My arrival into Cambodia’s second largest city Siem Reap came courtesy of a 2 hour flight with ‘Hong Kong airlines’ direct from a 4 day visit to Hong Kong. This was my first visit to this city and in-fact to Cambodia. I had heard and seen great things and the adrenaline pumping through my veins heightened as the flight touched down into Siem Reap International airport.
For starters just a few things I need to advise regarding entry requirements. With the exception of a handful of neighbouring countries all nations require a tourist visa. This can either be applied for online at the Cambodian website (https://go-cambodia-online.com). It is a very similar application like an American ESTA or Australian visa, or, you can apply for one at the airport itself on arrival.
Although the local currency is the Cambodian Riel pretty much everything is priced and exchanged in US Dollars.
The cost of a tourist visa is US$30 (GB£24) – have the correct amount! Before you arrive ensure you have two passport sized photographs with you otherwise this will be an additional charge. Another pointer, ensure you have one full clean page in your passport as the visa is attached to a whole page.
Once you arrive you pretty much hand over the all the documentation (that was handed out by the crew during the flight) along with the photographs, your passport and the US$30 cash. There was a line of around 10 officials processing just one passport at a time! It appears one official takes the money another opens the passport, another stamps the visa, another sticks the photos to the application…etc!
Once you receive your passport back its onto the Immigration desk which is not a swift process. The immigration officers will take another photograph of you with their digital camera and scan your finger prints on an electronic board. Once you have passed immigration then the baggage claim is literally feet away.
For myself, I asked the hotel in Siem Reap if they offered airport pick-up and once outside the airport there was a tuk-tuk waiting for me. This was quite an experience!
Cambodian tuk-tuks are unlike those seen in Malaysia or Thailand, for example. These are literally an old motorbike with a trailer strapped to the back of the bike. Although the ‘ride’ appeared ominous the actual experience was great and surprisingly I felt terribly safe riding the back on the six mile trip from the airport.
Generally accommodation in Siem Reap is extremely cheap. I stayed at the 4* King Rock Boutique Hotel, about a 8 minute walk from Pub Street. Prices are roughly £30 p/n including breakfast. It was extremely clean, staff were great and location was superb.
WHAT CAN SIEM REAP OFFER?
Siem Reap’s main area is located on a street named ‘Pub Street’. This is a lively street fringed on both sides with restaurants and bars, some offering live music.
Food and Drink here is cheap. All the restaurants and bars offer free WIFI. Just ask for the access codes. There are a few other streets that run off this main drag that are also lined with restaurants. During the day it has a more relaxed atmosphere whereby people tend to just sit back and sup beers and snacks. Of an evening Pub Street becomes a hive of entertainment with street acts and market vendors setting up their stalls.
Siem Reap additionally has some great night markets offering all kinds of local souvenirs from typical key-rings, fridge magnets to T-Shirts and some beautiful oil paintings. If you are going to purchase any souvenirs in the night markets remember to haggle. Unlike in some countries its all done in good spirits and is not offensive. Barter hard and reap (no pun intended) the rewards. I wanted a canvas oil painting that I bartered with the market owner for 2 days before we eventually mutually agreed upon a price!
When it comes to food there are numerous places and to be honest you will have trouble deciding where to dine. There is everything from traditional Cambodian and Asian food to Pasta to pizza to Mexican. Beer is cheap. Vast majority offer ‘Happy Hour’ where pints of the local beer are 50 cents each!
Below are some of my favourite spots to dine and people watch all on Pub Street…
Khmer Family Restaurant
granted I have not eaten here; only to drink their US50c (GB 39p) beers. This is a relaxed spot half-way down Pub Street. Of an evening a group of Indian men play music on traditional instruments.
is a relaxed 2 storey bar however once the sun sets the venue become lively with traditional Apsara dancing shows. The crowd tends to be a little younger.
is located on the cross roads of Pub Street opposite the ‘Red Piano’ bar and restaurant. The Sun is a very cool place to dine and has an extremely good mix of local and Western cuisine.
like pretty much all the venues down Pub Street the Banana Leaf offers relaxed dining of a day time, however, from the evening the venue hires live music, all tastefully done, that attracts vast crowds and becomes quite the lively spot.
TEMPLES OF ANGKOR
This is heaven on Earth. The primary reason for any tourist to visit Siem Reap is its close proximity to the holy Buddhist and Hindu temples of Angkor.
To visit each one thoroughly would take a couple of days but it can be done in one very long day. There are organised tours or you can do a self tour were all you need to do is hire a driver for the day. This is what I did. Tuk-Tuk drivers will escort you around all the sights and wait for you at each one. Most drivers will do this for around US$15 (GB£12) for the day with a US$5 tip at the end. Most speak very little English so do not expect any in-depth conversation or history to be explained. If you want to explore the temples but want the cool atmosphere of a mini-van then you can hire one of these for around US$30 (GB£24) for the day. I opted for this as the Cambodian heat and humidity can be quite relentless.
BEFOREHAND: Two points to raise.
