Getting to Cambodia from Thailand is known for being the toughest border crossing in Southeast Asia. It turned out to be fairly easy and our experience and how-tos will be on a forthcoming post.
After making it across the border via the direct bus, we were welcomed into Siem Reap by a gazillion tuk-tuk drivers hounding us. There is even a shirt for sale that reads "no tuk-tuk, not now, not ever." The biggest ploy to be aware of is hotels sending tuk-tuk drivers to pick you up from the bus station and then they "offer" to take you to Angkor Wat the next day.
Cambodia is on the dollar and the riel, so you're guaranteed to get a terrible exchange rate, as you pay in dollars and get change in riel. However, even though things really aren't "fair," you can hardly feel ripped off because for us, it's $1-$2, but for locals it's all they might make in a day.
All this set up to say, as a Westerner, you will live like a king in Cambodia. We stayed at the wonderful Angkor Hollywood Hotel and it was luxury for $30 a night.
Visiting Angkor Wat is the main reason people visit Cambodia, but it's not well-known that Angkor Wat is actually only one of hundreds of temples in a 400-square kilometer complex. Consider it the New York City of its time. There are three loops you can do, each taking about a day. If you're super in to temples, you can buy a 3- or 7- day pass. We decided to just go for the one day, traditional Wat loop. Tickets are purchased the morning of your first visit, at a ticket window just outside town. Your tuk-tuk driver will stop there. Bring cash.
We went with a recommended driver for our day visiting the traditional loop including sunrise at Angkor Wat. We paid $25 for the day for three people for a 5 am pick up and 11:30 am drop off. The days get hot quickly, so it's a good idea to get started early. You can contact Sok here: email@example.com
Listen to your driver. They do this everyday and will take you where you need to be. Be aware though, if you want the traditional Angkor view, you need to enter the gates across the water. One more comment, your chances of getting that postcard shot are about 10 of 365 days. Nearly all days in Angkor Wat start out cloudy. If it's raining, sleep in.
Following Angkor Wat, we headed for Bayon, with the gazillion faces and then Ta Prohm, famous for the filming of Tomb Raider. Ta Prohm was our favorite. You can walk into the center of the complex where the trees are surrounding fallen rocks. We were the only people in the serenity except for a woman making offerings. It was an exceptional experience.
Some tips for your day at Angkor Wat:
1. The complex is seriously massive, so if you want to go to the landmine museum or other lesser known temples you will need to schedule another day of site seeing or pay extra for doing it all in one day. BUT, temple fatigue is a real thing. They don't look the same, but you definitely start to feel "meh" about the latest stop.
2. Many temples are still active places of worship. Wear modest clothing. I wore a Columbia fishing shirt and zip-off hiking pants. This was perfect.
3. Bring a lot of water. You won't regret it.
4. There will be many children trying to sell you knick-knacks. Do not purchase from them.
5. Bring breakfast with you to see the sunrise at Angkor. You will be sitting for awhile and then can hit the road while the tour groups stop for breakfast.
Siem Reap is extremely touristy, but you can still find street food-esq places. We ate at a place called Lim Kim Cheng, which was cheap and had good traditional khmer curry and fish amok. We also dined at Khmer Kitchen on the corner of Pub Street and had a fancier meal at Aha Wine Kitchen, where the service was outstanding.
Tip: Catch the free (with drink purchase) traditional Cambodian dance show at the Temple on Pub Street.
Many travelers advised us to skip Phnom Penh and we decided to take them up on the advice. While I know most people visit to see the Killing Fields and S21 prison, I knew I just couldn't do it. It would wreck me mentally and emotionally for weeks. Fortunately, the same travelers advised us to visit Battambang as a replacement. This turned out to be an incredible decision.
Battambang is nothing like Siem Reap. It is not touristy; it doesn't cater to tourists, period.
The one fabulous thing about bus transportation in Cambodia is you are always picked up from your hotel. We took the 2 pm Mekong Express bus between Siem Reap and Battambang, a three hour journey. Note: there is also an 8 am bus every day as well. During wet season, you can take a day-long boat trip along the river.
Brian was nervous about bus travel in Cambodia, but the Mekong Express was a breeze. The driver was safe by SEA standards and the roads were only rough for half the trip.
We were picked up by Rich, who would become our tuk-tuk driver the next day. We would HIGHLY recommend him and you can contact him here: firstname.lastname@example.org or Cosmictuk-tuk.weebly.com
Rich picked us up at 10 am and we headed to the infamous Bamboo Railroad. After the demise of the train system, locals continued to use the tracks to transport goods between villages. Not having enough money for motors, locals used bamboo shoots to push bamboo slatted platforms along. Now this has become a tourist attraction and uses lawnmower engines. The ride is a bumpy one along the dilapidated tracks. When you arrive in the village, you can walk down to the old brick factory. Be prepared to be accosted by many young girls selling bracelets. They each latched on to a tourist and demanded we "pinky swear" we would buy from them upon return. It is very intense and you have to be firm.
Following this we went to the Killing Caves, a series of three caves used to murder intellectuals, teenagers and infants during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. As we stood in a cave where the intellectuals were hit on the back of the head and then tossed to the bottom of the cave, Rich told us the story of his family. We looked at each other with tears in our eyes as he told us his grandfather was murdered in the place we stood. It was overwhelming.
While the day was sobering, it also gave us a great opportunity to ask questions and listen to Rich talk about his family and future. Later in the day, we met his five year old son, who wanted to come with us to the Cambodian circus. It is incredible to see such a strong character continuing on from such tragedy and making a new life for his family. I hope you will reach out to Rich if you are in Battambang and hear his story for yourself.
Our final stop in Battambang was at the local circus. There is one in Siem Reap as well. Local children are trained in acrobatics, music, stage production and audio-visual to provide them an outlet, as well as a skill utilized world-wide. This show was incredible! Think Cirque-du-Soleil with teenagers. All the proceeds go back to the program and it was well worth the $12 for the show.
Cambodia was a place high on my list to visit and we are both so glad we did. One week would be plenty in this country, but I strongly recommend it for an adventurous traveler wanting to get a true sense of Southeast Asia. The people were lovely, the food was a pleasant change and the history will bring you to your knees.