I want to thank everyone on this forum who took the time to answer my questions while planning our trip. We loved Cambodia and had a fantastic trip, so hopefully this trip report can help someone else!
We spent 5 days in Siem Reap as part of a 3 week trip to Cambodia and Thailand. We flew from Bangkok via Bangkok Airways using the Discovery Air Pass - we also flew Bangkok to Phuket and had 6 flights total, so this ended up being the cheapest way when I compared prices. BA was a really good airline. If you have a layover or get to the airport early either in Bangkok or Siem Reap there is a free lounge with snacks, drinks, and internet access - this is for all BA passengers, not just business or first class. They also served a substantial snack on all flights. They have a pretty strict luggage weight limit, but if you join their frequent flier program you get an extra 10 kg or so allowance.
We did get the Cambodia e-visas before we left. We used the official site and had our visas within 24 hours for $25 US apiece. When we arrived at the Siem Reap airport we bypassed the visa line, went straight through immigration and were the first ones out of the airport at 9:00 AM.
We stayed at the Palm Village Resort - www.palmvillage.com.kh/ , which we enjoyed and I will post a review for that later. They sent a car to pick us up from the airport and the resort was only a few minutes away on the edge of town. We hired a car to take us around for the rest of the day –rate was $25/day. We were able to visit the Silk Farm (free admission) , Artisans D’Angkor (free) and the War Museum ($3 pp). The Silk Farm and Artisans were definitely worth a visit but we thought the landmine museum was more interesting than the war museum. There is also a shop in the airport that sells items from the silk farm and Artisans for the same prices if there is something that you regret not buying, although there is less selection. Have your camera ready on the road out to the silk farm to take pictures of all the crazy things that people are able to balance on the back of a motorbike or bicycle!
We researched guide recommendations from this site and decided to use Ponheary Ly, who works as a guide and also heads a foundation to help poor Cambodian children go to school by providing uniforms, books, food, salaries for teachers, etc. I saw on the foundation website – www.theplf.org - that she takes tourists to visit schools where they can purchase and serve meals to the kids, bring clothing donations, or teach English among other things. We thought this was definitely something that we wanted to do, so we booked her for 4 days via email – firstname.lastname@example.org - before our trip. She always replied within a day or two and answered all of my questions. We absolutely loved Ponheary and by the end of the trip we felt more like she was a good family friend than a hired guide. After hearing her stories about the things she lived through during 30+ years of war and now seeing her generosity and tireless work with the kids, we think she truly is one of the most amazing people we have ever met. We highly recommend her as a guide!!
We purchased 3 day passes, and I had read several temple viewing itineraries before we left and made a list of the temples that interested us – I gave these to Ponheary and she worked out a schedule. I was surprised at how much we were able to see and not feel rushed. I think it was partly because tourist numbers are down this year, so we felt like we had a lot of places almost to ourselves and didn’t have to wait for crowds to pass. I’ll list our basic itinerary below – we did take about a 3 hour break around noon each day to have lunch and go back to the hotel to swim and cool off.
Day 1: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon (**favorite), Baphon, Terrace of the Elephants, Phimeanakas, and Prasat Suor Preat. We also stopped at one of the schools in Siem Reap that Ponheary works with as they were installing a solar panel system to power laptops, lights and fans, and that was the day that they were firing them up. Prior to this the school had no electricity.
Day 2: Terrace of Leper King, Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, Mebon, PreRup, Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, and Phnom Bakheng. Phnom Bakheng is a temple on the top of a hill that you can climb to view the sunset. It is about a 30 minute walk up a moderate hill with a really good view of the area. It wasn’t a great sunset that day, but still worth the climb.
Day 3: Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei (**other favorite – amazing carvings), and Kbal Spean – this is about a 40 minute hike up a trail in the jungle – wear good shoes – to see the carvings in the riverbed during the dry season. We wanted to spare Ponheary’s knees, so she didn’t climb with us, but there was a worker at the top who showed us where all of the carvings were. If you go on your own, look for a worker (he had a uniform on with the company name) to show you around – it looked they have someone stationed up there, probably to prevent theft/damage. We gave him a tip afterwards because we would have missed a large portion of the carvings if he hadn’t shown us. In the afternoon we went to Tonle Sap lake and Chong Khneas village – I had read that this was the area that was very touristy, but we only saw a few other tourist boats. We thought it was fascinating and if we’d had more time I definitely would have wanted to see other areas of the lake.
Day 4: We ventured out to Koh Ker (about 2 ½ hours outside of Siem Reap) to visit the temples and the school there. The area is extremely poor – there isn’t much tourism yet and few jobs, so this was the school that Ponheary had suggested we purchase a lunch for. It was a very rewarding and humbling experience – the PLF provides rice for the kids in the morning, but that is often the only meal that they have each day, so the kids just ate and ate and ate when we were serving them lunch. My husband and I both agreed that this was one of the best experiences we have ever had on a trip. After lunch we walked through the village to the Koh Ker temple and visited the other temples in the area. They haven’t been restored yet, so still have vegetation growing on them and are more natural than Angkor Wat. I don’t think we saw even 10 other tourists there. We went to the land mine museum ($1 pp?) and Beng Melea on the way back.
On the last day our flight didn’t leave until 2:00, so we decided to rent bikes ($3 apiece from our hotel) for a couple hours in the morning. This ended up being a lot of fun because we got a much different reaction from the locals than we did when we rode by in a tuk tuk. When we rode by on the bikes people would come out of their houses to wave and say hi, kids would pedal like mad to pass us and wave – no one had so much as given us gave us a glance when we were in the tuk tuks.
Restaurants we ate at were Viroth’s, Sugar Palm, Red Piano, Amok, Khmer Kitchen and the Blue Pumpkin (4 times - best ice cream I think I’ve ever had, esp Mango!). All were very good. Prices were anywhere from $3-6 for most entrees.
Sorry, this ended up being very long! If anyone has any questions feel free to ask.