Other than Angkor Wat, one might think there isn’t much else to do in this still underdeveloped, low-income country. Pnomh Pehn is the capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia, however, the more visited city is Siem Reap because of Angkor Wat.
I travelled with my parents and we spent three days in Siem Reap but I feel that another trip is necessary as there are things we didn’t get to see. I loved Siem Reap – Cambodian people are so friendly and lovely to talk to. There is still a lot of poverty in the country; they have a simple way of living; lots of ‘rawness’ in the city and less Americanization still; and Khmer cuisine is light and simple.
We stayed at the Golden Temple Villa and they offer airport pick-up/drop-off. On arrival to the hotel, they served us a delicious welcome snack (sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf along with tropical fruits) and cold drinks (iced lemon tea) because it was SO HOT at night. The hotel manager explained everything about the hotel, our hotel package and the services they offer as well as things to do in Siem Reap (we were super tired from our long journey – Calgary/Toronto to Siem Reap – so we couldn’t really focus and pay much attention though). Our hotel package came with a discount on massage treatments, a couple of free laundry vouchers, one free dinner and one free lunch in their restaurant for all guests. Breakfast was also included. They gave us a list of simple phrases in Khmer to learn which was helpful as many don’t speak English fluently. They also provided us with a phone we could use for the duration of our stay.
Golden Temple Villa is a boutique hotel with two floors of rooms but the staff are so friendly and lovely. They also have four other hotels as part of the company all in Siem Reap. There is a Temple group of restaurants but we were told that this is owned by different people than the Golden Temple accommodations.
The staff helps you with your bags and takes them up to your room. They have a flight of stairs and one elevator. There is a small business centre in the hotel as well if you need to check email or use the internet. The hotel room was very clean and the bathroom had a lush, tropical feel. There were welcome flower petals laid out on the beds and complimentary tea, coffee, toothbrushes, and other bathroom condiments were provided.
Breakfast consisted of mainly western food and lots of pastries/breads. They did have eggs and a little bit of Khemr food available along with 1-2 fresh fruit options. You could also request a breakfast menu and have the chef prepare an omelette or eggs and sausage; congee; or noodles if you would like. Khemr lunches and dinners are simple with a little meat, some rice, soup and vegetables.
Aside from Angkor Wat, many think there isn’t much else to do which isn’t true. I would recommend going to the Angkor National Museum before visiting the temple. The museum provides the history of the Buddha, Vishnu, Lokeswara, Apsaras, and the history of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. It probably takes about 2-3 hours. They have an audio system which I would highly recommend you purchase to give you an audio tour of each exhibit and explains things in a little more detail then what is written. This also provides some extra money to the upkeep of the museum and for the employees. It’s $5USD or less for the audio guide. I was fascinated to know the Angkor Wat temple was originally an East Indian temple built for Lord Vishnu and then was taken over by Buddhists.
When visiting Angkor Wat, you will need to purchase tickets. It is recommended you go the evening to the Angkor ticket office before to purchase the temple pass (box office closes at 6pm). This way you can head early in the morning straight to the temple to watch sunrise rather than going to buy the tickets – it saves you time and you can get a good spot to take in the sunrise which is vital during peak tourist season. We got our hotel to give us a packed breakfast the day we were doing the Angkor temples and left our hotel around 4:30am to arrive at Angkor Wat around 5:15am to watch sunrise. It is super dark as they are no street lights so you can take a flashlight or use your phone light to guide the way. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a proper sunrise as it was pretty hazy/cloudy the day we went but our tuk tuk guide told us that the best time to see the best sunrise is in April. Following sunrise, we to another spot and eating our breakfast and then ventured to the Angkor Thom area to see some of the temples there.
Angkor Thom consists of the Bayon and Baphuon temples, and the Elephant Terrace. There were a couple of others we didn’t see because by 10am, it started to get very hot and we couldn’t take it anymore so we decided to go back to the hotel for rest and to have lunch. The temples are all built by different kings. After lunch, we went back to do Angkor Wat and got a guide that explained everything to us. Unfortunately, I was WAY too hot to even focus on what he was doing and all I wanted to do was seek shade. I do remember that the floating bridge to get onto the Angkor Wat grounds was sponsored/built by Canada. The structure of Angkor Wat is pretty and resembles exactly what all the media portrays it as.
