Prepaid GSM
Getting around

Siem Reap, Angkor, Phnom Penh

14.12: Kuala Lumpur -> Siem Reap
15.12: Siem Reap
16.12: Siem Reap
17.12: Siem Reap -> Phnom Penh
18.12: Phnom Penh -> Saigon

Overview and overall impression

There has been a lot of development in Siem Reap since the last time I visited the city in September 2000. There are now low end hotels with Internet access in the room, you can withdraw cash from ATMs, new roads have been built. But it is still surprising that the Cambodians prefer the US dollar to the local currency.
I was positively impressed by Phnom Penh, which is a nice and very livable city and even has some nice sights (was actually expecting grim, "bombed-out" place, full of people carrying weapons and attacking each other).

Pre-departure plan

This time I leave without a precise idea of when I'll be where. I'm rather planning to make a stopover in Dubai, then continue to Malaysia, spend two days in KL getting the Vietnam visa there, then fly to Siem Reap, do Angkor and then travel to Phnom Penh, Saigon and from there go north to Hanoi, before heading back to KL.

Dec 8 Munich-Dubai
Dec 9-10 Dubai
Dec 11 Dubai-KL
Dec 12-13 KL Get  Vietnam visa
Dec 14 KL-Siem Reap
Dec 15-16 Siem Reap
Dec 17 Siem Reap-Phnom Penh
Dec 18 Phnom Penh
Dec 19 Phnom Penh-Saigon
Dec 20-22 Saigon
Dec 23 Saigon-Hue
Dec 24-25 Hue
Dec 26 Hue-Hanoi
Dec 27 Hanoi
Dec 28 Hanoi-KL
Dec 29-Jan 3
Jan 4 KL-Munich

The overall price level in Cambodia is still relatively low, with for instance hotel rooms available for USD 10-15 or even less. Prices however seem to be going up and are sometimes higher than in neighbouring countries, for instance USD 3 for a fried rice which in Malaysia costs USD 1. Also, the hotel in Phnom Penh was USD 35, while for the same price I got a much better room in Saigon (Vietnam). In any case Cambodia still allows you to travel on a very low budget.

Money  / Exchange rate (December 2006)
1 Euro = 5193 Riel
For current exchange rates check the Universal Currency Converter.

Cambodians prefer to receive US dollars instead of their own currency. It is now possible to withdraw cash with a Maestro/Cirrus ATM card in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh at the ANZ bank. You get US dollars.

Mobile phones and prepaid cards
There are prepaid cards, but I haven't tried them. Good GSM coverage in all places I've been.

Internet access
Internet cafes are everywhere and cheap - depending on the "competitive" situation, rates are now as low as 0.50 - 1 US dollars per hour.

Tropically hot, but noticeably cooler than in Malaysia. December falls in the dry season in Cambodia: skies are blue and it does not rain, although in the evening and in the morning the sky is often overcast. Surprisingly cool the day I was in Phnom Penh.

Health / Vaccinations
You'll need the usual set of "tropical" immunisations. I didn't do any immunisations specifically for this trip, relying instead on the protection gained through the immunisations of the previous years. I also dodn't take any anti-malaria pills and instead relied on insect repellent,

VISA / Entry requirements
A VISA on arrival can be obtained by citizens of most delevoped countries at the airport in Siem Reap (cost is $20, you need one photo). Citizens of ASEAN countries do not need a visa.

Ok in Siem Reap, and in Phnom Penh too. The situation has improved over the past years. Phnom Penh makes a relatively safe impression.


Getting around
You will need your own private transportation in Siem Reap - be it a bicycle, motorbike, car or tour bus. The distances are big and there is no public transportation allowing you to get from one place to the next.
I used a bus to get from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, which essentially cost me a full day (leaving 12pm, arriving at 6pm). It would have been a better idea to leave Siem Reap in the evening after a full day of sightseeing and fly to Phnom Penh.

