Video Trip Report: Siem Reap Temples, Monkeys and Guns, Oh My
This is an installment in my March 2012 Asia Trip Series which includes: A Birthday Present To Myself: Business Class on the World's Longest Flight for $2.50, Help Me Plan My Asia Trip Starting With Singapore, Flight Review: Singapore Airlines All Business Class Flight From Newark To Singapore, Hotel Review: Intercontinental Singapore, Video Trip Report: Singapore, Hotel Review: Le Meridien Bangkok Avantec Suite, Video Trip Report: Bangkok, Hotel Review: Le Meridien Angkor, Video Trip Report: Siem Reap, Hotel Review: Intercontinental Phnom Penh, Video Trip Report: Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, Hotel Review: W Hong Kong.
I originally was going to fly into Siem Reap from Bangkok (On Bangkok Airways, which was a great experience, by the way) on a Sunday night and leave Tuesday morning. However, TPG readers spoke loud and clear that one full day wasn't enough and I'm glad they did. I actually ended up staying Sunday night through Thursday morning and I had the chance not only to explore the temples, but also the town of Siem Reap itself, the Le Meridien resort and even some random things like trying out automatic weapons at a military shooting range.
Angkor Wat, Thom and Ta Promh
To explore the temples, I decided to start early on our first day and our tour guide met us in the lobby of Le Meridien at 5:00am, complete with our own tuk-tuk (motorcycle with carriage attached). Angkor Wat, the well-preserved 12th-century temple complex, is the main attraction in Siem Reap. Tourists flock, especially at sunrise, to see the sun illuminate its vastness on the reflective pond. To be honest, getting there at 5:20am was a bit of overkill because we ended up waiting around for quite a while for the sun to rise, and frankly once you walk through the temple, there's not a whole lot to do. The key thing is to go up to the third level which gives a birds-eye view of the temple grounds and holds a couple unique shrines. However, this part doesn't open until 7:45am, though we were able to pay off the guards roughly $5 to let us up (we had seen other tourists do this and our tour guide said it was normal). I'm glad we did, because we had the entire level to ourselves and we were able to take some great pictures (plus I absolutely loathe waiting, especially in tourist traps).
After the temple we had breakfast on the Ankgor Wat grounds and then continued on to Angkor Thom, which was the capital of the Khmer empire. There I got to explore the Bayon Temple, which was built as a Buddhist shrine, and if you see in the pictures, there are many faces of Buddha in the stone. This was photo-op central and much less crowded than Angkor Wat.
Finally we went to Ta Promh, which is mostly known for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. It's known for the huge trees that are growing through the temples. Even though the trees are technically destroying the temples slowly, it's an amazing sight to see.
A day pass to all of the temple sites is $20, and you can buy a 3 day pass for $40. I did the three main temples in about 5.5 hours, though you could spend days if you wanted. I ended up going back again (and ended up being attacked by monkeys as you see in the video), so I wouldn't try packing your whole visit to Siem Reap into one day, unless you are really pressed for time.
Welcome to the Gun Show
One of the more unique tourist attractions is a military training camp where you can shoot a number of powerful guns that were once used by the Khmer Republic to fight against the Khmer Rouge. The hotel arranged for a driver to take us there and to the hot-air balloon at Angkor one afternoon. The gun experience wasn't cheap - it was basically $50 per gun you wanted to shoot and since I was there, I ended up doing the M18 automatic (which you see in the video and was crazy), M16 and AK47. Upon arrival at the shooting range, you realize it's just a couple people hanging out in an open-air glorified shed and there are basically no rules and no training. I wouldn't recommend this activity for those who have never shot a gun, because the lack of instruction was laughable - they would just load up the weapons and hand them to you with no tips. The M18 was a rush to shoot - especially since they bring you into a dark, underground long cement basement to shoot it in. I'm an adventurous person, but one round was enough and I couldn't help thinking that something could easily have gone wrong.
Come Fly With Me!
I decided to try out the tethered hot air balloon at Angkor around dusk. It's $15 for 20 minutes and it does provide pretty nice views of Angkor Wat. Being somewhat afraid of heights, I've never really wanted to do a hot air balloon, but this experience was controlled and enjoyable (though at one point everyone was on one side of the balloon and it was tilting dramatically, which freaked me out, somewhat).
TPG readers highly recommended Touich and I now understand why. The food was fresh and felt authentically Cambodian, but presented very nicely. The outdoor setting was quaint, though insects were somewhat bothersome. You can see pictures below, but I got a Beef Battambang starter and chicken with pineapple as my entree. Both dishes were perfectly spiced and looked beautiful on the plate. With cocktails and a bottle of wine, dessert and gratuity, the total meal was $49 for two.
I also ate at Hotel de la Paix, which is right in the center of Siem Reap (and will become a Park Hyatt in 2013). The food was good, but not nearly as good as Touich.
For the third night we did a low-key meal at Khmer Kitchen right in Siem Reap, which is mostly Cambodian barbeque and noodle dishes (each about $4 each). Great location and within walking distance of the fun bars Angkor Wat and Temple Bar.
Overall, Siem Reap is charming and super cheap. It's a top destination to put on your list because its got a great mix of culture, history, nice people, great food and overall value. I may just have to return when they Park Hyatt opens next year!