I know I haven’t written in a long time but honestly I had nothing interesting to share with the world. And with the whole social media (Facebook, Google+) getting easier to use, I didn’t know how exactly to take advantage of this ancient technology called … a blog.
My first 6 months in China ended in August 2012, and we didn’t get enough time for traveling so we decided to bite the bullet and sign a new contract with our architecture firms just to get to see a bit of south-east Asia.
By the time we got back to China in October 2012, I had the trip all planned out. We were supposed to see Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand in 3 weeks or less; and then we hit our first wall. The Chinese new year holiday lasts about 1 week but there is an unspoken agreement between the companies to use all 5 (five) of our payed days off to lengthen the holiday to about 2 weeks. And that is less than what I had planned.
Oh well, I had to touch-up my schedule. I dropped off Vietnam from the list. I moved it to a later time in the distant future, and because Vietnam was no longer in the books, i dropped of Phnom Phen as well. It just wasn`t practical anymore (from a monetary point of view).
Our first destination was to be Siem Reap (Cambodia) so on February 2nd we boarded a flight from Shanghai to Siem Reap with a layoff in Seoul. A stupid route, I know, but as it turns out it was the cheapest and the fastest choice we had that day.
Siem Reap – The Dollar Bill City
Off the bat, I want to address the elephant in the title. The most powerful monetary bill in Siem Reap is the 1$ bill. Yes! Not the 100$, which would turn heads and cause you a shitload of trouble. If you ever decide to visit Siem Reap (and Angkor area) (and you should!) be sure to stock up on those pesky 1$ bills, they will come in handy more than a few times.
We have a handful of friends that visited Cambodia in the past and they all said “you need to go there, it’s so cheap! Those people are so poor, go help out their economy!” The second part is true, the first part is at least questionable, and I’ll try my best to explain why by describing our stay in the city with tips and tricks here and there. (hopefully I won`t be to boring)
We chose to stay at Mom’s Guesthouse because the price was good, they have a pool, wireless everywhere and they would take care of everything about our Angkor 2 day tour.
As I mentioned earlier our flight to Siem Reap went through Seoul, and we landed in Cambodia at 22:15. The owner of Mom’s Guesthouse waited for us at the airport. 10 points for hospitality!
The visa for Cambodia can be obtained on arrival and it costs 20$. You also need a 3×4 picture. No picture = 1$. Needless to say, we didn’t have pictures but everything was smoother than butter. From the plane to the parking lot took less than 10 minutes. These people know how to move!
We left our bags at the hotel and we got a tuk-tuk to take us to the Pub-Street (literally that’s the name) for 2$. A a rule of thumb: always bargain the price before getting on the tuk-tuk.
Even if it was almost midnight the area was packed with tourists, mostly Americans, and it had a good vibe; I’d say probably like Vama-Veche (Romania) a few years ago but with the bazillion of people she`s getting now.
I really wanted to grab something to eat (I was as the stage of bitching and moaning) so we sat down at the Temple restaurant and bar. The food as absolutely delicious with prices varying between 3$-6$ for a good meal and cheap drinks (which are even cheaper “by the dozen”).
And because nothing good ever happens after 2AM, a tuk-tuk was our ride of choice back to the hotel.
7AM – Rise and Shine
Our first day of Angkor sightseeing started at 7:30 with an average breakfast (it seemed wonderful the first day but it got old pretty fast). We payed the room and the Classic Angkor Tour (124$ with lunch and all the passes included), we “embarked” on a Toyota Camry (weapon of choice around these parts) and we headed into the jungle. Mony, the guide we had, was very good and successfully avoided all the big groups throughout our hike.
Visiting order was:
- Ta Promh (Tomb Rider movie set)
- Angkor Thom (this one is huge and the center piece is the Bayom)
- Angkor Wat
(break for coconut juice)
(break for lunch)
(we were supposed to get a balloon ride up and down – 15$ – for a different vantage point but the winds were too strong)
Everywhere you go in Angkor area there will be swarms of kids trying to sell bracelets, postcards, fridge-magnets etc. Every dollar that you give them encourages them to keep doing that and not go to school. Don’t buy stuff from puppy-eyed kids!
