouses, and hostels all over the city for an array of prices. While I was there, the people seemed to be a little standoffish at first (city-like, I guess), but were really just as nice and friendly as everyone in Siem Reap.

    As should be expected, prices are a little bit higher in the capital city, but everything is still dirt- cheap. It’s the difference of paying $1.50 for a tuk-tuk, opposed to $1.
    Unfortunately, I did not get to spend much time in Phnom Penh. After failing to be able to change my flight, I was forced to take a bus to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap the day before my flight left for Bangkok. This gave me from about 6 am until 4 pm (on the day of my departure) to see and do everything in the city that I wanted to.

    Ryan and I hired a tuk-tuk for $12 and he took us to the Killing Fields, S-21, and the shooting range (which altogether was quite a distance). Travel companies and hotels can book tours for you for a few extra bucks. If time or budget is limited, than I would recommend that while in Phnom Penh you HAVE to see the Killing Fields and S-21. I caution you that it is shocking, disturbing, and depressing, but I think that it’s informative and important to see what these people have been through. (*Note: I have been told that the Royal Palace, Russian market, and riverboat tours are worth seeing, but I didn’t get the chance to.)

    The Killing Fields were about 35 minutes outside of town. For a $2 entrance fee you’re allowed in and can see where the Khmer Rouge mercilessly massacred so many Cambodian people. For the history of what happened with the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia, you can read more here. The audio tour was incredibly informative. It allows you to move at your own pace between the marked sites (including mass graves, execution areas, and a huge collection of human skulls), which were shocking. I even found a human tooth in the dirt, recently washed up to the surface by rain. After the tour (which takes about an hour), we bought some incense for the shrine and monument, and then checked out the museum near the exit. As hard as it is to stomach, I am really glad I got to see this. I learned a lot and have so much respect for what the Cambodian people have had to overcome.

    S-21 was not much easier to see. It’s a high school turned torture prison camp. This is where the Khmer Rouge would torture people. It causes the same distress as the Killing Fields, and after 20 minutes, we decided to leave.

    Our final stop of the day was of a brighter hue. On the opposite side of town our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at the shooting range. Talk about kids in a candy store; they had everything! I had only shot a gun once in my life before, but I have to admit, the mere site of machine guns and RPG’s got me more than a little excited. Although we opted not to, the option was available to shoot a rocket launcher at a live cow (for $350)! Our budgets and morals didn’t allow for that so we opted to pay $130 US (total) to shoot 20 rounds out of an AK-47 and 50 rounds from a Russian machine gun on a tripod. Rambo would’ve been jealous. Firing these bad boys and blowing coconuts to smithereens was a pretty cool experience and the grand finale to the whole Phnom Penh escapade.

    I had a great time in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. While vacationing from Thailand, I’ve also been to Vietnam, Laos, and Malaysia, and Cambodia is my favorite. My only regret is not spending more time there. The food, the historical sites, the prices, and the people are all fantastic and I would recommend visiting to anyone that gets the chance.

    My recommendations for accommodation:

    Siem Reap:
    *Smiley’s Guesthouse… This place was great. French colonial architecture and a giant courtyard make it feel more like a nice hotel than guesthouse. It’s family owned, there’s a restaurant, computers with free Internet, and the staff is insanely nice. Smiley’s is only a 10-15 minute walk or a $1 tuk-tuk ride to the night market and Pub Street. It’s $5/ night for a bed with private bathroom and a fan or $15 if you want air-con. *The Garden Inn… I didn’t stay here, but I talked to a lot of people that did. You can’t beat the $1/ night dorm beds if you’re on a budget.

    Phnom Penh:
    *The Mad Monkey Guesthouse… This place is awesome. It opened in early 2011 and is run by four young Australian (I think) guys. It’s clean, the food is good, and the staff is great. There’s a sweet rooftop bar upstairs and you get a free Angkor draught beer with check-in. It’s also in a good location to other guesthouses and bars and is walking distance (or a $1 tuk-tuk ride) to the riverside. Prices start at $5/ night for a dorm bed.