14.12: Kuala Lumpur -> Siem Reap
Angkor Thom hotel, Siem Reap. US $15 for a basic room with A/C, fan, fridge, TV, some furniture, toilet with hot shower. Not too great, but basicaly ok. In the hotel lobby there is an internet cafe and the hotel has a bar/restaurant.
Weather: sunny and blue sky with a few small clouds in the early morning in KL. I guess in the future I'll have to be more active in the early morning in KL if I want to shoot some photos. Sunny, blue sky with some clouds in Siem Reap. Hot, but not too hot.

The wake up call wakes up everybody at 6:26am. Alissia realises that she is sleeping in the baby bed and loudly asks to be put back into the big bed next to the mommy. Shirley complains that because of me she has to get up so early. I don't switch on the light and get ready in the semi-darkness.

After checking out in the lobby and paying for the room I jump into a taxi at 7:30am. The driver uses no meter and will bring me to the LCCT (Low cost carriage terminal), AirAsia's terminal, for 80 RM. That's more than if he used the meter, but never mind. The drive proceeds smoothly and we arrive at the LCCT by 8:25am. This is a not so sophisticated and elegant airport as the KLIA one, but it is well-organised and compact enough, so that you don't have to walk long distances. There is a 112 RM excess baggage surcharge because my suitcase weighs 23 Kg, 8 more than allowed (RM 14 per Kg). After checking in (there is no queue, so I lose no time waiting), I have two noodle soups in the airport's restaurant. Then I proceed through immigration and security and get to the departure hall.

There is already a long queue of people at the gate T1. With Airasia there are no reserved seats, so people queue up at the gate instead of taking it easy and sitting on the chairs. At 9:45am boarding starts, by 9:55am everybody is on the plane and shortly after 10am the plane starts rolling and leaves pretty much on time. I'm glad that this time AirAsia dien't screw it up (last time there was a four hours delay).

The plane, an oldish Boeing 737-300, is quite full. You have to pay for the food on board (they sell sandwiches and drinks). The plane lands on time at 11am local time in Siem Reap. Then everything happens very fast: I get the visa, go through immigration, retrieve the suitcase and get a taxi to Siem Reap (US $5). The taxi driver offers to drive me around the Angkor temples for US $25 per day, which is ok (the Lonely Planet guidebook indicates a range of $20-25); getting to Banteai Srei, which is about 32 (40?) Km from Siem Reap will cost the extra petrol.

On the way to the hotel I spot a branch of the ANZ bank, where I withdraw cash (US $) with the ATM card (Maestro/Cirrus).

At 11:50am I'm in the hotel (the Angkor Thom hotel). The room is not too terrible and at US $15 not too overpriced. I could have tried to negotiate for a price reduction for a few $, but who cares.

At 12:10pm I'm ready for the sightseeing. After a stop we reach the temple complex at 12:20pm. There I buy a three-days ticket for US $40 (by the way, in Siem Reap everybody is using US dollars for payments). Then we proceed to the Angkor temple, where I make the first stop until 1:20pm. The second stop is the southern gate of the Angkor Thom city, followed by the Bayon, Baphuon and Phimeanakas. Then follows a brief stop at Ta Prohm (full of tourists) and then we drive back to Angkor Wat.

Around 5pm I get into the balloon for some aerial photography (US $15 for about 10 minutes). It turns out to be disappointing, because the balloon shakes a lot, makiing it difficult to shoot photos. After that I have a dinner in one of the restaurants (US $3 for a fried rice??? seems very pricey) opposite Angkor Wat. When it gets dark, I'm still there hoping that Angkor Wat will be illuminated, so we drive back to the hotel. In the evening I don't do much. I sleep around midnight.

15.12: Siem Reap
Angkor Thom hotel, Siem Reap. Today I discover that there is an Internet line (through an Ethernet cable) in the room.
Weather: sunny, blue sky with some clouds the whole day. Hot, but not too hot.

I wake up abruptly at 7:13am, perhaps because of some noise. Try to sleep again, but can't fall asleep. Around 8am I get up and get ready. At 8:50am I'm down in the hotel lobby and shortly after that the driver pops up. Hmm... no time even for a short breakfast. So I jump into the car and buy some food in a bakery on the way to the Angkor temples.

