This is Part 2 of the Thailand & Cambodia Travel Series. Read Part 1 Here.
WE WOKE UP early to catch our international flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia. There are two airports in Bangkok: Suvarnabhumi International Airport, which is the newer airport into which the majority of international flights go. However, there is also the older Don Mueang Airport, which is about an hour apart from Suvarnabhumi, which is used now for domestic flights and many Air Asia flights. I’d made the mistake of thinking they were much closer together, but Don Mueang was definitely a good 40 minutes away from our hotel.
We called an Uber to take us there. There were a couple toll roads along the way, but the Uber price accounts for those.
Don Mueang was also an easy airport to navigate around. Make sure you collect your immigration departure card from check in before you go toward security; our agent forgot to give us one and we had to go all the way back.
The Air Asia flight worked well; do keep in mind their weight requirements if you’re traveling with just carry-ons. They didn't check on the way over but on the way back, they were weighing carry on bags. At the time of this article, your two carry-ons couldn't exceed 7kg or 15.4 lbs (https://www.airasia.com/my/en/baggage-info/cabin-baggage.page) which is difficult if you're trying to travel exclusively with carry-ons.
The Siem Reap Airport was just an hour flight away. The airport was small with a single room. We had filled out our Cambodian visas online on the government website ahead of time, but it didn’t seem to take that much time for those who applied on arrival.
We had messaged our hotel, The Golden Gecko, ahead of time using Expedia’s messaging feature, and so a tuk-tuk driver “Sam” from the hotel was waiting. Sam would be our driver for the rest of our stay in Siem Reap. The tuk-tuks were great; they were shaded but open-air carts so you stayed quite cool and protected from the rain.
We selected The Golden Gecko Villa after noting its proximity to Angkor Wat, which was the main site we had planned to visit during our three day stay in Cambodia. Our tuk-tuk took about 30 minutes from the airport to the hotel. There were three highway strips, with the center lane being used for passing cars. Along the sides of the roads were hoards of mopeds with whole families aboard, one of the most popular means of travel.
Wealth and poverty were visible in equal extremes. For every lavishly gated hotel, next door there would be dozens of stalls stitched together with tarp roofs and scattered trash. Our hotel was located off a sandy road that turned into puddles when it rained, the color of Thai iced tea. Two dogs ran up to greet us upon arrival.
The Golden Gecko was owned by an Australian couple, we learned. Their friend assisted to check us in. He shared additional tips including that the riel, Cambodian currency, was less in demand than US dollars. They would still accept riel if offered, but at that point the exchange rate was about 4,000 riel to 1 US dollar, so both were equally accepted.
It was a great family atmosphere at The Golden Gecko. One of the dogs, we learned, had been adopted by the owners after being hit by a car and left in the middle of the road. There was an island-style bar, a pool, and a little shaded area for complimentary breakfasts. They also offered tours of Angkor Wat, either a small tour that focused on the main temples, a larger loop that could easily take 1-2 days to see all temples along the main path, and then a separate tour that would take you to some of the off-the-beaten track temples, such as the waterfall ruin. They offered a tour guide or could set you up with one of their tuk-tuk drivers.
Power outages were common across the city, the front desk coordinator “Mr. Kay” told us. It was already midday, and the humid air was sweltering, as if a thunderstorm was brewing. Also, Mr. Kay told us, looking a bit sheepish, they had just learned of a Khmer wedding that would be held next door. It was expected to last for a couple days at least.
We ventured out on the streets to find a bite to eat just as it began to rain. Our friend had told us of a delicious French restaurant, and we tracked it down not a ten minute walk away using Google Maps, “Paris Saigon”. There we enjoyed the most amazing French onion soup and a light, flavorful pasta carbonara dish, as well as some absinthe, which was sold legally in the country. We met the owner who had been a French architect in Vietnam for a while where he met his wife, and when he retired, they moved to Siem Reap to open their restaurant. Half the menu offered French delicacies, and the other half Vietnamese classics.
In the evening, a power outage rolled through and the hotel lost power, making the rooms sticky with heat. We headed out to Pub Street, the major tourist road in Siem Reap. Decked out in neon lights and tons of English-speaking services from restaurants to massages, Pub Street was lively and brimming with tons of foreigners, as well as an equal number of tuk-tuk drivers looking to offer rides. The massage parlors were also very actively recruiting foreigners to enjoy the bargain massages or to try the fish skin treatment, where you dip your feet into a tank where a school of tiny fish can eat off all the dead skin.
We ate at the Red Piano on the second floor, which provided a great view to people watch. We ordered to delicious Cambodian curries there, and I gave into try the Angelina Jolie cocktail that was featured. Every 10th one they give away free, and I was pretty surprised when we heard the staff cheer and present one for free to our table.
When roaming Pub Street, have your game face on and make your heart stone, because you will be bombarded left and right to come shop or to take a tuk-tuk ride somewhere. The best way to be sensitive to their time (and your own!) is to blatantly ignore them, or give a firm “No, thanks” and keep walking. Don’t engage any more than that or you will earn yourself a relentless shadow. The competition is fierce for business and the vendors need to be persistent or they will lose their sale to the other guy. In our hotel room, there was a pamphlet explicitly warning against giving kids who are begging money, as it encourages them to keep begging instead of attending school. It is difficult, all the same, and you will realize everything you have taken for granted.
My favorite shock value stall was the one offering fried snakes, frogs, scorpions, maggots, and large plump black spiders, all neatly speared on a stick for sale. We asked the vendor which one was the best, and he said the frog. We should have listened to him. We bought a scorpion since I just couldn’t bring myself to try the spider (deathly afraid of those things) and it tasted like leathery dry charcoal with the consistency of licorice. Not much meat on the bone at all. Should have gone with the frog. (If you do ignore these warnings and try the scorpion, make sure to take the stinger off!)
When we were ready to head back, we literally just had to turn around to have three tuk-tuk drivers vying for our business. As a rule of thumb, Mr. Kay had told us, $3 USD will get you anywhere in Siem Reap general area by tuk tuk, and the driver we found accepted this as well.
The Khmer wedding was in full swing when we got back. Portraits of the bride and groom were set up at the entrance, and we could see a lavish ballroom with plenty of dinner guests inside. We headed in, needing to wake up early the next morning for Angkor Wat.
The power had come back as well. In our room, conditions were similar to our hotel in Bangkok: all toilet paper goes in the waste basket, and stay stocked on bottled water. There was a grocery around the corner as well to find great prices on beer and other amenities. The TV worked well as did the air conditioning, and the bed was supremely comfortable. We fell asleep in our room that night listening to the rise and swell of chanting next door, startled back awake every now and again at the crash of a cymbal.
Upcoming Post: Angkor Wat
Disclaimer: The above content is depicted as fiction, not fact.