I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia for the same very reason every other tourist makes it there – Angkor Wat temples. However I was in no rush to get to Angkor but most of all, I did not limit my stay to merely exploring Angkor Archaeological area and moving on. I really wanted to savour the atmosphere of Siem Reap and wanted to explore its hidden gems that may not attract many tourists, but are spectacular in their own way. Wat Bo temple was just like that.
I used reference map in Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide to find locations of numerous temples located within Siem Reap town itself. Exploring Angkor Wat temples was to be a big adventure for which I wanted to get ready thoroughly (high cost for the entrance ticket was one of the main reasons) so to get accustomed to local climate, customs and everything else, I used the initial days in Siem Reap to explore its own gems. According to the maps, Wat Bo was the closest temple to Two Dragons Guesthouse where I was staying so I made it my first destination on my “exploring the temples of Siem Reap” day.
Wat Bo is located on the east side of the Siem Reap River. Entire area around Wat Bo temple and along Wat Bo Road in Siem Reap is now known as “backpacker’s area” due to vast numbers of budget guesthouses and restaurants.
Other than Angkor temples, Wat Bo is one of the oldest pagodas in Siem Reap province. It was founded in the 18th century and to day it enjoys high regard among native Khmer population. The most significant part of Wat Bo are 19th century paintings depicting scenes from a Cambodian epic poem Reamker. As a traveller who never uses guides, whether it’s books or professional guide services, I have managed to miss out on Wat Bo’s Reamker entirely. I don’t even know where exactly these depictions are, I just know they are there. Darn, sometimes doing the research prior to going there pays off.
To my credit, other than Wat Preah Prom Rath pagoda, which is a modern, centrally located pagoda, Wat Bo was my first pagoda on my “exploring Siem Reap pagodas” tour. Wat Preah Prom Rath doesn’t count as I stumbled across it by chance, whether as visit to Wat Bo was planned and deliberate. Being my first, I was too overwhelmed with the vastness of the temple grounds and most of all – mesmerized by the number and variety of Stupas. At the time of my visit to Wat Bo, I had no idea what Stupas were, but as my day went on and I have visited other temples in Siem Reap, I learned all about it. More on Stupas in next post!
Straight after I have come to Cambodia I wanted to buy a bicycle. There were several reasons why I didn’t want to wait with it and needed to get myself one as soon as possible:
Bicycle is the most environmentally friendly transportation option, which is extremely important to me
Bicycle is a neat form of exercise that one may not otherwise get a chance to do due to busy schedule
Bicycle is an inexpensive form of transportation, ideal for travelers on a budget as it doesn’t require gasoline to keep going
Bicycle makes you independent. There is nothing worse than having to depend on other people and/or means to move from point A to point B
In Cambodia where Tuk Tuks – primary means of short distance transportation for majority of tourists – are driven by excessively irritating and rude people, bicycle gives you an option to show them all a finger and make yourself self sufficient, aka completely and entirely capable of moving yourself around without ever needing a Tuk Tuk
Also in Cambodia where Tuk Tuk drivers clap at foreigners from across the street and yell at them like they are cheap whores, riding around in your own means of transport (bicycle, since tourists are not allowed to drive motorcycles or automobiles) makes you unreachable for any of them. Taking this into an account, a bicycle will help you retain sanity as at least 90% of those irritating Tuk Tuk drivers will be unable to clap and yell at you ala crack whore style. The remaining 10% will still do it and ask you whether you want Tuk Tuk even though you are well off on your own way with your own transport. Tuk Tuk drivers simply don’t try to make their living by offering quality service or good price, but rather by irritating the crap out of tourists who will not take a ride with them because they need it, but just to get spared from being repeatedly approached in an uncivilized way
To further preserve your sanity, having a bicycle gives you the peace of mind because you know Tuk Tuk drivers will not see a penny from you which is awesome way to pay back for treating you like cheap hooker. If you didn’t have the bicycle, from time to time you will catch yourself needing transport other than your feet. You are likely to go ahead with a Tuk Tuk because they are omnipresent and represent a less expensive option to get moved around. An example of needing a transport even though you can do long distances walking is after you went for a beer in the evening and it’s time to go back to the guesthouse. Unless your guesthouse is located immediately next to the pub where you went for a beer, taking a walk through seedy neighbourhoods populated by local Cambodians will give you creeps and you will rightfully fear for your life. While everyone says that violent crime is low in Cambodia, the same people and publication warn against walking the streets after dark. No matter what the name of the publication that talks about Cambodia, they all warn about the same thing – there truly must be good reason for this unison. And there really is. Hence unless you have your own transport (such as bicycle), sooner or later you WILL get to a situation in which you will need to take a Tuk Tuk regardless of how irritating and rude those drivers are. Bicycle solves this issue once and for all
Bicycle is absolutely the way to go in Cambodia. I understood it right off the bat and would recommend it to everyone who is heading this way. I knew I was going to stay in Cambodia for a while so I decided to purchase one, however most guesthouses and hotels rent bicycles and if yours doesn’t, you can rent one from countless shops selling tour tickets or simply specializing in renting bicycles. There is no shortage of bike rentals in Cambodia and prices start at $1 for a basic one without gears. I once met two guys riding Cannondale mountain bikes – Cannondale is a pro line of bicycles so I immediately enquired whether they brought them with them to Cambodia but was told they rented it out here in Siem Reap for $5 per day. I don’t know where exactly it was, but there is a way to also rent quality bikes for those who prefer reliable and well equipped bicycles.
