A year ago today I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia with my friend Jinhee! We were exploring the jungle temple Beng Mealea…
If you haven’t yet, check out my guest post on Lesley’s blog By the Porchlight for all the reasons you should visit Southeast Asia! Now that I’ve convinced you to travel to the region, where exactly should you go? Here are a few of my favorite places:
• The River Kwai Jungle Rafts in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. This floating hotel is only accessible by boat and has no electricity! But it was amazing. You can jump off the front deck and float down the river or watch elephants bathe from the hammock on your balcony.
• The Puerto Princesa Underground River on Palawan Island in the Philippines. Named one of the new wonders of nature in 2012, you can take a boat ride on the river into an enormous cave. On land, you’ll see giant monitor lizards and monkeys hanging out together and the most gorgeous green water you could imagine.
• Street food stands in Hanoi, Vietnam. I don’t even care for Vietnamese food, but the pho I ate at one of the many tiny tables set up along the sidewalks of this charming city was so delicious. Chances are there won’t be any English spoken here but a little pantomime can go a long way. After dinner grab a beer at a roadside bia hơi joint.
• Kuang Si Falls near Luang Prabang, Laos. Best swimming holes in the world! But please be respectful of the local culture and wear a t-shirt over your bathing suit. There are tons of signs posted yet I saw so many foreigners in bikinis. Also be sure to visit the Bear Rescue Center at the entrance to the park!
• Beng Mealea near Siem Reap, Cambodia. Angkor Wat gets all the hype but I preferred this remote temple that can be reached by tuk-tuk in two hours. Prepare for a dusty, bumpy ride… But it’s worth it! Beng Mealea has been consumed by the jungle and left to ruin, which to me only adds to its beauty. You can climb up and over fallen rocks and rubble. Since there are many trees, it is also much shadier than other temples.
• Phang Nga Bay Sea Kayaking near Phuket, Thailand. Definitely do the Hong by Starlight tour with John Gray’s Sea Canoe. Expensive but so worth it! Amazing guides, great food, beautiful scenery, monkeys, swimming… I also loved making krathongs out of banana leaves and flowers and making a wish as we watched them float away in the candlelit lagoon. Magical!
• Nipah Guesthouse in Pulau Pangkor, Malaysia. This is the best hotel I have ever stayed at because of its owners. Nicest, friendliest people you will ever meet! Alicia and Anuar really went above and beyond to make our stay exceptional. This is a great place to visit if you want to relax for a few days… Read in a hammock, take a leisurely stroll to the beach, munch on banana fritters, and feed the hornbills. Walking to Coral Island during low tide is fun too!
• Buddha Park near Vientiane, Laos. There isn’t much else to do near this city so if you’re in the area, definitely check out this sculpture park! So many bizarre Hindu and Buddhist statues. There’s also a giant pumpkin with three levels (hell, earth, and heaven) that you can go inside. From the top there’s a great view of the entire park.
• Bali, Indonesia. This island is my favorite place in the world (so far). I love the offerings that are EVERYWHERE. Balinese people are very spiritual. They believe that Bali is populated with gods, ancestors, spirits, and demons and the offerings are meant to show respect and gratitude. I saw many items presented in the offerings, such as fruit, candy, cigarettes, money, crackers, and incense.
I went on vacation to Palawan Island in the Philippines (so beautiful!!).
I quit my job as a kindergarten teacher to be a full-time student. My last day there was filled with cards, presents, and hugs!
I went on an awesome Bugok Hawaii Ice Festival and wine tasting trip.
I visited the Korean Folk Village.
I visited Busan.
In case you’re wondering, I lived in Korea from May 2010-May 2012.
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.
Jinhee had to go home on Thursday so I was by myself for the rest of the trip. I’m used to traveling alone by now though! After dropping her off at the airport, my tuk-tuk driver took me to Banteay Srei, located about an hour past the main temples ($19). I’m not sure the trip is worth it for just the temple, but combined with the landmine museum and butterfly center it made for a fun day.
“Banteay Srei is considered by many to be the jewel in the crown of Angkorian art” (thanks Lonely Planet). It is cut from a pinkish-colored stone and has many intricate carvings, which makes it interesting to explore. In fact, the carvings are so precise that it is believed that women created this temple.
Just a few minutes away from Banteay Srei is the Cambodia Landmine Museum. It is a great cause as the $3 admission fee goes toward clearing landmines and supporting the poor, orphaned, and wounded children who live there. Of course you can also make an additional donation or purchase souvenirs from their gift shop if you want to help out more. It was founded by an ex-child soldier as a way to tell the world about the horrors landmines inflicted on his native Cambodia. I really enjoyed reading the letters written by the children who lived there and I was shocked and disappointed to learn about America’s role in placing the landmines in Cambodia, as well as their refusal to sign the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
The Butterfly Center, Southeast Asia’s largest butterfly enclosure, is also nearby and worth the $4 admission fee. They teach farmers to capture caterpillars and sell them to the center, in turn both saving the farmers’ crops and adding more butterflies to the center. I got a guided tour of the gardens and was able to view the pupae and caterpillar enclosures as well. I witnessed a caterpillar morphing into a pupa, which is apparently quite unusual as it usually occurs at night. There were many different beautiful species of butterflies, all native to Cambodia, and gorgeous flowers as well.
I had been debating whether or not to do the tethered Angkor Balloon ride. $15 for about ten minutes was pretty expensive; plus, I was scared! But I did it and I’m glad I did. 🙂 The ride was short but it was enough time and there’s a good view of Angkor Wat; unfortunately, the photos don’t do it justice.
Beng Mealea was my favorite temple of all the ones I visited on my trip. It has been consumed by the jungle and left to ruin, which to me only adds to its beauty. You can climb up and over fallen rocks and rubble. Since there are many trees, it is also much shadier than other temples.
It is quite far from town (two hours one-way by tuk-tuk) so I would recommend hiring a car for the day (although it might be pretty expensive as the tuk-tuk ride was $30). It was really dusty as well so our driver bought us surgical masks to wear and I had to close my eyes constantly. Also, it is not included with the Angkor Temples pass so you have to pay an extra $5 for a ticket. But it was definitely worth it!
Day 4: Banteay Srei, Landmine Museum, Butterfly Center, & Angkor Balloon!
For our second day, Jinhee and I had booked the Tonle Sap Lake Tour through Beyond Unique Escapes. Tonle Sap means “large freshwater river” in Khmer and is actually a massive lake and river system; it’s the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia in fact. The water was very muddy and since the lake is apparently where Cambodia gets most of its fish, I would not recommend eating fish there!
It cost $20 each for the three hour tour, which included transportation from and back to our hotel. We visited Chong Khneas, a floating community home to 8,000 people including Cambodians, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Chams. (The website also said we would stop at Wat Athvea, but we didn’t…) We got off the boat once, to visit a crocodile farm. I’m still convinced at least some of the crocodiles were not real/alive… But whatever. The tour was certainly a nice (cool!) break from temple hopping.
That evening, we had our tuk-tuk driver take us to Pre Rup to watch the sunset ($10). Pre Rup means “turning the body” which refers to cremation; therefore, it was probably used as a royal crematorium. Luckily we got there early enough to get a good spot right on the edge and had a lovely view of the rice fields.
Day 3: Beng Mealea!