toa BLOG

rooms & food
Siem Reap
click image for more information


The talesofasia guide to travel in Siem Reap and Angkor

Updated May 19, 2011

Siem Reap index page

Getting there
Staying there
Eating and drinking
Other things to do and places to go in and around Siem Reap
The Tonle Sap Lake
Far away temples
Anlong Veng
Other things to see and do
Additional stories on the Siem Reap area


The Tonle Sap Lake

Most visitors to Siem Reap, if they see any of the lake at all, will do so by taking a tour of an hour or two at the Vietnamese floating village of Chong Khneas, which is the village where the speedboats to and from Phnom Penh and Battambang dock. If, for reasons of time and money, Chong Khneas is all you can do, then that's better than nothing, but there are much better options out there. If you only mention a "lake trip" to your guesthouse, hotel, driver, or guide in all probability you will be directed to Chong Khneas, though more and more places are now taking people to Kompong Phluk.

What follows is a brief description of the various villages on the Tonle Sap and what is needed to visit each one.

Chong Khneas
This is the village most people visit and the one most often touted by tour guides, guesthouses, etc "you go see floating village?" and a quick boat trip around the village will not only show you people in conical hats, which usually makes them Vietnamese, going about their daily lives, but you'll also bump into a dozen other small boats ferrying camera-toting tourists going about their daily tourist lives. To be perfectly blunt about it, we think this village is a cruddy tourist trap and not surprisingly, many of the locals are either thoroughly tired of all the tourists floating around their neighborhood or have devised ingenious ways of separating them from their money. Still, if due to time constraints it's the only lake village you can visit, then we guess it's better than nothing. But if you do go to Chong Khneas, the Gecko Environment Centre is well worth checking out as you can learn quite a bit about the ecology of the great lake.

The tourist police took over the Chong Khneas tourist boat operation in November 2003 and take the lion's share of the money. The prices were supposed to be fixed, but in fact the police will try to get from you as much as they can and your driver will be expected to help. Drivers and tour guides are given a kickback and strictly prevented from bargaining on your behalf. The person who actually takes you on the trip, the boat operator, sees very little of this money and as a result will often be more interested in getting you to buy stuff than actually show you anything interesting. Yes, this whole system stinks.

At its worst, the boat driver will mysteriously and conveniently breakdown in the middle of nowhere and ten boats will surround you trying to sell you junk. Meanwhile the boat driver continues to try "fixing" his boat, a successful repair occurring right about the time you give in and buy something. At its best, the driver simply stops at every possible place where someone could sell you something, usually a restaurant.

Or avoid all the unpleasantness and simply avoid Chong Khneas.

Prek Toal / Bird Sanctuary
Prek Toal is the village nearest the bird sanctuary, is located about an hour west of Chong Khneas, and is the usual jumping off point for visits to this bird lover's paradise. The time to come is during the dry season. Inquire at a reputable travel agency or with your guesthouse or hotel. Also check with Osmose at http://www.osmosetonlesap.org/. The government operation at Chong Khneas claims they will take people to Prek Toal levying entrance of fees of roughly $35 per person. Other privately arranged tours can exceed $100 but will be much more professionally done. Bring your own binoculars. Overnight stays can be arranged, but due to police controls can be quite expensive. It is sometimes better to leave Siem Reap well before dawn, avoid all the police, and arrive at the sanctuary at sunrise.

Kompong Phluk
About 25 kilometers east of Chong Khneas, here's a much better option for visiting a village on the lake. Kompong Phluk is a permanent village opposed to floating and for most of the year it is accessible by boat only. We have an extensive write-up (click to read) from a long ago October 2000 visit, our first of many, that will tell you more about the village and the flooded forest.

In brief, this is a relatively small village that provides very good insight into the village lifestyle of the Tonle Sap as this village exists almost exclusively on fishing and related activities. The flooded forest is the main attraction but be aware that the forest is at its best for only about four months a year (August through November), is at best average for another three months (July, December- January), and from February through June it's reduced almost to mudflats and not even accessible.

Each year when the water levels drop, the residents build temporary houses at the lake's edge, only to tear them down again when the water levels begin to increase. Depending on the time of year you visit you may be able to see either one of the activities in progress.

