With all of the great places to visit in SE Asia in the short year that Eric and I were to initially be living in Singapore it was difficult to prioritize where to go. There were certainly many places on our “must visit” list and numerous others on our “like to visit” list. When Eric’s project got extended by a few months this past fall lets just say we weren’t the least bit disappointed as now we’d get to do a bit more traveling before heading back to the States. Cambodia, and more specifically Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor, were at the top of our “like to visit” list.
Siem Reap, located in northern Cambodia, is the main tourist hub for the activity into and out of Angkor Archaeological Park. The park spans over about 250 square miles and contains the awe inspiring remains of the Khmer Empire. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. Just like everyone else we were headed to Siem Reap to experience the ruins.
During the Vietnam War the communist Vietnamese used Cambodia as a staging post. This unfortunately prompted large scale bombings there by the US. Thousands of Cambodians were killed in these bombings, which gave rise to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge that seized power in 1975. From 1975-1979 this party killed almost 2 million Cambodians in one of the worst acts of genocide in history. (Just a little background history for ya!)
Starting in the early 1990s, Cambodia slowly started to reopen itself to the world. With all that the country has been through the Angkor temples have remained surprisingly unscathed, though environmental elements and looting are clearly starting to take their toll. Vast restoration efforts are definitely underway, but if you want to see and experience the temples in the glory that remains the time to go is now.
Jetstar Airlines has a direct flight from Singapore to Siem Reap, so getting there was quite easy. From the airport it was a quick cab ride to the nice boutique hotel we were staying at just across the river from the Old Town area. The staff at the Golden Temple Hotel were so friendly and accommodating, and better yet our stay included a free massage. You can’t beat that for ~US$60 a night! We would definitely recommend it as a place to stay if you’re traveling to Siem Reap.
The first night we arrived we went straight to Pub Street, located in the center of Old Town Siem Reap. This is were most of the places to eat, drink and shop are located so we spent most of our evenings and free time there during our visit. This area had restaurants serving local (Khmer style) food as well all types of international cuisine. From cafes and wine bars, to Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, Italian, French and Mexican you could find whatever you were craving. Oh, and the 50 cent Angkor draft beers (the local brew) that seemed to be served everywhere weren’t too bad either!
The next day we were up bright and early to start touring the temples. For a fixed price our hotel offered an arranged tour that included a driver and took you on a set tour of certain temples. Because tours aren’t really our style and since Eric had done quite a bit of research on which temples we wanted visit, we decided to go it on our own. There are about 70 temples, tombs and other ancient ruins to see so it is definitely advisable to do your own research beforehand.
Siem Reap has an abundance of tuk tuk drivers that are constantly touting you to arrange tours and rides to wherever you are going. Note that this is the one bad thing about Siem Reap. They don’t seem to understand that some people just enjoy walking! You can’t really blame them though as I am sure they are just trying to scrape by, making barely enough to feed their families. We just learned to kindly and repeatedly say “no thank you” and they eventually left us alone.
But in the case of a ride to the temples we DID want a tuk tuk driver for the day ,so we just went out to the street and negotiated. For less than ~US$20 per day we found a driver that agreed to take us wherever we wanted to go.
Something we quickly discovered about Cambodia is that they definitely prefer the US dollar over their own currency, the riel. In fact, the cash machines there only dispense US currency and all of the restaurants, bars, etc. quote their prices and accept payment in US dollars. It makes sense given that the riel is essentially worthless outside of Cambodia. You can’t even exchange it outside of the country. Just a little FYI if you’re traveling to Cambodia as we had no idea this was the case.
The first day we had our tuk tuk driver take us to Angkor Thom. On our way there we had to stop to buy our pass to gain access to the Angkor complex. Since we were going to tour the temples over multiple days we bought the three day pass for US$40. If you’ve ever seen pictures of the Angkor temples that include large scale faces it is likely they were of Angkor Thom. It was a very large complex with several sections. Even though it was hot and sticky out and the sun was intense we spent hours roaming around in all the areas of the temple.
After a short break for some lunch and refreshment (i.e. beer) we were off to the next temple on our list, Ta Prohm. If you’ve seen the movie Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie this is where it was filmed! This temple complex is really unique because the buildings are covered with the roots of huge banyan trees.
That was it for our first day of temple touring, but we were right back at it bright and early the next morning. Actually, it was before sunrise, so I guess it was DARK and early. We wanted to make it back to the temples before sunrise so we could see the light of day as it ascended upon Angkor Wat, the most popular and well known of all the temples. We didn’t think about the fact that it would be pitch black when we got there and that the temples would not be lighted at all. Plus it had rained the night before so we were sloshing through puddles to get to the best viewing spot for sunrise. We purchased a very overpriced, chintzy little flash light from one of the vendors which helped a little bit. A bit of advice though… bring your own flashlight!
