June 03, 2012

Cambodia Guide By Mark and Millie

Searching for Buddhist Zen and flashes of enlightenment whilst floating down the Mekong in the lotus position? Well, forget it, you’re not going to find that in either Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. Emerging from Pol Pot’s unspeakable cruelty of ‘Year Zero,’ the two powerhouse cities of the Kingdom of Wonder are pumping with life, energy, noise, art, drinks, ideas and yes, unfortunately hordes of tourists. Magical? Yes. Serene? No. This is Cambodia at its liveliest, so grab these places with both hands and hang on for a wild ride through the most spectacular ancient temples and the craziest markets this side of the West Philippine Sea.

Travel date: January 8-13, 2012 (3 days Siem Reap, 2 days Phnom Penh)
Airline used: Jetstar Asia from Singapore
Budget for Cambodia: around P50,000 each or P100,000 for both of us. (airfare, accommodation, food, shopping, transpo)

Intra-Asian travel still has a long way to go towards full integration, making air travel more of an art form than a procedure. The two main ports of call are Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Cebu Pacific flies direct from Manila to Siem Reap and may be the most convenient option. Air Asia flies from Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh; whilst Jetstar Asia & Silk Air both fly from Singapore to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. If you’re coming from Vietnam, Cambodia Angkor Air & Vietnam Airlines fly from Saigon/Hanoi to Siem Reap/Phnom Penh, the latter, via Luang Prabang. Lao Airlines & Vietnam Airlines fly from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap. Believe it or not, Lao Airlines is the preferred option - it’s a direct flight and will avoid delays.

Travel between Siem Reap to Phnom Penh and back is covered by Cambodia Angkor Air; but you can save some money and pay US$10 for a 6 hour bus ride on a reliable Coach Line like Mekong Express. The price includes a free snack, bottle of water and a rest stop halfway. The coach lines are incredibly professional, with a stewardess and Khmer Pop or ‘90s US Action films playing in the background. This may be the preferred option for those who wish to experience a more authentic Cambodian Adventure, with plenty of countryside and villages passed along the way.
Tuk Tuk brought us to our hotel, Golden Temple.  Swimming pool everywhere in Cambodia is too cold though. Breakfasts are great and healthy. Staff extremely friendly and accommodating.

 *Siem Reap*
>Bloom Garden Guesthouse
Aircon, cable TV and wi-fi at US$30 for two people with free airport pickup? Really? Yup, that’s right. Bloom Garden is one of the classier guesthouses that proliferate in the area, with friendly staff and tasteful rooms. The ace location makes this the pick of the bunch for those who’d rather spend their greenbacks on touring, then lounging by the pool. The only catch? Book ahead.
Off Charles de Gaulle Blvd, across from le Meridien
+853 63 96 92 91

>Golden Temple
In the quieter part of Siem Reap, but still close to all the action, the Golden Temple Hotel is  renowned for its service. Incredibly attentive staff offer service at the level of the Ritz-Carlton chain, anticipating every need with the skills and incisiveness expected of silver service. With a pool, spa therapy, great breakfast and colourful rooms; this place is incredibly popular. Book ahead. 
7 Makara Rd, near ANgkor High School
+855 12 756 655

Mid Range Budget: Golden Temple Hotel

>Hotel Be
In the heart of the tourist district, Hotel Be is the art hotel for hipsters and hipsters-at-heart. Cool pop-art in the lobby and a fantastic restaurant, Aha, only sweeten the deal. There are only 6 rooms, designed by 3 different artists (one of them Filipino), with all the luxury trappings, but alas, no pool. This place also caters to those of an...alternative lifestyle. Wink wink. But that said, all guests are welcome and well-received.
The Passage, near Old Market
+855 63 965 321

Mid Range Budget: Hotel Be

Blow the Bank
>Hôtel de la Paix (soon to be the Hyatt Regency)
Recently bought by the ubiquitous Hyatt Group, Hôtel de la Paix has all the trappings of 5-star luxury, with large bathtubs, iPod connectivity, a great spa, great bar and a superb restaurant, Meric. Staff are internationally trained, so expect to be pampered.
Sivatha Blvd

*Phnom Penh (capital city)*

Really, this is Phnom Penh, you’ll be grateful you shelled out a little more cash for cushy digs.

