Siem Reap – 3 days in Cambodia

Siem Reap is an ancient place. It is well-worn with character written like wise creases on an old face. At its apogee, the Khmer empire built some of the most extraordinary temples in the world, ruling a kingdom covering parts of current day Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Myanmar. This was the Rome of Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat, the crown jewel in the Cambodian crown, is laid out to mirror the universe – this ambition rivaled only by its beauty. When I stood before the pyramids of Giza, I was impressed. When I came upon Angkor Wat, I was in love.

Flying to Cambodia is easy, as routes fly nonstop from many Southeast Asian hubs. The cheapest flight into Siem Reap is on Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur for roughly $120 round-trip. Flights from Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh are closer to $300 round-trip. If you are just aching to part with your dough, Silk Air offers a flight from Singapore that hovers around a grand. You can also take a bus into Siem Reap from Bangkok or Phnom Penh. Cambodia issues a visa on arrival so there is no need to obtain one beforehand. The process is quick and easy.


Day 1 – ATVs and Ta Prohm
Start the day with a tour of rural Cambodia on an all-terrain vehicle. Quad Adventures Cambodia provides an exhilarating trip through rice paddies and simple villages on red dirt roads. The expedition affords a glimpse into rural Cambodian life and stops by Chres Village School and Orphanage. The school is filled with Cambodian orphans, and they will give you a heartwarming tour of the premises. If you plan on being in Siem Reap for two weeks or longer, then you can volunteer at the school as a teacher.

After your cruise through the countryside of Siem Reap, head to the Angkor complex to buy a 3 day temple pass. The pass is required for visiting the ancient temples and costs $40. Check out the jungle temple of Ta Prohm in the late afternoon. Ta Prohm has a “taken back by nature” aesthetic with gnarly tree roots covering the temple walls like silly string. Visiting this temple is a fantastic way to get in the Angkor spirit. Follow it with sunset at Phnom Bakheng – a high temple on a hill overlooking the Angkor complex and dense jungle.

For the evening, head over to pub street. Pub Street has many bars and restaurants with food offerings ranging from local food such as Amok (fish wrapped in banana leaf) to pizza. The restaurant Le Tigre de Papier is a great spot and has a local cooking class. After dinner, check out the Angkor night market and “splurge” for a $3 foot massage.

For accommodation, a wide range of options exist. Le Meridien Angkor possesses an unbelievable pool and looks like a Bondian bad guy lair, but it is slightly on the expensive side. Kool Hotel is a great hotel at a great price. They provide complimentary breakfast, wifi, and have a pleasant pool.

Day 2 – Angkor Wat Sunrise and Tone Sap

Awake at 4:30am and begin your journey to the temple of Angkor Wat. Stumbling into the temple complex under moonlight and watching the sun slowly light up this otherworldly place is one of the world’s most memorable travel experiences.

After sunrise, tour the storied halls inside massive Angkor Wat and visit nearby Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom houses the photogenic Bayon temple, famous for its bas reliefs and gigantic stone faces. In the late morning, arrange a car or tuk tuk to Tonle Sap Lake – the largest lake in Southeast Asia. Many Cambodians call this lake home. They live in simple stilt houses, and it is not uncommon to see a child paddle by in what appears to be a salad bowl, perhaps on his way to a floating market. The most authentic lake experience is at the village of Kompong Phluk, but visiting the more touristy location near Siem Reap is still mind-blowing.

After your day at the lake, treat yourself to a fantastic Khmer-French fusion dinner at either Meric, Abacus, or AHA Wine Bar.

Day 3 – Banteay Srei, Land Mine Museum, and a Cambodian Carnival

Start your day with some fresh fruit juice and breakfast at your guesthouse and head out by tuk tuk through the countryside to Banteay Srei. The red sandstone carvings at Banteay Srei are the most meticulously detailed in Cambodia. Built in the 10th century, Banteay Srei served as an elaborate temple and library. Due to its slight remoteness, many visitors pass on this temple, but those that visit are rewarded with one of Angkor’s top sights.

