Friday, March 18, 2011

Kratie to Siem Reap - Cambodia

Having had our fair share of volcanic crater pool action in Ban Lung, we decided to get back on the major roads and head to Siem Reap, the famous ancient city hosting the thousand-year-old temples of Angkor.  Positioned on the way is the small town of Kratie.  We had heard good things about the town, and a stop would help break up the journey so we decided to take a look for ourselves.  The major attraction is a tour to see those rare Irrawady dolphins, but as we had already spotted then in the 4000 Islands in the south of Laos we could pass on this and spend the time enjoying the town.  We didn't find anything especially unique here, other than the bizarre sight of people leaving basic roadside clinics on motorbikes whilst also being attached to hospital drips conveniently held skywards by their rear seated passengers.  There was generally a chilled vibe, a few nice restaurants and pleasant outdoor market but nothing that we felt that warranted staying more than one night.

The journey to Siem Reap was an adventure in itself.  On our first bus we ended up sitting opposite a couple from Jersey who knew my dad.  Then we had a not-so-infrequent tire burst which couldn’t be resolved and had to change buses.  On the second leg of the journey we happened to be sharing a bus that was completely full of young people who were from a French organisation in Phnom Penh aiming to educate and in some cases fully care for underprivileged and poverty stricken Cambodian youngsters.  To say that they were extremely friendly would be an understatement.  Whilst the journey took a long time, it certainly didn't feel that way because for the whole trip we were chatting to these kids and their teacher (who was unfortunately an I.T teacher not English!) whilst they relentlessly fired questions at us and tried to explain their 'organisation' as they called it. We helped them through some of their English homework and tried to comfort a couple of them who felt very carsick.  Another past time was to point at things from the coach window and yell what they were in our own languages.  We soon found out the equivalent of 'Cow' and 'Chicken' as the driver struggled to avoid them as they crossed the roads on many occasions!  It was such an entertaining and heart-warming experience that we promised to visit their organisation when we were in Phnom Penh in the not too distant future.

Blown Tire
New friends on the coach

Although it certainly didn't seem so, the journey took longer than expected to the point where we made the faux pas of arriving after dark into a relatively quiet station.  We opted to take a couple of motos to the guesthouses and food courts of the cheaper outer suburbs which turned out to be a great decision.  The first guesthouse we tried was too expensive, but there was plenty of competition here so we said goodbye to the moto drivers who reluctantly conceded when we asserted that we weren't to be chauffeured to any of their 'recommended' (often commission heavy) options.  We didn't have to look long before we secured the last room in a delightful little cheapie down a very inconspicuous side street.  They were overtly surprised as to how we managed to find them because as with most places they usually employ moto touts to hustle people getting off at the popular bus stations.  We were shown to our room by a fairly short and very smiley gentleman who we ended up commissioning as our tuk tuk driver a couple of days later.  The room was great value at six US dollars and we were happy to pay an agreed fifty dollars to have Chang as our exclusive chauffeur for our three days temple hopping and for our rides in and out of town.

Kate and our driver Chang

Siem Reap was big and busy but without feeling too claustrophobic.  There were definitely benefits to enjoying the sights and smells from the comfort of the tuk tuk and we both felt like royalty as we were carted around by Chang who was an excellent driver and perfect gentleman.  Tuk tuk or no tuk tuk, the people are generally warm and friendly and you are spoiled for choice in terms of places to eat, drink and be merry.  The most popular area is a lane of bars and restaurants called 'Pub Street' and its adjacent roads and side streets which is where we spent most of our time when we weren't visiting the temples.  Beer is ridiculously cheap, with competing restaurants enticing their would-be customers under their roofs (there are no doors on most buildings and everything is in the open air allowing you to absorb the atmosphere and climate) with draft beer at around fifty cents as standard, sometimes even cheaper in order to get bums on seats.  Cheap beer or not, we began our first full day with a bit of culture on a trip to the war museum.