>The Pavilion
The lynchpin of a triumvirate of superb boutique hotels athwart the Royal Palace. With basic-chic luxury rooms with private plunge pools, vintage Jaguar pick-up from the Bus Terminal or airport and a ban on child guests (i.e. No 12 year-olds pissing in the pool, pedophiles or worse - squalling babies), the Pavillion is an oasis. If you can’t get a booking, try the nearby sister properties, Blue Lime and The 240, which offer the same sort of modern boutique luxury.
227, St 19
+853 23 222 280

Blue Lime Hotel and Bodhi Tree Café 
Blow the Bank
>Amanjaya Pancam Hotel
A riverfront landmark with gorgeous dark-wooded rooms, wi-fi and French-trained staff and calming river views, this one won’t drain your wallet, but if offers the luxuries absent elsewhere.
154 Cnr Sisowath Quay & Sisowath St
+853 23 219 579
>Raffles Hotel Le Royal
Yes, it’s that Raffles, and yes, this one will definitely thin your wallet out or leave it empty. But with silver service, a colonial aesthetic and spacious suites, this place drips with history and is a world away from the joyful chaos outside. Is it authentically Khmer? Well no, not really, but they do an awesome Hendricks Martini at the Elephant Bar, if that’s what matters most…
92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh, 
Sangkat Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh,Kingdom of Cambodia
Tel: +855 23 981 888
Fax: +855 23 981 168


These open carriage moto-chariots are the order of the day, particularly in Siem Reap.  Don’t be fooled, it usually costs US$1 for a short trip, US$2 around town and ~US$8 for the entire day. Bring sunglasses - in summer, the ride can get a little dusty. Tuk-tuks can be found all over  Phnom Penh for short trips or even for the entire day, but if you’re going to Choeung Ek, it’s best to rent a car.

Phnom Penh, the capital: Went to Phnom Penh by bus, around 6 hours from Siem Reap. We were fetched by a vintage Jaguar from our hotel, Blue Lime.
Taxi Vantha are the most reliable company in Phnom Penh. They charge by the distance or by the hour.
+853 855 000

Hotels can also arrange for a hire car and driver, charged by the hour or for the entire day.


In the morning, take the journey to Cheoung Ek, one of the many Killing Fields across the Cambodian countryside that stand testament to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and the systematic democide of their own people. Cheoung Ek is best walked with the moving audio head set commentary, which provides information and moving personal stories, narrated by a survivor. The rains continue to unearth scraps of clothing, bones and teeth, so walk with respect. Afterwards, head back into town to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The former national high school was the site of unspeakable horrors and cruelty conducted by the former regime. Blood still stains the walls and floors, but it’s the chilling single photographs of every victim that will never leave your mind. The place is still gripped with human suffering - it is incredibly confronting and not for the faint at heart. Best experienced with a guide who can be hired at the entrance to understand all the exhibits. Recover from the horror at the nearby Bodhi Tree Café which does wonderful French sandwiches, soufflés, fresh juices and vegetarian meals in a serene garden layout. Catch the sunset over the Mekong before heading to dinner at the likes of La Résidence for the best French food in the Kingdom with a killer wine list or at Romdeng, a delightful Khmer restaurant in a colonial French Villa, where the profits go towards helping kids in need. If you still need a buzz from a confronting tour, catching a traditional Khmer dance performance at Amrita Performance Arts might be the number; or you could down a few gin-based drinks at the Bar at the expat Chinese House. Avoid the bars that advertise along the lines of “company for the lonely.”
La Résidence : where the royal family and government officials from all over the world come to dine in Cambodia. Their menus are Ipads , their service is excellent and the food is to die for.

