Getting around Siem Reap is easy. The Big 3 temples in the archaeological park are within easy reach from each other, and if you are physically fit, you can rent a bicycle for about USD$3 – USD$5 per day. However, since you’ve made it all the way there, why tire yourself out when your energies could be better conserved for exploring and getting lost in the temples?
I would rather ride in a tuk-tuk (US$15 – US$18 per day). Siem Reap does not have a public transport system in the form of buses and taxis. Visitors and locals get around by just getting into a tuk-tuk which can be found outside the hotel and around every corner! I found tuk-tuk drivers to be generally patient, honest and accommodating. In the absence of a tour guide, they can even take you to the lesser-known temples and attractions in Siem Reap. They will keep a watchful eye on your belongings while you spend your day exploring, and uncomplainingly pull up at the roadside for you to capture that photo moment. If you offer to pay for their meals, you would have made a friend for life!
It’s also well worth considering hiring the services of a tour guide when visiting the temples (US$35 per day). Tour guides generally speak at least one other foreign language and need to pass an examination on Angkor’s history before being issued with a licence. They are recognisable by their uniform comprising brown trousers, beige shirts and name badge. Having a tour guide around gives you a local’s viewpoint without having to fork out a lot of money. They are able to work around your preferences and schedule and you can ask as many questions as you want, without having to waste time referring to guide books and maps. The travel experience is also enhanced because tour guides can recommend interesting spots less visited by independent travellers and tour groups.
I felt lucky to have Sorn as our tour guide for the stay in Siem Reap. He was conversant in both English and Japanese. Not only did he take care of the logistics like transfer, transportation, entrance fees and meals, he went a step further by inviting us to his house to meet his family and experience a typical Cambodian home-cooked meal by his wife. Sorn was the translator during our interactions with the locals in the area. When the school we were supposed to visit turned out to be closed for that day, Sorn took immediate steps to find another primary school to visit. He successfully convinced one resident of Kampong Khleang to allow us inside her home (on stilts) for a look around. I passed up on this offer because I was afraid that the thin wooden staircase might not hold my weight! He is contactable by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kulen National Park
It’s a pity that not that many visitors go to Phnom Kulen as it is a very interesting place. Phnom Kulen (Kulen Mountain) is situated about 50 km from Angkor and you need to be prepared for a long ride. The big challenge up the mountain is that half the journey is on a narrow and bumpy dirt road. It takes approximately 2 hours to reach the top and you need to make your way up before 11 o’clock in the morning. Once there, visitors can only leave the mountain after midday to avoid on-coming traffic. To get to Phnom Kulen, it’s best to hire a car with a driver. Avoid going on motorbike or tuk-tuk as the road is rather precarious.
The park has a temple, Preah Ang Thom, that houses a massive reclining Buddha. The statue is 8 meters long and was carved from a single sandstone rock in the 16th century. To see the statue, you need to climb a very steep flight of stone steps leading up to the summit.
Downstream is the River of 1000 Lingas, a series of Hindu-inspired motifs and designs carved into the sandstone bedrock. However the water level was high on that day and I only got a blurry view of the lingas!
The last attractive spot in Kulen is a beautiful 25m tall 2-tier waterfall. The water is considered holy and Cambodians like to bottle it to take home with them. The lower-tier waterfall is accessible by climbing down a flight of narrow, rickety stairs. In retrospect, I took a big risk going down and up the wooden stairway with my camera still attached to the tripod.
Lunch was under an attap roof shelter in the picnic area (USD$20.00) comprising a simple meal of chicken rice and fresh coconut juice.
I am not much of a foodie so I didn’t take many food photographs. The tuk-tuk drivers seemed to enjoy eating balut, a developing duck embryo that is boiled and eaten in the shell. You can actually see the wings, feathers and eyes of the underdeveloped chick when you crack open the shell. I was invited to try this “delicious” street dish, but could not bring myself to do so!
A place can be very scenic and culturally significant with plenty of attractions but in the end, it all comes down to the people. In Cambodia, they were friendly, soft-spoken and always hospitable.