Today I cover lots of temples: initially Angkor Wat from the eastern entrance (9:11-9:54am), then we drive to the Phimeanakas for some shots with the morning sun of the Phimeanakas, terrace of the Elephants, Baphuon and the Bayon (10:12-11:22am). At 11:30am we drive to the Preah Khan (11:48-12:37pm), then to Preah Neak Pean (12:52-12:58pm) where we have lunch. Then we stop at Ta Som (1:42-2:07pm),  Eastern Mebon (2:21-2:38pm), Pre Rup (2:44-3:03pm), Banteay Kdei and Sra Srang (3:13-3:43pm and complete the big loop with Prasat Kravan (3:52-3:59pm).

At 4:30pm I'm at Phnom Bakheng ("sunset mountain") for a sunset shot of Angkor Wat. The temple is full of tourists and gets fuller the closer we get to the sunset (the sunset view is actually nothing special). At 5:30pm I'm down at the car and we drive back to the hotel.

After dinner in a restaurant opposite the hotel (good food by the way), I check some travel options to Phnom Penh. There is a boat leaving at 7am (or 8am?) for 22-23 US $ (leave Siem Reap at 6am?) and there is a 3, 4 or 5 days tour by bus/boat to Saigon via Phnom Penh (40-60 US $).

Tomorrow we'll drive to some far away temples Banteay Srei, Beng Mealea and the Roluos group. The extra fee should be around 25 US $.

16.12: Siem Reap
Angkor Thom hotel, Siem Reap.
Weather: overcast around 8am, later it gets sunny, blue sky with a few clouds (same as yesterday). A bit less hot than yesterday.

I wake up around 7:30am, after a short night (could not fall asleep until 2am I guess). I stay a bit longer in bed, then get ready and am down in the lobby at 9am, where I meet the driver. Today we'll visit some further away temples (Banteay Srei, Beng Mealea).

We first drive to the Banteay Samré temple (9:42-10:03am), which is a surprisingly beautiful temple. It's not on the grand tour, but is still a very scenic temple when visited in the morning (there are some nice well preserved carvings among others).

Shortly after 10am we leave for the Banteay Srei temple, arriving there at 10:50am. Banteay Srei is very nice, definitely worth a visit, but is full of tourists. I spend one hour there, then have lunch in the restaurant opposite the temple (food and service are not so good).

After lunch, at 12:40pm we start driving to the Beng Mealea temple. It takes a long time to get there, because the driver is using a non-paved red earth road full of holes and bumps. We only reach the temple at 1:40pm.

Beng Mealea is supposed to be a very special place according to the Lonely Planet guide. In reality, this is a temple in a very sorry state of preservation, mostly consisting of heaps of collapsed stones. To explore this temple you have to follow a weird maze of paths, climb up and down on walls, go through holes in the wall etc. In case of rain this place gets really dangerous, because the smooth, flat stones on which you have to climb get slippery. By the way, some mines have exploded in the temple - are there any active mines left?

Anyway, since at one point the path seems to end in front of a wall, I ask the temple personnel where the right way is. This turns out to be not such a smart move, because now the guy shows us (two more tourists have joined me) how to get through the temple. For the next 50 minutes this guy leads us through a maze of paths, corridors, up and down walls etc., which could be kind of interesting for somebody who is into this, but which ends up making me lose too much time here. Finally at 3pm the guy leads us to the exit - another exit, not the one from which I entered the temple. he even shows me the wrong way, so I end up walking for 15 minutes in the jungle, partially backtracking my steps before getting back to the car.

In the meantime it's already quite late (3:15pm) and I regret having made the detour to Beng Mealea. We drive to the Roluos group of temples, arriving at the Lolei temple (16:15-16:16) one hour later at 4:15pm.  After a brief photo stop we drive to the Bakong temple (16:27-16:44), which around this time of the day is very nice.

At 4:50pm I'm back in the car and ask the driver to drive to Angkor Wat for some sunset shots. It takes 25 minutes to get there, even if the driver is driving quite fast. After 15 minutes we drive back to the hotel (name of driver: Bin Solin, bin_solin @ yahoo.com, +855-12-961 911) and I pay the driver (US $75 for the three days + US $35 for the extra trip, that is petrol and toll road fee).

