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Angkor Wat is definitely a place that is worth visiting. We recommend that you go during our Winter when it is considerably cooler — it will still be very hot but won’t be as hot as the Summer, Spring or Fall.
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Siem Reap, Cambodia, was stop three out of four during my two-week tour of Southeast Asia. And it may be number one in my heart. Few places have transported me back in time through the jungle the way Siem Reap had done. And it’s a location that offers an interesting contradiction: a third world country with some of the best stuff I’ve seen yet. It is also fairly underrated on the Magical Places scale. I’ll elaborate.
The Cambodian Visa
One of the things that concerns me most about traveling abroad, especially to places that are considerably under-developed, is getting a visa. Luckily, the Kingdom of Cambodia really has their act together with one of the fastest, most efficient visa processing systems I’ve ever used.
I went straight to the Kingdom of Cambodia’s visa website, where you can apply for the visa in three easy steps. Open an account, complete the application, and pay for it; wait. The application was super easy; the most complicated thing they asked for was a passport photo of myself (2mb or less) to download to their system. I took my photo as a selfie against a white wall, and it’s as ghastly as I could ever have hoped, but it did the job.
I completed the application and paid my 36$USD via credit card and was done! I was approved and had a PDF of my visa in one business day. ONE. Much to Cambodia’s credit, the website gives you a whole list of tips and tricks to be successful in this process. But the one most important thing to do is to print TWO copies of your approved visa and bring them with you.
At the airport, there is a place for visa on arrival, a line that was both long and unnecessary. With a visa already ready, skip right on over to the lines where people already have visas, and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised by having almost no line. You will need both of your visa copies. I gave one to the smartly uniformed man behind the counter, and he stapled the other in my passport. I would need that upon departure, where they take the stapled copy and give me some more stamps. Overall, an easy process, if not magical. Fast in person but faster on line.
The Taxi Cab Conundrum
As you walk out of the Siem Reap airport, turn left and you’ll find the taxi window. It’s really that simple. Walk up, pay 10$USD, get a ticket and a driver will appear. He will take you and your luggage, in a real car, to your hotel. The annoyance here is this: they try to sell you on taking a tour of the temples for pretty much the entire ride. I declined, politely, and did everything I could to end the conversation. My final declination collided with the arrival at my hotel. My driver was so mad at me for telling him no that he refused to take my luggage out of the car. He flipped the trunk open and stood there, waiting, hands on hips like I was a petulant child, watching me unload it. Joke’s on him as I am more than capable of handling my own bags.
You can arrange transport through your hotel at a higher cost, considerably higher in my case. Or you can do a tuk tuk, which is cheap as well. But I had two pieces of luggage and I wasn’t sure how I felt about bouncing around with all my belongings hanging out. Overall, I was satisfied with my ride, and couldn’t care less about the attitude (I’m from Jersey…). For my return to the airport, I asked my hotel to arrange a car for me at the same cost. It went much smoother upon departure.
There is no Uber but tuk tuks are plentiful no matter where you are, so it’s easy to find and negotiate a ride to wherever you’d like to go. (Editor’s Note: Uber doesn’t operate in Southeast Asia, but Grab is available and is similar to Uber. It is available in Siem Reap). Depending on your hotel location, you may be able to walk to get to the good stuff, like Pub Street or the center of town with the markets and restaurants. Negotiate everything: tuk tuk drivers don’t expect you to say yes to the first fare they toss out, so don’t be afraid to ask for the price you want to pay. While costs are still more than fair, and probably cheaper than expected, that doesn’t stop unscrupulous tuk tuk drivers from seeking to take advantage of uninformed tourists.
Worship at the Temples
The temples are magical and mysterious and have the occasional flesh-eating ant. I had reserved an English-speaking tour guide via random internet search and the price for the whole day, from my hotel all the way to the temples, was 20$USD. More than reasonable, I thought. I was picked up from my hotel promptly at 7am and taken clear across town, which was at least 27 tuk tuk miles but in reality, it’s about 5 regular car miles. We stopped first at the Angkor Wat entrance and ticket center. There you can choose the length of your ticket in 1, 3 or 7 day blocks that have to be used on consecutive days. They take your photo at the window and give you an Angkor Wat visa of sorts. It’s a well-organized and rather sophisticated method of buying passes. And they take credit cards!
Make sure you keep your ticket on your person always in order to get into every temple as there are guards at each entrance, from the busiest to the desolate.
