An Eye Opening Visit to Siem Reap, Cambodia (Angkor Wat)

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This post is part of a larger trip report from my 16 day honeymoon in Southwest Asia!

Southeast Asia Trip Reports:

  1. Planning a Southeast Asia Honeymoon
  2. Park Hyatt Saigon Vietnam Hotel Review
  3. Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon Activities
  4. Le Méridien Angkor Hotel Review
  5. Angkor Wat / Siem Reap Activities
  6. Grand Hyatt Bali Hotel Review
  7. Bali Beach Town Activities
  8. Ubud (Bali) Hotels and Activities

Siem Reap was by far the most unique place I have every been. The town is mostly known for Angkor Wat (and Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie). We arrived in the morning and the concierge at our hotel got us a Tuk Tuk driver. The Tuk Tuk drivers are lined up across the street and have to wait their turn for a new customer. A driver for the entire day was $15 (and you could negotiate if you wanted). We had the same Tuk Tuk driver, Niang, for the three days while we were there and he was amazing. Their hope is to get a customer that needs them for multiple days and not have to get back at the end of the line. First off, you are probably wondering, “What is a Tuk Tuk?” Well, essentially it is an auto rickshaw or three-wheeler attached to a motorbike. This is the primary mode of transportation in Siem Reap. Tourists actually are not allowed to rent a car in Siem Reap.

This is our Tuk Tuk driver Niang

Day 1: Angkor Wat Temples

The first day and a half we toured the temples. Passes are required to enter the complexes and cost $20 for a 1-day pass, $40 for a 3-day pass, and $60 for a 7-day pass. We got the three day pass although, we only spent two days there. I actually could not imagine spending 7 days at the temples, but I am also not a history/museum person. These temples date back to the 12th century built for the king and his empire. Angkor Wat is the best-preserved temple and the largest religious structure in the world.

Throughout the temple complexes there are many people praying. Additionally, there are little kids everywhere begging for money or selling postcards/scarves/anything for $1. It was really sad to see this. Instead of being in school these kids were told by their families to beg for money. I, of course, gave in way too often, but many say to not condone and reinforce the negative behavior. It was also interesting to see how much these kids know about geography. They actually learn a lot from the tourists and are really interested to learn about other countries. While some are very interested, others are huge scam artists. They will lie to you, tell you that it is a religious holiday and that it why they are not in school, etc. Even when you tell them you have no money, they will ask to reach into your pockets! Lesson learned: Only carry $1 or $2 in your back pocket! These kids would actually make unbelievable sales people back here in the US. They do not take no for an answer and even remember your name when they see you an hour later! It was really sad to see how the parents use their kids to make a living and are not necessarily teaching them right from wrong.

This is Angkor Wat – the largest of all the temples

Many of the temple structures include faces to represent the Kings

There is a face in each of the pillar structures at Angkor Thom

This is along a road that goes into one of the temple complexes further away

Etched into the walls is the language of the Khmer people. There are many etchings throughout the entire complex telling the story of the Angkor Wat days.

Another temple complex

The temples are still used as Hindu and Buddhist temples. You will also see many Monks living in the temple complex.

Day 2: Floating Villages

When we were done with the temples, Niang took us to the floating villages on the Tonlé Sap Lake. On our drive there we passed by many of the villages, which was so sad to see. Most homes consist of an open aired hut and hammocks as beds. It was very eye opening and made me realize how much we take for granted in the US.

Some of the houses we saw on our way to the Floating Villages

Close up of a typical house

When we got to the dock, we took a run down junk boat out into the water. There are a bunch of junk boats to take and you can arrive without a tour. They charge about $6 per person and at the end of the boat ride they absolutely will ask you for a tip! Since rainy season just began, there was not nearly enough water to push us down the river and it took quite some time.

View of the lake with the houses on stilts

This is a picture we took where the boy came right up to our junk boat. We think we he trying to sell us his snake for $2, but not quite sure!

The floating villages consists of an entire village run on the water, including, houses and a school. Showering consists of jumping in the dirty lake. We visited the school and brought them pencils and notebooks we purchased at the store. If I knew what I know now, I would have taken another bag just filled with school supplies from the US and not purchased the $10 pack of 4 pencils. The students love when tourists come and you should have seen their faces just to be given a pencil! It was a great experience, although extremely sad (again). The entire ride took about 3 hours, but usually takes about 2. Niang waited for us upon our return and there was a little place for us to get lunch.

Inside of the school. They had just taken a test and the teacher was grading their papers.

This is the outside of the school. You can see all the students waiving bye at us. If you look really closely you will notice that most students are not wearing shoes or socks. Also look how murky the water is.

