Siem Reap, CambodiaApril 6, 2011
The tiny provincial capital of Siem Reap has grown steadily over the years. The jumping off point for the massive Angkor Archaeological Park, it has become a thriving tourist town, bustling with eager visitors, crammed with bars and restaurants, and thriving on millions in international investment.
The main reason people come here is to visit Angkor Wat. The temple is central to the Cambodian psyche. Not only does it adorn the countrys flag, but it also lends its name and image to a popular brand of beer and many hotels, Internet cafes, restaurants, and cafes, both in Siem Reap and in the farflung corners of the country.
Yet, Angkor Wat and the other temples are not the only attraction in Siem Reap. Today, there is good reason to stay a few more days and see the Tonle Sap Lake from floating villages and enjoy the citys spas, art galleries, dance performances, museums, golf courses, dirtbike tours, and other things.
II. History Back to Top
The original Angkorean kingdom began with Jayavarman II at the start of the 9th Century C.E. After moving his court several times, he settled in the vicinity of present day Siem Reap and was crowned in a ceremony near Phnom Kulen. His successors set to work on the temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park as well as the massive temple complexes further afield in Preah Vihear Province, Ko Ker and Bakhan or Preah Khan.
After two centuries, the line of god-kings originating with Jayavarman II ended with the death of Jayavarman V. After a bloody struggle, the throne went to Suryavarman I, who oversaw construction of the Western Baray and Prasat Preah Vihear. Following years of instability, the kingdom came under the control of Suryavarman Is descendent, Suryavarman II, who undertook the construction of Angkor Wat over the next forty years.
In the years that followed, massive construction projects and a growing population sorely taxed the resources of the kingdom. This may be one reason for the success of the Cham invasion in 1177 C.E., which resulted in the sacking of Angkor Wat and four years military occupation.
The last of Cambodias great god-kings came in the following decade. Jayavarman VII undertook massively ambitious construction projects, creating Angkor Thom, the Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, and Bantey Kdei, among others.
Yet, this resurgence was followed by another decline. Following the Thai invasion of 1431, Angkor Thom, which boasted a population in the tens of thousands during Jayavarman IIs reign, was mysteriously abandoned to the jungle. The reasons for moving the capital closer to its present day location are hotly debated, but the threat from Thailand and economic and political reasons have all been advanced.
Over the next two centuries, the temples remained sparsely populated, and only a few European and Japanese adventurers, traders, and missionaries visited them. It was not until 1860 that they once more excited European interest with the publication of Henri Mouhots journal. Recounting his arduous trek through the jungle to discover the temples once more, his journal can still be found, in abbreviated form, in English translation and makes compelling reading.
During the colonial period, the area was an amalgamation of tiny village centred around local pagodas. The French laid the groundwork for modern day Siem Reap, and their architectural influence can still be seen in the Old French Quarter and the Old Market area.
The Khmer Rouge years saw fighting much like the rest of the country. Many of the temples, however, fared better than others. Even with subsequent looting, they possess an unrivalled store of delicate sandstone sculptures. Today, the area is once again perfectly safe to visit and welcomes over a million tourists each year.
III. Siem Reap Town Back to Top
Siem Reap is a small town, but it has grown to accommodate the influx of visitors to the Angkor Archaeological Park. The town itself boasts all manner of facilities for visitors, and it is one of the more exciting places after dark anywhere in Cambodia. Its small size makes it easy to negotiate. Its French colonial centre provides historical ambience. And its tourist ghetto centring on Psar Chas (the Old Market) offers a plethora of restaurants, bars, and cafes catering to foreigners.
What people who have visited the city several times most often remark is that it is rapidly changing. With so many investors seeking to capitalise on its huge tourism potential, every year the town seems to reinvent itself with massive hotels and resorts shooting up from the ground. This means that its time to hurry up and get to Siem Reap now, as prices are rising, the town losing its backwater charm, and the temples already crawling with tourists like an ant hill. Its already too late to experience its former remoteness. All you can hear while watching the sunrise over the temples are a cacophony of foreign voices and the clicking of cameras. But at least theres time yet before there are futuristic electric mini-trains ferrying millions more tourists.