One of the sights from our tuk tuk

Here at the outdoor museum we had a guide who had lost his family and his own arm to a landmine.  His father was forced to earn money by locating and retrieving the TNT from old mines and then selling it on, all this as a complete amateur.  He lost his family when seemingly inevitably, a landmine detonated and our guide only managed to survive by having his arm amputated using some form of wire with no aesthetic and just a stick to bite on.  What’s more he told us all of this with the biggest smile on his face.  In the museum we were able to climb into exhibits and there were lots of tanks and weaponry to learn about and touch. 
After this visit we spent the rest of our day amongst the stalls, restaurants and pubs of Siem Reap simply soaking in the atmosphere.  The only negative was the intermittent hassle from children hawking post cards and other things who would often be very persistent and occasionally quite rude when a sale was refuted.  It was also upsetting to see amputee victims, almost certainly from land mines either hawking things you neither wanted nor needed or simply begging which would understandably turn a happy moment into a solemn one in an instant.  We finished the evening to our first full day with a meal which consisted of a platter of seven small traditional Khmer dishes, enabling us to sample the best of Cambodian cuisine in an award winning restaurant in one sitting.  Our favourite dish was the Amok, which is a creamy curry like dish most popularly served with fish but can also be served with beef or chicken accompaniment where offered.

Kate disembarking a helicoptor

The museum guide

The following day we embarked the tuk tuk nice and early to see our first ancient temples.  Now I would be lying if I claimed to successfully recall the names of all the temples that we saw or the order in which we visited them but there were all astounding.  There isn't too much in the world that could keep both of us engaged for an entire day in the sweltering heat, but the history and the beauty of the temples and their surroundings is really something to behold.  Surprisingly the temples are a relatively 'interactive' experience, in that visitors are able to explore and literally clamber over the near thousand year old ruins.  If this continues it will undoubtedly have a negative effect on the preservation of the site, but for us it was excellent to be able to get so close and be able to touch a significant part of Khmer history.  I heard that the temples of Angkor are actually sold via contract every year to private companies for a significant discount on what they are taking at the gate.  This emphasises the short-sightedness of the government and their priority to get a quick buck, as evidently outside companies are going to care little about spending money to ensure the longevity of the site.

Politics aside, there was a lot to gain by being able to clamber over ancient relics and such a rich history.  The temples are of a shared Hindu and Buddhist origin, although much of the Buddhist symbolism has been altered during more turbulent times to predominantly reflect the Hindu deity's with the latter being the least passive of the two religions.  There are many examples of where a stone carving of a praying Buddha has been unceremoniously altered into a Hindu dancer.  The Hindu gods Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma and their various forms are represented throughout, as are the Buddhist idols and imagery and this is about as far as my knowledge goes.  Whilst all the temples were amazing in their own right, my favourites would probably be the big hitters, those being Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.  For the former we woke up at around five am to ensure we were there to watch the sunrise, but instead of following the crowds we ventured round the back and practically had the temple to ourselves.  Angkor Thom is an extremely large complex and houses the best of various forms of stone carving including the famous faces, which is debated as to whether these represent either the enlightened Buddhist or 'Bodhisattva' or the king responsible for commissioning the majority of the temples, Jayavarman VII.  The photos do the talking and we truly had three great days of temple exploration.

The tree is taking over one of the smaller temples
Some of the detailed carvings from a smaller temple
The arched entrance into Angkor Thom

A face from Angkor Thom

Some carvings from Terrace of the Elephants in Angkor Thom
Kate helping to pull the snake

The rear of Angkor Wat at Sunrise

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Whist the temples were a sight to behold, it was always a good feeling to have our final pickup from Chang to take us back to modern civilisation.  Feeling the cool wind on our faces as we drove along in the knowledge that we would soon be in the presence of a nice cheap beer was a welcome thought.  Every night we were able to eat well and the waiters were more than happy to help us learn the local language which seemed difficult at first but after a lot of practice and plenty of volunteers on hand to correct us we were soon able to talk through a few essentials to the delight and surprise of many locals. 
On one of our evening adventures we were lucky to find a mobile bar on its opening night! This bar could be peddle-powered around the streets of Siem Reap, but it was much easier when the German owner gave us all a tow on his quad bike whilst sporting his ‘Biggles’ goggles.  The whole thing was totally bizarre to the point where I can safely say that for the first time Cambodians were taking pictures of us.  Siem Reap was easily a highlight of the trip so far and somewhere we would both return to in a heartbeat.