Head to the National Museum in the heart of town for a centuries-old collection of artefacts from the glory of the Khmer Empire. Make sure to get in earlier and hire a guide. When you’re done, cross over to the Royal Palace and its Silver Pagoda, inlaid with silver tiles and marble. You can hire a guide, or you can meander along, admiring the craftsmanship. Go before 11am or after 2:30pm or you’ll be shut out for the lunch break - and make sure to dress modestly (long skirts, covered shoulders). All the walking and touring demands a spa and beauty spell. If your hotel isn’t packing spa services, Armita Spa at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal has the complete works and access to the hotel pool afterwards. Want something that won’t burn a hole in the wallet? Bodia Spa, above U-Care Pharmacy has all the bells and whistles, including a hot rainfall shower, slick interiors and its own range of oils and beauty products. In the afternoon, head to sweetly stylish Bloom Café near the Russian Markets for the best cupcakes and dessert treats in town. The best part? Bloom empowers young women liberated from sexual exploitation. Yes, here, you can have your cake and eat it too. Afterwards, walk over to the Russian Market, a heaving sea of heavily discounted designer gear, fake Swiss watches, Cambodian silk, pirated DVDs, software and scrounging tourists. Sounds just like Divisoria? Well, not exactly. A plethora of brands opened up factories in Phnom Penh, so finding some cheap CK jeans may be easier here; and you can’t ignore the history of the marketplace too. If you’re up for something more up-market, Ambre does glamorous silk gowns and home-ware. Cambodian silk is better quality than the Viet or Chinese variety and pays accordingly.

Note: We will not be posting pictures of the Killing Fields or the Genocide Museum as they are very disturbing. If you want to view our photos, please leave a message on my Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/millie.morales13 or leave a comment with your Facebook account or email where we can send them.

The Angkor Complex opens at sunrise and closes at sunset. Passes can’t be bought in advance, so wake up at 4am or get them the afternoon before. It’s the US$20 for one day, US$40 for three days & US$60 for seven days. Three days is sufficient to explore the best of Angkor; anymore and you’ll be suffering from Temple-itis. You won’t see everything, but then again, you wouldn’t be able to unless you were an archaeology student. Organise with your hotel beforehand to provide you with an official Ministry of Tourism Guide and a Tuk-Tuk or car to get you to the temple complex. Start at Angkor Wat’s West Gate for a sunrise you’ll never forget. Every tourist in the city will be there so arrive by 6am and pack a torch; but if it’s cloudy, get back in bed and save it for a sunny day. Afterwards, refuel at Angkor Café or Chez Sop’héa, just outside. The worst of the tourist crowd will thin out after breakfast, so load up with bottled water and sun screen and head through the walled city  of Angkor Thom and start with the oldest Wats and libraries nearest Naga-guarded gates for a chronological journey through the former Empire, followed by the Elephant Terrace and Bayon. Dress modestly if you want to climb all the way to the top of the Wats (i.e. bring a cardigan and a set of pants). After lunch, walk to Ta Prohm, the sinewy, labyrinthine temple made famous by Tomb Raider. Overrun by the jungle, with tree roots and moving shadows, Ta Prohm is certainly the most dramatic - it’s almost as if you stumbled upon it in the middle of the forest; if not for the crush of Russian and Korean tourists. If you’re really patient, come in the late afternoon for the sinister early evening light, when most of the tourists have left. A day’s worth of tomb raiding will have you exhausted. Head to your hotel’s Spa. Don’t have one? Bodia Spa above U-Care Pharmacy (The very same from Phnom Penh) is open till midnight with the same service, Kong Kea Spa at La Résidence has the plunge pools, saunas and jacuzzis you’d ever want, or if you’re in a hurry, the markets usually have massage stalls - go to the busy ones, it usually means they’re good. If you don’t have a great hotel bar, FCC Angkor does in mod-colonial styling, surrounded by luxe-boutiques. If you need a caffeine hit, Blue Pumpkin can oblige, along with tasty Frenchie/Mod-Khmer meals. Commandeer one of the ‘beds’ on the second level.

