First off, I wanna start with a plug for Southeast Asia in general. If you are debating whether to take a big trip there or to Europe, choose Southeast Asia! I never had a desire to visit until I moved to Korea and now I love the region so much. Here are four reasons why:
- Everyone speaks English! Places like Thailand, Cambodia, and Bali are dependent on tourism and therefore so many people learn English. It is much more common than in more northern countries in Asia (Japan, China) and countries in Western Europe (France, Italy); therefore, you’ll have a much easier time getting around. Also people are generally more friendly and willing to speak English to you.
- It is so cheap! Backpacking around Western Europe is expensive but you can live like a king in Southeast Asia on just a few dollars a day. Food, alcohol, transportation, massages, shopping… Live it up!
- It is so beautiful! What does Europe have… Some old churches? Blah. There are some many gorgeous beaches, jungles, and temples to be found in Southeast Asia, and you’re also sure to see some exotic animals like monkeys!
- Yummy food! Who doesn’t love fresh mango smoothies and curry with chicken, rice, and vegetables? You can also get delicious Western food (pizza, steak, pesto pasta) at a fraction of the cost.
So that’s why I would recommend visiting the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Bali (not Singapore, it’s too expensive). I’m sure I’ll add Laos and Vietnam to that list after I visit in May/June.
Moving on… In Siem Reap, we stayed at MotherHome Inn, chosen as always based on TripAdvisor reviews. It was slightly outside the main downtown area, but only a 15 minute walk or $1-$2 tuk-tuk ride away. It cost $27 a night for a two-person room, which included a huge and scrumptious buffet breakfast (we never needed to eat lunch!) and airport pick-up (drop-off was $4). The breakfast options changed slightly every day, and featured both Western and Asian foods. And they even packed us breakfast to go when we went to see the sunrise! We had our own driver for our entire stay and the hotel also had a pool, massage center, room service, and mini-bar. We definitely took advantage of all the amenities!
Have you noticed I’ve been listing all the prices in dollars? Yep, that’s right, the US dollar is the main currency in Siem Reap and what comes out of ATM machines. If you get change that’s less than a dollar it comes back in riel though (no coins here!).
The food in Siem Reap was cheap and excellent. Cambodian food seemed very similar to Thai, with lots of curries, rice and noodle dishes, and satay. Three things that I had never heard of or tried before were fresh spring rolls, amok, and sour soup. I must say I prefer fried spring rolls (and I had plenty of those too)! The fresh ones are kind of just a condensed salad. I wasn’t a fan of the chicken sour soup either, which has a tamarind, tomato, and pineapple base. The amok (chicken in a savory coconut-based curry wrapped in banana leaves) I tried was amazing though. I also had some delicious Western food in downtown Siem Reap (Mexican and steak). And let’s not forget all the fresh fruit and smoothies!
Two more things: bugs and beer. From what I had read, I expected there to be deep-fried bug and tarantula stands everywhere. But we only stumbled upon one, and it wasn’t in the main tourist area. And no, I didn’t try any bugs, even though Daniel said he would pay me $100 if there was a video of me eating one! Also, alcohol was sooooo cheap. Every bar on Pub Street had draft Angkor beer for 50 cents a glass.
We got to see a lot of the countryside since we went on several day trips outside the city. It was fun, as well as cheap and refreshing, to ride around in a tuk-tuk the whole time!
There were so many markets in the area! We went on a search for mangosteens to no avail, only to find out later they were out of season. Unfortunately, I didn’t do much shopping in Siem Reap as I was saving it for my last night and then I was too tired to leave the hotel!
I had four massages over the four days I was in Siem Reap! Three one-hour full body oil massages at the hotel (lemongrass and jasmine for $8; energizing for $10) and a half-hour foot massage in town ($3). Heavenly!
Other random Siem Reap tips:
- Don’t wear new shoes! Look how dirty mine got after one day…
- Bring (or buy) a cotton scarf to carry around with you… It works as a dust mask, sweat rag, water bottle holder, head wrap, or temple cover-up!
- It is really hot there, especially from March-May, so make sure to drink plenty of water! I wish I’d brought my CamelBak. 😦
- Get a hotel with a pool! It was a lifesaver.
- If you’re heading to Bangkok next (as I was), don’t dish out a bunch of money for a plane ticket. A bus arranged through the hotel would have been sooooooo much cheaper…
- Check out the fruit bats in a park called Royal Independence Gardens, across the street from the Royal Residence in the middle of Siem Reap. There are hundreds of them in the trees! It was freaky.
- I read that there were a lot of “touts” near the temples but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. I’m pretty good at sternly repeating “no thank you” and making no eye contact. The only place where it was really bad was at Banteay Srei. There was a mob of kids that swarmed me selling postcards. I know I’m not supposed to buy from children, as they should be in school, but they broke me down. I gave one kid a dollar bill and a wad of riel (worth less than $2 I’m sure) and told him to share with his friends but he ran off and kept all the money to himself… So that was a huge mistake! Before I left I encountered another group of four kids so I just gave them all a dollar. Oh well…
- Visas on arrival are $25 for American citizens at the Siem Reap airport. Bring a passport photo.