Siem Reap on a shoestring
When someone says Siem Reap you automatically think of Angkor Wat, but that’s not all you can see in this amazing place. There are plenty of cute cafes, Pub Street, night markets, the Cambodian circus, museums, floating villages, and so on. Compared to Phnom Penh it is much quieter, but in contrast there are many more westerners. If you love people watching (like me!), then this is a dream location for you. Siem Reap is one of the most culturally diverse cities I’ve ever been to. There are truly people from every corner of the Earth visiting this city. With lots of things to see and do, only some can be done on a shoestring budget. Here are my recommendations:
Angkor Wat is an iconic piece of Cambodia and a must-see. However, a pass into the ancient temple is currently $20/day (as of February 2016), which can seem pretty heartbreaking to a budget backpacker, but you can get a better deal if you purchase the multi-day passes. They offer a single day pass, 3-day ($40), and 7-day ($60) which must be used in consecutive days. Also, they put your picture on the pass, so you won’t be able to share one with your buddies. This is the main must-see in Cambodia and worth the chunk of change!
Angkor Wat is, inevitably, a tourist trap. If you’ve been to Phnom Penh you’d pay around $2 for some rice and vegetables, but here it’s around $6 and you’ll soon notice your budget fly out the window. I recommend bringing your own food (our bags weren’t checked), but beware of monkeys – they’ll steal your bags and they are fearless!
I recommend going early to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. If you get there late, temples will be crawling with tourists. This is especially true of Ta Prohm, more commonly known as “The Tomb Raider Temple” – due to its use as a backdrop in that first Angelina Jolie movie. We arrived at Ta Prohm around noon to find it completely overrun with people and waiting in lines of crowds to walk through the ancient ruins. However, get excited for the hilariously awful Lara Croft imitations people will attempt in photos.
Be weary of “temple fatigue”. There are a lot of different sites to see that are fairly spread out, it’s a good idea to hire a tuk tuk driver. Otherwise, it’s a long trek and the risk of getting lost is incredibly high. Rule of thumb: the less of you, the less expensive it is; we paid $20/day for the four of us. Don’t get scared to haggle with or even walk away from drivers, there are plenty of other tuk tuk drivers that will provide you with a better deal… or not. Here’s a map of Angkor Wat with all of the main temples. I recommend seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat, then heading to Ta Prohm before the tourists arrive, then backtracking to Angkor Thom. Also note that visiting hours are from 5:00AM – 6:00PM.
Siem Reap has two museums that are very much worth a visit. The Angkor National Museum is great, but the entrance price is $12. On the other end of the spectrum the Cambodia Landmine Museum is only $5 (as of February 2016)! A small museum that focuses on Cambodia’s little known struggle with these crippling devices, it is highly recommended. The touching life story of the founder of the museum is enough to justify the time to visit and the cost of admission. Also, it just so happens to be en route to the famously pink temple, Banteay Srey. The cost of admission to Banteay Srey is included in the ticket price for Angkor Wat and the Landmine Museum is free to Cambodian citizens and children under 10. Visiting hours are from 7:30AM – 5:30PM all days of the year, but Banteay Srey closes at 5:00PM.
EAT A DEEP-FRIED TARANTULA
Ok, I confess… my adventurous side has a limit. I’m up for most things and certainly not afraid to eat weird foods. I’ve had guinea pig, fried grasshoppers, jellyfish, and goat intestines, but tarantulas… nooo, thank you. I’ve heard they taste like ‘hairy soft-shelled crab’. Would you try one? You can find them at the night market, along with fried cockroaches, snake-on-a-stick, and the like. Price – $1!
GET A MASSAGE
If you’ve been walking around Angkor Wat all day or just ate a fried tarantula, you probably deserve a massage. Whole body massages will only cost you $6-$7 for an hour – how do you pass that up?! Thailand may be more famous for their massages, but I actually like the Cambodian style better. Some trendier massage parlors can run you $10-15, but walk another block and you will find one for only $6. A good trick is that if you go right when they open (10AM – 11AM) they aren’t as busy and will be more willing to barter down their price. You also have more bartering clout by going with a group! Beware of massage parlors that are used as fronts for human trafficking and prostitution. Some of these places can be very dark, so choose carefully.
L e m o n g r a s s G a r d e n S p a
PUB STREET and NIGHT MARKETS
Pub Street is a great place to find a bite to eat during the day, but it really comes alive at night. When the neon lights turn on, the tourists come out. You’ll see people from every corner of the Earth and hear every language you can recognize – it’s incredible! This is a great spot to sit and people watch.
During the day you can get a ‘fish massage’ at Pub Street! You essentially let fish chew on your feet (it’s as weird as it sounds). For $2 you can place your feet into a water tank filled with toothless Doctor Fish and have them clean off the dead skin of your feet. Although, make sure to find a nice-looking shop – not all operators change the water regularly, which can cause infection.
This is a great place to find little trinkets, Cambodian art work, grab a drink, and try some street food. Don’t be afraid to haggle with vendors to get a good price, but be polite and don’t disgrace artwork. In Thailand you were probably used to being marked up 3x the actual price, but they don’t mark up as much in Cambodia, offer reasonable counteroffers.
Beatocello is a solo cello concert of Bach music by Swiss doctor Beat Richner. Don’t come expecting a full-on music concert, there’s more talking than cello playing. The performances are a way to raise funds for the five children’s hospitals that Dr Richner runs in Cambodia. That said, the performances are enjoyable and are an interesting way to learn about the reality of life in Cambodia while supporting a very good cause. Dr. Richner’s concerts raise $5 million for Cambodia’s children hospitals annually! Beatocello takes place every Saturday at 7:15PM at the Jayavarman VII Hospital. Entrance is free but donations are encouraged.
Seeing an Apsara dancing show while in Cambodia is a must-do! Temple Bar features a free show in it’s restaurant every night at 7:30PM, alhough you are of course expected to order dinner or drinks from the reasonably priced menu. Arrive early to get good seats!
Children are not tourist attractions. Think twice before visiting an orphanage and be mindful of other peoples’ humanity when shoving cameras in their face. http://thinkchildsafe.org/
Likewise, don’t give money/food to beggar children or women asking for powdered milk for babies. I know this sounds cruel, but the reality is that if people stopped giving money to children, then children would stop being forced to beg for it on the street. This is often a scam and harmful for children.
Outside of Siem Reap lies a beautiful countryside and a lake, the lifeblood of the nation. A boat trip to Tonle Sap Lake is highly recommended. There are three main villages visited by tourists, including: Chong Khneas, Kompong Phluck, and Kompong Khleang.
You can also easily shop and eat at NGO run establishments that give back to the community such as Common Grounds Coffee, which is a Christian establishment that supports People for Care, or Beau Fou Boutique, which supports Global Child.
Adventures in Missions now has a World Race base in Siem Reap, The Overflow. It recently opened in January 2016 and is working on changing the name from the previous owner’s, Natural Angkor Villa. http://www.naturalangkorvilla.com/
Emily Butterfield – founder of “The Christian Backpacker”, a travel blog centred on topics that really matter. Emily is one of those people who is always on an adventure. Currently leading a World Race team, for now Emily is content with being a nomad, a wandering Christian in search of truth, justice, love and Jesus. Check out: www.thechristianbackpacker.com