Our first destination of 2018 was Cambodia. Specifically, Siem Reap. Since the main purpose was to see Angkor Wat, this time we did not visit Phnom Penh and instead spent 5 days exploring the temples of Angkor. After the movie Tomb Raider was filmed here, this city experienced a boom in visitors who wanted to see those amazing temples covered by huge tree roots that were featured in Angelina Jolie’s movie. Although no doubt Angkor Wat , and the many other temples, are the reason that attract thousands of visitors each year, there are other things worth seeing and doing in the city. We spent 5 days and 4 nights and feel it was perfect to explore the temples but also to discover other great things around Siem Reap.
Day 1: Arrive in Siem Reap
Arrived at hotel, got settled and rested a bit. We stayed at Udaya Residence. A really nice hotel, with friendly staff, pool, and comfortable rooms. They also offer complimentary airport pick up/drop off. Then we took a a tuk tuk and headed to Pub Street for dinner.
Day 2: Sunrise Tour of the Temples by Bike
Woke up insanely early for a sunrise bicycle tour. We booked ours with Angkor-Cycling Tours. It was $40 per person. Tour guide, mountain bikes and helmets were provided. Tickets to the temples, breakfast and lunch was not included.
They picked us up from the hotel at 4:15am. We stopped to buy the tickets first. The options are 1 day ($37), 3 days ($62) or 7 days ($72). Since there was no option for 2 days, we decided to buy a 3 day pass at $62 per person in case we wanted to revisit any of the temples after the bike tour (this was a smart idea).
After purchasing the tickets, we headed straight to Angkor Wat. It was a full-moon night and our guide, Rot, who was a photography aficionado, took us to a spot where only 5-6 photographers were. We didn’t have flashlights, but the moon was so bright we didn’t need them anyway. Then we headed to the other side, where over 500 people gathered to see the sunrise. It gave me the impression that no matter what you do, there is no way to beat the crowds here. Still, thanks to our guide we were able to find places with little people which gave us the illusion we had the place for ourselves.
After Angkor Wat we had a breakfast break at around 7am. Then picked our bikes and started cycling. This was supposed to be a half-day tour, but since we got a flat tired at around 9am and had to wait for a replacement bike, we arrived at our hotel at around 4:30pm, so it was basically a full day tour. In addition to Angkor Wat, we visited Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, Tanei, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei, and the impressive Bayon.
Day 3: Visit a Silk Farm
Hired a tuk tuk for $25 to go to Angkor Silk Farm. The ride took about 1 hour, but it was pleasant (except for the last 7 minutes when we took a dirt road). Entrance to the farm (which is also a factory) is free, but tips are expected ($2-$4 per person). We arrived just in time to join a tour in English. We learned about the factory, the worms and how silk is made. I have never seen silk works in action before!
If thinking about buying silk scarves, then this is a good place to sponsor. Not only are they committed to preserving Cambodia’s cultural legacy of silk farming, but they also have a social development program in which they train individuals, mostly women from rural disadvantaged communities who are the sole breadwinners in their families, and provide them with new skills that allow them to work and earn a salary.
After the visit to the silk farm, we relaxed on the pool before heading to the night market near Pub Street for dinner. There I had a shellac manicure and regular pedicure for only $17 (tip included).
Day 4: Temples, HeroRATS, and Cambodian Circus
Since we wanted to make use of our 3 day pass, we hired a tuk tuk driver for the day ($20). He drove us to different temples, some we visited with the bike tour but others were new to us, like Ta Keo temple, with what I like to call “the stairs to heaven”. A set of steep steps that are fun to climb up but not so much on the way down.
Now, all the credit for this goes to Alexis who randomly found information about a center that was training African rats to work in Cambodia detecting active landmines. In addition to Cambodia, there are over 50 countries still contaminated with hidden landmines that were left as a result of the war. Many of these landmines in Cambodia were planted in there by the United States, Russia and China. Once the war was over, the troops left leaving behind hundreds and hundreds of undetonated landmines and other explosives around the country. These artifacts go undetected until a farmer or a child steps on it, either killing them or leaving them impaired for life. These landmines are a problem and need to be removed, but it is such a dangerous and expensive work that is taking years… and many lives. Then, one day, a Belgian guy of the name Bart Weetjens, started wondering if rodents he used to keep as pets could be taught to find landmines and other explosives. Long story short, it worked! The heroRATS are African giant pouched rats and they are able to check 100 suspect sputum samples in 20 minutes when it takes up to four days to a lab technician using microscopy.
