Travellers flock to Siem Reap, Cambodia to behold the storied ruins of Angkor Wat. The temple complex is nothing short of incredible and deserves a spot on anyone's bucket list. If you don't recognize the name you will certainly remember its starring role in Angelina Jolie's 2001 blockbuster, Tomb Raider. While visitors will come for Angkor Wat, they will quickly delight in its gateway town of Siem Reap, a true jewel in the depths of Southeast Asia's emerald jungles. Steeped with colonial charm, incredible Khmer cuisine, darling boutiques, a frenetic nightlife and smiling locals, visitors can't be blamed for extending their stay.
For a touristic boom town Siem Reap is imbued with a laid back attitude and an intangible mystic quality. Travellers will immediately notice a host of Western standard creature comforts, and Siem Reap is both pleasant and easy to visit. Architecturally the town centre reflects strong French colonial and Chinese influences which create an especially attractive aesthetic. The Old French Quarter and Old Market Area seem almost manicured compared to gritty Phnom Penh.
The temple complex generally referred to as Angkor Wat is actually made up of countless temples stretching over some 400 square kilometres. It holds major archaeological significance, containing the remains of former Khmer Empire capitals. The ruins were UNESCO designated in 1992 and from Germany to India, various global organizations have been carrying out restoration efforts. Time permitting, or simply depending on the level of anthropological interest, visitors can purchase single day, 3-day or 7-day passes. Visiting hours are 5:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Those wanting to watch the sunset over the temples should simply go the evening before they intend to visit, as tickets purchased after 5:00 PM are valid for the following day. If you've only got a single day to explore, or are prone to suffering 'temple fatigue' ensure you visit these 3 highlights:
Present day Angkor Wat is the largest and best preserved temple in the complex. It was originally built as a Hindu temple but would later become a Buddhist dedication, to which it remains today. The temple walls are adorned with more than 3,000 Asparas ('heavenly nymphs'), mythological narratives, religious depictions, and celebrated battles. Visitors will gain the most appreciation for the richly decorated bas reliefs with the insight of a professional guide. During the 17th century Angkor Wat fell into neglect, though it was never fully abandoned or ransacked. Historians credit the large moat surrounding the temple for deterring the slow creeping reach of the surrounding jungle. Considering its present day international fascination, Angkor Wat was only popularized in the West after French naturalist and explorer Heri Mouhot published his travel account in 1857.
The Bayon Temple delights visitors with its 216 massive smiling faces. Bayon is the most recently constructed temple ('recent' being 12th or 13th century) and the only one to be constructed as a primarily Buddhist shrine. There are several bas-relief galleries decorating the temple and depictions of mythological events abound. Visitors will love the I-Spy game of spotting the distinctive faces, and winding through the temple to its central tower and sanctuary.
Commonly referred to as the 'Jungle Temple' or the 'Tomb Raider Temple,' Ta Prohm is trapped in the grips of the Cambodian jungle. Trees have staunchly rooted themselves in and among (and sometimes atop) the ruins, making it incredibly photogenic. While the temple is undergoing restoration it has been done in a manner to structurally stabilize rather than reclaim it from the forest. Merging itself with the natural environment is the temple's distinction and the foundation of both its eerie serenity and visitor popularity.
Practical Details: Angkor Wat lies just 5 1/2 kilometres from Siem Reap. Travellers will notice fierce competition from tuk-tuk drivers seeking to secure their business to and from the site. Guide books will also suggest bicycling from town as an option though the heat, humidity, challenge of securing bicycles at the site and sheer size of Angkor Wat may encourage most to go by motorized transport. Groups of three or more may also find it more comfortable and just as economical to hire an air conditioned minivan and guide from a local travel agent. Official guides are well versed in the site's geography, history, architecture and culture. In fact, in order to be licensed to lead group tours they must graduate from an Angkor academic program.