Due to the mess that Chong Khneas has turned into, more and more people are visiting Kompong Phluk and it would now be a bit of stretch to say this village is off the tourist trail. Nonetheless, at certains times of year (particularly when the flooded forest is at its best) this still remains an excellent choice of a village to visit, just go with the realization that you won't be alone.

Prices for trips to Kompong Phluk vary widely. As with most trips of this nature, you get what you pay for, and the cheapest options won't be the best. Ideally a quality trip for two should cost between $70 and $90, which will include transport, guide, boats, and possibly lunch.

The police operation in Chong Khneas can also get you here, but keep in mind that you will likely get a boat driver who speaks no English and thus won't be able to tell you a thing and your tour guide, though he probably won't admit it, may very well have never set foot in this village before and be unable to accurately expalin a thing or know where to take you within the village.

Private operators from Siem Reap town will usually access Kompong Phluk by land via Roluos village. This, however becomes quite problematic from December to July when the lake recedes leaving a large gap between the end of the road and the beginning of the lake, necessitating a miserably rough ride on motorbike over dry lake bed. If you are visting during the driest months then consider Kompong Khleang (see next entry).

The claim in Lonely Planet that you can get here for $10, $5 for a moto and $5 for a boat, is pure fantasy.

Overall, Kompong Phluk, if it's the right time of year, gives you an excellent perspective on the lake's ecology and small village life.

Quality Tonle Sap trips:
K. Phluk, K. Khleang, Moat Kla, Prek Toal, Kbal Taol
Day and overnight

click image for more information

Kompong Khleang
The next Tonle Sap town east of Kompong Phluk, this place is huge, the largest permanent settlement on the lake, actually. It's accessible by water and by land at certain times of the year. The view coming in from the lake, especially when the lake is down in the dry season and the hundreds of houses and other buildings are soaring several meters above the water is nothing short of spectacular! There is also a small floating village that moves around the vicinity of Kompong Khleang.

Again, due to the popularity of Chong Khneas, Kompong Khleang is now seeing more and more visitors and arranging a trip here is far less complicated than it was a couple of years ago.

A proper trip arranged from Siem Reap should include transport, boat and guide and as it's farther than Kompong Phluk, figure on an extra $10 or so to get there. Upon arrival you'll get a full walk around the village - there's one loop that takes you through the pagoda, past the market, the health clinic, the school, etc., and another main road that runs along the waterway for a kilometer or so (this is underwater at certain times of year). Then you get into a boat and head out to the lake to see the floating village, take a swim, look at the trees, etc. The return trip to the village will give you proper perspective on the enormity of this village.

Overall, though having less of the ecological attractions of Kompong Phluk, Kompong Khleang, due to its size, really gives one the commercial perspective to life on the Tonle Sap and is also well worth visiting.

Moat Kla
This is the last village in Siem Reap province on the southeastern end of the lake. It's several hours by boat from Siem Reap and impossible to reach by land. It's a floating village and predominantly Vietnamese. There are some nice forests and inland waterways including a small lake (compared to the Tonle Sap). You can access this as a full-day trip, picking up a boat in Kompong Khleang or Kompong Phluk. Expect to pay $130-160 for the day. Not many guesthouses or drivers would know how to sort it out, but you can check with Two Dragons.

Kbal Taol
This is a large floating village on the far side of the lake situated at the southern end of Battambang province and also near the southern end of the bird sanctuary. It is particularly scenic when the water levels are high and the village moves farther inland situating itself among thicker foliage and crisper water. It is possible to arrange overnight trips to this village though they are quite expensive and two people should plan on a minimum of $350 total for a trip that would include transport, guide, meals, lodging, and a visit to the bird sanctuary. The upside is that this village receives virtually no tourists at all, and it as well as the surrounding wetlands remain virtually untouched. We know of at least three operators, including Two Dragons, that can arrange the trip.