The land-mining of Cambodia was a great tragedy. Many Cambodians have been disfigured and even killed in mining accidents. A stop by the Landmine Museum is necessary to put the damage into perspective. Learning about the founder’s life story is especially interesting. Museum founder Aki Ra fought as a child soldier, and some of his childhood narratives will leave a deep impression. Today he defuses land-mines and educates the public about their destructiveness. A movie was made about his life titled A Perfect Soldier, and he was named a CNN hero of 2010.

Late in the afternoon, visit the local carnival grounds on the outskirts of Siem Reap. Many games and local foods are there to sample. If you are feeling adventurous, try the delectable fried cricket. Several of the games, like “pop a balloon with a dart,” have prizes. You can win ice-cold Coca Cola and other beverages. The sodas are a welcome respite from the Cambodian heat.

The more local you get, the less people harass you. Walking through this foreign fairground, I felt like an American ghost. Watching Cambodian society undisturbed was an extraordinary experience.

Spend your last night at a traditional Cambodian barbecue spot. Touich Restaurant provides a tasty tour of this fiery cuisine style known as phnom pleung or “hill of fire.” Be sure to arrange reservations to guarantee a seat.

Extras – Bang Melea is a temple that has been left to the elements and is about an hour or two from Siem Reap. Roughly the size of Angkor Wat, you will feel like Indiana Jones exploring the unkempt ruins. On my visit, it was completely devoid of tourists. Some local kids gave me an impromptu tour of the dilapidated temple, and we climbed trees and explored dark hallways.

All photography by Justin Delaney

Photo of the Day (3.14.2010)

I’ve seen plenty of bland photos of Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat temple complex. Enough to know today’s choice, by Flickr user mick62, is anything but. The close-up details of the exotic dancer, the wonderful sense of movement and grainy “reportage” quality to the image combine to create a photo that is both visually interesting and authentic. I’m also wondering if the the grainy quality of the image is from Photoshop? Or is this simply taken in low light? Anybody know?

Have any great photos you’d like to submit for Gadling’s Photo of the Day? Submit your best shots here.

South by Southeast: 5 tips for Angkor Wat

I was alone, deep in the Cambodian jungle, flanked by the scattered ruins of ancient Khmer temples. My ears tickled with the cackle distant bird calls and buzzing cicadas. My shirt clung to my skin with a thick layer of sweat and ocher-hued dust. Suddenly, I heard movement to my right behind a wall. What was it? An ancient spirit of temples? A fearsome jungle cat waiting to pounce? My muscles tensed and I stood waiting for the apparition to appear – until a flag-waving tour group emerged from around the corner. It turns out I wasn’t as alone in the jungle as I previously thought.

Angkor Wat is less a place than an idea burned in our subconscious. These famous ruins float in our dreams like Indiana Jones fantasy, cloaked in thick layers of vines and overgrown jungle trees. Yet the reality of this ancient wonder of the world doesn’t always align with our visions. Angkor Wat today is among the most popular tourist destinations in Southeast Asia, with nearly two million visitors annually. The abandoned ruins of your dreams are positively overrun with tour groups, brandishing their gigantic SLR’s like a camera-toting guerilla army. Yet despite its enduring popularity, a visit through Angkor can still be thoroughly enjoyable – you just need to know the right way to do it.

To truly enjoy the wonders of Angkor, you need to come armed with a few simple strategies. Ready to make your own adventure through Angkor Wat? Keep reading below for our five tips.Tip #1 – Do Your Research
Before arriving in Angkor, I had assumed the site was just one big temple – it’s not. In reality it’s a series of massive complexes including Angkor Thom and the Roluos Temples, covering more than 3000 square kilometers and 72 major temples, many of which were built during different eras of the Khmer Empire. It pays to come to Angkor with at least some idea of what you want to see. Otherwise it’s easy to get lost and overwhelmed.

There’s some easy ways to arm yourself with the right information. Consider grabbing an Angkor-specific guide like this book by Dawn Rooney, which will provide historical background, itinerary plans and descriptions of key architectural features. The tech-savvy should also check out the Angkor iPhone app by the Asia travel experts at Travelfish. Need even more? Consider hiring a guide.

Tip #2 – Leave Enough Time
Tip two falls right in line with tip one. Considering the immense size of Angkor, you want to leave enough time to explore the site’s many ruins. Though individual interest in the ruins varies, many travelers recommend at least three days for a proper visit. This ensures you can check out all the main sights while also leaving time for some of the lesser-known gems, many of which are far less crowded than the “biggies” like Angkor Wat. Any less than this and you’re likely to spend a lot of time queuing behind other tourists at the big ruins. And if you’re really into archeology, consider grabbing a week-long pass.

Tip #3 – Beat the Heat
Even during the cooler winter months, Cambodia is positively sweltering. Daytime temperatures hover anywhere from the 80’s to over 100 degrees. Spending all day walking around in the baking heat is a bad idea. Plan a mid-day break for lunch into your itinerary if you’re doing it on your own.

Another great way to escape the crazy temperatures is a side trip out to Kbal Spean, a series of riverbed carvings with a refreshing waterfall pool at the end. And wherever you go, make sure to bring lots of water. Enterprising kids sell bottles outside most temples for next to nothing.

Tip #4 – Explore the Lesser-Known
No matter when you visit, expect Angkor Wat to be busy. But despite all the moaning about the crowds, there are still plenty of places you can find yourself all alone. Temples like Preah Kahn, the Banteay Srei/Kbal Spean combo and the Roluos Group, especially when visited early/late in the day, can make for delightfully deserted experiences. For the ultimate do-it-yourself experience, consider renting a bike to explore. You’ll find you can linger more easily at sites once the tour buses have departed.

Tip #5 – Choose Your Sun Carefully
Before my trip to Angkor, people kept raving about the sunsets. With considerable anticipation, I climbed to the top of Phnom Bakheng on my first day, ready to be wowed by the awesome sight of the sun setting over the temple complexes. Except it wasn’t that great. It was wildly crowded and gave very little view of the surrounding temples. Every “sunset spot” I visited during my three day tour was similarly poor. I’m sure there are good sunsets/sunrise to be had in Angkor, but they don’t come easy. If you’re dead-set on seeing the sunset or sunrise, don’t expect to be alone and make sure to get there early.

Yes, there are lots of visitors at Angkor. But with a little preparation and planning, there’s still plenty of adventure to be had. You just have to look a little harder to find it.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

Photo of the Day (11.29.2009)

Over the past five weeks of my trip through Southeast Asia, I’ve visited a huge number ancient temples. Ancient structures dot the hilltops and city streets pretty much anywhere you go. Perhaps that’s why today’s photo from Flickr user calendartravel caught my eye. Taken at Cambodia’s world famous Angkor Wat, I found myself drawn in by the great use of perspective. As you peer down the photo’s temple hallway, catching a glimpse of orange-shrouded monks in the distance, you feel as though you were right there in Cambodia, crawling around this amazing ancient wonder.

Want your pics considered for Gadling’s Photo of the Day? Submit your best ones here.

Angkor Wat: Welcome To The World’s First Super City…

If you’ve ever been to the Khmer architectural wonders at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, you’ll know that you need to be super-organised to see the different sites arrayed near the Tonle Sap lake.

You’ll be up early for sunrise at Angkor Wat, and after the journey to the Bayon at Angkor Thom, it’s onto temples further afield by bicycle or tuk tuk. New research by the Greater Angkor Project at the University of Sydney in Australia has now revealed that the size of the urban sprawl surrounding the temple at Angkor Wat is actually ten times larger than previously thought. The combination of aerial photography, on the ground research, and radar has revealed that the ancient conurbation covered nearly 3000 sq km. Almost 100 new temple sites have been discovered, and it’s now estimated the overall population of the area may have topped one million between the 9th and 16th centuries.

Mind you, if you’ve visited the rapidly expanding town of Siem Reap recently, you may think that a similar number is sometimes approached during the tourist season.

Thanks to dragon caiman on Flickr for the great shot of monks at Angkor Wat.