Cambodia Travel Notes
We spent only 4 days in Cambodia, which was dedicated to seeing the temples of Angkor. Two of these days were dedicated to getting to Siem Reap, the city closet to Angkor, and back. Therefore, all information about Cambodia is centered upon visiting the temples of Angkor.
Currency: The Riel (4,000 Riel = 1$US dollar). However, the US dollar is the dominate currency around Siem Reap and the temples. The Thai Baht is also readily accepted, especially around the border. Almost all services, especially those geared towards tourists, are quoted in US dollar. Small change will be given back in Riel and US dollar.
Visa: A Cambodia Visa is required to enter Cambodia. Visa on arrival at Poipet (border town of Cambodia closet to Bangkok) was easy to obtain. The cost is 20.00$US dollar. However, if you pay in Thai Baht they will charge you 1,000 baht. The line to stamp out of Thailand was long, slow and took about 2 - 2.5 hours to process. In Cambodia, first fill out the appropriate visa forms and get your visa (There are numerous Cambodian people helping facilitate this process). After you receive your visa, you need to walk about 150 meters to immigration to get stamped into Cambodia. Again, there are people dedicated to helping tourists through the process everywhere.
Overland travel from Bangkok to Siem Reap
The road from the border of Cambodia to Siem Reap has been called the worst road in southeast Asia and deserves a few notes. We traveled this section during the dry season (early December) and had no problems. In fact, our taxi ride was 3 hours and we felt this road was in very good shape compared to our travels in Laos. However, the trip from Bangkok-Siem Reap or back does take all day. For example, we left Siem Reap at 8:00am in a taxi and arrived in Bangkok via train at 7:15pm and this was under the best of conditions. We did learn that a few weeks earlier the road had its annual post monsoon scrape and patch, so the conditions were optimal. However, we heard many accounts of 10 - 12 hour bus rides during the wet season. The road is paved in some areas and packed red clay in others. The paved sections have many pot holes and I can see where the packed red clay sections would become quagmires during the wet season. Many people decide to fly during this time of season.
Bangkok to Aranya Prathet (border of Thailand)
There are basically two modes of transportation between Bangkok and the border of Cambodia (Poipet), bus or train. Buses leave throughout the day from Bangkok's Moh Chit terminal (north/northeast terminal) to the Thai border town of Aranya Prathet. This was around 175 Baht and took 3-4 hours. The train is only 48 baht, 3rd class, and takes 6 hours to arrive at Aranya Prathet. Train leaves from Hualamphong station. When you arrive in Aranya Prathet, negotiate a tuk tuk (50 baht) to travel the 6 kilometers to the border.
From Poipet to Siem Reap
For us this was initially very frustrating to obtain information about this leg of the journey and we were in Poipet. Here is what we found out and were told by a few people this is the only way, but I believe there is other ways to get to Siem Reap. From our understanding, all transportation (bus or taxi) is now under governmental control with a tour agency managing all tourist transport TO Siem Reap. After immigration stamps, one of the helpers will direct you to a transport bus. This will take you to either a the bus or taxi station depending upon your request. We were unable to find local buses or transport to Siem Reap. The shared, private taxi for four was $US45 one way and the bus was $US11 per person. We took the taxi after long negotiations to allow our family of five to travel in the taxi. Going from Siem Reap to Poipet the prices change, we were able to get our taxi for $US30 and we went to a tour agency who stated bus prices were $US4.
Life in Siem Reap
Siem Reap is a guesthouse and lavish hotel mecca. There are numerous very good guesthouses spread all over town and at decent prices. We paid $US9 for 2 double beds and bath with fan in a good guesthouse. We did find that the food is much higher then we paid in Thailand, but again, the food was good and there are numerous restaurants.
We also found the people of Siem Reap very helpful, very service oriented and very friendly. We know the history of Cambodia and we were not sure what to expect given our US passports. We were very impressed with the people of Cambodia.
Also, in Siem Reap, we arranged our tuk-tuk transportation to the temples of Angkor. We negotiated a sunrise pickup from our guesthouse, transport to the temples, transport around the short circuit within Angkor, sunset at Phnom Bakheng and back to Siem Reap for all 5 of us for $US10. Our second day we developed our own itinerary and did not go on the Grand circuit for the same price.
Cost of Goods and Services
Our hotel per night (2 Dbl beds, fan, bathroom): $US9
Average daily food cost for family of four: $US 24
Hired tuk tuk and driver for all day transportation of Angkor: $US 10
3 day Angkor pass per person: $US30 (under 12 free)
Large bottle of Angkor beer: $US1.50 from street vendor
The Temples of Angkor
This place is truely amazing and easily one of the major highlights of our entire trip. To enter the Angkor area a pass is mandatory. There are 1 ($US20), 3($US40) and 7 ($US60) day passes. Honestly, one day is no way near enough time to see Angkor. We only had two full days (sunrise-sunset) and we felt very good about our experience, but wish we had several more days. These passes are asked for periodically during the day and not producing your pass will result in a steep $US30 fine.
One thing I noticed about Angkor is how the changing light impacts every temple, especially Angkor Wat and Bayon. We went back to certain temples on different days to see how the morning and afternoon light impacted the major temples and we were very satisfied with this decision to give up seeing some of the more distant temples and concentrate on seeing the main temples in different light settings. Also, these are climbing and exploring temples and the kids had a blast! The steps are steep and narrow and took me a few tries to gain my confidence. In addition, there is so much to explore within each temple, one could easily dedicate a day to one temple. I am not an architect, but I found the symmetric format and door way and hall way structures truly amazing. With diffused light in each temple, these multitudes of door ways and hall ways was an exceptional sight. Our favorite temples were: Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan.
Our tour - Day One
After collecting our passes, we went straight to Angkor Wat for sunrise. Sunrise did not materialize but we still were able to see the magnificent view of Angkor Wat. We spent about 4 hours here, then came back in the afternoon of day two for another couple of hours. From here we went to Angkor Thom to visit the astounding Bayon temples, along with the terrace of elephants and Phimeanakas. Bayon and the 216 stone faces is a must. We went back again early in the morning on day two to sketch, take more photos and relax within this temple. After Angkor Thom, we went to several smaller temples before reaching Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is a must see. Our kids nicknamed Ta Prohm the "Tomb Raider" temple, because I guess the movie Tomb Raider was filmed here. The Ta Prohm temple has not been completely excavated and the foliage and giant trees are a major component for this dramatic setting. Tree roots have crumpled walls and provide a surreal scene that looks like an octopus taking over the temple.
Our tour - Day Two
We went back to Bayon for the early morning. We spent most of the morning here. Then we went to the more remote Preah Khan ruins. Like Ta Prohm, these ruins have not been completely excavated and are left in a more "ruined" state. We enjoyed the exploration of these ruins. After Preah Khan, we went to Preah Neak Pean to see the water temples and relax. Next it was back to Angkor Wat for some late lunch, late afternoon pictures and one last look at the largest religious structure in the world. For sunset, we went to the hilltop temple of Phnom Bakheng. The setting is dramatic overlooking the entire Angkor complex. Get there about an hour before sunset to hike up to the temples and to stake out a location to see the sunset.