The inspiring Angkor complex is undoubtedly the main draw of Cambodia and Siem Reap is a gateway to all the architectural wonders of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and all other temples of the Khmer Empire. You can easily spend days exploring the outlying temples of Angkor, visiting a floating village on the Tonle Sap Lake, savouring flavoursome and rather mild – compared to the Thai ones! – Khmer dishes, watching apsara dancing or relaxing in street massage shops offering great Khmer massage. Even if Siem Reap has been for a long time overtaken by foreign tourists, it remains a great place with its own atmosphere, a busy and ever-friendly vibe, homely guesthouses and colourful Old Market. All in all, it is a great mistake to think that there is nothing else to see and to do in Siem Reap apart from admiring the great Khmer structures of Angkor. You will find plenty of activities and meet plenty of great people, both travellers and locals. And you are sure to enjoy the experience.
Getting to Siem Reap
Gone are the times when getting to Siem Reap from Bangkok was akin a complicated quest which involved bus, tuk-tuk and taxi rides with inevitable visa and guesthouses scams. The journey normally stole you off the whole day and was quite tiring and full of minor annoyances. In 2009 a paved road linked the border with Siem Reap, decreasing the travel time on the Cambodian side from five to a mere couple of hours. With a direct Thai-Cambodian International bus between Bangkok and Siem Reap which has been in operation since February, 2013, the journey from the Thai capital to the base for exploring the mystical Angkor complex has become much easier and more straightforward.
From Bangkok to Siem Reap by bus
Bangkok-Siem Reap route is served by a government-operated Transport Co International. They provide VIP buses which are generally in good condition, but note that there is not too much leg space for a Western traveller. Otherwise buses are quite comfortable, there is a toilet on board and two meals – a small breakfast and lunch – are served during the trip. Do not expect too much from your meals, though – breakfast is a muffin with orange juice or milk, and the lunchbox contains rice with some sort of a curry.
Currently there are two morning buses (8am and 9am) daily during peak periods and only the 9am one left during the low season. Tickets cost THB850. The main advantage of the international bus is that you do not need to change it at the border which is the case if you book two separate trips – from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet and from Poipet to Siem Reap.
The bus ride from Bangkok to Siem Reap itself takes about six hours (four hours to get from Bangkok to the Thai border and two hours from the Cambodian border to Siem Reap), but be ready to spend not less than an hour (more likely – two hours) at the border, as the Aranyaprathet-Poipet border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia is always busy and sometimes extremely busy. Most probably you will be robbed off one more hour prior to reaching the Thai border at a ‘travel agency’ – see our Visa Scam Alert below. That means that the whole journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap will take you about 9 hours.
In Siem Reap buses arrive to Nattakan Cambodia Co., Ltd. (22 Sivatha Road) which is the Cambodian company operating the international bus. It is located some 500m from Pub Street where there is plenty of dining, drinking and entertaining options. There is a travel agency sharing the same office with the bus company and its staff normally tries to persuade arriving passengers to stay in the guesthouses which share their revenues with the travel agency. These guesthouses are not necessarily too much overpriced or bad, so sometimes it may even prove a good idea to have at least a quick look at what they are offering.
Visa Scam Alert
Even if it is a government-operated company, you still may face a usual visa scam when you are brought to a ‘visa agency’ and are forced to obtain your visa to Cambodia there – obviously at a higher rate. The official visa fee for a tourist visa is USD30 – that is the amount which you pay while obtaining your visa on arrival at the border (though at land borders you will be inevitably asked to pay some THB100-200 extra for ‘speeding the process up’ – it is not actually necessary to do so). Have one passport-sized photo to attach to your application.
If you want to avoid these annoying situation at the travel agency or at the border, apply for your Cambodian visa online through the official web-site of Ministry of Foreign Affaires and International Cooperation of Kingdom of Cambodia. The e-visa costs USD30 plus USD7 for processing your application. It is accepted at the major international borders of Cambodia, including Pnom Penh International Airport, Siem Reap International Airport, Poipet (Banteay Meanchey), Cham Yeam (Koh Kong) and Bavet (Svay Reing).