The work this organization does is AMAZING! And a visit to APOPO allows us to learn more from the initiatives and see the rats in action. Like many nonprofit organizations, they rely on donations. Each rats costs over 7,000 euros so it is a very expensive work they do. Visiting the center has a donation cost of $10 per person, and it includes a tour and a movie. One of the great ways to help APOPO achieve its mission is by adopting one of the rats. For around $84 a person can adopt a rat, which has the potential of saving a life. This also makes a great Christmas or birthday present for any child.
No animals involved here! Just like the silk farm and APOPO, Phare Circus is another great non-profit organization. Phare Circus helps improve the lives of the youth from disadvantaged communities. The Phare artists are graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO dedicated to providing a nurturing and creative environment where young people can access quality arts training, education, and social support. It is quite an impressive show, but since it is one of the most popular things to do in Siem Reap buying tickets in advance is highly recommended. We booked ours 1 week in advance and still were not able to choose our own seats. This meant it was open seating and we had to arrive early in order to pick a good spot. We arrived 45 minutes early and there were like 10 people already in line, but we were able to seat in a spot with good view.
Day 5: Markets, massage, and shopping
The last day was more relaxed. Had breakfast “with a purpose” (for the second time) at Sister Srey Cafe. This café was founded by Aussie sisters Lauren and Cassie, who are committed to giving back to the community by helping and supporting Khmer students to make a sustainable impact into the community. Each staff member in trained in hospitality, English language skills, personal development, health and hygiene and banking. With vegan options in the menu!
After breakfast, we walked around the markets and stopped for one last drink (who can resist to $2 margaritas?), then had a 1 hour leg massage for $5 before heading to the airport to catch our flight to Hanoi.
Don’t forget to try Amok
Cambodia’s most famous dish. Fish in curry served in a coconut or banana leaf bowl (I also saw chicken Amok available).
Things to know:
In Cambodia, at least in Siem Reap, the currency used is the US dollar (USD$). Even the ATMs dispense USD$.
Like in many places in Asia, negotiating prices is part of their culture. Usually the price given is inflated as it is expected from the customer to try to bargain. This goes for buying goods at markets and tuk tuks, but not in restaurants. When bargaining is important to keep in mind the prices are already cheap, we don’t necessarily want to pay the price given so that they do not continue inflating the prices and ruin it for everyone, but also is important to be respectful and offer a fair price without trying to take advantage of them. For example, tuk tuk drivers near Pub Street always gave us different rates when asked how much for a ride to our hotel. We got anything from $3 to $7. From the hotel to Pub Street it was always $2, so we thought that $3 was a fair price and never paid more than that. Except to one guy who had a pimped tuk tuk and was playing music for us. We gave him $10 just because he played Despacito for us. He earned it!
Tips are expected, and appreciated. Particularly when getting services done, such as massages and mani-pedis.
Please, please, please do NOT ride the elephants near the temples!
These elephants are treated with cruelty and are overworked carrying a heavy box on their shoulders on top of the weight of tourists who ride them thinking is cute. I wanted to ride them until I started reading about how elephants are treated. Please simply don’t.
Beware of scams. There are several scams in the area, a popular one is being approached by someone, usually a woman with a baby on hands asking to buy powdered milk. She takes you to a place “she knows” but basically she’s working with the person “selling” the milk, who happily takes your money and splits the proceeds with the store and pay a small fee to the woman. The problem with this scam is that children and women are exploited and often times the babies are rented. There is more info about this scam here.
Also, NEVER visit an orphanage. Children are not a tourist attraction. Usually well intended tourists visit orphanages as part of a tour wanting to “volunteer” and “help”, but the truth is that there is a huge problem with children being rented from poor families and taken away to pass as orphans. These children are mistreated, often abused sexually, physically and emotionally. There are even some orphanages that allow children to leave the institution unsupervised with visitors who might not have the best intentions.
A summary of our trip in less than 8 minutes: