Visiting the temples of Angkor Archaeological Park, relaxing in a beautiful hotel and sampling traditional Cambodian dishes.
Friday 2 – Sunday 4 February 2018
If you have a British passport, you need to buy a visa on arrival in Cambodia. This costs US$30 and is valid for a month. (Side note: Although Cambodian Riel is the official currency, US$ is more commonly used and we only received any Riel when our change was less than US$1). When you land and enter the airport (which was one of the loveliest wee airports I’ve seen), you and your passport get ferried through a visa production line. You need to pay in cash but there is an ATM available. Although the form requests that you attach a passport photo, we didn’t have one and weren’t asked. Our visas were produced photo-less.
When we exited the hotel, we were met by the most welcoming smile of our driver, Tonh, holding a sign with my name. He walked with us to the road and asked us to wait and come and he’d collect us in a few minutes. When we were waiting I noticed all the tuk tuks with motorbikes on the road and crossed my fingers that Tonh would arrive back in one of those instead of a boring car. He did! We jumped in the back of his tuk tuk and watched Cambodia speed by as we drove to the hotel. Tonh ended up being our driver for the rest of the weekend.
Villa Nissa is owned by a French man, called Aurelien, who has lived in Siem Reap for 10+ years, and his Cambodian wife, Samphos. We were checked in by Samphos, who gave us fresh fruit juice, lots of tips about the temples and showed us to our lovely room. She told us that her husband usually does check in but had taken one of their cats to the vets. Crazy cat man David was happy to hear there were a few cats wandering around the hotel.
Our room was lovely, and probably the nicest we have had in Southeast Asia, especially with the low price. As well as the airport pickup, the price also covered breakfast, which was served outside in the garden seating area and was delicious. It’s quite a small hotel outside of Siem Reap (too far to walk I’d say but Tonh was always on hand) so would always be quite quiet anyway but I think we stayed just before busy season so almost had the place to ourselves.
While I don’t think Siem Reap felt particularly unsafe, the house felt very safe, closed off behind a big gate. To the front, there are lovely gardens and a dining area. To the back is a beautiful pool area with sun beds, umbrellas and pool towels. After we checked into our room, we lazed by the pool for a while, soaking up the tranquil atmosphere after a few days in manic Ho Chi Minh City.
Buying temple tickets
On Samphos’ advice, we asked Tonh if he could pick us up at 4.30pm to drive us to buy tickets for Angkor Archaeological Park for the following day. From 5-5.30pm, you can go to the ticket office to buy tickets for the next day. As we were getting picked up at 5am to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, this seemed like a good option so we didn’t need to get up earlier than needed! Otherwise, the ticket office opens at 5am.
Tickets are quite pricey at US$37 per adult. Under 12s and Cambodian citizens don’t need to pay. Although each ticket includes a US$2 contribution to a children’s hospital fund, I’ve read some queries about why the tickets are so expensive as there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of maintenance and restoration work taking place to protect the temples.
There’s different ticket queues depending on how long a pass you want. We bought one day passes and our photo was taken and printed on the ticket. Our tickets were checked each time we entered the temples site so there’s no way you could use someone else’s ticket.
Although Angkor Wat is probably the most well-known of the temples, Angkor Archaeological Park stretches over 400km2 and includes many other temples such as Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm. Your ticket for Angkor Archaeological Park gives you entrance into all of the parks.
There were big signs around the ticket office urging tourists not to give money or sweets to local children who beg within the Archaeological Park. If you give them anything, it encourages the kids to skip school and beg. I thought this was a really useful sign for tourists as you’re often a bit torn about what to do in that situation, especially when the kids claim things like they need the money for school books.
Tonh waited for us outside the ticket office and then dropped us off in the centre of Siem Reap for dinner, agreeing a time to meet us a few hours later. In the centre is Pub Street – a street of pubs which gets quite rowdy in the evening. During our visit, we read an article about tourists going to Siem Reap to party and how the Cambodian government were really cracking down on it as it against their culture. The week before our trip police had arrested 10 tourists for photos/videos they had posted on social media from a pub crawl. Although it does seem like asking for trouble to call a street ‘Pub Street’, I would think twice if you are planning a wild holiday to Siem Reap.
Using the trusty TripAdvisor ‘Nearby’ feature, we found somewhere to eat nearby Pub Street – Cambodian Traditional Chef. The sign saying $1 cocktails and 50 cent beers sealed the deal! Our drinks were served with some tasty banana chips and we got some traditional Khmer curries.
We needed to wear clothes covering our knees and shoulders to visit Angkor Archaeological Park the next day. Before heading back to the hotel we stopped by the Night Market to buy trousers (for David) and a tshirt (for me). We haggled one of the sellers down to about £5 for a pair of trousers and she danced away, showing the money off to her friends. We knew we had been ripped off but didn’t mind when the money is worth so much more to her than it is to us.
We met Tonh and his tuk tuk and headed back to the hotel for an early night. I’d felt bad that he had been waiting for us all the time but was happy to hear he had gone to meet a friend who was working nearby.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
At 5am the next morning, Tonh was waiting for us outside the gates of the hotel. It was quite chilly at that time but luckily, David had brought his hoody which I quickly stole from him! The drive took us about 30 minutes, passing through a checkpoint for our tickets. Arriving at the car park near Angkor Wat, Tohn parked up alongside all the other tuk tuks and pointed us in the right direction. Most of the drivers set up a hammock inside their tuk tuk so they can get some sleep while their customers are exploring. Making a mental note of where Tonh was parked, we followed the hordes of other tourists walking towards the temples in the dark.
Across a walkway over the moat, we quickly reached the temple area and decided on a spot in front of a little lake. The recognisable shape of Angkor Wat was just visible in the darkness and we hoped that it would reflect on the lake as the sun rose. Of course, there were loads of other tourists there, but it wasn’t quite as busy as I had expected. The park is big and there are a lot of possible options to view the sunrise from so I suppose everyone was spread out.
At 5.55am we were in position, ready to be blown away by the sunrise over Angkor Wat. At 6am the sun started to rise and it was…slightly underwhelming to be honest. The sky just got lighter. The spectacular sunrise that I had been hoping for failed to show and by 6.15am it was light. In hindsight, I think I was naive to expect a fantastic sunrise every day but it was a little disappointing.
Slightly bemused as to why so many people get up at 5am to see the sky slowly get lighter, we got up and headed towards the temples. Although it was very busy, the temples are very big so they didn’t seem to be too crowded with the exception of the central area. Only a certain number of people are allowed up at a time so we queued for about 30 minutes before climbing the steep steps to the top to look around.
Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu temple, dedicated to Vishnu, the Supreme God of Vaishnavite Hinduism. It was later converted to Theravada Buddhist use and there are Buddha statues in the top section.
After a couple of hours of looking around Angkor Wat, we walked back to the car park and found Tonh. Angkor Wat is the closest temple from Siem Reap, and the others are quite close by. I imagine the majority of people start at Angkor Wat and then visit the other temples. Our plan of action was to go back to the hotel for breakfast and a nap before visiting a few more temples in the afternoon.
We got back to the hotel at around 9am and asked Tonh to come back and pick us up again at 3pm. He seemed a little taken aback that it was so late but hopefully he was happy to have a few hours break after an early start. We were served a delicious breakfast by Aurelien and Samphos, went for a nap and then went to laze by the pool for a while. Again, we almost had the beautiful pool area to ourselves and were wishing we had a more days there to just relax.
Tonh was waiting outside the hotel gates for us at 3pm and we tuk tuk’d back towards the temples. We took Samphos’ advice and decided to visit Bayon (within Angkor Thom), Ta Prohm and Pre Rup. We hoped that we could fit the three in before sunset, when the temples closed.
On our way back to the temples, we passed by an elephant with a seat on his back. The elephant’s ‘owner’ was sitting on its back with his feet resting on his ears. The elephant’s eyes looked so sad.
This is not an uncommon sight in South East Asia. Often you see elephants with tourists naively (I hope) smiling on their back as they ride along. This is slightly off topic but please please please, if you are even considering riding an elephant, read this article: Dear tourists, here’s why you need to stop riding elephants.
In order to train elephants to be ridden “baby elephants are tortured for around three days straight in a process called Phajaan or the Crush – because basically the torture will crush the animals spirit. They are tied up, beaten, stabbed with bullhooks and starved until their eyes are dull and lifeless and they cease to resist. Now the elephant is trained and ready to submit to the will of its owners and carry tourists.”
Elephants are such beautiful creatures. If you want to see them during your trip, do your research and find a sanctuary, which takes good care of them.
Bayon Temple of Angkor Thom
Although much smaller than Angkor Wat, Bayon was my favourite of the temples we visited in Angkor Archaeological Park. Known as the ‘face temple’, Bayon has 54 towers with 216 faces of Avalokiteshvara, ‘the earthly manifestation of the self-born eternal Buddha Amitabha’ (Britannica). Everywhere you look there is the face of Avalokiteshvara smiling down at you. That might sound a bit creepy but it’s actually pretty cool and I’d highly recommend adding Bayon to your temple itinerary if you’re only planning to visit a few.
As it was smaller (and maybe because it was later in the day?), Bayon seemed busier that Angkor Wat and we saw a few tour groups exploring. As usual, I lost David for a while and found him in the middle of a Chinese tour group!
Back to our tuk tuk and on to Ta Prohm. After Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm is definitely the most famous temple thanks to Angelia Jolie. Aside from being the filming location of Tomb Raider, which was filmed in 2000, Ta Prohm is slightly different from the other temples as it has been ‘reclaimed by the jungle’. Wandering around the temple, you will see that huge trees have grown through the ruins of the temple.
Our final temple of the day was Pre Rup. Another of the smaller temples, we had a look around before finding a place to sit to watch the sunset. Much less busy than Angkor Wat for the sunrise, there was still a crowd of people sitting on the side of the temple facing the sun. Slowly it…got dark! Again, not a spectacular sunset but hey, we can now say we have watched the sunrise and sunset from the temples of Angkor! When the sun went down, staff ushered everyone out of the temple.
Dinner in Siem Reap
Tonh took us back to Siem Reap, agreeing to pick us up again a few hours later. Using TripAdvisor we had dinner in Dee Cafe, which promised vegetarian food, cocktails and Anchor (Cambodian beer). I had a vegetarian mushroom version of Amok – a curry which is steam cooked in a banana leaf – which was very tasty. After a quick wander around Pub Street, Tonh took us back to our lovely hotel for an early night ahead of our 8am flight back to Kuala Lumpur the next morning.
Tonh looked after us for the entire weekend, including dropping us back off at the airport and charged $30. In Edinburgh, that would get you a 30 minute taxi journey if you’re lucky. Needless to say, we gave him a huge tip but it really made me appreciate how hard Cambodians work for their money. While a trip to Siem Reap for us can be classed as cheap (flying from KL, staying in a great hotel), I can’t imagine many Cambodians can ever afford to travel to a lot of other countries. I know that we are generally very lucky for how much travelling we have been able to do this year and visiting Cambodia really made me see that the world is not accessible for a lot of people and appreciate it that little bit more.
In contrast to the cost of our hotel and transport, $30 for our Cambodian visa and $37 for entry to Angkor Archaeological Park is extortionate. The government have definitely worked out how much they can get away with charging tourists.
A brief but fascinating few days in Siem Reap, made extra special by a fantastic hotel (Villa Nissa) – which I’d happily go back to for a relaxing break – and a lovely tuk tuk driver to look after us. As for the temples, I would say that it’s not worth getting up for the sunrise. It may be on your bucket list to do so, but be prepared – it might just…get light! From the four temples we visited, I’d recommend visiting Angkor Wat (has to be done really!), Bayon and Ta Prohm (for the trees, not Tomb Raider!).