A weekend in… Siem Reap
WITH Siem Reap’s innumerable temples, overeager drivers, unofficial tour guides, flocks of one-dollar kids, and absurd humidity, 48 hours in the city can be a rather beguiling experience for the unprepared. This weekend warrior’s guide will set you straight.
Roughly 900 years ago as the Khmer god-kings were busy subjugating Southeast Asia into their ever expanding Hindu-Buddhist empire, the architects back in the capital were busy putting the finishing touches to the city’s centerpiece, Angkor Wat.
If you have just two days in Siem Reap, this is where you’ll want to spend the daylight hours. Today, the second largest temple complex in the world is largely intact, a mightily impressive feat considering Cambodia’s difficult past. Inside, you’ll find plenty of tourists milling around the stone facades, Hindu-Buddhists murals, monks, seven-headed serpent balustrades, and posing for an endless array of Kodak moments.
At the entrance of Angkor Wat (and pretty everywhere else in Angkor), you’ll find plenty of hawkers selling drinks, snacks and all manner of tourists knick-knacks. You might also find English-speaking tour guides of various skills and legitimacy. You don’t have to hire them, though they could be handy.
With massive trees growing atop once-grand buildings, and their roots slowly cracking the stone floor, Ta Prohm is a touristic vision of a post-apocalyptic future. Another slightly spooky temple – thanks to the ever present serene face of the long dead King Jayavarman VII staring down at visitors from all angles – is Angkor Thom. If you want to go all out, you could view the sunrise or sunset atop the mountain temple of Phnom Bakheng. It gets pretty busy up there, but the sun rising over Angkor Wat is almost unbearably beautiful.
Your entry ticket will cost US$25 per day, or US$45 for a three-day pass, and must be hung around your neck at all times.
Getting around the temples is easy; literally every driver in town that catches a glimpse of you will offer to escort you around. They’ll likely offer to drive you to many restaurants, bars, or hotels around town, as well as the shooting range and the landmine museum. They’re generally friendly and charge roughly the same rates.
The Angkor National Museum is also worth checking out, not only for its glorious air-conditioning but also for its vast array of Angkorian artifacts and all the historical understanding you will likely acquire.
The Francophiles among you will certainly want to check out Siem Reap’s Indochina architecture and cuisine in the center of town near the Old Market. The narrow streets around there are lined with all manner of shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. A favorite of mine is the Le Tigre de Papier, which serves up great Khmer and Western food, and also doubles as a cooking school.
Siem Reap isn’t much of a party town, but there are tonnes of lively bars conveniently located on Pub Street to down copious amounts of Angkor Beer.
Cambodia is still recovering the Khmer Rouge and their diabolical aspirations which deprived the country of roughly two million people in the late 1970s. Poverty and inequality is rampant across the country, including the temples around Angkor. You’ll likely come across little kids selling tourist trinkets for a couple of dollars. It’s up to you whether you buy them, or give them sweets, gifts, food, or not. You might also consider donating to a charity (such as the Cambodian Children’s Fund) or volunteering.