One other thing that many visitors remark is that Siem Reap is a city of contrasts. Many people are striking it rich catering to jet setting tourists who pump millions of dollars every year into the local economy. But this is Cambodia, and Siem Reap exemplifies its inequitable distribution of wealth. The area around the temples is not just a park; it is home to many villagers who have not seen much benefit from the five-star hotels, the airport, and the world class international restaurants. They still live in traditional wooden houses and sit beside little drink stands to scrape out a meagre subsistence income.
Yet, Siem Reap is also a beacon of hope to many in the country who pack up and seek their fortunes in Siem Reap with the same fervour as prospectors in a goldrush. This has led to some of the few annoyances to tourists: the glut of motodops following visitors down every street, the kids hawking postcards and cheap jewellery, and all the other hucksters trying to make a quick buck from the hordes of faceless tourists jetting in for a few days and disappearing again. Its best to remember, though, that most of these people have few options in life and are just trying to move up a little in the world.
The one exception are the criminals who come to the city to take advantage of its tourists. While violent crime is not as prevalent as, say, the capital, there is the risk of petty thugs holding you up, snatching your bag, pilfering from your room, or otherwise ripping you off. Stories in the international media, as well as on backpacker websites, often grossly exaggerate the level of danger visitors face in Siem Reap. With a little common sense, there is no reason your stay should be anything but stress-free and enjoyable.
IV. The Angkor Archaeological Park Back to Top
The Angkor Archaeological Park is one of the wonders of the world. It consists of hundreds of temples, spread over an area of many kilometres, and it can take days to see a wide just the highlights.
The cost of entry into the park is twenty dollars for one day, forty dollars for three days, and sixty dollars for seven days. For the three- and seven-day tickets, one photo is required. The tickets may be purchased at the large gates at the entrance to the park. Officials posted at individual temples inspect these tickets. The park opens just before sunrise and closes just after sunset. Unfortunately, the tickets must be used on consecutive days, meaning you cannot buy a three-day ticket and use the three days over the course of a weeklong holiday.
The institution responsible for caring for the temples is called the Apsara Authority, but the temples themselves belong to the Cambodian people. The Apsara Authority is responsible for restoration projects funded by foreign donations and undertaken with foreign expertise. The tickets to the temples are sold by Soximex, a Cambodian company, which keeps about fifteen percent of revenue for this job. They remainder of the money goes to local authorities, including the Apsara Authority, to maintain the site.
There is no requirement to take a guide to the temples, but for those who want to have a local expert, there are guides who speak any umber of languages, though at times it can be hard to find one who speaks anything but English. They can be reserved in advance from hotels and cost around twenty dollars per day.
Those who have a more do-it-yourself approach can find countless books in Siem Reap and the park itself that describe the temples in exhaustive detail. Those who would like more information about their history, construction, and iconography should purchase one. They contribute immensely to the experience of seeing the temples by giving them some meaning beyond just another pile of stones.
Here is a little background on a few of the more popular temple sites.
a) Phnom Bakheng is home to one of the earliest temples at Angkor. Built in the late 9th century by King Yasovarman I, this hill requires a climb up a set of steep, narrow stairs, but it has become a major attraction at sunrise and sunset, and at those times it can be packed with visitors.
b) Built around a century after Phnom Bakheng, Bantey Srey (Citadel of the Woman) is a tiny temple 25 kilometres from Angkor Wat. Because of this distance, most drivers charge extra to make the trip. But its worth the money. Unlike most other temples in the area, Bantey Srey was made using pink sandstone rather than grey laterite, allowing its ancient artisans to cover it in ornate sculpture.
