Getting to Siem Reap from Bangkok was the deal of the trip.
The train ticket was 48 baht, and thanks to incredible info from Seat61.com, we were ready to navigate through the fray when we got off near the Cambodian border. (Can’t recommend this resource enough.)
We went from train to tuk tuk, and 20 minutes later, walked across the border. We were warned about lots of people trying to scam you and overcharge for passport photos or medical checks (photos you need; medical checks you don’t btw), but it wasn’t bad. Maybe we just had a slow day at the border.
The border agents threw in a few extra charges, which online accounts had warned about, and we just paid. It was a situation where everyone knew it wasn’t a legit fee, but you just had to go along to get the stamp in your passport. (It was only an extra few dollars when you converted and it’s pretty hard to argue with someone in possession of your passport.)
After the border, we found the free shuttle to the bus station for the next leg in the trek. (We were skeptical, but pleased to find the shuttle really was free.) At the bus station, we got a lousy rate to convert money and realized that US dollars are accepted across the country. (But not coins. They told me this after I counted out the correct amount in quarters. Sigh.)
We boarded an oversized van with about 12 other people and after the obligatory roadside stop (because every driver has a friend whose business they are trying to buoy), we had an uneventful drive to Siem Reap.
We go dropped off, far from the center of the city, in a crowd of tuk tuk drivers all vying to take us to our hostels. Since it was our first stop in Cambodia, I had no idea what a fair price would be.
And then I discovered maps.me.
A couple from our van pulled out their phones and said they were walking the 20 minutes to the center if anyone wanted to follow. We took them up on it and despite a hot walk, it felt good to win, just once that day, when someone tried to rip us off with an unfair price.
(On Maps.Me: I ended up downloading the app, which works offline without data or a cell plan. Oh, and it’s a free download. Not bad, right?)
We had a great hostel, but Siem Reap was a little overwhelming. More than anywhere else on the trip, it felt like people were up charging and looking to rip you off. (Which I guess is a product of a tourist grown town.) It was one of the stops on our trip where we saw the most visible poverty, which contrasted the overpriced restaurants and bars on every corner, catering to tourists with fat pockets and waistlines.
We had gotten a lot of recommendations about how to see Angkor Wat best, with people suggesting we needed six days. We decided to take one.
The length of our stay was also cost prohibitive on our post-Peace Coprs budget. The one-day ticket to visit the temples was $20. Three-day tickets were $50. That didn’t include meals or transportation, which easily doubled or tripled those numbers.
We did a little Google homework, bought snacks, and made arrangements with the driver recommended by our friend Anne in Bangkok. His price wasn’t the best in town, but it was fair and gave us the flexibility to go at our own pace without a group from the hostel, and we felt good supporting someone that came recommended. His story is all too common in Cambodia; his family suffered as a result of the war. He was very kind and spoke strong enough English to talk about life in Cambodia, a welcome change from the other locals we met who were just looking to sell something.
Meeting locals has been a travel priority for Susan and I, coming from our Peace Corps mindset of integration and understanding. The sunrise over Angkor Wat was stunning, but we were put off by the scores of people clamoring to tilt their selfie stick at just the right angle and the inconsideration that abounded.
We got our beautiful view and got out of there. Bik, our driver, took us around to the other temples where for a few hours, we enjoyed minimal crowds as we wandered the ancient grounds. By the end of the day, the temples started to blend into each other, and we were glad we had only booked a one-day ticket. The main temple and that sunrise view was worth seeing, but we were happy to be heading to Laos in the morning.
Siem Reap Pro Tips:
- Seat61.com is useful in all countries and all situations. The site is a wealth of knowledge for not only transportation routes, prices, and accommodations, but also includes a collection of first hand narratives and instructions for border crossings.
- Maps.me is a free download, and from there you can choose to download the city or country of your choice. It works offline, without data, quite accurately, and includes search options for food or other amenities.
- You can still find great street food at great prices in Siem Reap, so don’t be discouraged by the pizza shops and burger joints. We ate at the same shop for several meals, enjoying $1 plates of delicious noodles.
- If history and temples are your thing, consider getting a guide or a longer-term ticket for the Angkor Wat complex, but for the average viewer, it’s easy to get templed out.
- Appropriate dress for women in temples is covered shoulders, and no, a scarf over a tank top won’t cut it at the main temple. Apparently their standards have gotten stricter due to a rash of idiot tourists taking nude photos at these sites. (I wish I was making that last bit up. Google it.)