Cashed up and nowhere to go? Charter a helicopter tour over the Angkor complex. Bring lunch and champagne for a great view. It beats the hot air balloon nonsense and you won’t have to deal with pesky tourists. For all us mortals, get your hiking boots on and get your hotel to take you to Banteay Srey, 30mins away for a dawn sunrise amongst the best preserved, pink sandstone reliefs. Have breakfast ready-packed (many hotels are willing to oblige) for the one hour scenic drive to Beng Mealea. Again, make sure you secure a car/SUV with your hotel. Retaken by the jungle, Beng Melea is all that Ta Prohm once was - your own little discovery, crumbling with history and blissfully mass-tourist free. Retreat to town in the late afternoon for another round of what you didn’t get to see at the Angkor Complex and a well-deserved rest. In the afternoon, the day market starts to unwind and the night market starts to heave, so make the most of both and get your cash out. Bargain fairly and you can pick up some silk dresses, home-ware, Francophile paraphernalia and the like.  The area surrounding the Old Market is packed with restaus, bars, cafes and tourists, with a lively Khao San Rd style of feel, only quainter. One could go for the buzz alone, but unless you’re into the dodgy western backpacker/British tour group scene, avoid Pub Street. Better drinking holes are found in the Passageway or alleys behind it, like Miss WongPicasso, which does great tapas and has a good wine selection and Aha, which has an impressive wine list and does amazing mod-Khmer fusion fare in a funky setting. If you were paying attention to your tour guide, you’d know that Linga Bar across it, by name alone, denotes a place catering to alternative lifestyles, but all are welcome and the martinis are certainly poured strong. Past midnight and still peckish? Well then, you will have to enter Pub Street for the 24 hour pizza place at the street’s northern end.

Blue Pumpkin, Night Market, Hotel Be

Decided to stay the extra day, and not for more shopping and drinking around Pub St? Props to you, Siem Reap rewards those who stay a little longer. Head to the Landmine Museum nearer the airport. The stories of survivors are inspiring, with many of them working around the museum. Uplifting and educational stuff, that also supports the Landmine Relief Fund. On the way back you can visit the Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre, a community development tourist programme whose profits go back to the community. If you’re a shutterbug and were smart enough to book ahead, John McDermott or Nathan Horton Photography will take you on a specialised photo excursion through the Angkor Complex to refine your skills and get you those exhibition-worthy snaps. Or, you could buck the trend and head to Preah Khan, the partially restored sprawling complex, the royal baths of Sras Srang and Banteay Kdei, adjacent to it - all of which catch the light perfectly at dusk or dawn. And after sunset, if you haven’t had enough gin-based drinks, another foray into the Old Market area will set you straight. Or loose. 

Here are some more photos of Siem Reap:

Start at Angkor Wat’s West Gate for a sunrise you’ll never forget. 

Sunset at Angkor Complex

After lunch, walk to Ta Prohm, the sinewy, labyrinthine temple made famous by Tomb Raider.

Restaurants near the Night Market

Here is a short video of our trip to Cambodia :)
We went to Cambodia last January (2012) for our Asian Trip (Singapore-Cambodia-Laos). We used Jetstar Asia. Our estimate budget for Cambodia (Phnom Penh and Siem Reap) which included airfare was around 100,000 PHP for both of us.  3 days in Siem Reap, 2 days in Phnom Penh. It's a bit pricey for a normal budget travel because we stayed in really nice hotels and ate in expensive restaurants.  I hope our guide was helpful. 
For inquiries, please leave a comment.
Mark and Millie

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Listening to: Jupiter by Sufjan Stevens
                <3: Cambodia
                 =(: My Tita Cora died today. Rest In Peace.


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