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Siem Reap, Cambodia: Taking in the temples and culture

Sunrise at Angkor wat
Sunrise at Angkor wat

Siem Reap being number-one on my husband Trevor’s “bucket list”, we chased down bargain Jetstar tickets and set off for the small northern town, home to the grandiose Angkor Wat. What we found was a bustling little place whose markets, nightlife, character-full hotels and welcoming locals restored our faith in the weekend getaway.

“Too hot and humid to go to Angkor Wat in April,” they said. True, but to travel in the cooler December and January months is to travel en masse. Wanting to avoid both hordes and hotel price hikes, we braved it. In fact, the weather was bearable. One afternoon’s cooling rain did ruin our plans to watch the sun set over Pre Rup, but by all accounts this temple is often crowded and generally overrated. Locals recommend the end of the rainy season in September and October as a perfect, if possibly wetter, compromise.

Drop and Shop

Arriving around 7am, we were delighted to find that our hotel, the Steung Siem Reap, had a  perfect location. It was only a stone’s throw from the markets and a short stagger to the vibrant Bar Street. With its simple but elegant colonial décor, white linen, wooden floors, fridge, air conditioning and French windows overlooking a cool, blue pool (our oasis), what more could we want?

We wasted no time, in setting off to explore the town. For this shopaholic, the first stop had to be the Old Market area, the authentic Psar Chaa itself. Though muggy and dusty, it was crowded with goodies, and therein lay its charm. Shoulder to shoulder with locals getting on with their daily food shopping, we made the rounds of Khmer-owned stalls, occasionally retreating to the rattan bar stools of The Ivy at the market’s edge to enjoy a draft lager at 80 cents a glass. Trevor was happy. Far too many woven silk scarves, silver ornaments, and bracelets were purchased on my side, but the price was right and the experience memorable.

Wandering the streets surrounding the market unearthed more chic handicraft and souvenir shops, many of which are working to return money to the community. Check out the Artisans d’Angkor for quality – at a price.

My later foray to the Central Market was disappointing. The goods were similar, but the market was devoid of people and atmosphere. I far preferred the smaller Night Market (a ten-minute walk west off Sivatha), but that might be because it was there that I found a stunning, two-foot-high Buddha statue at a ridiculously low price compared to what I would have paid in Singapore. By hook or by crook, I would get it home.

Wine and Dine

Reasonable prices, fresh produce and a variety of cuisine make wining and dining in Siem Reap a total joy. Over five nights we treated ourselves to an array of international fare including Vietnamese, Indian, local Khmer and French. With cocktails at an absurd US$2 and bottles of wine at US$15, happy hour was a must. There was no better way to start the evening than to lounge alfresco at one of the many lively venues on Bar Street – or on their balconies – and let life flow past.

One memorable evening, we stumbled across Samot (Cambodian for “the sea”), a small, no-airs-or-graces French restaurant in a back alley just off the bar street. It has a small but tasty menu, a quality wine list and gentle, personal service. We just knew the fish was fresh when the French owner wheeled his daily delivery through the restaurant, and came out personally to chat. This discovery was not in any guidebook.

Another highlight was our visit to the eclectic, quirky warehouse restaurant and bar called The Dead Fish Tower Inn, serving predominantly Thai food. A converted alligator farm, it was a jumble of interesting eating areas that included low tables (a bit of a challenge for Trevor) on platforms suspended from the roof. Waiters sent orders via pulleys and ropes, while the best mix of 60s and contemporary music pumped into the room. Trevor was in heaven and we gave the place full marks for atmosphere.

Temple-gazing
We arranged a driver and guide through the internet to host us for three days of temple-viewing. This plan gave us flexible touring in a blissfully cool vehicle without hassle and without having to have our noses pressed into a guidebook. As a bonus, our guide was able to give us colourful insight into the history, culture, and politics of Cambodia.

Angkor tours traditionally start with a gentle half-day in the relative cool of the afternoon, checking out the Rolous group of monuments: Preah Ko, Bakong and Lolei. It’s an interesting introduction to Angkor, but not spectacular.

Checking out the temples of Angkor by water
Checking out the temples of Angkor by water

 

Angkor Wat

The true adventure started early the next day, as it is almost compulsory to catch the perfect shot of the sun rising over the Angkor Wat spires. Having planted ourselves by the lake, we caught a double spectacle of reality and reflection, but the haziness of the April dawn made for less-than-ideal results.