Area around Siem Reap and Angkor Archaeological Park is predominantly flat so riding bikes is easy. There are virtually no hills here whatsoever. The only challenging part is heat. Cambodian sun is scorching and difficult to handle especially if you putting your body through a workout by pedalling. Keep yourself hydrated and drink a lot of coconut water which costs only 2000 Riel ($0.50) and has all nutrients you need to keep you going in this sun.
For me it was a no brainer that I was going to buy a bicycle, I just didn’t quite know where to go to buy one. I have only been in Cambodia for one day and Siem Reap was small enough to manage on foot, but I needed a bicycle to keep me free from Tuk Tuk drivers and to have transport for Angkor (one way lift by Tuk Tuk to Angkor area from Siem Reap costs $5, or you can hire one for $15 a day, unless you want to visit more remote temples, such as Banteay Srei). Since I wanted by purchase a 7 day pass for Angkor and explore the area relentlessly as much as possible, I’d be looking at quite a bill for Tuk Tuks hence bicycle was absolutely the way to go for me. Furthermore – I’m very environmentally concerned and support transport option that don’t harm environment. Having nice exercise is an added bonus of riding a bicycle. As I had said, for me, this was a no brainer but I would highly recommend it as hands down the best option for transport in Cambodia, especially if you have primarily come here to see Angkor Wat and other temples from the Archaeological Park.
In native Khmer language, the meaning of Siem Reap is “Siam Defeated”. This is hardly the case anymore, as Kingdom of Siam, or Kingdom of Thailand as it is known today ultimately defeated the Kingdom of Cambodia and put both Siem Reap as well as entire Angkor area under their control. The name of Siem Reap remained, much to the dismay of Thailand as it’s become the most popular destination town in Cambodia, serving as gateway to Angkor temples so now everybody thinks the Khmer owned the Siam.
Location of Siem Reap on a map. The map is navigable and interactive:
Siem Reap and Angkor were under Siamese control from 1794 to 1907, until French troops came, conquered Cambodia and put it under their control. It didn’t take long before French explorers discovered the ruins of Angkor Wat temples and through them the buzz about the largest religious complex in the world had spread into Europe. Europeans soon started to flood Cambodia to see what the buzz was all about and Siem Reap quickly started to turn from a complex of villages centred around wats to a popular tourist hub.
Fast expansion of Siem Reap continued and come 1929, the town saw its first hotel – The Grand Hotel d’Angkor. Up until the late 1960’s, Angkor Wat remained one of Asia’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting the likes of Jackie Kennedy and Charlie Chaplin.
All has been put to an abrupt stop in 1975 when communist Khmer Rouge seized power over Cambodia and drove much of Siem Reap’s population into the countryside. This mass evacuation and prosecution of all who practised religious faith stopped the growing influx of tourists who saw Cambodia as dangerous destination for all travelers. On their crusade to eradicate religion, Khmer Rouge destroyed many of Siem Reap’s temples (though protected by its divinity, Ya-Tep Shrine was beyond the scope of their might).
When bloody reign of Khmer Rouge was put to an end, Cambodians started the process of rebuilding Siem Reap to its former glory. New temples were built in town, old traditions were dusted off and holy days of Buddhism were celebrated once more. The hit Cambodia suffered in the hands of Khmer Rouge took a while to recover from, though. International community did not regain its lost trust in Cambodia until mid 1990’s when first foreign tourists dared to re-enter the country.