In the evening I enquire about the Mekong river tour at the travel agencies I saw yesterday, but again they are unable to show a program so I decide to skip the tour (might still book one in Phnom Penh). I also decide not to do a boat trip, after reading in the Lonely Planet that the boats are very small so that you have to sit on the roof, there is a risk of capsizing and there is not much to see anyway in the middle of the lake. I'll take the 12:30pm bus tomorrow.

17.12: Siem Reap -> Phnom Penh
Hope and Anchor Guesthouse, Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh. US $35 for a room with TV, fridge, private bath with shower and hot water, A/C, some furniture, fan. Essentially you pay for the location and the view over the river, although the room is noisy because of the street.
Weather: same pattern as yesterday: overcast around 8am, later it gets sunny, blue sky with a few clouds. Surprisingly cool in the evening in Phnom Penh (too cool to sit outside).

Somehow in this place I keep waking up at 7:15am, even I could sleep longer, as my bus only leaves at 12:30pm. Must be the room, whose window can't be darkened sufficiently so that it gets very bright already at 7am. In any case I get up, check my emails, then spend time surfing the web. That's the advantage or disadvantage of having an Internet connection in the room.

At 10:40am I have finished packing and get out of the hotel for a short walk through Siem Reap before leaving. At 11:30am I have some lunch then get back to the hotel, where I check out. At 12:10pm the minibus comes and picks me up and brings me to the bus station. The bus station is a relatively simple place with a number of buses waiting on an unpaved square.

At 12:35pm the bus starts the trip to Phnom Penh. The road is paved but is not too smooth. At 2:35pm we stop somewhere for half an hour. Then there is another break at 4:25pm and finally we reach Phnom Penh a bit after 6pm.

I wonder if it would have been a better idea to cover the distance between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh by plane for US $65, because like this basically I lose one day (today I've done nothing except for the bus trip to Phnom Penh). I could have left yesterday evening (assuming an evening flight was available) after a full day of sightseeing in Siem Reap.

Phnom Penh is actually not too big, meaning that it does not take too long to get to the town centre from the outskirts. When we (that is the other travellers and me) get out of the bus, we are overrun by touts and tuk-tuk drivers, each of them asking to go to his guesthouse/hotel or to use his tuk-tuk. Actually these are nice people and they are trying to make a living, it's just that I can only use one of them. These tuk tuk drivers appear really desperate to make US $1 (the cost of the short trip to the hotel).

It takes some effort to find a room, because the places I check (from the list of midrange places listed in the Lonely Planet guide) are either full or have no rooms with window, or the room with window is not on the side of the river (or perhaps I'm a bit choosy). In the end I settle for a room at the Anchor guesthouse (which in reality is more on a hotel level).

Phnom Penh is kind of nice, at least the area around the river where I'm staying, with its French style cafes and restaurants. By the way, very tough to find a supermarket or minimarket where to buy some groceries here. I wonder what I should do and how long I should stay, given that there is not much to see in Phnom Penh. I'll take the plane to Saigon, but should I take the evening flight tomorrow at 6:50pm or should I take the 12pm flight on Dec. 19th? I sleep at midnight.

18.12: Phnom Penh -> Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Chancery All Suite Hotel, Saigon, 196 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street. US $35 for a very nice room with everything, even WLAN to which however I can't connect when I check in. The room is actually a suite with a first room with a sofa and other furniture and a second room. Very good value for US $35, some orders of magnitude better than the hotel in Phnom Penh which cost the same. I booked this room through a travel agent at the airport in Saigon. Breakfast included.
Weather: sunny, blue sky with no clouds, very windy in Phnom Penh. Due to the wind it does not get too hot. 27°C in Saigon when I arrive in the evening.

I wake up at 8am, get ready, pack my things and shortly after 9am I get out of the hotel. Outside yesterday's tuk-tuk driver is waiting for me and asks where I want to go. Actually I just want to secure the plane ticket to Saigon, and on Sisowath quay yesterday I found two places which were selling the ticket for US $95. "No problem, I know a place where you can get the plane ticket for less, don't buy it here, they will overcharge you..." Ok, so we jump into his tuk-tuk and he brings me to a place near the Psar Thmei market. Ticket price there is US $92, wow what a "saving", but hey I have to pay the driver, so there is no saving at all.