c) The centrepiece of the park is of course Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th century, and surrounded by a massive moat capturing the reflection seen in so many photographs, the temple is covered in elaborate bas-reliefs. Yet, it is the sheer size of its five towers, rather than its refined sculpture, that immediately strikes the visitor.
d) Not really a temple, Angkor Thom was the site of an ancient city. Its confines were surrounded by an eight-meter wall and a wide moat, and visitors must pass through its imposing gates to reach its many temples, the most famous of which is the Bayon.
e) One of the most eagerly photographed temples in the park is Ta Prohm. Great care has been taken in maintaining this site, and it retains an exotic atmosphere overgrown solitude, strangled by massive, otherworldly trees.
f) Bantey Kdei (Citadel of the Monks) grew up over time into the centrepiece of a large walled enclosure protecting an ancient population. There are no records of its construction, and it remains a mystery for modern archaeologists.
g) Built a century after Angkor Wat, the Bayon is perhaps the second most recognisable temple in the park after Angkor Wat. Its giant stone heads gazing out at the four points of the compass have become a symbol of Cambodia itself. Such heads are found only in a few other points (Bantey Chhmar in Bantey Meanchey province and Bakhan or Preah Khan in Preah Vihear province.)
V. Around Siem Reap Town Back to Top
Visitors to Siem Reap should consider taking a break from the park for a day or two to see a few other points of interest. Heres a quick rundown of a few of Siem Reaps most popular alternative attractions.
a) Located on the road to the airport, the War Museum consists of a motley collection of old memorabilia. There is not much in the way of information on the significance of the items. But for those curious about old tanks, cannons, guns, and uniforms, this is the place to go. Admission is three dollars.
b) While locals pay only a dollar to visit this privately owned affair, the owners have decided that foreigners should pay twelve dollars for the Cambodian Cultural Village. Which means, of course, that many people rightly give this kitsch collection of miniature monuments and wax figures a pass in protest.
c) For two dollars, see muddy pits full of stinking reptiles before theyre handbags at the Crocodile Farm. No, really. Some people actually enjoy this sort of thing.
d) Cambodias traditional style of Apsara dance is graceful and elegant, with carefully choreographed steps and corresponding hand movements. Upscale hotels and restaurants stage occasional performances, often in conjunction with buffet dinners.
e) If you havent had enough of temples, Beng Meleas crumbling heaps of stones, with wooden causeways that take you right over walls and around towers, provide an out-of-the-way alternative to Angkors bustling passageways. The trip there takes you near Phnom Kulen and Kbal Spean, so its possible to pack a few spots dotted in the vicinity of town into one days sightseeing. There is a separate entrance fee of five dollars collected by the folks who built the road all the way out to Ko Ker.
f) With your Angkor ticket, you have access to the ancient site of fertility worship, Kbal Spean. There is a small trail leading along a river. The scenery is pleasant, with enormous boulders sitting in the jungle, and after a forty-five minutes hike, you reach The River of a Thousand Lingas. The lingas are carvings on the stones of the riverbed. They are phallus shaped and probably served to bring fertility to the lands fed by the stream. There is a tiny waterfall that creates a pool just big enough for swimming in the monsoon season.
g) Phnom Kulen is a popular site with Cambodians. There is a modern wat, some old temples, and a waterfall. The area is sacred, and it is where the stones for the Angkor temples were quarried. Many tourists skip this place because of the additional twenty-dollar entrance fee that goes into the pocket of a local Member of Parliament. (He built the road with his own funds in order to justify the charge to foreigners.) A discount of five dollars is offered to anyone who goes to the City Angkor Hotel to purchase a ticket. (Its owned by the same politician.)