If you love to eat your way through a city, Siem Reap will not disappoint. Visitors will love the French Quarter for its covered food alleys and cafe culture. It's there you will find many options for Khmer Barbecues, which should not be missed. Sample alligator, ostrich and squid in a cook-it-yourself meal over a tabletop stove, that barbecues raw meat while allowing fresh vegetables and noodles to boil in broth below. It would also be a shame not to sample an Amok dish. Amok involves the process of steam cooking a curry in banana leaves and is a major culinary tradition in Cambodia. Another staple menu item too good to resist is Khmer Curry, a rich and delicious dish with a lemongrass flavor. Alternatively, a strong expatriate community living in Siem Reap means visitors can find restaurants serving the likes of traditional Mexican, Western and Italian cuisine.
Shopping & Markets
The largest market in Siem Reap is the centrally located Psar Chaa, or Old Market. Half of the covered market is consumed by fresh produce, spices and meat. Travellers with weak stomachs may find the display of pig faces alarming. The other half of the market is packed tightly with stalls vending textiles, knick knacks and decor. Travellers looking for less kitschy souvenirs will love the Siem Reap Art Center Night Market. Here you'll find finer quality handicrafts, jewelry, hand woven textiles, silk goods, laquerware, carvings, artwork, fashion accessories, silver plating and more.
Amongst the central neighbourhoods many chic boutiques have become commonplace. Shoppers can find vintage clothing, locally designed fashions, gallery shops, art prints and crocodile skin wares. These stand alone shops stand out because they are uncharacteristically Western and generally the prices are set.
For admirers of art and craftsmanship, a visit to Angkor Artisans is a must. Located within walking distance of the Old Market Area, the workshop turns out traditional Khmer art and goods, and offers visitors guided tours of the atelier. What makes Angkor Artisans unique, is its social enterprise status which started as an education project aimed at training rural youth whose limitations may have otherwise prevented them from gaining safe and meaningful employment. Tours deposit visitors in a modern and well curated gallery shop. Items produced by the artisans are of the highest quality. (During the tour visitors are shown heaps of half completed artwork, discarded after a single slip of the hand.) Angkor Artisans has been met wide success, now employing over 1,300 people between 42 workshops in Siem Reap province.
As a year round tourist hub Siem Reap affords a wide selection of accommodation, from hostels to boutique guest houses to luxurious resort properties. Most budget options are quite comfortable and standard amenities typically include air conditioning, wifi, cable TV, and hot water showers. Backpackers will be pleased with doubles priced round $25 USD, while travellers on shorter holidays with Western budgets may enjoy splurging. At $100.00+ per night, visitors can secure 4 star resort accommodations complete with elegant pools and palm filled courtyards. Or perhaps the ultra luxurious Raffles Grand Hotel D'Angkor is your siren's call. The iconic property hosted Siem Reap's beloved visitor Jacqueline Kennedy in 1967. At the very least, travellers should visit the hotel's famed Elephant Bar and imagine a golden age of travel that existed pre-internet and without modern conveniences.
It was not so long ago that Cambodia's violent past saw Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge march citizens from the cities and into rural Cambodia. The nation of smiling faces has a tragic story but by all accounts are a resilient people. But that's not to say that rebuilding an economy and society has been anything short of painful and difficult. Visitors to Siem Reap will notice the prevalence of child beggars canvassing the streets and tugging on heart strings. Before donating, it is important to consider the potential social consequences. As people are more likely to give money to a soliciting child, doing so only encourages parents to send their children into the streets. This means that children attend school for shorter periods or roam the streets late at night as bar patrons mill about. These children are vulnerable to abuse or a more horrifying prospect, human trafficking. If you're compelled to help, look into supporting local, sustainable and grass-roots education projects.
Tonle Sap & Floating Villages
If your itinerary will allow for it, a day trip to Kampong Phluk Floating Village is an interesting window into life along the shoreline of Tonle Sap. Tonle Sap is Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake and was designated an UNESCO biosphere in 1997. Water levels fluctuate wildly throughout the year, with the wet season seeing up to 4 times the volume of water than the dry season. As a result, village houses sit perched on stilts high above the shoreline. The floating village can be reached by tuk-tuk but even in the dry season will take you a full hour to reach. A taxi may be a more enjoyable alternative. In the wet season it is necessary to arrange for combined tuk-tuk and water transportation.
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