At about 16:00 we called it a day and headed back to the hotel take advantage of that gorgeous swimming pool. Around the 19:00 hour mark we got back into our tourists outfits and we headed downtown for some shopping and … waaaaait for it … food!
We managed to freak out a waiter by ordering too much food. While he was writing our order he was trying to formulate a kind way to say that it’s way too much food for just 3 people. He was nice about it but we had an agenda! 30 minutes later the food was almost gone and his jaw dropped.
The food can be cheap but we were here to make the best of our hard earned money so we ended up paying around 12$/person including tip (with cocktails). (a lot giving the fact that for 3-4$ I can get enough food to last me 1 day)
Tips are not mandatory here but 1-2$ can go a loooooong way for them no matter how big was the bill. The wages are indeed very small, but 1$ from each customer adds up to a decent pay.
The whole Pub Street area (not only the street) is full of good restaurants. (I’m in love with Cambodian food! There, I said it!) Around the restaurants there are all sorts of small shops that sell clothes or souvenirs. Everything is negotiable and they will ask for at least 2-3 times the right price for anything. 10$ might seem cheap for a cocktail dress but the actual price is around 5$. Now, I’m not saying “haggle until they sell it with 5$” but don’t give them the initial price, it’s bad for everyone! Tip: if the price you want to pay is too low they will usually reply with “sorry sir, I can’t” and that means you need to step up a bit.
The attractions around Pub-Street are all massage-related. Foot massage is by far the most popular so we had to try it, but first we saw swarms of little fish in tanks and we had to try that one too. 1$ for 10 minutes to stick your feet in the water and let the fish do their job. Needless to say, the girls were laughing and giggling even before the feet touched the water, but when those pesky suckers attacked all hell broke loose. They were squirming like anything I`ve ever seen before for all the 5 seconds they managed to keep their feet in the water. Ioana was brave enough to try again and managed to calm herself down. But I`m telling you, there`s no drug on this planet that will make you laugh harder than a tank full of hungry fish!
Day 2 of our tour was a little different:
- Preah Khan
- Banteay Srei (probably the most beautiful stone work in all Angkor)
- Pre Rup (10th Century architecture)
- Gems Market (the real stuff, with overheating demonstration and all that jazz)
- Boat ride to the floating city (mostly Vietnamese castaways)
(then a long ride 45 minutes by car to the next destination)
(this one was an extra 10$ for gas and 20$/person for the boat ride, and I didn’t care too much about) – we tipped the boat driver 1$/person as instructed)
After the boat ride we headed to the hotel for the afternoon nap by the pool. I skipped the nap because my brand spanking new GoPro Hero 3 Black Edition decided to kill my only micro SD card with 3 days of footage on it. Sandisk 64GB class 10 will be dearly missed. If you’re buying a Hero 3 get smaller memory cards, the firmware is not good enough yet.
The evening was a eating and shopping bonanza again. By the end of the night I was elbow-deep covered in delicious ice-cream.
When we got back to the hotel, I asked the manager to call us a cab in the morning to take us to the Thailand border. The cab fare is no more than 40$ and the ride takes more or less 3 hours. If you leave Siem Reap at 8AM there’s plenty of time for the border control and getting the Thai visa, and still catch the 13:00 train to Bangkok on the other side.
Overall Siem Reap made me want to come back at least one more time and see even more of this beautiful country. The people are incredibly friendly and most of them speak at least one foreign language (English, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese) so no matter where you are from, there’s a tour guide for you!
Just visit Cambodia and travel around the unbeaten path; it will be worth the trouble! Schedule at least 5-7 days. If travel photography is something you love there’s a good chance you`ll spend at least 2-3 days in Angkor with and without a guide. Next time I’ll rent a bike to catch some sunrises and more of the local customs.
Next stop: Bangkok