KL airport is small, empty and efficient – drive from the city is fast – 45 min (50 Km distance). Our flight from KL reached Siem Reap in 2 hrs at 1.15 noon , there is a 1 hr time lag , so we leave KL at 12.15 and reach Siem Reap at 1.15.
Basic Facts of Cambodia
Cambodia borders Thailand – a lot closer to Bangkok – the country has a lot of similarities with Thailand and at one time both regions were ruled by the same kings. Cambodia still depends a lot on Thailand – the city of Siem Reap gets all its electricity from Thailand.
Cambodia has two main cities – the Capital Phnom Penh and Siem Reap the gateway to Angkor Wat , separated by about 350 Km ( driving is 6 – 7 hrs, flight preferred). A developing country that was under French control till the early 50’s. Between mid 70’s to early 90’s the country was wracked by internal civil wars – Pol Pots Khmer Rouges trying to create a Communist state – millions perished. A sense of calm and peace has come as recently as the late 90’s. (Formerly Cambodia was called Kampuchea)
The country was under French rule till the 50’s – and French is the second language. I am told that there is a lot of French Influence and old buildings visible in Phnom Penh – but not much in Siem Reap.
95% of population is Buddhist. Locals are Khmers – but many Chinese also.
Arrival & Visa
Cambodia provides Visa on arrival. We got ours from India. There is an eVisa option also. (This is preferred as with large tour groups your Q at the airport may be long). I had read that US Citizens did not need Visa – but was proved wrong – so we had to get my daughters Visa at the airport – costs 30$. There is a ATM right there – they accept US dollars. If you are applying for Visa on arrival – keep a passport photo handy. The country actually has USD and Cambodian Real as the currency options – don’t convert your USD at the airport. 1 USD = 4000 Cambodian Reals , all ATM’s dispenses USD and its accepted freely everywhere. The Airport is small, you can clear Immigration in 15 min collect your luggage and reach the hotel in less than 30 min. Flight landed at 1.15 afternoon and we were in the hotel before 2.15.
We stayed at the Chateau d’ Angkor La Residence – a small boutique hotel in the centre of the city with 28 Suites (12 single BHK Units and 16 Double BHK Units). It has a lovely pool and a nice garden. But no Gym. Friendly staff who struggle with english – one restaurant that serves Continental, Chinese and local cuisine – many Veg Options. We had a spacious 2 bedroom suite (over 1500 sft) – pool facing – 2 Bedrooms, Large Hall, Dining and a Kitchen. Its like a service apartment with a cooking range, fridge, pots & pans etc – all of this for $110/day, including free Wi Fi and Breakfast. Perfect place for families to stay. The hotel helps coordinate all your tour plans and even helps you to book tickets for shows. There is no dearth of Hotels from 5 star properties to boutique hotels in the city – the city thrives on Tourism. From Hyatt to Soffitel to numerous quality brands – they all dot the landscape.
Food is also not a problem – enough options for vegetarians including a few Indian Restaurants – we dined a lot at the Curry Walla (That is located on the main road Sivutha Blvd) . Our breakfast buffet was full off fresh tropical fruits. You see them all over town and even on the roadsides. Coconut water is also available everywhere. For the ambitious – lots of non veg varieties – Dog meat is a delicacy and we even spotted roadside vendors selling Pig Tongue.
The city is small – you can cover almost any part of the city in 5 – 10 minutes by Tuk Tuk. This is the local auto powered by a bike – it can easily carry 4 people. The main area of the city is one big road that has shops , a small mall, restaurants – about 1 Km in length , it ends at the Pub Street a happening place full of restaurants and bars. Nearby is also the Old Market with lots of Souvenir shops. Everything is reasonable priced – dinner for 4 is about $ 30, a Tuk Tuk Ride is $ 2, a foot Massage for 30 min is $ 3. Well planned well laid out city – feels like a modern one, nice roads, good footpaths, well lit , no garbage , safe. We were here during the New Year celebrations – Thai & Khmer New Year is on April 14th – coinciding with the Indian Calendar. The City was crowded and happening – but there was space for all and we never had a challenge getting stuck in Q’s or a Road Jam. People understand basic english – but when you head for a Tour take a Guide.
