Ask Dave: How Many Days in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap?

By Dave Fox

Stephanie in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, asks:

Ever been to Siem Reap? I read your log about Phnom Penh and liked it. Do you have one for Siem Reap?

(Why I ask: I’ve got 7.5 days to spend between the two and am trying to decide how much time to spend where! I’d love your insight on the two places. … Right after this trip I’m headed all the way home to Vancouver Canada… so a relaxing last few days are fine by me!)

Yes, Stephanie! After my recent trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with my wife and mother-in-law, we continued to Siem Reap – a popular tourist stop because of its proximity to Angkor Wat and a slew of other massive temples.

On the bus ride, we stopped for roadside snacks. My mother-in-law, Gisela, is a professional chef. She says the chili-roasted crickets were crunchy, spicy and delicious.

You can travel between the two cities by boat or bus. We opted for the bus since we had gone by boat from the Vietnam border to Phnom Penh a few days earlier. Buses are faster, and we wanted to see the countryside.

With a week between the two, I’d spend three days in Phnom Penh, four in Siem Reap. Depending on your definition of relaxing, you might hit Siem Reap first. Phnom Penh is more laid back. While you still get the usual tourist hassles (primarily overzealous tuktuk drivers shilling for business), Cambodia’s capital absorbs its tourists more than Siem Reap, so the haranguing is less intense there.

What to do in Siem Reap

The area around Siem Reap sprawls with ancient temples. You can travel between them via rickety tuktuk, air-conditioned taxi, or rented bicycle.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat: A silhoutetted temple reflects on the lake.

Angkor Wat is the biggie. Reluctantly, I agreed to wake up at 4:45 a.m. to get there by sunrise. Once we arrived, I was glad we’d risen early.  Angkor Wat is photogenic at any time of day, but get there before dawn and you’ll see the sky transform from black to gray, to an orange-fringed murky pink, and finally into full daylight. A silhouetted reflection shimmers in a nearby lake as the sun peeks from behind the temple.

Heading into the temple as soon as it opened, we beat some of the crowds lingering outside. A guide at our hotel jokingly challenged us to take a picture of Angkor Wat without any people in the photograph. Being some of the first visitors in, we managed.

There are lots of other nearby temples worth exploring. Angkor Thom is famous for its giant stone heads. Ta Prohm is slathered in massive tree roots that tangle around the temples as if they’re gobbling up the thousand-year-old buildings. Banteay Srei, dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva, is smaller; for most people, an hour is plenty. Pre Rup is a great place to catch the sunset.

Ta Prohm: Trees Gone Wild!

We hit Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm in one sweaty and tiring day – partly because our time was limited, partly because one ticket gets you into all of the surrounding temples, but you pay based on how many days you visit.  You could split these temples over two days and relax in the afternoons. (Starting around 25 US dollars for a double room , many hotels have swimming pools – a nice amenity if you want a spot to chill out after a hot day of temple trekking.)

For a refreshing change of pace, Phnom Kulen National Park is a worthwhile day trip if you’re in decent shape. The tuktuk ride from Siem Reap took a little over an hour. It’s a fun route past small villages and family farms. Inside the park, a steep and rocky trail leads up to a cooling waterfall. We joined Cambodian kids splashing in the chilly waters. (Bring a swimsuit!) In the shallow parts of a nearby river, you’ll spot linga – underwater stone carvings dedicated to Shiva.

To escape Siem Reap’s tourist-clogged downtown, consider renting a bike.

On our final day, we rented bikes and rode away from the touristy center. We cycled through a riverside village. Basic shacks of wood or corrugated metal, most without plumbing, lined the water. We passed family shops, a barber, and an out-of-place tattoo parlor. Renting a bike is cheap and can take you to places most tourists miss – the “real Cambodia,” so to speak.

So, Stephanie, there are a few basic suggestions. I’ve got lots more bloggage to come, including interviews with tuktuk drivers, and our night at a tourist-free beer garden. I talked our tuktuk driver into taking us there with his friends. We snacked on fragrant fish and spicy frog while slurping the local brew.

At the end of the day, beneath a glitzy neon haze, the night market and Pub Street cater to diverse breeds of travelers.

Downtown Siem Reap is a tourist-clogged and noisy place with lots of backpacker-style nightlife and a vibrant night market. It’s worth four days for the temples and other activities. Phnom Penh, as I wrote previously, was more mellow than I expected. We were there two nights, and I could have lingered longer.

Have a great trip, Stephanie! Thanks for your question!

Got a question for Dave about travel, writing, or anything else? Send it in via the Ask Dave page and you might see your answer in a future column. 

Published on Wednesday, October 3, 2012

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