What To Do In Siem Reap, Cambodia

Super Low Cost And Easy Entry—Cambodia Deserves A Look

Friends called last week and told me they were celebrating a birthday in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Would I care to join them?

Vicki and I were in Bangkok. A low-cost airline, Air Asia, offered roundtrip tickets from Bangkok to Siem Reap for just over US$100. Most of the ticket price went for government exit and entry taxes in the two countries; the flight itself cost only US$50. Birthday party? Why not?

Siem Reap hosts the famous Angkor Wat ruins. French explorer Henri Mouhot brought Angkor to the attention of the Western world in 1860. Mouhot concluded that the magnificent Angkor temples must have been built by some lost civilization, rather than the “barbaric” Khmers living there in modern times. Indeed, my friends and others at the birthday party concluded that aliens must have built the place. No way, they say, could a primitive Khmer people, with only stone or bronze tools, and without paper, have fitted so many stones so precisely, have done so many detailed carvings so beautifully.

But Angkor’s style and inscriptions support the theory that ancient Khmers did somehow manage to build the place, beginning about a thousand years ago.

Today the site, including surrounding jungles, comprises 400 square kilometers of jungle with dozens of temple buildings. The French started clearing away debris and patching up the place a hundred years ago. Cambodia gained independence from the French in 1953 and continued the restoration. Work stopped during the Khmer Rouge slaughters of the 1970s and 1980s but continued afterwards.

I remember when the Angkor site first opened to travelers in the 1990s. Vicki and I spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia in those days, and met several travelers who’d seen the ruins. Every one of them had come down with malaria. Mouhot himself had died of malaria. I decided back then to give the place a pass. But in recent years the area has been declared malaria free, or nearly so, and I did the trip.

Siem Reap town lies 6 kilometers south of the ruins. Two highways intersect just north of Old Town. The north/south highway goes from Old Town up to the ruins. The east/west highway runs from the airport, about 10 kilometers to the west, to the jungles east of town. Gorgeous five-star hotels and resorts, with their spas, saunas, and massage rooms, line both sides of the east/west highway. All the resorts have been built in recent years, after Cambodia suppressed malaria. These luxury palaces fill with Chinese and Thai tourists, as well as Westerners. I was there in low season; during the winter months I’d expect hordes.

We did the birthday party in Old Town, on Siem Reap’s busy Pub Street. On Pub Street by day we enjoyed colonial French architecture, local and Western food, and shopping for everything from trinkets to medicine. I went into one pharmacy and found three little girls playing on the floor behind the counter. The oldest, maybe 8 years old, stood and started to ask what I wanted. When she saw I was a foreigner she went to the back room to get Mom. No luck. The little girl returned alone. Even though I hadn’t asked for anything, she said, in perfect English, “We don’t have it, I’m sorry.”

Pub Street and the surrounding area at night, by contrast, builds to a frenzy with bars, bands, booze, and barkers. Think birthday party.

Besides the birthday-party crowd I ran into several Westerners who live there. To get a one-year visa in Cambodia, I’m told, you pay US$35 for an E visa on arrival. Then, for about US$300, any guest house in town will get a one-year extension for you, and after that another and another. What an easy place to land.

Besides a long-term visa Cambodia offers low cost of living. Khmer dishes—noodles and curry, chicken and pork—run around US$2 or US$3. Draft beer costs maybe a dollar a mug, half that at Happy Hour. A liter of Jack Daniels in the supermarket costs between US$10 and US$15.

I stayed at Two Dragons Guest House, US$12 a night, about a 20-minute walk from Pub Street. The Two Dragons has air conditining, clean rooms, private bath, free coffee and water… outstanding value. The restaurant and lobby bar serve up a draft beer for 75 cents and a lamb shank for US$8. A bottle of Chilean red wine costs US$12.

I’m told other parts of Cambodia can be much cheaper. After all, Siem Reap throngs with deep-pocketed tourists who drive up prices.

Cambodia deserves a look by those who want low cost of living, easy entry, and a tropical climate in Southeast Asia.

Paul Terhorst

Editor’s Note: Global investor and perpetual traveler Paul Terhorst writes a regular retirement-planning and investment column for my Overseas Retirement Letter. Right now you can try a full month’s trial subscription for less than a buck. Get on board here to read Paul’s insights, predictions, and recommendations each month now.

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