Yes, I am the only person in the world who can spend an entire month in Siem Reap and not go to Angkor Wat. I will tell you more about that later.
Travelling from Laos to Cambodia
The Laos/Cambodia land border crossing is one of the most notoriously corrupt borders in Asia and is definitely an experience.
I’d heard the stories of;
The bus driver from Laos wanting to take your passport and get your visa for you, for a small fee of an additional $12 – and you know – the anxiety of letting him walk off with your passport for a couple of hours. That happened.
The bus leaving people who choose to do their own visa and not pay the additional fee, if they do not cross in satisfactory time; which of course, is completely up to how quickly they decide to process you that day. We were threatened with this but it didn’t happen.
The people set up with a stall, saying you have to pass a medical to get your Cambodian visa (have your temperature taken). That happened.
Having to pay a bribe to get your entry stamps. That happened.
All in all, I did pretty well. I avoided the bus driver taking my passport; he wasn’t happy with those of us who did this. I didn’t get left behind and passed the thermometer people without issue. I only got stung on the bribe for my stamps, which you really no choice but to pay, once you’re there – otherwise they won’t let you in.
After we did manage to cross, we sat at the border for no less than 4 hours, waiting for another bus of tourists to arrive and cross the border, so we could be shuttled to our end destination all in one big group. So much for the two hours or we leave you threat.
We ended up leaving our comfy big coach and being shuttled in multiple minivans. This was annoying as they’re cramped and uncomfortable and we had another 6 hours or so to drive. Of course, Cambodian’s being famously friendly, we pulled over to assist a guy who had broken down on the side of the road…
He also happened to be heading to Siem Reap, and the driver offered to take his teenage son with us. So he jumped on the back row, where I was – a 3 person seat. Which already had 3 people and 3 bags crammed on it. So for the next 5 hours I had a little teenage Cambodian lad basically sat on my lap. Poor kid couldn’t speak English and I could see he was sheepish and wanted to say sorry. Anyway, it’s definitely true what they say about Asians not believing in personal space.
First impressions of Siem Reap
This was a pretty rough journey, we had set off on the boat from Don Det at 8am and arrived about 9:30pm in Siem Reap. We got dropped off at the bus station, which, as usual, is out of town, so you have to take a taxi in to town, which will always take you to the ‘best’ place to stay. Travelling in Asia is all a racket and they add steps like this, to get commissions and make extra money.
I personally don’t mind, you come to expect it and it shows their entrepreneurial initiative, which I like. It’s so cheap that I’m happy to let them have the bit extra, they need it.
I ended up getting dropped off at the ‘best’ hotel but left with a few people from the bus as it was expensive and not what I was looking for.
We walked in to town and after a bit of shopping around, found a good hostel, where I would stay for a few nights.
My initial impression of Siem Reap was that it was very bright and very sleazy, which it was. It was a city that really came alive at night.
It was sleazy, but everyone I know who has been, liked it. It never felt especially dangerous.
Settling in Siem Reap
After spending around a month in Laos, doing a lot of partying and being frustrated at the non-existent wifi, I needed to earn some money back and chill in a city for a while. So I chose to stay in Siem Reap for the month, rather than travel Cambodia. I will go back another time to see the rest of the country.
I found a place to stay, which, when bartered down for the long tenancy, ended up costing $6 per day I think. Bargain.
Siem Reap was a nice place to stay for a couple of weeks, but I could not stay there long term. Over the course of the month various friends I had met previously in Laos came in to town for a couple of days each, on their way through. I think without this, I would have been quite bored in Siem Reap. There isn’t much of an expat scene, nor is it as easy to befriend the locals as it is in Thailand.
The Cambodians are very friendly people and very nice, but in terms of interests and what have you, we just do not have as much in common as with Thai people. I think that is the privilege of affluence at play. After the horrific genocide and the abject poverty, they are focused predominantly on surviving. Something that we have never had to even consider growing up in the west.
Working in Siem Reap
After Laos, Siem Reap felt like the Googleplex. The internet was generally fast and consistent and there were some coffee shops with proper coffee and good seating, and even a co-working space. There is definitely not the coffee shop or remote working culture that I love so much in Chiang Mai, but there were two good coffee shops and a good co-working spot. I went to at least one of these basically every day.
Both the coffee shops were Australian run and had excellent coffee – one of the biggest things I disliked about Laos was the crappy attempt at coffee, so this was superb. If you want to check them out, they are The Hive and Sister Srey.