h) The nearby Tonle Sap Lake is home to a number of floating villages. The one most commonly visited by tourists is Chong Kneas. Many people describe it as a tourist trap with drivers, tourist police, and the local villagers all just trying to get a cut of the action. Kampong Phluk is another village on the lake. While it is not technically a floating village, it is only reachable by boat for much of the year. For a little more money than Chong Kneas (around forty or fifty dollars) this has been described as a much better alternative. Seek advice from The Two Dragons Guesthouse and Restaurant on this and other remote floating villages.
i) The Prek Toal wildlife sanctuary on the lake gives you the opportunity to see some of Cambodias most exotic birds. It takes a couple hours to reach, and the best time to visit is at the start of the dry season. When the water level recedes, the birds congregate. By the middle of the dry season, there are still plenty of birds, but some of the best bird watching spots are inaccessible due to water levels.
VI. Accommodation Back to Top
One of the most frustrating aspects of finding accommodation for the average traveller is the scam artists who try to force you to their commission paying hotel or guesthouse. If you bought your ticket in Phnom Penh, at say Narin Guesthouse, you will be herded into their franchise in Siem Reap, Smileys Guesthouse. If you got the ticket on Thanon Khao San in Bangkok, then the mini-bus driver will have his own instructions on where to drop you off. Even if youre going solo, and sorting out your own independent taxi at the border town of Poipet, or catching one from the airport or from Phnom Penh, the driver will try everything short of putting a gun to your head to get you to stay at a place that will pay him a kickback. This includes telling you that your intended lodgings, which you read about in a guidebook or on the Internet, are dirty, closed, or victim of a terrorists bomb. Theres really only one way to deal with the situation, and thats to stick to your guns.
The range of accommodation available in Siem Reap is staggering. Everywhere you look is another hotel or guesthouse. On the money for value scale, they are generally a little more expensive than the other two popular destinations in Cambodia. The top of the range hotels are clustered on the road to Angkor Wat. There are also upper- and mid-range accommodation on National Highway # 6 on the way toward back to Phnom Penh and the airport. For proximity to town, though, the better of these two areas is obviously the road to Angkor Wat. For mid-range and budget accommodation, there are places scattered all around town. The side streets for several blocks west of the river are chock full of places to bed down. Across the river as far as Psar Leu are more places. There is also a cluster of places right in the heart of the entertainment district around the Old Market (Psar Chas). What follows are a very few recommendations.
At the top of the range is the Hotel Grande de Angkor. Owned by the Raffles Group, this 1920s hotel has been fully renovated and offers sumptuous rooms, gardens, pool, sauna, spa, travel agent, bar, restaurant, and bakery with prices that you would expect. In a similar price range are the Angkor Century Hotel, the Hotel Sofitel Royal, Princess Angkor Hotel, and Sokha Angkor.
Coming down into the price range of slightly more ordinary mortals, there are many hotels in town with all the amenities and good locations for under a hundred dollars. The Ta Prohm Hotel is within close reach of the Psar Chas entertainment district, and it sits overlooking the pleasant Siem Reap River. Located next to the Kings Residence on the river, the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) offers a prime location and charming colonial architecture with all the amenities.
Coming down in price yet again, La Noria gets good reviews. It has rooms for under forty dollars with swimming pool and a restaurant serving fine French and Khmer food. The Dead Fish Tower Inn draw curious sightseers for its strange dcor and scares others away with its distinctive smell. Rooms are under thirty dollars. The Burmese owned Mandalay Inn centrally located on Sivutha Street gets consistently good reviews and is good value at under twenty-five dollars.
For those in the budget range, there are innumerable guesthouses for under fifteen dollars. They go for as low as around five dollars for a spartan fan room. The oldest one in town is Moms Guesthouse. Located on Wat Bo Road, this Siem Reap original is Khmer owned and offers a range of rooms starting from six dollars and going up to twenty dollars for newly built deluxe rooms with air-conditioning and other amenities. The Two Dragons Guesthouse & Restaurant in the Wat Bo Village area is owned by a Westerner and his Thai wife. A long time Siem Reap expat, the he is an excellent source of reliable local information. Rooms from eight to twenty-five dollars, with air-conditioned rooms starting at twelve dollars. The immaculately clean restaurant serves Khmer and Thai cuisine.
