May 4, 2018
After our journey from Bangkok and a few days of rest in Siem Reap, we were joined by our good friend Kali from DC who came to visit for about ten days. Unforeseen by any of us, she arrived on the night before Khmer New Year. After our experience with Tet we were worried that it would mean everything was closed and/or super expensive. But after hearing that we just missed Thai New Year (Songkran), which sounds like a huge city wide party in Bangkok, we were kind of hoping that it might be something exciting like that.
Turns out it was the latter, very much the latter. I read some posts that said the festival used to be much more subdued and traditional. Whether or not that is true, Siem Reap was a huge party place over the next three days. This is evidently the destination for Cambodians traveling on the holiday.
On the first night of New Year, April 14, we went out to see what the deal was. As we approached the city center there were crowds of young Cambodians on the street with water guns and talcum powder. Generally they would just shoot random passers by or smear talcum powder on your face. The streets were soaked and Khmer pop songs that had just been released for the new year were blasting over speakers covered in plastic sheets.
The party was centered around Pub Street, which is the main place to party in Siem Reap. It’s full of bars and restaurants selling mostly overpriced western food and 50 cent draft beers during happy hour. Typically it’s relatively empty except for the visiting foreigners getting too drunk on cheap beer. But on these three nights the several blocks surrounding Pub Street were crammed full of Cambodians dancing. It was unreal and extremely damp. There was no avoiding it. The atmosphere was great and there was no belligerent drunkenness or any hint of negativity. Just really wonderful high spirited partying.
On the third night, there were military folk guarding the pedestrian areas and even they were soaked with smears of talcum powder on their faces. I was in love with the Khmer music, but unfortunately Shazaam was not able to recognize any of the songs. In other countries also, new pop music is released during New Year celebrations.
I find a lot of SE Asian music kind of homogeneous (to my ears) and sappy. There’s stuff I like, but that’s my general feeling. But from what I’ve heard, Khmer music is way way different than pop music in the neighboring countries. Much more upbeat and energetic. It seems to incorporate a lot of elements of Arabic and Indian music (I know this is a gross generalization on many levels, but I really don’t have the technical vocab to describe it).
But the main event in Siem Reap is the Angkor temple complex, including Angkor Wat. It is massive, covering 500+ acres and containing dozens of temples.
It’s also one of the big reasons that Siem Reap is the destination for Cambodians for the New Year holiday. A lot of the Cambodian tourists stick to the main temple area and are generally just picnicking, but it is much more crowded on these days, so since we had time, we saw some of the more peripheral temples first, saving the main temple complex for after the New Year. We chose to see the temples and ruins by hiring a tuk-tuk driver for the day, which is one of the most common approaches. He didn’t even want to go to Angkor Wat for New Year either.
The tuk-tuk routes are pretty standardized and there are two common loops that you can take, small and big. The going rate for hiring a tuk-tuk is around $15 for the small loop (red) and $18 for the large loop (green). I guess it’s just less gas money. If you want to see anything for sunrise they tack on an additional $3. These were the rates listed while we stayed one night at Le Tigre, but other hotels charged additional fees.
We were staying at The Cockatoo Lodge and they wanted $25 USD for hiring a tuk tuk. Possibly the driver would have been more flexible and helpful with suggestions and facts, but we just found a guy on the street (Mister San) and bargained down to $20 since it was (in theory) more expensive for New Year.
Mr. San stuck to the routes pretty strictly which meant following the crowds to some extent. That made me think it would be worthwhile to hire a well-recommended driver if you want to be more creative with your your route or see specific/special things. But the standard loops pretty much work well enough and we still had a great experience.
The other option that we considered was hiring a driver through Grab which is the main/only car sharing service in Cambodia (pass app exists in PP) and SE Asia (as of just a few weeks ago when Uber merged with Grab in SE Asia). It was only $20 to hire a driver for 10 hrs. That would have been more than enough and then you could deviate from the standard path however you wished and have transit throughout the city if you want to go out and see other places at night. We were uncertain about this option and planning our own itinerary, so we decided to hire someone off the street instead.
We got the three day pass to Angkor ($62/person) and did the outer portion of the large loop, followed by a day of rest, the short loop on the third day, then on the evening of the fourth day we hit up some various smaller sights that we had missed before and saw sunset.
