Spring 2015: It was an ‘interesting’ entry into Cambodia. I didn’t apply for a visa before hand, which meant a rush around Bangkok airport to find a photo machine for some dodgy passport snaps. Luckily I was prepared for the dollar only visa-on-arrival fee. I knew it was coming, but I’d also become accustomed to carrying a fair amount of dollars when travelling in Asia. If there was an official currency of bribery, it would be US Dollars.
The flight to Siem Reap was run by Angkor Air, and the take off time was pulled forward and pushed back multiple times. I’ve even heard tales from other travellers that if two flights on any given day arn’t full, they’ll combine them. So if you do make your way into Cambodia via air, keep this in mind.
The wait for a visa was long, and then there was immigration and security, but I was lucky enough to be picked up by a driver from the guesthouse I’d booked. He waited despite the delays and via tuk tuk we went back to the guesthouse, which I was so grateful for after witnessing the queue for a taxi into town.
I stayed in the Wat Bo area, wanting a break from SE Asia’s hustle and bustle. Remember, it’s okay to keep to yourself/your travel buddy/etc whilst travelling. Back to back weeks or even days of partying, sharing dorms and noise isn’t for everyone. There’s nothing wrong with being alone, even out of choice! It took me a long time to realise that and maybe some days I’m still working on it!
I rented a bike from my guesthouse for $1 per day. This included a lock, and there was a basket attached to the front of the bike, which I often used to carry food shops. By carry food shops I mean “put my purchases in the basket and then cycle whilst praying nothing would fall out”. It was by no means a brand new bicycle, but the tires were in good condition and the frame was sturdy.
My only previous experience of cycling in Asia was in the quiet Thai border town of Mae Sot near Burma, mainly used by travellers as a border run stop. The majority of roads there were unoccupied dusty countryside ones, however to reach a petrol station with Internet connection I did have to cycle into oncoming traffic on a busy highway! An activity I survived but wouldn’t recommend!
In contrast Siem Reap, even the quieter end of town, was busy. Tuk tuks, moterbikes and cars streaming into all directions regardless of road markings and red lights – which in most countries means ‘stop’. Cambodia does not fall into the category of most countries. I didn’t have a helmet, so at first walked across some super hectic tangled crossroads, which was only marginally safer, but my confidence increased quickly over the hours.
The cycle from Wat Bo to the park was absolutely stunning. After (with relief) leaving the heavily congested roads, the route was along a relatively straight countryside road. I passed farms, wild cattle, local people working…. and also coach loads of tourists, which I learnt to ignore pretty quickly!
To visit Angkor Archaeological Park you must purchase a permit.
$20 for one day
$40 for three days
$60 for seven days
If you’re planning on visiting during the day and then watching the bucketlist favourite ‘sunrise over Angkor Wat’, go for a permit which spans over more than one day.
This pass is checked entering the park, but can be requested randomly throughout your day by park stewards, so make sure you keep it safe and at hand.
I dressed in lightweight long trousers bought at a market somewhere along my travels, and had my shoulders covered, in order to respect the dress code for a place of spiritual and religious significance. If you forget about the dress request, it shouldn’t usually be a problem depending on the guard at the gate into the park. I was really surprised by the amount of girls wearing butt-cheeks-hanging-out shorts and crop tops, and although I did feel envious as I sweated away, I was happy to be respectful of the cultural norm.
It’s a common mistake for people to assume that Angkor Wat is the only temple to see, but there are actually many others. Yes, including that one from TombRaider! Otherwise known as Ta Prohm. There are so many beautiful temples spread across the park, each with their own character, charm and style. Your visit is likely to take at least a whole day, if not longer. If cycling try to hire a bicycle with a basket so you can carry around extra water, which you will be needing! I covered at least 35km in one day, and water soon became the best friend I’d ever had!
I noticed that many visitors decided to move around the many miles of temples via tuk tuks with a driver they had hired for the day. Personally I wouldn’t have enjoyed being tied to a driver, and quite enjoyed exploring and getting a little lost. I liked locking up my bike and going where I wanted, when I wanted. Some people got dropped off by tuk tuk and returned to their driver later in the day. The distances to cover are huge and then there’s the sun and humidity factors. However, there’s no right way, just an appropriate way for you!
Although enchanting and beautiful, there is a dark side to the park. You’ll bump into cute children selling bracelets, postcards, water and other souvenirs or snacks. Although I did crack and purchase some items, I was conflicted by the knowledge that these children are sent out to work by adults hiding behind them. It’s a very complex issue, one which I admittedly need to think about more. It’s important to mention it here instead of ignore it, even if it is uncomfortable. Awareness is a starting point…
Onto matters of a more cheerful and cheeky nature, there are monkeys all around the park and unless you subscribe to the opinion that ‘sharing is caring’ when it comes to food, hold on to your stuff! You can buy bags of food to feed them, but I refrained from doing so and stuck to polite nods as I passed! As well as being aware of thieving monkeys, I always locked up my bike and kept any valuables on me. I hadn’t heard of any incidents and the park seemed safe, but why risk being part of a story which is the exception to the rule!
Cycling around all day was thirsty work, and I treated myself to a couple of fruit shakes which were made by vendors at mini markets in the park. These fresh fruit shakes, along with roti pancakes are two of the street food snacks I miss the most from SE Asia – crisps and fizzy drinks from the corner shop just don’t compare!
I returned to Angkor Archaeological Park within the next couple of days via tuk tuk for sunrise. For this experience I do highly recommend hiring a driver. Not only will you be tired from exploring the site but the roads to the park don’t have street lights, and in the dark you run the risk of getting lost… or worse. Sunrise was such a beautiful experience that I forgot to see it through a camera lens, and only took the one snapshot above before things really got started.
So, instead of experiencing the sunrise from a picture you see on this blog, you’re just going to have to get out there and see it for yourself – you won’t be asking for your money back, I promise!