VII. Drinking and Dining Back to Top
Aside from Phnom Penh, Siem Reap is Cambodias most cosmopolitan city. With sixty percent of tourists visiting from other Asian countries, there is no shortage of Japanese and Korean cuisine, but there is all the familiar flavours that delight Western palates as well. And of course there are Khmer restaurants from the humble pavement caf, where ordinary Khmers might go for rice and pork before work in the morning, to world-class restaurants serving exquisite interpretations of traditional Khmer delicacies.
Most restaurants are scattered around Siem Reap. That is one of the difficulties in describing where to find things in the town: they are so easy to locate but so difficult to describe because they are everywhere. Two areas where there are high concentrations of restaurants serving food to foreigners are the Pub Street, northwest of the Old Market, and Sivatha Street, the major thoroughfare east of the Old Market. Because there are so many, it can be hard to make up to date recommendations. But thats the great fun of new places: wandering into whatever place catches your eye, perusing unique menus, and trying something new.
One of the oldest running bars on Pub Street is The Angkor What? Bar. Recently expanded, this place has become a nightclub from a hole-in-the-wall bar.
Well known for its striking dcor, the Dead Fish Tower Inn on Sivatha Street serves good Thai food and moderately priced drinks.
For Indian food, try one of two places on Pub Street. The Kama Sutra is right in the centre of the street, and the Taj Mahal offers Punjabi specialities.
As the name suggests, the Linga Bar is Siem Reaps gay-friendly bar and restaurant (a linga is a male fertility totem, generally carved from stone, in the shape of a phallus). Straight-friendly, too, the restaurant serves a selection of tapas.
One of the best known restaurants and bars in town, the Red Piano has a lovely colonial era dining area in which to start the evening with a few civilised cocktails and perhaps a bite to eat.
The Temple Club stays open late when busy, and it offers something for everyone, from a restaurant, to a dancefloor, to a lounge upstairs to watch the street theatre.
Finally, somewhere to get decent tacos and burritos in the heart of historic Kampuchea! Viva is a new Mexican restaurant serving all your old favourites.
VIII. Practicalities Back to Top
Internet shops are available all over town. They generally charge one dollar per hour. The connections can often be slow, due to bandwidth being divided per computer. The lack of maintenance on computers could mean they are crippled by spyware. The keyboards and other hardware are often in poor nick. Cheap international calls are available.
The central post office is said to be reliable for sending letters and post cards. For more valuable items, it might bring peace of mind to send them using UPS or DHL, which are also available in the vicinity.
b) Financial Matters
Once you get to Siem Reap, the currency is dollars, and small change is given in riel. Change your baht into riel, but dont bother changing dollars into riel. The best places to change currencies are at the moneychangers. There are always plenty around the markets, and they generally have prominent signs displaying their rates. All will have the same rates, and with major currencies, it is not necessary to haggle. Just to be sure, check that you get the right amount and the bills are not counterfeit. Do not accept large bills if they are damaged, as many places will be reluctant to accept them.
Cash advances on credit cards are available from banks. The common charge is a two percent commission with a minimum charge of five dollars. For free advances on Visa, try Union Commercial Bank, and for MasterCard, try Canadia Bank, both near the Old Market. They can also cash travellers cheques for a small commission.
After many years without ATM service, the recent arrival of a new bank has given visitors the option of using their bankcards from home to withdraw money. There are a number of these bank machines around town. You will of course face transaction charges from your home account.
c) Medical Treatment
For minor problems, Siem Reap town is full of pharmacies selling over the counter medications. Siem Reap Provincial Hospital is centrally located just of Sivutha Street. Several other clinics claim to provide Western-standard hygiene and staff. For twenty-four hour emergencies, try the Naga Clinic on the way to the airport. For serious medical attention, consider getting to Bangkok.