Pursat province is nowhere near Siem Reap, it's the other side of the lake, actually, but we mention it as it does offer the opportunity (for the time being, anyway) to see one of the larger and markedly less touristy floating villages without a significant investment in time or money, you only have to get yourself over to Pursat. There are in fact, a number of floating villages in the province and we have visited several that are only accessible from the lake: Peach Kantil, Kbal Taol (see above), and Prek Kra. Well, forget about those unless you have tons of money (We don't, we were doing photography for somebody else who was paying the bill!), but you can see Kompong Luong for the cost of the day-rate for a moto ($6-10) and the cost for a boat ride once you get there. We haven't been to this village, which happens to be Vietnamese (many of the villages are Vietnamese and most are ethnically divided as to whether they are Viet or Khmer), but having been to the others we can guess what awaits. Do visit! Details on this village are available in most major Cambodia guide books.

Far away temples

There are several temples and even temple complexes locating some considerable distance from Siem Reap town, but are well worth visiting if you can. They are located in Preah Vihear, Kompong Thom, and Banteay Meanchey provinces.

Preah Vihear temple
Long a contentious matter between Thailand and Cambodia as to who owns it and the surrounding land, the temple is legally in the hands of Cambodia and more-or-less in their control, as well. This hilltop temple is not in the best condition but affords spectacular views of the countryside and if you can handle a 250cc motorbike, the ride up the mountain is fun (or at least was fun until the road fell apart again). The road is presently under major reconstruction and a milder, gentler road that might even support tour buses(!) is in the works. We attended the grand opening on January 15th, 2003 and the chronicle can be read here. Practical information on getting to the temple is included on that page as well as on the Preah Vihear province page. For motorbiking or 4WD, and/or combining with a trip to Anlong Veng or Koh Ker try Hidden Cambodia Adventure Tours. For the past year or so, this temple has been the focal point of a dispute between Cambodia and Thailand that has seen several deadly skirmishes between opposing military forces. The level of militarization ebbs and flows with the level of tensions but any proposed trip here should first include a check of the latest situation as it is closed from time to time due to the dispute.

Koh Ker
This is a huge temple complex in Preah Vihear province comprised of possibly hundreds of large and small monuments. Many are still deep in the jungle and/or surrounded by mines. There are so many ancient structures still inaccessible that people aren't yet entirely sure of all that is buried in the forest. For the time being, the pyramidal structure that is the centerpiece of this tenth century capital is the one significant monument accessible to visitors. We first visited Koh Ker in January 2003 and the story can be read here. Siyong is the nearest village and has several small and very local restaurants as well as one guesthouse.

Thanks to a good road, built with private funds of course, Koh Ker is an easy day-trip from Siem Reap. There is a $10 per person admission fee to the temple complex as well as a $10 toll levied on all cars and trucks (remember what I just said about the road being built with private funds???). A lot of Siem Reap taxis seem to think this trip is worth in excess of $100, which is an entirely ridiculous price given the distance. $90, toll included, would be more reasonable. Motos will do the trip for around $50-60. There are a few tour operators doing the trip in 4WD for under a $100 and Hidden Cambodia Adventure Tours is one, hence the ridiculousness of taxis asking $100.

Preah Khan
A.k.a. Bakan, and not to be confused with the Preah Khan located within the Angkor Archaeological Park and but a few kilometers north of Angkor Wat, this temple complex in Preah Vihear province is probably the largest complex built during the ancient Khmer empire and regrettably, now one of its most looted. The walls enclose an area of several square kilometers. Accessing this temple was once quite an ordeal put things have gotten easier of late, though it's still not easy nor always possible.
Hidden Cambodia Adventure Tours offers motorbike and 4WD trips here.

A Readers' Submission on travelling to Preah Khan in January 2008 may be read here. Trip Report.

Sambor Prei Kuk
This is a massive complex of over 100 ancient monuments dating to the 7th century located in Kompong Thom province. This is becoming rightfully more and more of a popular attraction. Do try to make it here. The road is good and motos can be hired in Kompong Thom for the standard day rate (<$10). A car from Siem Reap to Sambor Prei Kuk and back to Siem Reap shouldn't cost more than $75. If you're taking a taxi between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh you can make a side trip that shouldn't add more than about $15 to the price.

For further information on Kompong Thom province as well as a recommend guide/motodriver to use while there, we recommend reading Andy Brouwer's website: http://www.andybrouwer.co.uk.