The Common Grounds co-working space was also good, but felt a little bit flat. I preferred the coffee shops. All three had good food as well as good coffee, which was reasonably priced.
I think if there was more remote workers there, it would have a better atmosphere and more of a scene, but as it is now in its infancy, it’s not as compelling as a Chiang Mai.
Eating & drinking in Siem Reap
Khmer food really did not impress me very much. The local dish of Lok Lak was good, as was the Khmer curry, and some of the street food places were decent enough, but it certainly wasn’t Thailand.
On top of the inferior food, it was also significantly more expensive, which I tend to resent. I don’t mind paying for quality food, but at $3-4 dollars a meal, compared to under $2 in Thailand, it just didn’t seem worth it.
The best food I found in Siem Reap was actually at a Thai place – I think that says it all.
I think the locals eat much cheaper than that, but what they eat was beyond even me. You would walk past the street food vendors selling basically all of the least appetising parts of an animal that you could think of. Pig testicles and chicken beaks are just not my idea of an appealing meal.
Drinks in general, and beer especially, were very cheap in Cambodia. They had draft beer everywhere, which was a nice change as they don’t have draft anywhere in Thailand or Laos. There were 3 Cambodian beers. One was average, one was really good and one not so good.
Angkor beer was by far the best (not to be confused with Anchor beer, which was minging).
Partying in Siem Reap
Ahh the famous Pub Street…
Let’s call it..an experience.
If I had to describe this place in one word, it would definitely be; seedy.
“hello mister; weed, pills, lady boom boom??”
There’s only so many times you can hear that before it gets old. Pub St was a lot of fun, and everyone who goes generally loves it. When you’re there for a long time though, you quickly realise that there is basically only 2 bars and they play the same set on loop every night. It quickly becomes same same.
It’s the sort of place where, with good company, you have a great night, but the place itself isn’t that great.
The hostels in Siem Reap on the other hand, were great. This is where the party started (usually around midday in the pool). There was 5 or so hostels that had pools and a party atmosphere. Cambodia definitely has that party vibe and the hostels were some of the best I have been to, even though I didn’t stay there, I hung around there a lot.
While we’re on the subject of seedy…we had a massage one day. Well, a ‘massage’.
You had the option of a full body oil massage, or just a neck or foot massage, which took place outside. We opted for the full body, which took place inside.
You’re lead upstairs, allocated a masseuse and placed in a curtain cubicle. At this point, you’re told to strip naked and lay down. Then you’re told that’s not naked enough, you have to take everything off.
So you lay there, completely naked, and the girl comes and starts giving a half assed attempt at a massage for about two minutes. Then she starts removing the towel you were using to preserve your dignity and massaging your inner thigh, lower abs and that whole general area.
She is not shy about ‘touching’ and after a little bit of chitty chat gets to the point and asks if you want the ‘special treament’.
It’s $4 for the massage and $10 for the ‘massage’. I politely declined, so she spent the next 15 minutes or so trying to tease me in to changing my mind, with a mixture of accidental wandering hands, charm and blatant grabbing.
Baring in mind there are people 2 feet either side of you getting the same treatment, separated only by a curtain. It was again, an…experience.
Working out in Siem Reap
Probably my favourite thing about Siem Reap over anywhere else that I have been, was the gym. It was one of the best gyms I have ever been in, anywhere, and they train hard. I wrote about that here.
Oh yeh..Angkor Wat
So how did I possibly manage to spend a month in Siem Reap and not go to Angkor Wat you ask?
It’s one of the greatest historical ruins in the world for goodness sake!
Well, I was intending to go, but putting it off because I wanted to go for sunrise. I’m incredibly lazy and kept putting off the idea of getting up at 4am to get there.
So I was all set to go in my final week…
and then I got food poisoning.
It was violent and I didn’t leave the room for 2 days and only gingerly on the 3rd. By this point I had run out of time, so I resigned myself to the fact I would have to come back to see it, along with the rest of the country, another time.
Phil’s top tip: If you’re in Siem Reap, prioritise Angkor Wat – you never know what might happen!
My opinion of Siem Reap
All in all, I enjoyed Siem Reap, but a month was too long there. The little things that don’t bother me when I’m travelling; like dirt track roads and tuk-tuk drivers in your face every 20 seconds offering you a lift, some opium or a hooker, becomes wearing when you’re trying to go about your normal life and get on with work.
I like Siem Reap and would recommend people visit, but I wouldn’t recommend a long stay and wouldn’t go back myself, apart from to see Angkor Wat.