Pol Pot, the mastermind behind Khmer Rouge died in 1998 and his death brought upon the new era of Cambodia. Siem Reap has been vastly rebuilt, Angkor temples made more accessible and tourism industry in Cambodia kept growing exponentially. When UNESCO designated Angkor Wat a World Heritage Site, putting it on the map right up there with the Pyramids in Giza, Machu Pichu in Peru or the Taj Mahal in India, Cambodia, and especially Siem Reap quickly spiked as one of the most coveted travel destinations. Nowadays, tourism is the life force behind Siem Reap’s growth that’s been inadequately faster than in the rest of Cambodia.
Cambodia receives more tourists than any of its mightier neighbours and it’s all only thanks to Angkor Wat. Millions of tourists who come to Cambodia only visit the country because of Angkor Archaeological Park. And since Siem Reap is the closest town with all facilities, virtually all of the visitors to Cambodia make it there.
If you are planning to visit Angkor temples, Siem Reap is where you will be staying, dining and getting entertainment. Full scale of accommodation options ranging from budget guesthouses to 5 star hotels are available in Siem Reap. Same goes for restaurants, bars and shops. However, Siem Reap’s rapid boom in an impoverished country comes with its ups and downs. As you read my blog, you will be introduced to all – the good, the bad and the ugly part of Siem Reap. I do not do urban legends. When something about Siem Reap or Cambodia is good, I will tell you it’s good, but when something about Siem Reap or Cambodia is bad, I will again tell you that it’s bad. My reports and reviews are painfully honest because I value you as a reader and would rather you to know the whole truth, even if political correctness dictates to leave some of the less flattering parts out. Welcome to the real Siem Reap!
Even though I didn’t get near enough sleep my first night in Cambodia and even though that night was followed by a relentless 27 hours traveling trip, once I was awaken, I have braced myself, got dressed and stepped outside to explore Siem Reap. Rain had stopped with first morning light and I was too excited to get my first feel of Asia on my own. Two Dragons guesthouse had several free brochures available on the desk right by the reception so I’ve helped myself. The larger one was called Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide and there were two issues of this one available – one from February 2009 and the latest one from June 2009. Aside from Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guides, there was also a smaller, pocket sized guide called O&A Out and About Pocket Guide to Cambodia, Siem Reap Edition.
I found both of these publications extremely helpful and would recommend every visitor to Cambodia pick one of each up. They are free and widely distributed throughout touristy establishments. Your guesthouse/hotel is likely to have them at the reception and if not, you will find them in restaurants or information centers.
Granted, both Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide and O&A Out and About Pocket Guide to Cambodia are 90% advertising, however the rest is a whole pile of useful info. I have particularly come to like the map of Siem Reap that is provided at the beginning of the Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide. It’s an illustration that leaves out everything you don’t need, keeping the map simple which makes the town easy to navigate even for first time visitors. I was a first time visitor that day myself, never been to Siem Reap or anywhere in Cambodia for that matter before and the map in Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide has been all I need to get my way around town.
O&A Out and About Pocket Guide to Cambodia also has a map of Siem Reap. Theirs offers more of a bird’s eye perspective of the town and is split into two parts. It focuses less on listing hotels and restaurants and more on listing pagodas, gardens, museums, malls, etc. Both guides are very useful for everyone who wishes to explore Siem Reap on their own, not through the advice of Tuk Tuk drivers which is always, and strictly biased.
Explore Siem Reap on Your Own, Ignore Tuk Tuk Drivers
Tuk Tuk drivers will prey on unsavvy tourists and act like they are your best friends who will serve you with free advice. Whatever it is you may be in need of, they will hook you up with it. Trick is, they will only and solely hook you up with whoever pays them the highest commission. They will always try to advise you against going where you are heading and for going elsewhere and will have millions of arguments at the ready to present and back up their “whys”. In the end of the day, they are only looking for a kick back from establishments for each customer they deliver. This commission system is deeply embedded in the way Cabodia works. Whether you see it or not, changes nothing on the fact that it’s always working and is always present. Don’t become a victim of it. Pick up your free copies of Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide and Out & About Pocket Guide to Cambodia and go where your heart leads you, not where Tuk Tuk driver gets the highest kick back for you.
I don’t remember what I went to West Edmonton Mall – the largest shopping mall in North America for that weekend. I was already in the process of searching for flights to Asia from Edmonton and had a pretty good idea of what I should expect to pay should I decide to take that route, instead of going to the Caribbean. When I’m at West Edmonton Mall, I like to go to the Chinese supermarket called T&T where they always have this really great fast food style hot buffet. Food is great, prices are unbeatable and I love Chinese food so I never miss the opportunity to have munchies at T&T Supermarket when I’m at the West Edmonton Mall.