What We Did
We had 3 days so we spaced ourselves well and covered the following. The Hotel has packaged options – about 10 of them and you can pick and choose. A day trip inclusive of Car/Van , Guide, Lunch will be about $ 150.
Day – 1 : National Museum, City Tour , Walk down Old Market & Pub Street , A Family Foot Massage
Day – 2 : Early morning Sunrise Visit to Angkor Wat , Visit to 3 more Temples , Lunch , Back in room by 3 PM. Swimming at the hotel. Leave at 4.30 for some shopping, strolling , Dinner, visit the Apsara Dance Performance from 8 to 9 PM
Day – 3 : Some more temples , Visit to a Butterfly Park , Back by 3 PM – , Walking in the city from 4 – 6, Dinner , Visit to the Cambodian Circus from 8 – 9.30 PM
Tourism in more detail
You come here to see Angkor Wat and the old temples. Most of the temples are in bad shape – ruins. Built between 900 – 1200 AD by the Hindu Kings – the temples are mainly dedicated to Shiva. Angkor Wat is dedicated to Vishnu. There are 100’s of temples and they are in clusters – you can see 4 – 5 in a day. After some time it gets boring. In comparison the Indian temples we see at Badami, Belur – Halebid, Tanjore, Khajuraho are in excellent shape. The Temples in and around Angkor Wat lack the level of intricate design and sculpture that we see in Indian temples. You will see a lot of engravings from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and surprisingly a lot of Samudra Manthan depictions. To be frank – I was disappointed with Angkor Wat. Its a bit like the Mona Lisa at Louvre. I think its very well marketed and positioned.
All the temples were built between 900 & 1200 AD – are made of Bricks, Sandstone or Laterite.The temples are in bad shape – some restoration work is in progress and even the Indian Govt and ASI is involved in a few of them. But its going to take a long time to get them in shape. Our local guide painstakingly explained that a lot of damage was done by Hindu Kings to Buddhist temple – but stayed quiet on the damage done by the Khmer Rogues and Buddhist kings to the Hindu Temples. Almost all the Shiva Lingas and Hindu statues are broken , shattered or dismembered. I was reading about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rogues – being communists they vandalised the temples and caused severe damage to these ancient temples. Lots of references to Hindu Kings having gone from S india and built these temples – but the guide and the locals give all credit to Khmers – there is no history of Hinduism there – it must have gone from S India – the temple architecture similarity and the name of the kings show that – but sadly no mention of this ( Neither do the history books in Indian schools talk of this – Sad)
You can buy Tickets for 1 day ($ 20) , 3 days ($ 40) or 7 days. Good to buy the 3 day Ticket – gives you access to almost all the temples. Tickets are Cash only. Children below 12 are free. Your photo is printed on the ticket – so the family needs to go for getting the tickets. Angkor Wat temple is best seen at Sunrise or Sunset. Its large – and would have been a spectacular sight in its heyday. Its massive – located next to a large water body. A large boundary wall and a Green walkway to the main building – we took the rear entrance as the main one was very crowded. Budget 90 Minutes
National Museum – A good start to your tour would be from the National Museum. Its a lovely museum, well maintained, and describes the history of the Khmer Kings and the design construct of the temples – there are many informative Videos. Full of Statues of Shiva, Vishnu, Buddha, Ganesha, Devis – although all of them have features very different from what we see in India. This is the only place where we get to see numerous statues of the Buddha with a Naga on the top of his head – the more I look at the culture here – get the feeling that the Naga’s were probably a class of people from Eastern India / Thailand / Cambodia. And Apsaras were the women from the Naga community (The Apsara tradition is very alive in this country – more of that later) – Budget 90 Minutes
Other Temples that are worth visiting are in the Angkor Thom Cluster – very close to Angkor Wat. Visit the Bayon (Temple of faces) , Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider Fame) & The Elephant Terrace. You can cover the temples in Angkor Wat and in Angkor Thom between 8 & 3 PM.