The first day picked up tickets at around 9 am, Mr. San took us there. We were worried about long lines especially due to the New Years visitors. The massive number of tour buses outside the ticket office was not a good sign, but we were able to walk right up to the ticket counter, probably because we arrived passed the big rush. A lot of people show up early to get a one day pass, with the first of the ruins opening at 5 am for sun rise. We had the option to pay by card but chose to pay in cash since ATMS here spit out $100 bills and those are nearly impossible to break in Cambodia. I mean jeez, it’s hard enough to break a $100 in the US and the price of a meal is like 10x higher.
Day one was sunny and hot. The temples we visited included Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, but the unanimous favorite of the day was our last temple Preah Khan. It is extensive, with lots of shady halls to walk, sparser tourists, and has a lot of fallen structures giving it an abandoned feel though clearly a lot of reconstruction work had been done. Generally this turned out to be a theme in the temples that we found most interesting. Scrambling through ruins really isn’t that exciting in a large pack of people. Despite all the advice to get up early to see the temples, it seemed like the afternoons were the best time to be there crowd free.
Our day dedicated to the small loop was the day after Khmer New Years ended. The small loop included the most popular of the temples and so we were hoping that the crowds had died down a bit. That wasn’t the case. First up was THE Angkor Wat, the main temple of the complex. We showed up later than planned and the crowds were still pretty big. But this may just be the everyday reality of Angkor Wat. Most of the visitors were Cambodian though, so there was probably still some new years pour over.
Angkor Wat is a huge temple and it has been almost entirely restored. The main walkway was a huge swarm of people, largely Cambodian, so we went in a smaller side door. Despite the quantity of people, the only real crowding was at the very center of the temple. There is a queue to get into the central tower that took us about 15 minutes. I don’t think any of us were really that interested in this part of the temple. We had much more fun with the huge carvings on the outer walls of the temple. There were far fewer people there, and it was visually much more interesting.
After this we headed off to probably our favorite temple of the whole visit, Bayon. The temple was again super crowded, but this time with more foreign tourists. I think we would have enjoyed it even more if we had gotten here a bit earlier. On top of the temple are towers with four large heads carved into them, many many faces. Below the temple is maze-like with great bas-relief carvings on the outer walls. It started to drizzle while we explored this part, and it produced a cooler pleasantly eerie atmosphere. Unfortunately then the rain picked up and it cut our visit a bit short.
The other major attraction on the small circuit is Ta Preah. It’s notable for being ‘maintained in an apparent state of neglect’. The strangler figs and other trees growing out of the temple walls have been left alone and a more minimal amount of reconstruction work has taken place. This is the one that is known as the “Tomb Raider” temple, where filming for the first Lara Croft film was done.
On comparison though, Preah Khan had more of the abandoned feeling that I think they were trying to achieve with Ta Preah. There are more of the enormous trees here, but it was more polished and there were moderate crowds. But that’s fine, it’s a really cool place to visit still. The trees here were definitely some of the most impressive specimens of nature interacting with the ruins.
After four nights at the Cockatoo, we moved to Le Tigre for a change of pace. For both of these housing we cashed in on booking.com and airbnb.com rewards system to book some really fancy digs. While traveling we mostly use booking.com. In general, it seems to be the most consistent booking platform across various countries. It often has the best rates too and I think they take little to no cut from the hostel as opposed to hostelworld.com (Christina says “Boo Hostel World!”).
We have a referral code where if you use this link to sign up for an account and book a stay with a total cost of >$50, you get a $25 cash credit, and we get $25 as well for referring you. It’s a great deal and it’s for real.
We also used a similar deal on Airbnb to get $40 off the booking (it was at a hotel though). Using these discounts for our lodging we were able to stay at places with pools and A/C for less than $10 per person. After a hot day of exploring temples it really was nice to have A/C. The advice to get a place with A/C is the sort of thing I read all over the internet and wouldn’t necessarily heed, but it turned out to be very nice.
We went back and forth on what to do for the final day, but ultimately we decided to visit more of the ruins in Angkor Thom (of which the Bayon is a part) and then to finish with sunset at Preah Rup. We had moved to Le Tigre and gotten a different driver, for $12 from the front desk. This was actually one of my favorite parts of the visit. We arrived around 3 pm and everything we visited was virtually empty. First up was Phimeanakas which was notable for a steep climb to the top and a barely visible reclining Buddha made out of the bricks on the back side of the temple.