Banteay Chhmar
This is Banteay Meanchey province's one major tourist attraction and has recently become a lot easier to visit. Located about 60 kms north of Sisophon, which is 100 kms west of Siem Reap, it's a sprawling 12th century temple that has been badly looted. Additional smaller temples dot the region.

You can visit Banteay Chhmar as a long day-trip from Siem Reap by Camry taxi or by riding a 250cc motorbike. You can also spend the night in Sisophon, which if you're riding a motorbike, may be, depending on your level of endurance, a better option. If spending the night in Sisophon, you can also visit the temple by riding on the back of a moto and paying a day rate of about $10.

Anlong Veng

Folks come for the Khmer Rouge history and a number of sights to that end can be found here. In town is the Ta Mok villa and on the Dangrek Escarpment, about ten kilometers to the north is Pol Pot's final home, his cremation site, and a few other items of recent Khmer Rouge history. The government is doing what it can to turn this place into a tourist attraction. Given that after ancient temples, the most popular tourist sites in Cambodia are Khmer Rouge related (Tuol Sleng, killing fields, etc), it's not such a crazy idea, that said the attempts are nearly a decade old now and still hardly anyone is visiting.

There are but a couple of basic guesthouses and restaurants in town. The most interesting eatery would have to be the Choum No Tror Cheak Restaurant which offers an extensive menu of jungle critters whose sole qualification for landing on the menu is that they either walk, crawl, slither, swim, or fly, which covers just about everything in the jungle and that's what they serve. Menu is in Khmer and Thai only. The restaurant is near Ta Mok's villa. We should mention it was many years ago that we visited this restaurant so we can't say for sure whether it is still there or is still as advertised.

We have a large page on this website devoted to Anlong Veng and while a bit dated, we suggest reading it as it will cover all the area attractions in copious detail. Here it is.

You can reach Anlong Veng by taxi, by motorbike, by bus, or by guided tour. Many guesthouses and hotels can arrange a trip to Anlong Veng.

Other things to see and do

Land Mine museum - This is the well-known creation of Aki Ra that moved rather far away up near Banteay Srei temple. For more information on Aki Ra and his work, or at least how he presents it, you can read this story we did based on an interview with Aki Ra in October 2000 which you are welcome to take at face value or not.

War museum - Opened in October 2001 by the Ministry of Defense and located near the airport. Laid out on some nicely landscaped grounds is a motley assortment of tanks, armored vehicles, anti-aircraft guns, and artillery cannons flanked by a few sheds housing an even more decrepit collection of automatic weapons, artillery shells, mines, grenades, grenade and rocket launchers, uniforms, Khmer Rouge flags, and basically any other military junk the generals had lying around. Other than labels identifying what the items are there is no attempt whatsoever to educate or place any of these items in any type of historical context. The admission fee is $3 which is entirely too much to walk around a rubbish yard.

Cambodian Cultural Village - Disneyland Khmer-style. Out near airport, the Cambodian Cultural Village offers a theme park approach to the culture of Cambodia, developed primarily for domestic consumption. There's a museum housing exhibits on wildlife, ancient jewelry and tools, and waxed figures from throughout Cambodia's history, including the controversial UNTAC figure seen left. Outside are reproductions of various Cambodia landmarks, i.e. Phnom Penh's Central Market, National Museum, Royal Palace, etc. and idealized miniature versions of a number of ethnic villages. Apparently the operators of this attraction would like to discourage foreigners from visiting as the foreigner price is $12 while Cambodian pay only a buck. Nice pricing scheme for a private commercial concern. For more information on this park and a few opinions on the UNTAC figure, see December 2003 Cambodia Update.

Butterfly Garden - Pay a dollar and walk around a small, albeit lush garden and have dozens of butterflies swarm about your head. Fishpond, fruit trees, flowers and such. Not a bad way to relax for an hour. Food and drink available.

Crocodile Farm - Located south of town, pay $3 and walk around looking at smelly creatures that would think nothing of killing you in an instant.

Apsara Dancing - Numerous hotels and restaurants offer Apsara shows. Generally speaking the higher the price the better the atmosphere and food. The dancing, however, will be much the same wherever you go. Best place to arrange a show is through your hotel or guesthouse.