ONE: Do not forget water, and plenty of it. The Cambodian humidity is unforgiving and will make you sweat from all the rigorous climbing and walking. I emptied 7 litres in 6 hours!
TWO: You cannot just turn up at these temples. They are all heritage sites. You MUST purchase a pass priced at US$37 (GB£24.50) that has photo ID and your name written on it (all supplied at the ticket office included in the charge) The passes can last for one day to many. Once you have this then the day of exploration can commence.
ANGKOR WAT TEMPLE
The temple is the heart and soul of Cambodia. It is the national symbol, the epicentre of Khmer civilisation and a source of fierce national pride. The temple of Angkor is even depicted on the national flag. Reaching skyward and surrounded by a moat Angkor Wat was never abandoned to the elements and has been in virtually continuous use since it was built.
Its simply unique, it is a stunning blend of spirituality and symmetry, an enduring example of humanity’s devotion to its gods. Relish the very first approach to the entrance, as that spine-tickling moment when you emerge on the inner causeway will rarely be felt again. It is the best-preserved temple at Angkor, and repeat visits are rewarded with previously unnoticed details.
Many booked tours will offer a Sunrise experience. The day starts early around 5am to savour all its majesty. A precautionary word. At the entrance to some of the temples you may encounter tour guides and touts who will offer their services for a price. I declined their advances.
Allow at least 2 hours to thoroughly explore.
TA PROHM TEMPLE
Ta Prohm is also known for another reason. This is nick-named the ‘Lara Croft’ temple as the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed here. Ta Prohm is cloaked in dappled shadows, its crumbling towers and walls locked in the slow muscular embrace of vast root systems. Built in 1186, for me, this is undoubtedly the most atmospheric ruin at Angkor, Ta Prohm should be high on the hit list of every visitor. Its appeal lies in the fact that, unlike the other monuments of Angkor, it has been swallowed by the jungle.
Ta Prohm is at its most impressive early in the day. Allow as much as two hours to visit, especially if you want to explore the maze-like corridors and iconic tree roots.
ANGKOR THOM TEMPLE
WOW! Were my first words when I lay eyes on this temple. Angkor Thom is huge. Allow a minimum of 2-3 hours. At the heart of Angkor Thom is the 12th century ‘Bayon’, a mesmerising temple of Jayavarman 7th (a Cambodian King). Its 54 Gothic towers are decorated with 216 gargantuan smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara. Angkor Thom is quadrangle of defensive walls totaling 7.5 miles (12 kilometres) that once protected the Khmer capital of the same name (Angkor Thom means ‘Great City’).
Every wall of Angkor Thom depicts scene’s of Cambodia back in its day. The famous carvings on the outer wall of the first level show vivid scenes of everyday life in 12th century Cambodia.
On the first tier, Khmer soldiers march off to battle – check out the elephants and the oxcarts, which are almost exactly like those still used in Cambodia today. The second tier depicts coffins being carried back from the battlefield. In the centre of the third tier, Jayavarman 7th, shaded by parasols, is shown on horseback followed by legions of concubines.
The Naval Battle panel has some of the best-carved reliefs. The scenes depict a naval battle between the Khmers and the Chams and everyday life around Tonlé Sap lake, where the battle was fought. Look for images of people picking lice from each other’s hair, of hunters and, towards the western end of the panel, a woman giving birth.
In the Chams Vanquished, scenes from daily life are featured while the battle between the Khmers and the Chams takes place on the shore of Tonlé Sap lake, where the Chams are soundly thrashed. Scenes include two people playing chess, a cockfight and women selling fish in the market. The scenes of meals being prepared and served are in celebration of the Khmer victory.
ANGKOR THOM SOUTH GATE
The south gate of Angkor Thom is the best preserved. It is approached from outside via a causeway that runs roughly 164 feet across a moat. On each side of the causeway are railings decorated with stone figures. On the left side of the moat ‘guardian gods’ pull the head of the snake ‘Shesha’ while on the right side ‘demon gods’ pull the snake’s tail in the opposite direction.
The central tower of the stone gate is capped by three face-towers that face the four directions. Below them at the base of the gate are two sets of elephant statues that flank the entrance on both sides. Sitting on each elephant is a figure of the god Indra carrying his usual weapon, the ‘vadra’ (a lightning bolt). The gate itself is shaped like an upside-down ‘U’. It is still possible to see where wooden doors once fitted to the gate through openings in the stone.
This was my first visit to Siem Reap and to Cambodia itself. I had high expectations of what my whirl-wind visit would conger. Siem Reap did not disappoint. In fact, the region exceeded my expectations. The city is compact, cheap and the locals friendly. I have fallen in love with this place and the temples of Angkor just filled me with such glee and wonder. I genuinely do not think I have felt so overwhelmed with architecture in my life – just simply stunning. Cambodia has certainly become one of my favourite places in the world and Siem Reap, the people and the culture has won my heart.
I cannot wait to return to this country and hope it exceeds my expectations further.