You must also be appropriately dressed, remembering that the temples are still sacred areas that call for respect. The first rule of temple visiting: no bare shoulders at any time. And that is terrible pickle to find yourself in: deep in the jungle, climbing rickety steps and craggy rocks, twisted up in extra fabric. The humidity is beyond oppressive. It is thick, almost creamy, and hangs in the air over your head, inescapable. I felt like a freshly toasted English Muffin, with a slab of butter melting over me, dripping into all my nooks and crannies.
I would recommend a pashmina made of cotton or a scarf that is big enough to wrap around your shoulders, should you go with a tank top. Otherwise a t-shirt should suffice, so long as the shoulders are covered. I also urge against anything considered ‘strappy’. You are also free to wear shorts, baring your knees with wild and reckless abandon, but if you want to climb up the temples, and you do, then it’s best to cover up. This applies to all people. Be respectful of the rules, dress appropriately, and you should be fine. I have seen people get tossed from temple, and it’s just not worth it, not to mention embarrassing and preventable.
Dress appropriately, wear sneakers, bring the sunblock, and you are guaranteed a successful visit.
Dolla Dolla Bills, Y’all
Cambodia has some wonderful technology, but wireless credit card machines are not one of them. I found the most fun place to be when I wasn’t playing Lara Croft was the market. A place of mystery and reverie and bargaining.
The best part is: Cambodia uses the US dollar, making purchases super easy, especially in places like the market where credit card use simply isn’t possible. (Editor’s Note: While US dollar is commonly accepted, the official currency in Cambodia is the Riel. Don’t be surprised if you receive change back in Riel. Our advice is to bring a lot of crisp $1 and $5 bills to Cambodia).
To be fair, there are some restaurants that do accept cards, so always have one on you that doesn’t have foreign transaction fees. But there are other places, carts, stands and the like, that will take only cash. And there is nothing more amazing than getting a fresh fruit smoothie made in front of you and paying a whole ONE dollar for it.
I didn’t use anything but American dollars or credit cards in Cambodia, and it was great. Go see it!!
I am a traveler who also happens to be a traveling Single Lady, put your hands up, who made this trip alone. As such, it is critical that I do not put my person in harm’s way, which may be counter to visiting a third world country alone. However, I found Siem Reap to be quite safe.
My hotel was the Park Hyatt, so I had no issues with the property. Their property was always busy and there were doormen as well, so I know that there was always help around if I needed it. The hotel location was just a few short blocks from the central market area, so I walked every day and night.
The whole area was lively and bustling with lots of people – tourists and locals alike. The market itself is both covered and open, and in some places, quite tight. I was never really bothered much by the shopkeepers; no one followed me as I browsed. When I went down side streets to shop or hit the spa, I still felt very safe. Locals were quite nice.
At night, Pub Street is the Vegas Strip, with people milling about. No one harassed me or asked questions, or otherwise bothered me in any way. Same for the airport, temples, and other little side streets I patronized. I felt no threat to my safety at any time, not even with a pocketbook and big ol’ camera; I looked like everyone else!
Weather the Climate
So. Siem Reap is gorgeous. It really is. But the thing is this: the humidity is such that at the end of each day, I had to roll my clothes off my body the way you roll pretzel dough. I started out each day neatly put together, ready to take lots of great pictures at the temples. But by the time I had been tuk tuked there, the wind had destroyed my curly hair and I was gently coated in a thin layer of dirt, though with a nice temporary tan.
That was the easy part. The heat in the jungle is…something. Since there is so much tree cover, what scientists call the canopy, humid air doesn’t really have anywhere to go. So it sits with a thud on your shoulders and melts slowly down your body. Sinking into your every nook and cranny. Saturating your soul. Drenching every cotton fiber, every waist band, each sock. And since you must be mostly covered, you have no choice but to sweat half your body weight off simply by existing.
I was heartened only when I saw other people with shirts sticking to their backs, drenched by sweat. Oddly, we didn’t look melty in a general sense, but when I approached closer, I saw that we were a society of people barely clinging to our humanity while mopping our brow.
At the end of the day, my clothes had grown at least two sizes, hanging off my body like a sample size model. Saturated with sweat. Some nights, my pants were so stuck to me that I couldn’t take them off like a normal person. I merely started at my waist, cuffed them over, and rolled them down to my ankles. When I was done, they resembled a rope from an ugly game of tug of war.
I will say this, pack accordingly. Cotton clothes, light fabrics. When not in the temples, consider the chance that you won’t be able to be under cover from the sun. Bring sunblock and wear it. I encountered only moderate bits of rain, just enough to warrant an umbrella or poncho, but never enough to ruin a day. (It was quite refreshing.)
Just be prepared for the heat and humidity. And stay at a place with a pool for mid afternoon breaks!
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