The history of Siem Reap, as well as that of Cambodia as a whole has been one fraught with upheavels including the conflicts with both its neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam. More widely known is the more recent horror of the Khmer Rouge regime, when over 2 million Cambodians were killed by their own country-men. While there is debate on the timelines of the response of the International community, what is evident is that Cambodia is still struggling to get on its feet.
Siem Reap today is a popular tourist destination specifically due to its close proximity to Angkor Wat. While we are not temple fans, we however decided that since we were in the region, we might as well cross that off our list.
The currency of Cambodia, Riel, is very rarely used instead you will find the USD in general circulation. We wanted to ensure that we had some Riel for the smaller purchases, but found it hard to find an ATM with Riel. Prices of everything are in USD, which made things quite expensive for those of us on a 5-month vacation budget.
Highlights of Siem Reap
We planned to spend 3 nights (2 full days) in Siem Reap to get the most out of our visit and focused on the following highlights.
Angkor Archaeological Park
Granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1992, the park is most well known for the ruins of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. For several centuries, Angkor was the main centre of the Khmer empire. In the 19th century the ruins of the area were rediscovered in the middle of forests and farmlands. Shortly afterwards, a French organisation, the École française d’Extrême-Orient, took responsibility for the restoration and conservation of the park, which was halted during the civil war. Since then a number of countries have been involved in the restoration work. In 2007, after much research it was concluded that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world.
We cycled to the park, which is approximately 5 km from Siem Reap. To visit the park, an Angkor Pass is required which can be bought as a 1-day ($37), 3-day ($62) or 7-day ($72) pass, with different validity periods. We purchased the 3-day pass, which was valid for 7 days and enabled us to see the various temples within the park at our leisure, though a 1-day pass would have been sufficient if we had taken a tuk-tuk to all the sites.
To avoid crowds when purchasing the tickets, it is best to purchase them the day before at the Angkor Conservation Area ticket booth on Charles de Gaulle road. Buying the tickets after 5 pm enables you to watch the sunset on the day of purchase. The pass can only be purchased in cash. ATMs can be found at the centre. The pass is personalized with a picture taken on the spot, as such it cannot be transferred to others. Since there are a number of booths throughout the park checking the passes, it is essential to carry them daily.
Angkor Wat is thought to be the largest religious monument in the world. It was initially constructed as a Hindu temple but was transformed into a Buddhist temple. For us what was most amazing to see and understand was the fact that the temple, made out of more sandstone than the Egyptian pyramids, was constructed and designed in the 12th century using very rudimentary methods. The temple lies in an area of 1 square km and is in three levels surrounded by a central tower. The most intricate designs are on the outer level.
We visited the temple around 11:00am to avoid the early morning crowds. At sunrise almost daily people visit the northern reflecting pool, however we could not muster the willpower to wake up at 3:00 am. One of the most visited places is Bakan, the highest point of Angkor Wat. Queues can be quite long and to limit the number of visitors passes are handed out. On a whole we spent about 2-3 hours, which for us was long enough.
Angkor Thom was the last capital city of the Khmer empire and was founded in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII. In total the area is approximately 9 square km and includes several temples includingthe temple of Bayon. Though close to Angkor Wat, the south gate is still 1.7 km away. At the top of each of the gates are large striking smiling faces. An added advantage of cycling meant that we could take the time to scrutinize the intricacies of the structure.
Bayon is located in the center of Angkor Thom and was the official state temple of the King Jayavarman VII. What makes it stand out from the other temples are the smiling stone faces (similar to those on the main Angkor Thom gates) on a number of the towers which are grouped around the central tower.
When we visited some parts of the temple were being restored, as such we did not spend a significant amount of time there.
We visited Ta Prohm or rather the Lara Croft temple twice (actual fact is there are 3 locations from the movie: Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm). Not because we watched the movie (Tomb Raider) and were great fans (we actually have never seen it), but rather because the first day was at the tail end of our bike ride and I was knackered and did not have the energy to go exploring.
Ta Prohm is the most recognizable temple from the movie scenes as it has only been partially restored, and to date you will find massive fig and silk-cotton trees that have grown from the walls and towers of the temple. It was built in the 12th and 13th century and founded as a Buddhist monastery by King Jayavarman VII. It is located 1 km east of Angkor Thom and north-east of Angkor Wat. In 1992 it was inscribed by UNESCO on the World Heritage List.
We visited around 11 am and spent approximately 2 hours. While it was crowded during our visit, we ventured along the routes not taken by the tour groups and so had ample opportunity to wander around on our own.
Wat Thmei Killing Field
The killing fields (as the places where the Khmer Rouge killed more than a million people are known) are a must visit when in Cambodia to fully appreciate the painful history of the country. One of such killing fields is located on the road to Angkor. Today, the Wat Thmei pagoda has been built on the site, in the middle of which is a glass-sided monument filled with skulls and bones of the victims of the Khmer Rouge which were collected by locals after the end of the Pol Pot regime. Unfortunately the day we visited there had been a number of rain storms and the place was flooded, as such we could not walk around much. Nevertheless it was a sobering experience.
Dining in Siem Reap
Siem Reap would be our first foray into Cambodian food. Traditional Cambodian food that we were looking to try included amok and luk-lac. We had heard that if comparing Cambodian to Thai or Vietnamese food, Cambodian food would be the least spicy. That was most definitely the case. We attempted to venture out to try some street food, but ended up (strictly due to our preferences) at a number of restaurants.
Khmer Kitchen Restaurant
This was the better of the two places that we tried, so much so that we ended up returning here for dinner on the 3rd night. There are two locations scattered around Pub Street. The menu had a large selection of Cambodian and other south-east Asian dishes. Despite the restaurant being busy, the staff were friendly and attentive.
Sleeping in Siem Reap
Out of the massive amount of hotels in Siem Reap, we chose Memoire d’Angkor Boutique hotel due a number of reasons: its central location, the fact that it has a swimming pool, the small number of rooms and the free airport pickup. We were met at the airport by one of the hotel staff, and swiftly taken to a waiting van. This was offered free by the hotel. Arriving at the hotel we were greeted warmly by the staff and provided with a welcome drink and cool towels. Our room was large and well decorated, with a sizeable bathroom. Breakfast was a wide spread of both Cambodian and Western options.
Staying connected in Siem Reap
We were fortunate to find an office for SMART mobile right outside our hotel. We purchased a 7-day sim-card for $5, which offered us 2 GB of data with unlimited calls and SMS. Top-up could be done at any shops with the SMART sign.
Getting around Siem Reap
The main tourist areas of Siem Reap are quite easy to get around and due to the flatness of the city, biking is a good option. However, the roads are very busy with scooters and cars, and though the roads are paved,there are a number of potholes. Due to my fractured wrist and the impossibility of me adequately holding the handle bars, we hired a tandem bike, which with the limited leg space at the back must have been meant for parents and their children. This made us the center of attraction of town.
For most people, tuk-tuks are the more natural way of getting around, and these can be found outside every hotel and almost around every corner. It is best to negotiate the price with the driver and as we found out not to book it through the hotel concierge. We were able to knock off about $10 by doing that.
Arriving at any new city one of the things we do is try to find a self-service laundromat. This was quite hard to find in Siem Reap as most places instead offer to do the laundry for a fixed price per kilogram. After a bit of googling, we found The Missing Socks Laundry Cafe not too far from our hotel.
The idea behind this cafe is unique, as they combine the mundane task of doing laundry with the ability to relax and chill with a cup of coffee and free Wi-Fi.