Siem Reap stirs up images of Asian mystique and adventure. From the sprawling Angkor Wat nestled in the rolling bucolic Cambodian countryside to the charming floating communities on the Tonle Sap, this town is actually not unknown to the rest of the world. In fact Siem Reap (pronounced see-em ree-ap) was the favorite haunt of the pioneering backpackers in the roaring 1960s. It was only in the sorry 1970s during the era of the Khmer Rouge that this town became shrouded in the forests, just like the state of Angkor back then.
The past decade has been witness to the construction boom ongoing in this city. Spillover of tourists from neighboring Thailand and the opening up of the Cambodian government necessitated more travel-related infrastructure. The once demure and dusty town is now Cambodia’s major tourist destination and cash cow, with travelers flocking in through the road that leads to Angkor, the country’s heart and soul as depicted in its national flag.
If Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor Wat, then Angkor Wat itself could be considered as the portal to the heavens. This behemoth complex is touted as the largest religious structure in the world. It is a testament to the magnificence and might of the old Cambodia, the rule of the Khmer Empire. In fact, the term Siem Reap is Khmer for “Siam Defeated” when Siam (Thailand) was forced under its sovereign power.
Angkor Wat could be a misnomer to some people as it only refers to the most popular temple that attracts the most number of visitors. The whole complex of Angkor Archaeological Park, as a matter of fact, sits on a 400-square kilometer (154 square miles) area dotted with numerous temples and towers. With its enormous size, it could well be treated as a separate city apart from Siem Reap. Hundreds of years ago in the reign of the Khmer Kingdom, Angkor was a thriving city that already had relations with neighboring empires.
Today, you can pay a visit to the park six kilometers (3.5 miles) north of Siem Reap. Excluding the Roluos group of temples, the significant ruins are inside the 6-25 kilometer-range. At the gate of the park is the soaring and magnificent Angkor Wat, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and one of the world’s New Seven Wonders, where most tourists rise up early and jostle for a space to witness (or most probably photograph with their DSLRs) the sunrise as it bathes the temple and the surrounding moat in fantastic crimson. This temple is a must-see and might perhaps be on the top of your to-do list. Its 800-meter long bas relief is hard to ignore as it gives you a glimpse of Angkorian life back in the days.
If you hate the agora-like atmosphere of Angkor Wat but still would like to have an arresting view of the temple and the surrounding countryside, a short cyclo ride to Phnom Bakeng (Bakeng Hill) is what you need. Magical views of both sunrise and sunset reward those who make the good climb up the hill, or a $20 leisurely elephant ride. To the east lies Banteay Kdei where you can have a moment of reflection, literally and figuratively, through Sras Srang, one of Angkor’s numerous reservoirs and canals.
Further up north is the colossal Angkor Thom, with six-meter high and eight-meter wide 12 kilometer wall in all directions. Inside the complex is the Bayon where 216 giant faces displaying various emotions stare above you. It is believed that these gargantuan faces are images of the Jayavarman II to keep watch over his subjects all the time. Inside Angkor Thom are lines of bas reliefs more than one kilometer long with an astounding 11,000 stone carvings depicting mundane life of the Khmer Kingdom.
Perhaps you would like to have a feel of what it is like to wander Angkor à la Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones. Angelina Jolie and Harrison Ford shot their movies here in Ta Prohm, a 12th century Mahayana Buddhist temple that, in contrast to the other Angkorian temples, has been left to the mercy of nature. Giant tentacle-like roots of trees seem to signal that nature wants to take back what it rightfully owns.
Further afield 32 kilometers is Banteay Srei, considered by many as the crown jewel in Angkorian art and heritage. Albeit not as humongous as its counterparts, the interiors of the temple display some of the most impressive intricate carvings in the whole of Cambodia. Other noteworthy sights in Siem Reap are the Terrace of Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King, both within the Angkor complex.
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site is Preah Vihear, a gorgeous temple that frantically rests on a bluff in the Dangrek mountain range 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Siem Reap. Though not a part of the Angkor complex of temples, Preah Vihear is well worth the bumpy dusty ride from the city. Those coming in from Thailand could actually ride in style, sort of, on flashy air-conditioned buses. The beauty of this temple is not without conflict as both Cambodia and Thailand claim ownership up to this day, with the International Court of Justice settling control in favor of Cambodia. Clashes between the military of both countries happen sporadically which sours their relations.
Getting around dozens of temples require bottomless energy and stamina in the sweltering tropical heat, so it’s either you select the temples that draw more interest or you stay for a few more on top of the usual three-day suggested length of stay in Siem Reap. Unless hiking is your thing, it is virtually impossible to saunter around Angkor, but it is quite possible to wander around by yourself without a tour guide. However, guides are recommended for a swifter review of the temples, and sometimes your moto driver could serve as your guide. Most hotels and travel agents have English-speaking guides that ask $20-25 per day.
Your transportation options around Angkor could involve moto romauk (tandem motorcycle) for $10-13, motodup (motorcycle taxi) for $6-9 and air-conditioned car taxis for $20-25, each priced on a daily basis. If you are a lone traveler, bicycles are recommended for $1.5-4 per day. For a spending spree helicopter rides for $90 per passenger can give you an eight-minute glimpse of the whole complex. Balloon rides, on the other hand, have become a common means of sightseeing above the Angkor landscape for those with extra cash. Ride in style 200 meters in the air on cute yellow helium balloons.
Contrary to popular practice, a one-day visit of the temples around Angkor is enough to witness all the significant temples. However, three days is recommended for a leisurely exploration while seven days are perfect for those who are into archaeological stuff. One-day ($20), three-day ($40) and seven-day ($60) tickets to the complex called Angkor Pass can be availed with one passport-sized photo, or a photo capture at the main entrance, though the latter could be time-consuming for you. The three-day pass is valid for a week while the seven-day ticket is valid for a month, not specifically on a consecutive basis. Park hours are 5AM-6PM, with some temples closing up to three hours earlier. Always carry your pass with you as they are checked at every entry temple gates.
All the Angkor wonders might give you a temple burnout, so a boat trip to the neighboring Tonle Sap to mingle with the locals who live on floating houses in the Chhong Kneas and Kampong Phluk communities, lunch at the Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre, and perhaps a cooking class in town are requisite activities.
Despite relentless construction sites dotting all over the city, quaint French architecture still dominate some parts of town. The Old Market area is a prime example of old Siem Reap where you can wander from restaurants to bars and haggle for prices of souvenirs such as Cambodian silks and clothing as well as Kampot pepper, herbal soaps and organic Cambodian products.