My friends and I (three of us from Malaysia, and one from New York) recently went to Siem Reap from the 27th to 30th of June, 2009 and had the most amazing time.
We booked a flight + hotel package on the AirAsia website and snagged an excellent deal of around USD120/pax for two double rooms at Angkor Miracle Resort & Spa (4 star hotel) with breakfast for four days and three nights. I'll save the hotel review for later on.
We had decided to have a relaxed holiday, as opposed to rushing to see as many things as possible which proved to be a good choice.
We arrived at 9.30am, and headed straight to the hotel. A couple of us went to the hotel spa to have some relaxing massages that were cheap by American/European standards (USD15 for an hour-long hand, shoulder and head massage) but definitely not the cheapest by Asian standards (head to Bangkok for this!).
We booked the Sunset Tour of Chong Khneas at USD33/pax. Our pick-up came at around 3.30pm with three other tourists and headed straight to the floating village of Chong Khneas on a smaller boat. This is definitely a must-do and a real eye-opener. You will stop at the GECKO Environmental Center, and the crocodile and fish farms and even get to hold a real python!
From here, we headed out to Tonle Sap, the largest fresh water lake in South-East Asia to board the TARA boat for our sunset dinner cruise. I don't think this is for everyone, definitely do not go with high expectations although I have to say that I definitely enjoyed it because of the company I was with, and our tour guide Solid was great fun to be with (he's the one on the www.taraboat.com website too). On the brochure it said that the USD33 included dinner "fit for a king" and unlimited drinks including beer, champagne, wine etc. However, the meals were limited to fried rice and various chicken/beef/pork stir-fry dishes and took quite awhile to get served. When the food came, we discovered little dead ants in our food too. Bleah. But we ate them anyway, the food was tasty..but definitely not fit for a king. The drinks, besides the regular soft drinks and mineral water..was mostly limited to local beer and vodka, and some others. My friend asked for wine, and got less-than-sparkling grape juice. It was definitely a surreal experience, seven foreigners stuck on a boat in the middle of a vast lake with looming thunderstorms ahead! Yeah, since it was the rainy season..we didn't get a good sunset at all. On the way back, we passed through the floating village once more and saw how they lived by night. Fascinating stuff. I have to reiterate that having a good tour guide like Solid definitely made the trip so much more memorable, and if you get him you know you're in good hands!
The next morning we had arranged to do the sunrise temple tour and our pick-up came at 4.20am. We had to hire a van because there were four of us, which was USD30 inclusive of a driver. The tour guide was another USD30, and we had to pay an additional USD5 for the sunrise tour. Our 1-day temple pass was USD20. I definitely recommend getting a tour guide if you can afford it, as there's only so much you can get out of reading a Lonely Planet book..it was certainly worth it hearing our tour guide Seang Hai explain this history and meaning of each temple along with the stories of the carvings. You could see his passion talking about his people, and the rivalry with the Thais who tried to take over Siem Reap. Without a guide, the temples would basically just be a bunch of old ruins.
Anyway, we were brought to Angkor Wat in pitch darkness. It felt as though we were in a dream, walking in the darkness over the moat, the silhouette of the Angkor Wat entrance barely visible, the stars twinkling in the sky of various shades of blue and black with hardly anyone else around us. Simply amazing, was one of the best moments in Siem Reap for me. However once we got to the proper viewing spot, that's where all the people were at and that was quite disappointing, but I guess in this day and age of mass tourism, it's something you have to deal with. The sunrise was nice, but not great because again being the rainy season there were a lot of clouds. Still a good experience though.
We went back to the hotel for our breakfast and by 7.30am we headed to Angkor Thom to see the magnificent Bayon, Baphoun, Elephant Terrace, Terrace of the Leper King and of course Ta Prohm. The temples are all interesting and special in their own special way, so definitely need to see all of them.
By 12pm, our guide took us to a nearby Khmer restaurant near Angkor Thom called Rumduol Angkor. You HAVE to try the chicken Amok here, it's amazing! the best thing I had in Cambodia. Generally you can get a good full meal for about USD4, so setting aside USD10/meal + drinks would be a safe bet.
After lunch, we headed back to Angkor Wat to complete our tour. Angkor Wat is definitely the most impressive in terms of size and just takes your breath away.
We were done by 3pm and relaxed in the hotel. We headed to Pub Street in town by 7pm, just in time to catch the Apsara performance at the Temple Balcony for dinner. Try the Khmer Sour Soup here, it's amazing. Cocktails here at USD4 and you get a second one for free. Below Temple Balcony is the bar which is very roomy and spacious, and upfront they have sofas overlooking the street Parisian-style. Pub Street is an awesome place for pub-crawling, although the street's a little short. However, behind the main Pub Street there are many other little restaurants and art galleries so be sure to explore.
A note of caution though, trying to fend of the children and women selling souvenirs and the men in town with their tuktuks who kept going " hey laydee, one dollaah" got quite overwhelming after awhile so be prepared for this. However, it is quite humorous to hear some of the lines they come up with, like at Pub St when this boy asked me "hey laydee buy a book? happy hour, buy one get one free!" very creative lot! :)
The next day we spent walking around the city, which isn't very big..from the Royal Gardens, down Pokambor Avenue to the French Quarter, to Psar Chaa the Old Market where you can buy all your souvenirs at the cheapest possible price, to Pub Street again for a Cambodian BBQ. We tried Ostrich meat, which was quite nice. They also serve crocodile, snake and kangaroo meat for the more adventurous types and you can find them all over the place.
After dinner, we walked to the Night Market. Basically it's the same touristy souvenir stuff but you can see supposedly "real" full piece crocodile suits hanging from the shops at the end of the street, or go to a communal fish spa among other things.
Last but not least, we had to stop by the infamous Deadfish restaurant. Man, what quirky place! If there was ever an award for the restaurant with the most personality, Deadfish would win hands down. They have a couple of crocs here (they claim to have 26, but we only saw two) and you can feed them for really cheap too.
I have to say that although Cambodia is very much a developing country with a lot of poverty, it surprised me to see how clean it was. Of course they have really bad roads, but at the tourist sites there were no unsightly rubbish or smells. I come from a third world country as well, so seeing this was definitely a pleasant surprise. Siem Reap has definitely left an impact on me in a big way, it is an experience like no other. The people are genuine and warm, and I will definitely be going back to explore the other temples.
Heck, I'm even starting to miss those kids go "Hey laydee...one dollahh" :)