Built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II as his state temple and capital city, Angkor Wat’s rising series of towers has been depicted on the Cambodian national flag since 1863 and remains an inspiring sight. Despite damage inflicted by natural wear and tear, the Khmer Rouge civil conflict, and souvenir hunters who continue to make off with bits of its stone relics, Angkor Wat remains the area’s best-preserved temple and a fascinating testament to a lineage that spent centuries see-sawing between Hindu and Buddhist worship.

After the sunrise frenzy we refused to join the breakfast exodus back to town, much to our guide’s consternation. Instead, we took advantage of the coolness and relative calm to explore the temple’s inner sanctum and its fabulous, hand-carved reliefs. Although the sun wasn’t in the best position for some shots, the trade-off was that we could move quickly and unhindered between the areas, soaking up the quiet and atmosphere.

Ankor Cambodia

Angkor Thom
When the crowds began to flood back, we were ready for a quick local breakfast and a five-minute drive north to Angkor Thom, a full nine square-kilometres of walled jungle, containing a number of majestic, ancient structures. The most notable for us were the towering South Gate, the Terrace of the Leper King, the Elephant Terrace, and the central Bayon, whose massive, multi-faced icons greet visitors from each perspective. Our visit over a couple of hours proved hot and thirsty work and I was pleased that I had had the foresight to bring water and cool flannels.

While not quite as well preserved, Angkor Thom is equally impressive in terms of size, beauty and complexity. Like the fabled Egyptian pyramids, the smooth and flat mating faces of its huge sandstone building blocks were achieved with only rudimentary tools to cut and measure, while the mountain-like temple towers
that symbolise Mount Meru, home of the Hindu gods, were built of brick and laterite, a stone that is easy to quarry and hardens when exposed to air and sun.

Wat Next?
Two temples remain my favourites alongside Angkor
Wat: Ta Prohm and Bantay Srei.

Ta Prohm
, the so-called Tomb Raider temple made famous by the movie starring Angelina  Jolie, is the most romantic of all the temples in the area. This highly photogenic, elegant temple monastery has been taken over by gigantic trees, jungle ferns and creepers. It was built by the famous King Jayavarman VII, whose dynasty was responsible for much of what we saw in Angkor. When the French rediscovered it in the 19th century, they decided that it would remain as they found it, a testament to the power of nature over man.

Bantay Srei
is 20 kilometres north of Angkor but well worth a visit. This “Citadel of Women” is a small but exquisite 10th-century temple, and boasted the most intricate and elegant carvings we had seen. We arranged with our guide to visit it during the quietest time, as its passageways were difficult to negotiate and crowds would have killed the experience.

By the final day, we were well and truly templed out and were happy to intersperse temple visits with other local sights such as the fishing villages on the Tonle Sap lake, the renovated National Museum and the
small Landmine Museum run by Aki Ra on the road to Bantay Srei.

All in all, we had a fabulous time. It may have been ticked off the bucket list, but I have a sneaking suspicion we will be visiting Siem Reap again.

WHERE TO STAY

Accommodation ranges from family-run boutique hotels to the mega-buck suites at the Grand Hotel d’Angkor. Considered the “Raffles of Siem Reap”, it boasts elegant rooms, manicured gardens and an oversized pool. Also look at the new FCC Angkor, renovated from the former French governor’s mansion in a choice strip of land along the river and adjacent to the King’s Residence, a popular choice among the hip crowd. Beware, however, of stranding yourself in one of the mid-range, overpriced and somewhat sterile hotels along the airport road. Wherever you stay, pre-arrange an early check-in if arriving on budget flights or be prepared for a tiring wait until midday.

MONEY

The US dollar is the de facto currency in Cambodia and, although the local riel is accepted, the notes cannot be converted back when you leave. Apart from taking a small amount, we relied on change from US-dollar purchases to give us the riels we needed for tuk-tuks and such. Money-changers abound, most solid currencies can be changed, and there are ATMs that accept international cards and dispense US dollars.

While it seemed acceptable to pass worn or torn riel bills, our US bills, especially in higher denominations, were closely examined for counterfeiting or damage. Don’t be palmed off with damaged or torn bills if you can help it, and be wary of US$100 notes, which are prone to

counterfeiting.

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