Apr 2, 2011

New Territory: Cambodia and Siem Reap

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

We’ve been looking forward to visiting Cambodia with our family, although with a bit of trepidation due to the fact that neither of us had visited before.  But from the moment that we stepped foot in this country (and even in the moments leading up to it), our minds were put to rest and good karma seemed to be finally on our side.  We’ve been so impressed with our time here so far, and feel very happy and relaxed.

We were doing a ‘land crossing’, independently of course, and the first of this trip.  After our last rabies shot at The Thai Travel Clinic in Bangkok, we took the 1:05pm 3rd class train  to Aryanya Pratchet, in southeastern Thailand.  We didn't arrive until 6:30pm so 
we spent the night before crossing over first thing after breakfast on foot to Poipet, Cambodia.

The guidebooks and the traveller stories painted a stressful picture  of this crossing, filled with Thais pressuring you into paying for overpriced visas, long lines in immigration, and over-zealous, greedy transport drivers greeting you on the Cambodian side for onward transport.  Despite our dread, we had to ‘face the lions’ in order to get to our final destination, Siem Reap.

Good-bye Thailand!
Hel-lo Cambodia--Walking across 'no man's land' between Thailand towards Cambodia

But to our surprise, it was actually quite painless.  We breezed by the Thai touts, who were charging 1000B (or approx $33 USD) for the required Cambodian visa.  At the Thai immigration, although the lines were only about 6 people deep, there was a special counter for children so off we went!  

Once through, we then headed straight to the ‘visa-on-arrival’ office on the Cambodia side and paid the normal rate of $20USD per person (although the officials there did overcharge us for the children’s visas’, which would have only cost $5 USD had we arrived at the airport). 

Emerging from immigration Poipet awaited us, and we again breezed past the ‘official foreigner bus’, which is supposedly the only way onwards, but reportedly way overpriced, and was approached by a Korean tourist who wanted to share in a taxi to Siem Reap.  Together we easily negotiated a $25USD fare for the 2hr journey and the 3 of us and the girls travelled in air conditioned and roomy comfort.  By 11:30am, our driver dropped us at a great little new hotel in Siem Reap that was reasonable, clean, spacious, and best of all, had a pool. 
Siem Reap Temple Villa
We headed out to the old market area of Psar Char on foot and found a delicious restaurant where we got coconut cream curry with your choice of meat, served with rice for $1.50 USD, fried rice and shrimp for $1 and mango (or other fruit) shakes for 0.50.  (Most prices here are expressed in US Dollars and US Dollars seems to be the currency of choice, except for amounts under $1.00, at which point the local currency, the riel, is used.)  

Later that night, we explored the Angkor Night Market and even took in some free Khmer Dancing (Aspara) at the Temple Bar on the vibrant Pub Street.  (Wow—Pub Street is soo cool—very New Orleans like vibe!)  What an incredible first day.

Pub Street by day
...and by night it's closed to traffic

We've been here in Siem Reap for 8 days now.  We got a 3 day pass ($40.00 USD/Adult, C-under 12: free) exploring Angkor Wat and its surrounding temple complexes, including Angkor Tham and the Bayon and Baphuon, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm (set for Tomb Raider), Banteay Kidet and Banteay Srei.  

We lucked out with cooler overcast weather (about mid 20's), which probably played a BIG part in us covering so much territory and everyone still relatively happy albeit very tired, by the end of the day. On each day (Monday, Tues, Thurs), we set out by private tuk tuk, from 9:30am and returning back to town by around 4pm.   The last day was an 'easy day' as Banteay Srei was a 1hr (yet only 32km away) ride north of the main complex and the temple itself was one of the smallest.  Nevertheless, the ride out was nice seeing a bit of the country and  how the 'middle class' of  Siem Reap live.  (Although they were considered 'middle class' by Cambodia standards, they still lived appallingly poorly.)  