There is no shortage of stuff to buy in Siem Reap. The standard tourist T-shirts, post cards, paintings, and bead jewellery can be purchased from shops all over both the town and the temples. You will likely have to carry a stick to beat off all the children who whine for you to buy their goods. The local markets are a fine place to buy things like T-shirts, and they are as cheap as you will get if you know how to haggle. In the vicinity of the Old Market are a number of shops selling more original handicrafts and souvenirs.
Citizens of Western countries can apply for a visa upon arrival. The official cost of a Tourist Visa is US$20. It is valid for thirty days, and it can be extended once for an equal length of time. It is also possible to get a Business Visa for US$25. This is also valid for thirty days, but it can be extended indefinitely for periods of up to one year. The six-month and one-year extensions are multiple-entry, meaning you can come and go without constantly applying for new visas and filling up an entire page of your passport each time.
At the border, corrupt immigration authorities have for years been overcharging tourists. The standard practice for those coming over from, say, Poipet is to demand Thai baht. They charge at least 1000 baht (about US$25) for a tourist visa and silly prices for a business visa. Some people insist that the best way to deal with this issue is to demand a receipt, or threaten to report the official, but making authorities lose face is a risky business.
While there might not be that much to fear, they persist in this corrupt behaviour, welcoming every new tourist to their country by ripping them off at the door, because people cant be bothered to argue over five dollars. It is easier to go with the general practice in Cambodia rather than buck the system. Nevertheless, one hopes simply for the image this presents of Cambodia that higher authorities see the foolishness in this practice and clean up the borders. No one wants his or her first impression of a country to be a sweaty, greasy-faced, surly immigration official demanding a bribe for a visa (followed by hordes of pushy motodops and taxi drivers pushing the boundaries of physical assault to overcharge you for a trip to Siem Reap, and then coerce you to stay in a roach-infested guesthouse that pays a commission.)
One way around this problem, obviously, is to get your visa from a foreign embassy or consulate. Services can be arranged in Bangkok quite quickly. And there is always the airport, which is not so corrupt. Remember that you need one passport photo for the visa, and if you dont have it, you will be charged around a dollar at the airport, and youre in for an argument at the border, as the reptilian officials there will try to scam you out of as much as they can, and it is, after all, your fault. The whole business of an onward ticket is on paper only. While it might get you hassle in the airport from which youre departing, no one is asked for proof of an onward ticket in Cambodia.
IX. Transportation Back to Top
a) To and From the Airport
For those with reservations in mid- to top-range hotels, transportation is usually provided. Often, a charge for the service appears on the bill. For those who have to make their own way into town, there are taxis licensed by the Tourist Transport Authority. Like many airports, this entails lining up for a ticket costing five dollars from a concession and then presenting it to the first taxi in the queue.
Unfortunately, taxi drivers pay hefty black-market fees for the privilege to queue up at the airport and so fully intend to derive the maximum profit from the situation. Many of these are renegades who only want to secure a commission from a hotel and your dollars for a taxi service around the temples, and they can be rude to those who dont play according to their rules.
There are two ways to take this situation. It can be fine if your driver recommends a hotel that meets your approval, and if you need a taxi to the temples, then it might as well be him. Just make sure that he doesnt bully you into doing something you dont want to do. Youre the tourist; its your money; youre the boss. He works for you, not the other way around.
For serious problems (e.g. getting kicked out of a taxi halfway into town because you refused to go to a hotel of your drivers choice), get the identification number from the taxis door and report him to the tourist police near the Angkor ticket concession gate.
b) Around the Town and Temples
To get around the temples, most visitors hire a taxi or a motodop. For two people, a better option is a covered two-seated carriage pulled by a motorbike. Taxis go for around twenty dollars, motodops seven dollars, and carriages twelve dollars per day. These prices are for a spin around the principle temples. Those places further afield, such as Bantey Srey, Kbal Spean, or Beng Melea, will bump the cost up. Short rides around town should cost between 1500 and 2000 riel.