Most probably you will spend about an hour at the ‘tour agency’ as the majority of the passengers of the international bus usually seem unaware of this scam or just choose to pay more. It is absolutely useless to argue, so be patient.
It is not a common practice to rent out motorcycles or scooters to foreigners in Siem Reap, alas! If you want to have your own transport, the only option is bicycles which are offered at around USD2 per day. Be realistic, though: it is about 7 km from Siem Reap to the ruins plus the same distance back and than add no less than 10 km if you wish to do the Small Circuit. And yes, it may become scorching hot in Angkor.
If you prefer motor transport, than opt for a motorbike taxi, a tuk-tuk or a normal taxi.
Motorbike taxis are the cheapest way to get around the city. Short hops around Siem Reap normally cost less than USD1. You can also hire a motorbike taxi for the whole day for exploring the temples of Angkor (daily rates start from USD8). It is a convenient option if you travel solo and do not want to depend on other travellers which is the case with a shared taxi or tuk-tuk.
Tuk-tuks are ubiquitous and are a convenient – and very authentic – way for moving around the city. Hiring a tuk-tuk for a whole day for exploring the ruins is a quintessential Angkor experience. They seat two people comfortably enough; three or four will feel like herrings in a bowl though. Tuk-tuks charge USD15 per day.
Taxis or rather cars with drivers are air-conditioned – no heat, no red dust, no sweat, hurray. They are definitely more comfortable and for some it may compensate the lack of that feeling of ‘authenticity’ of the ride. Yet if you wish to visit some remote temples and have fellow-travellers to share the expenses, taxis are a great way to get there. Expect to pay from USD25 to USD30 for a whole day.
Where to stay
Accommodation in Siem Reap has improved tremendously during the recent years. Whether you are on a tight budget or want to splurge at its most, Siem Reap has something to your tasting. The French Quarter with its broad and leafy avenues hosts great mid-range and expensive hotels. This peaceful area lies within an easy reach of the centre of town, yet feels considerably more tranquil than the rest of Siem Reap. Wat Bo, Psar Chaa and Airport Road areas all offer plenty of budget digs with Wat Bo being the most convenient option as far as the location is concerned. In Airport Road you are quite far from everything, and near the Old Market (Psar Chaa) it may be too noisy, though some excellent and cheap guesthouses located there are perennial favourites among backpacking travellers. A few of the most top-end hotels in Siem Reap are scattered along the road to Angkor. As with Airport Road, you are far from everything there, though in many cases you will definitely not want to leave you luxury nest.
Exploring, visiting, checking out and admiring all those awe-inspiring temples of Angkor from dawn till dusk – that is what you are supposed to do while in Siem Reap. Nobody of those arriving to Siem Reap escapes Angkor – well, no wonder. But Siem Reap has even more activities on offer if you get tired of all those centuries-old carved stones. Enrol to ceramic classes and create your own pottery using the pottery wheel at The Angkor Pottery Centre or find out the variety of flavours of Khmer cuisine at cooking classes which include a visit to a local family with Beyond Unique Cooking Class. There are also opportunities for connoisseurs of alcoholic beverages with Georges Rum Free Tasting or Palm Wine tasting. In about 20 minutes drive from the centre there is The Angkor Silk Farm where the visitors are introduced to the whole process of silk-making. If you are still temple-hungry after visiting Angkor, there is a dozen of old and modern temples in the city, all of different architectural interest, including a 500-year-old Wat Preah Prom Rath, which shows the obvious Angkorian influence. Evenings glitter with traditional costumes of the dancers performing at numerous venues round Siem Reap. And then there are all those massage shops to relieve your aching muscles after a strenuous day at the ruins. The Khmers claim that the famous Thai massage has originated from the Khmer one. Whether it is true or not, it is worth comparing anyway.