Siem Reap, Cambodia

There are two school breaks in Thailand, called bpit terms. One is in mid-October, which I compare to the equivalent of a spring break in the States, and lasts 2-3 weeks. Mid-March through mid-May is the longer summer break. For this bpit term, I went on a adventure with some friends (2 other PCVs and my Thai counterpart/friend) to neighboring Cambodia for a few days and we had a blast. Here’s a rundown of how we got there, what we did, and my recommendations for you if you ever find yourself exploring Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Bangkok to Siem Reap

The four of us opted to take the bus from BKK to Siem Reap since that was the cheapest option. We left on at 9am Sunday morning from Mo Chit station in Bangkok with Nattakan Bus Company. I highly recommend them – they were professional, the bus was clean enough, and they helped explain the border crossing process – although I was grateful for my previous blog reading to help us navigate that mess.

We arrived at the border around 1pm. We took a direct bus, meaning we had to get off the bus at the border, but we boarded the same bus after going through immigration instead of having to switch buses. Our border crossing was at Poipet. For people with passports from ASEAN countries, there is no $30 fee, so my Thai friend was able to cross the border much more quickly than the rest of us.

As US citizens entering Cambodia, it took 3 steps:

  1. You have to disembark, get an exit stamp from Thai immigration
  2. You then walk across the border and if you have not gotten a visa ahead of time, you pay $30 and get it there. I was grateful I had read other blogs about this process because scams are common at the border. We placed the $30 in our passports and handed them to the officers. They requested an additional 100 baht also (which is about $3 each) so we paid that, too. With a bit of attitude and refusing to pay more, we didn’t end up getting scammed into paying more.
  3. The officers took our passports to the back and came back a few minutes later with the visas placed inside. Once you have the visa in your passport you continue walking to another checkpoint for a photo/fingerprint scanning and an entry stamp.

From there we got back on the same bus, which was waiting nearby.

The bus ticket said we would arrive to Siem Reap at 7pm, so we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived around 4:30pm. I think they build in some buffer in case the boarder crossing takes longer than anticipated. The bus company provided tuk-tuks for “free” to your accommodation. As part of the deal, the tuk tuk driver also wants you to hire them to drive you around Siem Reap during your visit. We had made prior arrangements for an Angkor Wat tour so we chose not to take him up on that offer and ended up paying $1 each for the ride to the hostel. We made it to our hostel in no time and had a chance to shower, change, and relax a bit.

Where to Sleep

The hostel we chose was only 4 months old and had a great vibe. It’s called Lub D. There was a nice pool with a swim-up bar, a pool table, a movie room, and a restaurant. The shared hostel rooms were interspersed with private rooms giving it a hotel vibe, more than a typical hostel feel. All around, they are still working gout some of the kinks of a new business, but I’d recommend staying there if you want a modern, clean, well located, but affordable place to stay during your trip.

Where to Eat

After some rest we went out for dinner at this great spot called Spoons. A PCV in Cambodia recommended it and it did not disappoint. The food was amazing, but the mission was the coolest part. Their tag-line is EGBOK which stands for “Everything is Going to Be OK and they focus on hospitality training as a way to break the cycle of poverty for underprivileged youth.

We also walked around through the night market – Siem Reap has endless markets and no shortage of food stands to try out.

Pub Street – if I could do Siem Reap over again I would spend more time checking out this area. Pub Street has so many bars, restaurants, street stands, souvenir shops. It reminded me a bit of Bangkok, but less….grungy and more quaint.

Khmer Kitchen was another restaurant recommended to us that was amazing. It’s walking distance from Pub Street and they had wonderful food that wasn’t too expensive.IMG_4382.jpg

What to Do

Angkor Wat – obviously. We arranged for a tuk tuk ahead of time, that picked us up at 4:40am and we went to buy our tickets to the Angkor Wat complex before heading to watch the sunrise. It was truly breathtaking.

Pro-tip: We got the one day pass for $37, thinking we could cram it all in, but looking back we wish we had just gotten the 3 day pass. It would have been $62, but there is just too much to see in one day, plus the pass includes Wats that are not in the immediate Angkor Wat Complex vicinity such as Banteay Srei and Kulen Waterfall.

In one day we were able to visit six of the countless temples in the area. Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm (aka – where Tomb Raider was filmed), Angkor Thom/Bayon Temple, Preah Khan, Ta Som, and Neak Pean.

By the afternoon we were completely drained. The head in midday is brutal. We went back to our hostel to rest before heading out to check out the night markets and grab dinner.

The next day, our tuk tuk driver wanted to take us to see a floating village/market. On the way, he stopped the tuk tuk in case we wanted to take a photo of an elderly woman selling bananas on the street – which was our first red flag that this day may not be what we were looking for. We rode out of the city for about 30 minutes before realizing, when we arrived, this was essentially a tourist trap. On top of our tuk tuk price for the day (which was $5 each), a floating village tour was another $20 per person and they would take you in a boat around the village to see people’s homes. For our group, this seemed exploitive of this community and their homes. It felt more like a poverty tour to us, so we opted out.

On our way back to the hostel we stopped by a lotus farm to look around. It was beautiful! The lotus flowers grow under water and the farmers had built little paths winding around the budding fields. We had a great time enjoying this little paradise for a bit.

Once we got back to the hostel, we ended up having a wonderful day exploring the city by bike. Our first stop was the Angkor National Museum. This is a must-do. Entry was $12 each and I thought it was 100% worth it. Super informative and well curated. We spent about 2.5 hours wandering through. We all wished we had walked the museum before the tour of Angkor Wat, since it was such a great intro to the whole history of the Angkor complex.

We enjoyed biking so much that we rented bikes again the next day. We biked to Wat Preah Prom Rath and wandered around for a bit. We dropped into a cute coffee shop called Noir Coffee 1928 where we refreshed with cold drinks, snacks, and AC. There is also a cool market called Made in Cambodia that had some higher end souvenirs all hand made and run by non-profits.

Then, on a whim, we went to a spot that I had noticed on Google Maps – all it said was “miniature replicas of Angkor’s temples“. So we went, and it was amazing. An artist, by the name of Dy Proeung, spent years of his life creating to-scale replicas of some of the temples in Angkor. During the Pol Pot regime most of his friends lost their lives. He is in his 80’s now and while we visited he started to chat with us about his life. It is clear that he has a diminished capacity for following conversation, but what he was able to communicate about his life and the story of his replicas was nothing short of amazing. They have fallen into disrepair a bit now, but that almost added to the magic of it all. That these replicas, once pristine and gifted to the King of Cambodia, had survived a genocide and still remained as Cambodia rebuilds itself. There was something magical about that.

The downtown of Siem Reap is fairly walkable, but having the bikes allowed us to explore a bit further and we biked around 20km the second day (kind of in search of a very specific t-shirt I had fallen in love with and wanted to find, haha sorry friends).

IMG_4449.jpg

We hit up pub street (where my friend found the shirt we had been looking for all day!) and grabbed dinner and drinks. Our return bus to Bangkok left at midnight. The short version of that long and traumatizing story: a drunk girl vomitting, several hours stopped on the side of the road, terrible instructions about border crossing, broken bus seats, and a 12 hour trip. All that is left to say about our return trip is: never travel on Virak-Buntham Express buses. Pick Nattakan. You’re welcome.

All-in-all, Siem Reap was a magical trip. This group of friends made it stress-free, fun, and laid-back. We didn’t make it to the temples that were further out, and we didn’t get to go to Kulen Waterfall because of the cost and rainfall that had made it dangerous, but in the end I wouldn’t change a thing about how our time turned out and would highly recommend a trip to Siem Reap!

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