35 Km away to the north are a few more temples – one of them the Banteay Srei – dedicated to Lord Shiva made of red sandstone this stands out among the rest. Inscriptions in the monument give it the original name of Ishvarapura – the city of Shiva. Although small – Its the jewel in the Khmer architecture Its in slightly better shape and has outstanding quality of cultured decor. To me it looked a bit like the Shore Temples at Mahabalipuram.
The drive is also nice along the country side, past the villages with small shops.
The Kings and the ministers who built these temples all have Hindu names – Jayavarman , Indravarman, Suryavarman , Yashovarman…. They must have had some connections to the Chola’s or Pallavas from the South – some of the temple architectures does look similiar. S India had a lot of trade with SE Asia and its possible that Trade led to India Kings coming and ruling.
Most temples are well designed around a large rectangle. A outer wall , a lot of greenery inside – takes you 10 – 15 min to walk thru this greenery , an inner walk , a water body as a moat and then the Temple.
On the way to Banteay Srei we visited a beautiful butterfly park – called the BBC (Banteay Srei Butterfly Centre) its not in the normal tour guides itinerary – we happened to see it on the way and stopped by – its a lovely place to spend 45 minutes. For more photos and details on the butterfly park visit http://vak1969.com/2015/04/15/butterfly-park-en-route-to-bantay-srei-siem-reap/
Two other must do activities
Visit the Apsara Dance – there are many shows happening in town , we attended a classy upmarket one at the Angkor Village Resort. The show starts at 8 PM and runs for an hr. Nice dance depicting ballets from the Ramayana and some local dances. Tickets are normally including dinner – we took an option without dinner for $ 12 / person.
Visit Phare – The Cambodian Circus – This is not a circus. Its a dance , drama, ballet – depicting the story of Cambodia before and after the Khmer Rogue / Pol Pot Civil Disturbance. Program is orchestrated by an NGO with youth from broken families. These children are nurtured with skills in art / dance / gymnastics. Its a unique program that depicts the story through painting , dance , gymnastics. The expressions are wonderful and the whole event is mesmerising – its fun with a deep theme. Tickets are $ 18 / person
There are lots of massage parlours in town , they are very affordable but the quality of massage is Ok – no comparison to Thai Massage.
What else could we have done
There is a large lake – called the Tonle Sap , this is supposedly one of the largest lakes in Asia and spreads across 3 countries. You can go here for boating , seeing the floating market etc. You can do trips to the country side ( But we visited in summer when it was dry and arid). There is a waterfall and some carvings on rocks on a river bed – again at a distance of 30 km – but this is also best seen after the rains when the water fall is gurgling and bristling with water.
Kbal Spean is an Angkorian era archaeological site on the southwest slopes of the Kulen Hills to the northeast of Angkor in Siem Reap District. It is situated along a 150m stretch of the Stung Kbal Spean River, 25 kilometres (16 mi) from the main Angkor group of monuments. The site consists of a series of stone carvings in sandstone formations carved in the river bed and banks. It is commonly known as the “Valley of a 1000 Lingas” or “The River of a Thousand Lingas”.
Overall – a lovely trip. Siem Reap and Cambodia is a must visit – its very different from Singapore/HK/ KL/ Bangkok. Its easy on the pocket, food is not a problem and its close by. People are nice, soft spoken. Its a trip where you can have fun, learning and in 3 days understand the culture / tradition of a new country.
3 days flew past – weather in April was not too hot – between 28 & 35 degrees. Mornings and evenings are cool. The peak tourist season is from Oct to Feb. April is the hottest month and the rains start in May.
We are now all set to take the 3rd leg of the tour to Langkawi – our flight departs at 2.15 PM today – looking forward to the Westin at Langkawi.