Following Angkor Wat, we went to check out the Ta Prohm Temple (my favourite structure). It was in complete ruins and falling apart and needed major restoration but it had the most amazing trees and roots being uprooted from the ground. This was also the temple that Angelina Jolie shot portions of Tomb Raider at.
We had hired a tuk tuk driver, Mr. Kat who spent the day with us showing us all these temples. He was amazing, fluent in English so communication was good and he was knowledgeable on the history of everything. He even took us to see what a typical Cambodian house structure looks like. He comes equipped with soft drinks and cold towels to get you through the heat. His contact number is +855 10 682 710 and you can WhatsApp him to contact him if you are looking for a tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap. He was very reasonable and charged us $25USD for the entire day.
Sundays are a day when many locals attend family picnics. Phnom Kulen National Park is one such park where family meet and is very busy as it is also packed with many expats and tourists. Within the national park, there are three attractions to check out:
- the 1000 Shiva lingas, which unfortunately, due to draught didn’t have much water flowing through them
- the Big Buddha temple – there will be many children and adults asking for money but I suggest you don’t give anything to them and wait to donate into one of the secure donation boxes in the temple. Also, many people will tell you to leave your shoes on the stairs however, there is a spot once you get to the top of the stairs to leave your shoes so keep them there. The temple is gorgeous and there is a small market also. The view from the top of the temple is breathtaking. Please note you must have pants below your knees and not reveal your shoulders as this is a Buddhist temple
- The famous Kulen waterfalls. There are three sets of waterfalls and people can go and play in each area. The ones at the bottom are the most popular and the biggest, however, there are some steep stairs you must descend (and ascend to come back up) if you dare! There are makeshift change rooms but I would recommend wearing your bathing suit under if you plan on going into the water. The water is shallow but you have to be careful of tiny fish swimming in the water. I didn’t go all the way to the waterfalls as I didn’t have a bathing suit and only had a tank top and shorts on so I wanted to stay in the area where I clothes wouldn’t get wet.
On the way back, we stopped at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. This is a small museum and takes probably 1 to 1.5 hours to go through it all but it is totally worthwhile. I didn’t really know much about landmines and after reading this, really do wish every country would ban them. Furthermore, the funds raised from the admission fees go to support various projects.
For those who like shopping, be sure to check out the city market and Angkor night market. If you are looking to buy Thai pants, I recommend buying them in Cambodia rather than Thailand because they are cheaper and the quality is essentially the same.
If you are looking to try famous Khemr BBQ, there are many restaurants located in Pub Street and the one we ate at had a good set menu (Sorry, I don’t remember the name). There are some interesting meats on there that you likely may not have eaten if you come from North America. Crocodile meat was my least favourite as it was very tough. I did really like ostrich and kangaroo meat however. Pub Street comes alive at night with street food, vendors, kiosks, lots of restaurant and club/bar nightlife – where all the young tourists hang out at night.
There is an amazing gelato café called Gelato Lab located in an alley off of pub street that has the most amazing passion fruit sorbetti – perfect for those of you who are dairy-free!
We also tried Bingsu at Fresh Fruit Factory. Bingsu is a Korean shaved ice dessert. The one we had was refreshing after a hot day at the national park and came with passion fruit, mango, and banana sauces and fresh fruit over top of the shaved ice.
Don’t forget to catch an Apsara dance show – there are many places that offer a dinner and dance show. We attended one at Por Cuisine which featured a set 4 course menu with appetizers, soup, a main, and dessert. They didn’t quite understand vegetarianism so if you are vegetarian, I would inquire with the restaurant first to make sure they have a vegetarian option. Many dinner and dance shows have a buffet which might be on the safer side for vegetarians/vegans.
Almost everyone who is travelling to Cambodia will need to obtain a visa. The visas cost $30 USD and no photo was required at the time when I visited. I read different things online saying that a coloured passport-sized photo was required so I took one with me just in case. Visas can be obtained from the airport but double check online before you travel to ensure you can still obtain visas on-arrival.
Just a note on money: You cannot obtain Cambodian riel outside Cambodia but I wouldn’t worry about carrying a ton of riel and just have USD on you as everywhere accepts it and prices in shops, restaurants, etc are all in USD.
I definitely want to check out Pnomh Pehn next time!