On the way back we stopped in at the  Cambodian Landmine Museum where we learned more about the current state of affairs in Cambodia.  Although this organisation, with it's founder, Aki Ra, named in the "Top 10 Most Influential People of 2010 (CNN?), clears a massive amount of landmines each month, daily people are still being maimed by accidential encounters with them and they think that it will take another 150 yrs for them to be totally eradicated!  

We also stopped in at the Wat Thmei where they have a stupa filled with skulls and bones of victims of the Khmer Rouge which were found in a nearby field. 

Angkor Wat

Angkor Thom

Ta Keo

Ta Prohm:  Famous Tree, as seen in Tomb Raider

Khmer Rouge Victims at Wat Thmei

So far (8 days), Cambodia has been nothing like we’d imagined.  Siem Reap, although full of tourists using it as a base to explore Angkor Wat, much like Cusco is to Macchu Pichu, and Luxor is to Valley of the Kings, it’s quite ‘provincial’, as the guidebooks describe it.  In fact, an American who works with the Landmine organisation said that when he first came to Siem Reap in 2004, it only had dirt roads and there were only 2 pubs on 'Pub Street'. 

It’s a great little town where you can find everything that you want such as fruit shakes, for as little as .50 cents, banana pancakes, delicious food, vibrant markets, cheap beauty treatments and $3/hr massages, and a good assortment of eateries. serving mains from as little as $1.00 for vegetable fried rice.  

And the best part is that it’s very compact.  Most locals travel on bicycles--there seems to be an even number of cars on the road as bicycles, and lots of people on foot.  Compared to the scooter ravaged roads of Bali and Thailand, it’s a real refreshing change of pace, and less carbon pollution, although the dusty mostly unmade roads do make up for that.  Scooters are a plenty vying for tourist business pulling a carriage in their version of a tuk tuk, or as a moto looking for a paying customer to hop on the back.  

You do need to bargain for most things, sometimes including water especially at touristy places like Angkor Wat, but for the most part, it’s a pleasant exchange much akin to that in Bali.  There are lots of people begging, especially land-mine victims and those with physical disabilities, and children selling postcards, vying for your money, but the persistence is not too high (yet).  Even at Angkor Wat, where we read that the temples were filled with vendors, we did not even encounter a single vendor or begger. 

Siem Reap,Psar Char Market area

Siem Reap

We also didn’t expect to be touched so soon by the poverty of the Cambodian people.  On our second night, we stumbled upon a free (by donation) Aspara dance performance put on every Sunday night by the students of the local Cambodian Children’s House of Peace/Santepheap (www.santepheap.org), which is a non-profit residential school for disadvantaged children.  The skill of the dancers easily equalled that of the professionals which we watched the night before, yet these students ranged in age from 10 to 18 yrs.  And the joy on their faces to have such a large audience!  

Afterward, a couple of the students invited Yasmine and Madeleine to throw the soccer ball around with them, which then escalated into a soccer match which included Jim and more of the students.  Everyone was having so much fun and in the end, they wanted us to come back again for more play, which we plan to do during our time here in Siem Reap.  It’s humbling that such a simple gesture of play can be so much appreciated.  That night, the girls kept asking when we were going to go back--so we did, on 2 more occasions, and everyone had a good time.

Students of Sandepheap performing Aspara Dancing

After the performance....

So we’re reluctantly leaving Siem Reap, with much more of Cambodia to explore ahead of us.  We're off on a 3hr bus to Battambang next, where we'll spend most of the week.  Hopefully the rest of Cambodia will be as positive for us.
Children from Sandepheap


  1. Thank you for your great posts. I will be travelling with 2 kids from Thailand to Cambodia and am somewhat worried about the visa. How much did you end up paying per child? I wonder if it might be cheaper doing evisas and just paying the 5+3 dollar processing fee.

    1. Hi
      There should be NO CHARGE for children's visas for Cambodia (as it stated very clearly on the visa itself). However, that is not to say that the officials won't try to charge you the $20USD fee for them as well--you need to 'remind' them of this. Is there a charge for children under the eVisa scheme?

      Thanks for your comment :)