The days of renting your own transport to visit the temples are over. The reasons for this are numerous. One is probably that the motodops, who are vocal when anything threatens their hold on the temples, would lose business. Another is simply that the style of driving necessary in Cambodia is nothing like what you would be used to back home. With so many people visiting the temples, the number of accidents was a concern.
Sometimes foreigners are seen driving around town. These are probably expatriates whom the police recognise. Some people have taken bikes from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, and this should pose little problem in the town, but you will not be issued a pass to the temples if you arrive at the ticket gate on your own bike.
It is sometimes possible to convince the local police nearby to give you permission to take your bike inside if you can show youve been driving in Cambodia for some time, but they will probably tell you that the police patrolling the temples might not take kindly to a foreigner on a bike and will renounce any responsibility for what happens to you if you are nabbed inside.
That leaves one other option: you can rent a bicycle. This might be a bit risky in town, but it can be a pleasant way to see the nearest temples. The ground at the site is quite level, and so anyone in reasonable fitness should be able to get around comfortably. Just make sure to cover up and drink plenty of water. The tropical sun can be punishing.
For something special, you can get a hot-air balloon to take you up just west of Angkor Wat. The balloon remains fastened to the ground, but it provides a genuinely birds eye view of the park. For an even better view, helicopters can be rented and routes and schedules tailored to personal preferences for a price. Even elephants can be hired for a short jaunt around Bayon or Bakeng.
X. Getting There and Away Back to Top
1) Siem Reap Angkor International Airport
Siem Reap is now served by an international airport, but it is still really just a regional hub, so there are no long-haul flights directly to Cambodia just yet. Schedules change all the time, and airlines open and close, and the state of the industry is generally volatile. So for up-to-date information on prices and schedules, its best to consult with a travel agent.
Generally, only regional airlines have direct flights to Siem Ream. International flights go from a number of countries including Thailand (Bangkok and Pattaya), Vietnam (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Danang), Laos (Vientianne, Luang Prabang, and Pakse), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Singapore, Taiwan (Taipei and Kaohsiung), South Korea (Seoul), and China (Hong Kong and Kunming). Book early to get discounts, and remember that when leaving the country there is a US$25 departure tax.
There are also domestic flights from Phnom Penh International Airport (or Pochentong Airport). Other Cambodian destinations (such as Sihanoukville, Rattanakiri, and Koh Kong) do not yet see commercial air traffic to and from Siem Reap. When flying to or from Phnom Penh, there is a domestic departure tax of six dollars.
a) Bangkok Siem Reap
The official busses from Bangkok leave from the Northern Bus Terminal (Morchit) many times each day. They take a little over four hours to reach the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet. The train from the central train station, Hualamphong, takes an hour longer and leaves in the mornings and early afternoons.
Getting to Aranyaprathet late is not big deal, as there are numerous guesthouses for those requiring a stay after the border closes. Staying in Poipet is just as easy. Try the casino hotels (which might give you some free chips for your stay) or the cheap guesthouses on the main road and around the traffic circle next to immigration.
From Poipet, you can take a taxi to Siem Reap. You will be attacked by legions of frenzied drivers, or more often their English speaking gimp minions who take a cut for facilitating the process through translation. Figure on paying a little less than ten dollars for a seat in a not too overcrowded car, and the trip is three to four hours.
The main street in Poipet also has offices for bus companies. The advantage here is that travel by bus is cheap, and there is no haggling involved. The disadvantage is that the busses generally only leave in the morning. This means that you will have to spend an entire afternoon and evening in Poipet for the sake of saving a couple dollars.