Angkor National Museum - Not to be confused with the real National Museum in Phnom Penh, this is a massive and expensive facility on the road to Angkor Wat that has received very mixed reviews. It cost some $30 million US to construct and that it was Thai money there has been no shortage of controversy due to the usage of the word "National". Initially it was almost categorically criticized but more recently the reviews have been much more favorable as the museum curators have worked to improve the presentation and quality of objects as well as the information offered on them. After some early growing pains, We think it's fair to say that the museum is now indeed a professional operation and would not be a waste of your time.

However, keep in mind that while the museum was supposed to house the contents of the Angkor Conservatory where hundreds (thousands?) of statues have been kept hidden from view for years (for safety reasons), only a handful of objects ever found their way into the museum. There's also a "Cultural Mall" attached to the museum which remains virtually empty of shops. Though we're not sure how a shop selling dodgy DVDs qualifies as "Cultural" or at least not in the manner you would think was intended.

Although we will speak favorably for the museum, as is so often the case with anything aimed at tourists in Siem Reap the price tag is a bit harsh. In this case it's $12 US per person. No, $12 isn't all that much money, but consider that the real National Museum in Phnom Penh is only $3, or that the Paris Louvre is 9 euros (about $13 US), the NY Metropolitan is a suggested donation of $20 (you can walk in for 10 cents if you wanted), the Cairo Museum is about $3.50 and another $7 or so for the mummies, and the British Museum is free, well you see our point (whether or not you agree). Given that the museum directors have voiced complaints of not enough visitors, we wonder if they figured out that three people paying $5 each brings in more revenue than one person paying $12. Hello? Are you listening?

Angkor Night Market - Just west off Sivatha. Authentic and not so authentic Cambodian crafts, food, movies, and much more, 4 pm to midnight.

Killing Fields Memorial - Almost every town in Cambodia has one, and in Siem Reap you can find a memorial stupa housing some skulls at Wat Thmei located between town and the Angkor Archaeological Park.

Horseback Riding - The Happy Ranch brings international standards of horse care and recreation to Siem Reap. Trail rides, lessons, boarding facilities, Western trainers.

Elephant Rides - In the morning around the South Gate of Angkor Thom and the Bayon and in the evenings up Phnom Bakheng. $10-15 for a ride. Don't bother shouting at the expat in charge of these elephants about abuse, cruelty, exploitation, etc., he's heard it all already and he will probably have you feeling far worse for having bothered him in the first place.

Balloon rides - A tethered balloon west of Angkor Wat takes you 200 meters up in the air for views of Angkor Wat and anything else you might want to look at. Foreigners are charged $12 and you're supposed to get ten minutes.

Motrocycle trips - Organized trips throughout northwest Cambodia can be arranged through Hidden Cambodia Adventure Tours.

Bicycle trips - Biking Cambodia based in Siem Reap organizes nationwide bicycle tours.

Pools and fitness - Most of the better hotels have swimming pools and fitness centers open to the public for a fee.

Golf - Sofitel manages the Phokeethra Country Club out past the airport. It ain't cheap. A second course, Angkor Golf Resort, opened more recently.

Massage - Proper massage is available all over town. There are about a dozen places near the Old Market that'll sort out tired bones and muscles at quite reasonable rates. A little more classy try either Frangipani or Body Tune. Seeng Hands masages (blind massages) are popular, however they aren't necessarily very good, nor is the person giving the massage necessarily blind. As with so many things, you get what you pay for, and for our money, $18 an hour at Frangipani is money better spent than $7 an hour at one of the less professional, albeit plentiful massage joints around town. And don't worry about accidently wandering into a brothel fronting as a massage parlor, they were all shut down years ago and weren't in any area you were likely to go anyway.

Quads - Quad Adventure Cambodia offers rides in the countryside. You can contact them directly or there's a good chance that whatever guesthouse you stay will have some brochures out for them.

Siem Reap index page

Getting there
Staying there
Eating and drinking
Other things to do and places to go in and around Siem Reap
The Tonle Sap Lake
Far away temples
Anlong Veng
Other things to see
Additional stories on the Siem Reap area

Guesthouses, restaurants, tours and more
Cambodia businesses to serve your every need.



All text and photographs © 1998 - 2010 talesofasia.com. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.