From there we hiked through the woods hunting for mangoes and visited two other small temples in nearly complete solitude. We finished the loop visiting The Terraces of the Elephant and Leper King. These were walls along the main wall with a huge amount of carvings. It was one of my favorite places in the whole complex. The stone carvings are amazing here and there is a really high density of them at these terraces. Both inny and outy carvings and ones made by staggering bricks (I’m sure there are proper terms for these things, but hopefully that makes sense enough).
There are two ruins open late enough to see sunset around 6 pm, Phnom Bakheng and Preah Rup. We eliminate Bakheng dues to tails of crowding and decided to try Preah Rup for viewing the sunset. The top of the temple was jam packed with people. The falling sun did light up the temple beautifully, but the sunset itself was not anything special. To me enjoying a sunset is much more enjoyable in solitude. Even if it’s not a particularly nice sunset, the point is to be relaxed. But in a crowd of people jockeying for sweet pics, it’s actually pretty unpleasant imo.
An exciting part of that excursion is that as we went back along the road, we got the driver to stop so we could purchase palm fruit. We had seen it on our first day and thought they were maybe weird coconuts and probably we should try one some time. It basically tastes a bit like coconut but not as meaty and rich. It roughly has the texture of a slimy lychee I suppose. I wouldn’t go out of my way to get it again, but I’m very glad I tried it.
Based on my preferences I would suggest prioritizing Bayon during a visit to the small loop. That may be a temple were it would be worth it to get up early and try to beat the crowds. Then finish the loop and hit up Angkor Wat towards the end. I would avoid the sunset concept. I’m guessing the sunrise is about the same, but you would get a nice atmosphere for exploring the temples. Unfortunately only select temples are open for sunrise and Bayon is not one of them.
An interesting local activity that Christina and Kali partook of was a foot treatment that consisted of putting their feet in a fish bowl and the fish eating dead skin off of their feet. Apparently it tickles. A lot. A whole lot. I found it quite entertaining to watch, but had zero desire to partake. I particularly hate tickles and don’t enjoy fish snacking on me. But we all had fun.
The spot we went to was located on Sok San Rd (somewhere between Sivatha Blvd and the Temple Mini Mart, failed to tag it!). It was $1 and you got a drink included (beer or soda) along with complimentary wifi. Note that the places on Pub Street were asking $3 for the same service. I really don’t understand how the economics of the place worked, but it was a killer deal. We passed the place several times and never saw anyone there. But as soon as Christina and Kali were shrieking with laughter new customers started arriving until there were almost ten people voluntarily submitting themselves to this. We were good for business I guess.
Siem Reap has really good cheap street food. And Khmer food is excellent. Wow, I had no clue. We basically survived on the same three street food items during our entire time in Siem Reap: noodles, papaya salads, and fruit shakes. The fruit shakes I think are more of a tourist thing but for $1 they are a steal. We also supplemented this with found (ground) mangoes since fruit trees are everywhere here.
The noodles typically were just instant ramen noodles, but eventually we found something quite distinct called Lort Cha. It’s a short stubby noodle and eaten with a spoon. The noodles are fried in a wok with some morning glory and carrots. then seasoned with a combo of sweet chili sauce and fish sauce which ends up tasting kind of like barbecue sauce and then topped with a fried egg. Simple but tasty.
The papaya salad here is distinct from Thai papaya salad, but roughly the same concept overall. The most notable difference is that there is always a big plastic jar full of crabs available. Maybe raw crabs. I don’t understand shell fish. But the vendor will take a whole crab toss it in with the rest of the salad ingredients in the mortar and pestle and mash it up. I’m not sure if you are supposed to eat the whole crab or part of it. But we have just been picking out the crab bits out. A bit unsure of how safe it is. I wish I was more adventurous in this regard but I’m not a huge fan of shellfish in general so I’m not super motivated to push myself here.
Khmer Papaya Salad
Christina being Christina found a gym, PNL Sport & Ping Pong, where she managed to get a few workouts in. They offer weights, cardio machines, and ping pong tables (no AC though). I didn’t go with her, but I support her efforts. Good job!