Day 3: Touring the Outskirts of Siem Reap

On our last day in Siem Reap, we explored the outskirts of the town and went to silk, word carving, and jewelry factories. It was so interesting to see how they made this all from scratch. At the end of the trip we were so sad to say bye to Niang, but so happy we were able to meet him. The Tuk Tuk drivers do not make much money and work really hard. They will pick you up very early in the morning and drive you around until 7pm. If you want to go further out of town or have them take you and pick you up from dinner they will ask for slightly more money. It is very hard for them to get work and many times it is just taking a tourist into town for $1 where they then have to get back in a line and wait their turn again. During the off-peak months, it might be a month till they have another standing customer. We ended up giving Niang about $100 for the 3 days, which we still felt horrible about (although it was a 100% tip). He was so appreciative of this and that $100 could last him a few months. The average annual income of a Khmer family is $400.

The town in Siem Reap is extremely lively, especially at night.

Restaurants: We ate dinner every night in the town. The town has many bars/restaurants/shops. Is a very lively area and pretty cool for such a small, quaint area. During lunch we ate near the temples. Our Tuk Tuk driver took us to different places, they eat for free if they bring tourists. Our meals were about $10 total and that included eating whatever we wanted from the menu. I would also HIGHLY recommend bringing plastic silverware with you everywhere. The idea of sanitation in most restaurants (especially near the temples) is to put the silverware in a cup of hot water. Make sure not to drink sink water, ice cubs, lettuce (anything washed with water). I would be extra careful in Cambodia!

Currency: The US Dollar is the most accepted currency in Cambodia (over their own local currency). We did not know this and exchanged some money upon our arrival at the airport. We actually had a hard time getting rid of the local money. If you are staying in Siem Reap and not exploring too much outside, I would actually suggest not exchanging any money. Even for tipping, they would prefer the US dollar. This is something I wish we knew prior to going.

Overall, I LOVED my three days in Siem Reap and would recommend anyone to go there. I also think three days was the perfect amount of time.  The Khmer people are extremely nice and friendly and mean no harm. One question I have been asked time and time again is about safety. I felt very safe during and at no time was I concerned. I would absolutely go back, but do it slightly different as I already saw the Temples and have little desire to re-visit them. There are many volunteer opportunities such as working in a school for the day. I think that would be a really cool and rewarding experience.

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  1. I have been following your trip as I have plans to visit SE asia some time soon. Some rivers look murky because of the sediment that flows through the river. If the river is actually murky then only parts of it (where the drain water flows in to the river) will look murky. As for the kids who are begging, I would think half of them are orphans I have seen situations where they are controlled by syndicates (think begging mafia) who force them to beg in tourist attractions and give the collected money to their bosses. In other cases that income along with whatever their parents are earning allows them to have a meal. Yes it is sad but it is not uncommon in poor countries. There is always a bad parent who force their kids to beg to feed their drinking and other bad habits but I doubt it is that common.

    • @ikonos – I agree that this helps them eat and live, and I am fine with that. I know that this is common in many poor countries, but I still find it sad. Glad you’ve been following the trip report, there are still more posts to come! I take off for Thailand next week, so there will be even more of SE asia to report back to.

  2. We had very similar experiences while in Siem Reap. I would add that we really found the archaeological museum invaluable in helping with background information. We visited the museum before we visited the temple complex, which I think was especially helpful. Further out of town is the Landmine Museum, which was like nothing I have ever visited before, probably the closest to this experience I had previously, was a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. It is a very simple little Museum with a very important mission. The founder of the Museum was CNN Hero of the Year in 2010. I found talking with our guide and one of our tuk tuk drivers about the Cambodian holocaust under Pol Pot to be incredibly sad. Both had had immediate family members murdered by the Khmer Rouge. This is a country that is still very affected by that horrid period, and yet I found almost everyone to be so kind.

  3. Did the boy verbally say the snake to be in $2? Cause it is so cheap!!! I suspect he is saying $2 for taking photo with the snake? Or perhaps he is just posing when notice that you take photo of him? Many Asian like to post a ‘V’ sign when taking photo…

    • @David – there was definitely a communication barrier with us and the little boy! You are correct though, we took pictures with many Asians and they love the “V” or “Peace” sign. We saw this primarily at the school we visited.

  4. Just some more info…
    – Tuks do not always have motorbikes attached at the front. In most places I’ve rode in them, they were just a 3 wheeled vehicle. I even paid a driver in Guatemala to let me drive one which was so much fun! The driver & my wife sat in the back seat as I rode it around a town on Lake Atitlan.
    -The temple with the faces is called Bayon. It is not Angkor Wat, it is part of Angkor Thom.
    -The roadway you show leads into Angkor Thom. I believe there is 4 or 5 gates but not positive. Angkor Thom is a complex of temples much larger than Angkor Wat.

  5. You are very welcome! Did you visit the miniature Angkor Wat replica? That was very interesting to see.

    Not sure if you went to Phnom Penh, but it is also a really interesting city worth visting for a few days.

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