Splendor of Angkor's Empire
|The east courtyard at Prah Kahn|
Entry to Angkor costs U.S. $20 for one day, $40 for three, and $60 for a week. This is admittedly a bit steep for the backpacker crowd, but in the grand scheme of things it's not astronomical. In any case, it is definitely worth it.
One day is not nearly enough time for Angkor, and hardly justifies the time and money spent getting there. It is feasible to see all or most of the temples in three days, and most visitors choose this pass. With three days, you have to move through the temples quickly, or else skip some of the smaller ones. With four or more days, you can see all the temples in detail, and at a slower pace. You can also re-visit your favorite temples, as they will look and feel quite different depending on the time of day.
The temples of Angkor are spread over a large area, so you will need to arrange transportation. Most people hire a driver with a motorbike, which costs U.S. $6 per day. You can rent your own motorbike for U.S. $5-7 dollars per day, though some of the rougher roads may thwart less-experienced drivers. Hiring a car is another option, which costs around U.S. $20 per day a good deal for groups of four or more, but it comes sans the wind in your face.
Angkor Wat lies just north of Siem Riep, a small town with a big future, if the number of hotels is any indication. Housing is not expensive, and with so many hotels, you can choose your pleasure. At the very bottom are dorm-style rooms, for U.S. $2-3 dollars per night. Single and double rooms with no frills can be had for U.S. $5-7. Expect to tag on a few extra dollars for amenities like television, air-conditioning, attached bathroom/shower, etc.
There are a few upscale hotels in the U.S. $25+ range, as well. There are no camping facilities, and just staking out a spot is not a good idea. It will likely earn you a visit from the police or the thieves or both.
Coming and Going
There are several options for getting to and from Siem Riep, and choosing one can be a defining moment for a traveler. That's because the fare for the trip is paid in two currencies, money and pain, and in this neck of the woods, they're collected in steeply inverse proportions. You can spend almost nothing, but you pay dearly with your rear end. Or you can protect your rear, but you'll be leaving your wallet to the wolves.
The least painful way to get to Siem Riep and therefore most expensive is to fly. If you're coming from Bangkok, there are 3-5 flights daily, and they cost around U.S. $150/250 one-way/roundtrip. You can also fly from almost any Southeast Asian city to Phnom Penh, and then buy a direct flight from there to Siem Riep for U.S. $55/$110. This is probably the best air-travel option, even from Bangkok, since piecing the flights together is cheaper, and you can spend a couple days exploring Phnom Penh while you're at it.
For travelers looking for more ground-level adventure, there are other choices. One is to arrive in Phnom Penh either by air, land, or boat, and take a speedboat up the Tan Le Sap river to Siem Riep. The speedboat costs U.S. $22, takes four hours, and is a pleasant ride, if a bit loud. On their way out, many people take the boat back to Phnom Penh, and depart Cambodia the same way they arrived. This is not a bad option, since you reduce the cost a bit, and still avoid any extensive truck-travel.
Ah, truck-travel! Cambodia would not be the same without it. If you look on the map, you may be surprised by how close Siem Riep is to the Thai border, and thus to Bangkok. There's even a direct road to Poipet, the bordertown, and with a few thumbnail measurements, you'd probably guess (and be right) that the trip is less than 150 km. "How long can that possibly take?" you'd ask yourself. The answer is, a long, long time, especially when you spend all of it pitching about in the back of a pick-up truck.
The quickest I've heard of anyone getting from Siem Riep to Poipet was five hours. The longest was twenty-four hours, including sixteen hours of driving time and a night spent stranded in a village with a broken axle. The average seems to be about 7 hours, and longer in the rainy season, when the road is a morass of mudpits and washouts. Groups of men with tractors and ropes make decent livings by pulling out trucks marooned in the yard-deep mud. It is truly an epic journey.
Still, almost every backpacker who's done it will recommend it, no matter how harrowing. For one thing, the price is right: only U.S. $4. And to their credit, it is not a terribly dangerous or foolhardy trip. Bruises are temporary, and pickpockets are par for any traveler's course; beyond that, there've been no serious incidents in several years. It's just a long, tough haul one that earns you lifetime bragging rights, but turns your butt into hamburger in the process.
But there is a middle ground! Forged in the last year, another route allows Bangkok-bound travelers to split the difference on money and pain, and see another town while you're at it. Most days, you can take a speedboat from Siem Riep across the lake to a town called Battambang (U.S. $15; 4 hours), and then catch a truck the following day from there to Poipet (U.S. $3; 4 hours). The road there isn't too great either, but it's considerably better than the Siem Riep-to-Poipet route. The boat ride is interesting too, taking you across the lake, and through seasonal rivers and canals. Battambang itself has some interesting sights, including few Angkor-period temples and a disturbing Khmer Rouge "killing field."
The temples of Angkor are well worth a visit, and the sooner the better, as their pristine quality will begin to fade as wide-scale tourism expands in Cambodia. In preparation for a trip, there are several good guides to Angkor Wat and Cambodia to consult.
The second edition of Dawn Rooney's A Guide to Angkor (Passport Books, 1997) is the most complete, and certainly the most ubiquitous. It provides detailed descriptions of all the temples, including maps of their lay-out and function. There are several chapters on Khmer history and religion, as well.
Lonely Planet's Cambodia has excellent background information, but the version on the shelves now is from 1996 and its travel specifics are hopelessly outdated. The new version is scheduled to come out in April 2000.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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