We ended up really liking Siem Reap. It’s a tourist town for sure and Pub Street definitely caters to Westerners. But it’s also a major tourist spot for Cambodians and so it has plenty of Khmer feel. I feel like the city has done a good job not being overrun by tourism. Even with the New Years insanity we were able to find some pretty nice rates on hotels.
After almost a week in Siem Reap we headed to Phnom Penh for the last few days of Kali’s visit. PP is not a big tourist destination, but I loved it. We took the Mekong Express bus between SR and PP. I booked online at bookmebus.com, but it would have been far easier and also a bit cheaper to just book at their office in town.
I ended up going to the office to try to arrange pick up from the hotel. Which was successful, until the pick up never came the next morning. I called in time to figure this out and we ended up walking to the bus (which left from the office, not where bookmebus said). Other than that confusion, it was a nice bus line. Nothing fancy but it left on time and everything was in good working order and the service was good.
We were staying near the Olympic stadium in PP and we visited the Olympic market on the first day. Man, did I really wish I needed new clothes (or had space for extra). This was probably the best density of cool men’s clothes that I’ve seen. Even topping the malls in Bangkok. It was all mostly wholesalers and I didn’t ask any prices, but it looked like a really fun place to shop. We also got lunch here, including some mochi-coconut dumplings, papaya salad and stick food.
After this we went to Moha Montrei Pagoda which is a molded concrete temple nearby. A lot of Phnom Penh is molded concrete. I think it’s pretty cool. A passing monk let us inside and took some awkward photos of us posing in front of the altar.
Along the way we walked through the Olympic Stadium. It was built to Olympic standards to host international sporting events, but it was never really put to full use because the tragic take over by the Khmer Rouge was shortly after the stadium was constructed. It apparently is one of the few remaining examples of New Khmer Architecture, but was unfortunately closed to entering when we passed by.
We also visited Wat Phnom. It’s located near the city center at the top of a hill. The temple wasn’t particularly ornate but the murals inside were fantastic. From there we also walked along the water front of the Mekong River, which has some exercise equipment and a nice view.
Next to Wat Phnom we found an amazing sandwich stand. It was some of my absolute favorite food. As best I can tell it’s the Cambodian version of Bahn Mi. Maybe it’s called Num Pang. It’s a baguette spread with some sort of sweet mayonnaise and maybe anchovies. Then filled with a fatty pork with insanely crunchy fried skin and topped with a vinegary papaya salad. It blew my socks off.
On the last day of Kali’s visit Christina dragged us to an hour of meditation at Wat Langka. It was totally new to Kali and me. There was supposed to be an instruction portion, but the usual monk was away, and his apprentice (?) didn’t speak much English, so the advice we got was “sit up straight”. So it was a tough hour sitting on the floor, but an interesting experience.
After meditation we went to Ratanakiri Restaurant for dinner. This was exactly the sort of place that I had been hoping to find. It was more expensive than our typical street food meals (we’re talking menu items in the $3-4 range versus $1-2), but the quality of the food was way better. We tried Samlaw Cachou Kreoung (a curried morning glory stew) and Lok Lak (stir fried beef). They were both delicious and we at way too much food. I had ordered the Lok Lak at a cheaper restaurant and been unimpressed because the quality of the meat was terrible, but this was amazing.
Stuffed to the gills, we went out to check out one of the many mini movie theaters. Apparently, back in the day, there weren’t official movie theaters in PP and so there were enterprising individuals that would set up mini theaters in a room and show three films simultaneously. This has somewhat continued with small independent movies which charge $3.5 per day and show several films (sequentially) throughout the day.
One of these theaters is Meta House, and we went on Berlin Music night (it’s located above the German Cultural Center). We arrived after the movie for what had been advertised as a dance party, but it ended up just being a bar with a DJ and only a couple people inside.
We walked around some of the parks and plazas in the city center, which is really pleasant in the evening when the temperature drops to something reasonable. The whole city is lit up with lights on just about every tree and light pole. I felt like I was in some Sonic the Hedgehog level.
And that about wraps it up. It was great to get to see our good friend Kali and run around ancient ruins with her! (Thanks for coming to visit Kali!). After we began a new adventure… in bureaucracy! Up next: How to renew your rapidly filling passport at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh.
cool cape, eh?