As I was walking out with my belly full after a nice snack, I popped in the travel agency that’s got the office right outside of the entrance to T&T. The agency is called Unity Travel and is obviously focused on primarily serving the Asian clientele. There were two ladies inside, both of Asian descent and most of their signs on the shop windows were written in Chinese characters. The location itself suggested that it’s Asian people living in Edmonton that they specialize in and as such – or so I thought – they specialize in flights to and from Asia. Wow, isn’t that precisely what I’ve been focused on lately?
I walked in Unity Travel despite my overall belief that dealing with travel agents is an obsolete and pricey way of buying travel packages. If you deal with an agent face to face, their commission will have to be included somewhere in the price you end up paying. This is often not the case when purchasing on line as the process is automated and can be done even outside of store hours. But since Unity Travel is so obviously all about Asia which is where I wanted to go, I walked in believing I had nothing to lose. I just wanted to ask to get a general idea on prices I could get through, and I was in the neighborhood so why not. I didn’t think I could get anything comparable to what I saw on line, but they wouldn’t kill me for asking, would they?
I talked to a fine lady whose name is Ivy and judging by the business card she handed me, she may be the owner of Unity Travel. I stuck out like a sore thumb because I’m Caucasian and I walked into a travel agency for Asian people but even though everyone stared, Ivy treated me with respect and answered all of my questions. I basically wanted to know how much a ticket from Edmonton to Bangkok would cost if I wanted to depart at the end of August, or beginning of September. I also asked Ivy to look up the same option with departure from Vancouver, as I already knew flying from Edmonton was gonna be significantly more expensive.
It was already the beginning of August when I visited Unity Travel. And I wanted to score a cheap ticket to Bangkok from Edmonton. I knew I was a dreamer, but the quote form Ivy got my instant attention. She said that if I were to fly on September 10th or later, I could get the Edmonton – Bangkok return ticket for $1,250 all in. My jaw dropped. This is about total cost I’d be looking at if I were to fly to the Dominican Republic at about the same time. With $800 being the base price but $300 in fees and taxes I’d be pretty damn close. But $800 was the cheapest ticket which departed at the end of September. End of August was in four digits. This sounded more than great to me. Afterall, Bangkok is more than three times as far as the Dominican Republic and it’s in Asia. The value for money was definitely there. That’s what I’d call a bargain plane ticket for high season. Ivy also mentioned that because we are already well into August and it’s the high season even for Asia bound flights, that if I wanted to fly before September 10th, it would be possible, but the ticket would be $200 more expensive.
The real breakthrough came when I asked Ivy – just out of curiosity – how much more I would have to pay if I were to buy a return ticket all the way to Siem Reap, Cambodia (a town right next to Angkor Archaeological Park that serves as a gateway to Angkor for all foreigners). I only asked for Edmonton to Bangkok ticket because I knew Bangkok is the nearest major international hub with lots of flights coming in every day. Because Bangkok is served by such a large number of carriers, I believed the price would be less expensive than flying to areas such as Siem Reap. My ultimate destination would still be Cambodia, but getting to Cambodia from Thailand didn’t seem like a big deal hence I asked for the ticket to Bangkok. But now that I knew how much it was to fly to Thailand, I also wanted to know how much extra it would be to go all the way to Cambodia as if it wasn’t going to be that much more, I might as well pay the extra money and be delivered all the way to my final intended destination.
Ivy said that I would be flying with Korean Air and would have to make transfer stops in Vancouver and Seoul. And because Korean Air has regular, daily flights to both Bangkok and Siem Reap from Seoul, the price would not change. So whether going all the way to Bangkok or to Siem Reap, it would still cost $1,250 total if departing on or after September 10th, or $1,450 if departing before September 10th.
These quotes were staggering for me. I didn’t even want to know how much a ticket would be from Vancouver at this point as quotes from Edmonton were more than reasonable. I expected some $3,000+ figures and even more for Cambodia, yet here I was with a quote I would have to pay to go to the Dominican Republic which I originally wanted to do. I left Unity Travel agency office with Ivy’s business card and quotes written on it. I am not an impulsive buyer so I needed a little time to have this settle in my head. Plus there was still a dilemma of whether to go after September 10th and save $200 or before, but pay more. I had to give it a good think-over and was gonna get back to Ivy with what I have decided in a day or two. It is quite possible that Ivy thought I was just a passerby, just someone curious but not really serious when I walked in their office. She treated me professionally but I still had that feeling that she didn’t expect much of me. Caucasian in an Asian travel agency… what the hell was I doing there anyway?