Temple vs. Beach
July 8, 2009 7:53 AM   Subscribe

5 days in August: Angkor Wat or Koh Samui?

A friend and I are traveling in SE Asia in August, and we have an extra five or so days on the itinerary (somewhere between Hong Kong and Beijing). The two possibilities are Siem Reap/Angkor Wat and Koh Samui, with a day in Bangkok on the way.

What matters:
adventure, beauty, cuisine, local life, culture, lack of stress

What we want to avoid:
malaria, violent crime, package tours, traffic

Advice on where to go/what to do in either place is welcome.
posted by crookedneighbor to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Quite different choices, crookedneighbor.
Have you looked at Angkor Wat online? 'cause after 2 days my wife said she was "templed out". Me, I loved it - and took Gbs of pics. I'd love to spend a week in Siam Reap and play photographer, but you or your friend may not agree. It's temples, temples, temples - so YMMV. But it is one of the most amazing places I've ever seen.
Also, unless you've been there already, 1 day in BKK is far too little.
(although I noticed you want to avoid "traffic"...well, strictly not possible in BKK)
posted by MessageInABottle at 8:06 AM on July 8, 2009

I rather liked the Angkor area, especially the smaller temples that are further afield since that way you get to see more of the Cambodian countryside *and* the temples are less crowded with busloads of tourists.

There's more to Angkor than Angkor.

Also, yeah, you may want more time in Bangkok unless it's old hat to you.
posted by aramaic at 8:07 AM on July 8, 2009

When my girlfriend and I went to SE Asia four years ago, we went throughout the region, while not feeling rushed through it.

I believe you can see the major sights in Angkor Wat in two days (We took three days, and were pretty wat'd out at the end of the second day), assuming you have a personal driver (to two kids straight out of college, this was reasonably priced, but I can't remember details at this point). Note that you will probably need to get a visa for Cambodia... get on that quickly if you haven't already. Regarding cuisine, I wasn't a huge fan of Cambodian food. I believe that the reason I was prescribed malaria pills was due to going to Cambodia; these pills made me really nauseous and unhappy to the point where I decided the risk of malaria was not as big as the guaranteed unpleasantness.

If you're going to Bangkok, you can make a daytrip of Ayutthaya, the old capital. This city has really great sights, in a similar vein to Angkor Wat. Some advice for Bangkok: While the monorail seems like it should be a cheaper way to travel than a tuktuk/taxi, it often isn't unless you're travelling far distances.

I can't really say too much for Koh Samui (We'd gone to Phuket for our beach fix), but I'm sure the beach is beautiful.

Have fun! And be ready to take lots of pictures!
posted by jangie at 8:13 AM on July 8, 2009

Best answer: I spent a week in Siem Reap and a week in Koh Tao -- not Koh Samui but pretty close geographically and culturally.

I strongly suggest you choose Angkor. Eight years later and I vividly remember my time there - exploring tons of temples but at a slow pace, driving a moped around the hazy afternoons, watching the sun rise up in the jungle that is both overtaking and supporting the crumbling buildings below. Koh Tao was fun, no doubt, and I had some delicious food, massages on the beach, walks on the beach, and of course some fun nightclubs.

But what do I yearn to show my partner, who has never been to SE Asia? What photos have I reprinted and hang on my wall? What space gave me a greater week's experience and appreciation for a whole 'nother culture than one that I experience on a daily basis? Siem Reap, hands down.
posted by barnone at 8:19 AM on July 8, 2009

I did both in August, in 2007. My group was "templed out" for the most part after two days, in part because it was overwhelming hot/humid (and one of our group had food poisoning, which I hope you'll avoid). In Angkor Wat and Cambodia generally we encountered more aggressive pan handlers/kids selling various trinkets and books than elsewhere, though there was some of that in Koh Samui as well.

Any reason (budgetary?) that you can't do both? We spent two days in Angkor Wat and then 4 days in Koh Samui (flew Angkor Wat --> Bangkok --> Koh Samui, as we'd started the trip in Bangkok), but I think you could cut that down to three days in Koh Samui. Both locations are tourist destinations, so I'm not sure how much of "local life" you'll be experiencing, but they were both worthwhile for the group I was with.

I'd say Koh Samui was less stressful than Angkor Wat, but while the beaches were beautiful, Angkor Wat was more of a once in a lifetime experience. However, if you want to build some relaxing, beach time into your trip, Koh Samui would be good. We loved night swimming in Koh Samui. Note that when I was there in August 2007, it was somewhat difficult to get a room in Koh Samui (we found one, but many of the recommended hotels were already full when we started calling a few days in advance). Not sure if this is still the case.

As for Malaria, I know we needed to take anti-malaria pills for Cambodia but not (if I recall correctly) for Bangkok/beaches of Thailand. Check with a doctor obviously, but no one I traveled with got malaria, so the pills must have worked.