There was a certain viewing area that was supposed to be the best for sunrise so we headed there. For the price of a hot coffee or tea you could use a little lawn chair to take a load off and get your camera set up for a prime shot. The colors of the sunrise were absolutely amazing! After the sunrise, we spent the morning walking around Angkor Wat.
On a totally unrelated note, as we were sitting there waiting for the sun to rise I noticed that the guy sitting behind us had a Purdue hat on, so I asked him if he had been there. Turns out he was from Hong Kong and HAD attended Purdue. He’d even graduated from the Krannert Business School, the same as me. Talk about a small world!
After our early morning at Angkor Wat we went back to the hotel to shower and grab some breakfast. The rest of that day was spent touring one of the lesser known temples (Banteay Samré) and riding through the countryside.
One of the very sad things about Cambodia is the widespread poverty. At every temple you experience tons of little children trying to sell you little trinkets or just begging for money. Although it breaks your heart not to give them a little spare change, we were advised against it. Apparently many parents send their children to the temple areas to beg rather than working themselves and sending their children to school. Putting money in their hands encourages their parents to continue the cycle.
If we weren’t touring temples, we spent the rest of our time in Siem Reap eating, drinking, shopping and getting foot massages. We always make an effort to try the local food whenever we travel, so we ate at a few Cambodian or Khmer cuisine restaurants. Khmer food seemed to be a milder cross between Thai and Vietnamese. The most well known dish that was tried was called amok curry. It’s basically a coconut based mild fish curry that is flavored with ground turmeric, ginger, garlic, lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, shallots, dried chiles and fish sauce. Although it was good it didn’t blow our socks off. We just couldn’t get as excited about Khmer cuisine compared to the other SE Asian cuisines we’ve tried.
The Old Town area had lots of vendors selling the typically tourist garb. I had read about one unique store though that I was really interested in shopping at called Bloom. They make bags from recycled fish feed and rice sacs using fair trade standards. This means that the individuals that construct your bag are not exploited and are paid a fair wage. You see knock-offs of these bags all over Siem Reap, however, if you buy an authentic Bloom bag you can be assured that your money is going to the person who made it. Shopping at Bloom was such a fun experience. I had to go back several times to decide on the bag that I wanted. I’ve been using the one that I bought all the time now for errands and love it.
Shopping in Siem Reap also involved a trip to the night market. It was one of the best that we’ve been to in all of our travels. This market seemed different because it not only had touristy items, but stalls with work from individual artists. We came home with a unique pressed paper piece that we framed as well as a hand carved Buddha. Even better the market had a big bar right in the center so you could stop and take the edge off with a cocktail and then keep shopping away.
As with everywhere you travel in SE Asia there were cheap massages. This trip, because of Eric’s shoulder injury, we did mostly foot massages. We became a little bit obsessed with them actually. For ~US$8 we got hour long massages that were just as relaxing as a full body one, plus you didn’t get all oily. I think we each had a daily foot massage and Eric even got a second one on a couple of the days. I just hung out at one of the many cute cafes savoring coffee and dessert while I waited for him. Worked out great for both of us!
Our trip to Siem Reap was a short one, only about 4 days. We knew the timing of it was a little risky as we were going over Labor Day weekend in early September. (This is towards the end of their rainy season.) For the first three days we were fine. It would mist a little here and there, but it never seemed to last for long. The tuk tuks were well equipped for rain and our driver would just let the plastic sides down when it started. However, on the last night we were there it POURED! Because we were staying close to the river, we woke up in the morning to streets that were flooded up to knee high. This made it impossible to walk anywhere, so we relied on tuk tuks to get us into town and we just waded through the water from there. The locals seemed pretty used to it and carried on with their daily activities. We even witnessed a funeral procession of endless mourners all just trudging through the water.
We were initially on the fence as to whether or not we wanted to visit Cambodia and the temples of Angkor. Looking back we are so glad that we did. Siem Reap was a wonderful little laid back town that in and of itself would have made a great little weekend trip. The opportunity to visit the temples made the whole experience even more memorable. Plus, we can’t stay enough about the kindness and generosity of the Cambodian people. In spite of the country’s tumultuous past they seem to be very happy and always have smiles on their faces. A visit to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor is the experience of a lifetime and should not be overlooked if given the opportunity.