Never mind, at 9:30am everything is done, will have to return after 11am to fetch the ticket. Back in Sisowath quay I start a walk, after declining an offer of the tuk-tuk driver to drive me around the whole day (and where should I go? There is not much to see in Phnom Penh anyway).  Until about 11 something am I walk towards the royal palace, stopping here and there for a photo.

Phnom Penh is sort of a smaller version of Bangkok with French influences and French colonial architecture. Quite a pleasant city for a day or so. There are almost no taxis, with people relying on tuk-tuks to get around. Lots of poor and disabled people on the streets, lots of beggars and lots of children who work. I see small girls carrying heavy loads - bookshelves full of travel books - asking if you want to buy a book. Must be really tiring to walk around all day with these bookshelves, especially if you are a small kid. Not much of a childhood, instead of going to school these kids spend their days on the streets.

Internet access is available in Internet cafes which can be found everywhere in Phnom Penh (and in Siem Reap too) at prices between 0.5-1 US $ per hour.

When walking on the streets in Phnom Penh, tuk-tuk and motorcycle drivers will constantly ask you to use their services. These people must be desperate for some cash.

By the time I arrive to the royal palace it's 11:30am and the royal palace is closed, as I find out. It reopens at 2:30pm, funny that they close it between 11am and 2:30pm. So I start walking in direction of the hotel, then take a tuk-tuk to the Psar Thmei market, walk to the travel agency where I fetch the ticket. Then I walk a bit in the area and finally take a tuk-tuk (US $2) to the independence monument and from there back to the Sisowath quay. There I check my emails and book the Airasia flight from Hanoi to KL on Dec. 28th. I also check if Airasia has packages for Langkawi from Dec. 29th to Jan. 1st. Unfortunately no hotel is available.

Then I have some lunch in a restaurant and at 2:10pm I start walking to the Royal Palace. At 2:30pm I get in and until almost 4pm I'm there. Actually one hour is plenty to visit the palace compound, which is sort of a smaller version of the Grand Palace in Bangkok (here the Khmer are mimicking a bit the Thais), but after that I have an ice cream break. It's US $2.50 for an Almond Magnum and a Lemonsoda soft drink, which is not exactly cheap for a country like Cambodia.

At 4pm I start walking towards the Independence monument. Outside the royal palace there is a lot of police cars and police officers. This must be the escort of some members of the royal family. By the way, the uniforms of the police officers look like those of Thai police officers. After some time the police convoy starts rolling.

I then walk towards the river where there is fun fair and then get back to the guesthouse at 4:55pm. Unpleasant surprise, the room where my bags are, is locked and the person with the keys is not there. Some phone calls, waiting and finally around 5:15pm the person with the keys shows up and opens the door. Then I ask about a taxi, they call it, but it doesn't show up in time, so at 5:28pm I jump into a tuk-tuk to the airport.

It takes a bit over half an hour to get to the airport. The interior of the airport itself is nice and modern with an elegant furnishing and layout. Some nervousness at the immigration counter as it appears that I have lost the immigration card (have to fill in a new one). The VN818 flight with Vietnam airlines is 10 minutes late. The plane is an ATR72 turboprop and the hostesses (wow!) wear the traditional Vietnamese dress, which is sexy as the top part is quite tight.

At 8:20pm we land in Saigon. Immigration and baggage retrieval are very fast, then at 8:50pm I'm at the counter of one of the two travel agencies at the airport. It takes half an hour to settle the hotel bookings and the taxi. Basically I'm in the Sol Chancery hotel for the first night and in the Sai Gon hotel for the next nights. It might look as a dumb solution, but never mind. The taxi to the hotel is US $7 and the trip takes around 25 minutes.

Saigon looks like a pretty developed town, with lots of elegant and modern shops and cool restaurants (based on what I see while driving from the airport to the hotel). Looks like Vietnam is much more developed than Cambodia.

Copyright 2007 Alfred Molon