The night market for food at the end of Pub Street

The stall where we ate at the food market
Overlooking Pub Street

The Mobile Bar



  1. Hello,

    I likes reading your blog. Still I have some questions you might know. Can you help me with that? I am going to Cambodia on September this year. Besides Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam are also listed to be visited. But still I have a question about a hotel you might have seen during your visit in Siem Reap. I booked the following hotel: Tara Angkor Hotel. You know if it is a good hotel? I heard good stories about it. What are the best attractions to visit in Siem Reap and in the surrounding?

  2. Hi there,
    I am glad you enjoy it! Congratulations on going to Cambodia you will have a wonderful time. We did not stay at this hotel but I quickly checked it out online and it has amazing reviews but at around 99$ per night it would have been too expensive for our trip.

    First thing I would do in Siem Reap is get a tuk tuk driver. Don't worry they will find you! Make a deal for them to drive you around maybe 50$ for 3 days to see the Temples of Angkor (the main event). If you don't have 3 days do a day trip and see Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. It sounds like you have some cash to spend so maybe pick up a tour guide at the entrance to the sights or pay a little more to get one arranged before you leave your hotel.

    Relax in the evening around Pub Street and get an Amok curry or enjoy the BBQs and make friends. There are also lots of happy hours and places to have fun (recommend Laundry Bar). Try a massage with 'seeing hands', a charity for the blind.

    To top up on even more culture visit the war museum (pictured in this post). The Land Mine Museum is said to be better but we missed out on this unfortunately.

    Then you have your usual bike tours, cooking schools, shopping and eating to fill in any gaps. Don't worry about planning the small details too much just workout how long you want to spend and have a great trip.

    1. Thank you for your excellent information. I am in the lucky position that I have contacts with people in the hotel. But still it is a holiday, so I saved a lot of money. Of course I have to enjoy it. Also I am considering to try one of the following restaurants; Tonla Mekong, Tonla Sap and Tonla Chaktomuk. I don't know which one to choose. Perhaps you have been there?
      And of course I will make a charity for having a relaxing massage. But besides the temples there is a lot more to do. Very Helpful, Thank you.

  3. Nice Click. I like your photos and Thanks for Sharing this post

  4. Hello Anonymous,

    I read your message and wanted to help you, because I have been in Siem Reap a lot of times. The Tara Angkor hotel is a beautiful hotel and is ideally and conveniently located, Tara Angkor Hotel is situated only 6 km from the Angkor Wat Temples, 15 min drive from the Siem Reap International Airport, a few minutes stroll to the Angkor National Museum and a short ride to the city town center with an array of Cambodian souvenirs, shopping and culture. They have a few promotions that you can make use of if you haven’t booked already: Last minute bookings, summer sales, early bird promotion or Angkor temptations. Of course there are a lot more, but have a look at their website. It is not that far to the Angkor temples that I would advise you to see for sure. I would say, grab yourself a 3 day pass and find yourself a decent tuk tuk driver to take you to the farther ruins and for a drive in some of the outlying villages. If you’re up for it consider renting a bike and checking out Angkor Wat on your own. There’s a lot to see and do so a lot depends on your time and budget. A few temples I would strongly suggest you check out besides Angkor Wat itself are Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom and of course Ta Prohm just to see the amazing tree. The Banteay Srei temple is farther out of Siem Reap but has a very different feel than a lot of the others. If you want to do something else as well, you can visit the day and night market. I can really recommend these attractions. If you need to know more, let me know.

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