Its staggering to think that Poipet is perhaps Cambodias busiest border crossing for Western tourists, but the road from there to Siem Reap, its premier tourist destination, remains unpaved when much of the rest of the country has decent asphalt roads. Get ready for a brutal initiation into travel, Cambodian style, with the dusty, bumpy, wild ride in the dry season, or a mudbath in the monsoon season.
A myriad companies operating on Thanon Khao San offer bus services. There are two major advantages to these services: they keep you from having to catch a taxi to Morchit, and they provide you with waiting and ready transport once you cross to the Cambodian side.
But that has to be weighed against the disadvantages. Often, they grossly overcharge customers (300 or more baht), stop kilometres from the border, in the middle of nowhere, and force you wait and demand your passport to get you suspicious visas, and they bully and harass you if you disagree, often resorting to outright lies in order to scare you.
This stretches out the travel time, and then they will make sure you get to one of their commission paying guesthouses in Siem Reap and bully you into staying. Unless you are blessed with Buddhistic patience, and know the routine very well, it is next to impossible to derive any benefit from these services, and their inherent dishonesty is enough of a deterrent to giving them your custom.
There are two other scams. These have become less common. They involve insisting that you change a certain amount of money, which is done at a very unfavourable rate, essentially to line the pockets of the corrupt reptilian immigration creatures, and sometimes to impudently fabricate requirements for health certificates, such as Yellow Fever, in order to extract similar slimy kickbacks. Be warned.
b) Bangkok Other Border Crossings
While Poipet is the most common border crossing, there are others. To the north of Siem Reap, there are crossings at OSmach and Sa-ngam. To the east, there is Pailin and Kamrieng. These eastern routes are more convenient for Battambang, but from there it is a short trip to Siem Reap.
c) Phnom Penh Siem Reap
Busses are now the best option between the capital and Siem Reap. They go for as little as four dollars. The most expensive, charging a premium for foreigners, is Mekong Express. The service is superior, and it has a washroom on board, but steep at a special nine dollars. There is plethora of other options, with offices scattered around town, and dropping you off at points scattered around town. Many are affiliated with guesthouses. The journey takes five hours.
The other overland option is to hire a taxi. This cuts an hour off the trip. The whole car is around forty dollars, so not a bad deal if youre in a group, and one seat in a shared taxi goes for around eight dollars. They depart from Psar Thmei (Central Market) in Phnom Penh and Psar Leu in Siem Reap.
The overland route follows National Highway # 6. Some busses stop at the crossroads in Skun, the home of deep-fried tarantulas, and not much else. Other busses stop a little further up the road in Kampong Thom, and this is a potential overnight stop on the way to or from the capital. Take a look at the pre-Angkorean ruins at Sambour Prey Kuk, other obscure temples, and the hilltop wat at the sacred Phnom Santuk.
Before the road was resurfaced a few years ago, the boat was a popular option. But nowadays, the boat is overpriced and slow, costing twenty to twenty-five dollars. This is the special foreigner price. Locals go for less, and that is one more reason not to take the boats.
Boats depart early once per day. The price includes transport to the docks, which is particularly important if going from Siem Reap, as the docks are half an hour from the town. The journey takes about five hours, though delays are not unheard of.
d) Siem Reap Battambang
The boat on this route, for between six and fifteen dollars, gets good reviews for views of the wetlands en route. On the other hand, they are often dangerously overloaded. They have sunk in the past, without fatalities, and then been covered up by the authorities. They get stuck in the dry season and take hours to get moving again. And they disregard the ecology and people living on the Tonle Sap Lake.
The alternative is to take the road, but this seems to be unpopular, due to the poor road conditions between Siem Reap and Sisophon. This seventy-kilometre rough stretch is, indeed, dusty or muddy, depending on the season, but from Sisophon, there is asphalt all the way to Phnom Penh and beyond. The trip isnt really all that arduous. Taking this option might require two taxis or busses one to Sisophon, and another to Battambang but organising the trip should only involve a fairly straightforward visit to the bus company office or taxi stand.