Just a note, we took the bus to Angkor Wat from Thailand, but flew out. The bus was an all day experience, complete with the bumpiest (non-air-conditioned) 6 hour trip I've ever experienced, two delays of several hours a piece, and a breakdown. It's a fun story now, but flying to Angkor Wat was only about $50 (US) more at the time, so if you're pressed for time or not looking to experience bus travel in Cambodia, I'd opt for flying.
posted by Caz721 at 8:21 AM on July 8, 2009

I'm going to go against the flow here and say you don't need malaria pills for Angkor. If you're going to be further afield in the country in Cambodia, then maybe you should take them. If you're just going to be in Angkor, I was told they weren't really necessary (and dear god, they're so unpleasant). Also, regarding the Cambodian visa, I think it's around $25 US, and you can get it when you go into the country at the airport.

So, from my experience in Cambodia:

"adventure, beauty, cuisine, local life, culture, lack of stress": Yes on all counts. Siem Reap is a very laid back, sleepy little town along a small river. Despite all the tourists, I didn't feel stressed out at all while I was there. Cambodian people are very, very friendly. The country is beautiful in general, but the temples are absolutely striking. (I have pictures too).

What we want to avoid:
malaria, violent crime, package tours, traffic: Yeah, I didn't experience any of these in Cambodia. A package tour isn't necessary to see the temples. You can just get a day or multi-day pass and hire a driver to take you up there. Get a good guidebook and just wander around on your own and get lost for hours or days on end. It's great.
posted by booknerd at 8:59 AM on July 8, 2009

Best answer: We spent four days in Angkor Wat on our honeymoon, and we are very glad we took the time. Having the extra days meant that we could go out to some of the more outlying temples that are less overrun with people cramming "everything Angkor" into two days. Beng Melea was a serious highlight, and getting there and back takes a whole day, but then we were the only westerners at the site while we were there. It is a completely different experience than Angkor Wat itself, and not to be missed. After four days we were not at all 'templed out' but instead felt we had really done it properly. Absolutely you need a guide.

We also really go the sense that Angkor Wat is changing fast. Siem Reap is growing at a gobsmacking rate, all those little two-stroke scooters are wreaking havoc on air quality, and I fear this may all be taking a toll on the place. It may be an entirely different experience in 5 or 10 years, whereas Thailand will reliably have lovely beaches for the foreseeable future.

One note, though, is that you'll need your prophylactics. Despite taking Lariam, my husband came back with a case of malaria. On preview, don't take booknerd's advice. Take the anti-malarials, but make sure you take the right ones. Those little buggers are developing resistance to certain anti-malarial drugs, and getting malaria sucks hard.
posted by ambrosia at 9:19 AM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

On the malaria pills issue, I have to say that whichever pills I took were not unpleasant, I don't think I had any side effects, and none that I can recall two years later. I don't recall the name, but I think I had to take one a day, starting a day or two before we went to the malarial region, and continuing one a day for a few days after we left (this may not be a completely accurate memory, ask your doctor, etc). My friend had a different pill, which was only once a week (I think) but she had some of the side effects (digestive issues, vivid dreams, etc). Neither of us got malaria so both pills worked in that sense, but my experience was definitely the more pleasant of the two. Of course, YMMV.
posted by Caz721 at 9:52 AM on July 8, 2009

Koh Samui-check that it is not the monsoon season on that side. August will still be college vacation in northern hemisphere so the party will be in full swing.

Angkor-Not a temple person, I knew that already, but it was on my list. I got a kick out of Mini-Ankor Wat. I did enjoy Beng Melea (via back of motorbike) the best and it was primarily due to the remoteness and lack of restoration, visitors and being able to clamber all over it. Siem Reap has developed at a fast rate, has it's own Eat St (shades of Legian). Fly. It's cheap on Air Asia. VIP bus is a known rip-off.

Have you considered Laos?

I've never taken anti-malarials because I'm usually there in the dry season.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:37 AM on July 8, 2009

Echoing Caz721, I took malaria pills for a summer in Ghana and had zero side effects. The ones I took were under the name Malarone, the generic name of which is atovaquone.
posted by mdonley at 11:10 AM on July 8, 2009

Samui is a shithole, Mafia island.

Phangnan and Tao, less so (and in that order).
posted by the cuban at 11:14 AM on July 8, 2009

Go to Angkor, you'll have the memories forever. I loved it, I've already been for 4 days and could easily do 4 more. As an aside: take dark sunglasses so the panhandlers can't see your eyes. Stare straight ahead, and they'll leave you alone right quick. Not that they were that bad at all.
posted by maxpower at 11:29 AM on July 8, 2009

I've not been to Angkor (Or indeed any of Cambodia), but I did spend a a week or more in Koh Samui when I was in Thailand and Laos for five months.

If you have an opportunity to see Angkor, I would say unless you are planning on returning to S.E.A in the near future, do that - Sure after a longer period some people get "Templed Out" but there is more to see around there too and no one I have spoken to in all my travels went there and regretted it.

Koh Samui on the other hand while a fun place if you want to party on beaches wasn't anything mind blowing or special - Just a tourist island really. If Cambodia is logistically tricky - Try Chiang Mai, it's an hour flight from Bangkok, much more chilled out, easy to see lots of different sights the Sunday walking market is perhaps the most cultural market I saw in Thailand, there are hundreds of of temples in the old town of various sizes, and at Doi Suthep is an awe inspiring temple that overlooks the city and is the second most important temple in Thailand.
posted by paulfreeman at 3:49 AM on July 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

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