Siem Reap is an ancient place. It is well-worn with character written like wise creases on an old face. At its apogee, the Khmer empire built some of the most extraordinary temples in the world, ruling a kingdom covering parts of current day Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Myanmar. This was the Rome of Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat, the crown jewel in the Cambodian crown, is laid out to mirror the universe – this ambition rivaled only by its beauty. When I stood before the pyramids of Giza, I was impressed. When I came upon Angkor Wat, I was in love.
Flying to Cambodia is easy, as routes fly nonstop from many Southeast Asian hubs. The cheapest flight into Siem Reap is on Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur for roughly $120 round-trip. Flights from Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh are closer to $300 round-trip. If you are just aching to part with your dough, Silk Air offers a flight from Singapore that hovers around a grand. You can also take a bus into Siem Reap from Bangkok or Phnom Penh. Cambodia issues a visa on arrival so there is no need to obtain one beforehand. The process is quick and easy.
Day 1 – ATVs and Ta Prohm
Start the day with a tour of rural Cambodia on an all-terrain vehicle. Quad Adventures Cambodia provides an exhilarating trip through rice paddies and simple villages on red dirt roads. The expedition affords a glimpse into rural Cambodian life and stops by Chres Village School and Orphanage. The school is filled with Cambodian orphans, and they will give you a heartwarming tour of the premises. If you plan on being in Siem Reap for two weeks or longer, then you can volunteer at the school as a teacher.
After your cruise through the countryside of Siem Reap, head to the Angkor complex to buy a 3 day temple pass. The pass is required for visiting the ancient temples and costs $40. Check out the jungle temple of Ta Prohm in the late afternoon. Ta Prohm has a “taken back by nature” aesthetic with gnarly tree roots covering the temple walls like silly string. Visiting this temple is a fantastic way to get in the Angkor spirit. Follow it with sunset at Phnom Bakheng – a high temple on a hill overlooking the Angkor complex and dense jungle.
For the evening, head over to pub street. Pub Street has many bars and restaurants with food offerings ranging from local food such as Amok (fish wrapped in banana leaf) to pizza. The restaurant Le Tigre de Papier is a great spot and has a local cooking class. After dinner, check out the Angkor night market and “splurge” for a $3 foot massage.
For accommodation, a wide range of options exist. Le Meridien Angkor possesses an unbelievable pool and looks like a Bondian bad guy lair, but it is slightly on the expensive side. Kool Hotel is a great hotel at a great price. They provide complimentary breakfast, wifi, and have a pleasant pool.
Day 2 – Angkor Wat Sunrise and Tone Sap
Awake at 4:30am and begin your journey to the temple of Angkor Wat. Stumbling into the temple complex under moonlight and watching the sun slowly light up this otherworldly place is one of the world’s most memorable travel experiences.
After sunrise, tour the storied halls inside massive Angkor Wat and visit nearby Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom houses the photogenic Bayon temple, famous for its bas reliefs and gigantic stone faces. In the late morning, arrange a car or tuk tuk to Tonle Sap Lake – the largest lake in Southeast Asia. Many Cambodians call this lake home. They live in simple stilt houses, and it is not uncommon to see a child paddle by in what appears to be a salad bowl, perhaps on his way to a floating market. The most authentic lake experience is at the village of Kompong Phluk, but visiting the more touristy location near Siem Reap is still mind-blowing.
Day 3 – Banteay Srei, Land Mine Museum, and a Cambodian Carnival
Start your day with some fresh fruit juice and breakfast at your guesthouse and head out by tuk tuk through the countryside to Banteay Srei. The red sandstone carvings at Banteay Srei are the most meticulously detailed in Cambodia. Built in the 10th century, Banteay Srei served as an elaborate temple and library. Due to its slight remoteness, many visitors pass on this temple, but those that visit are rewarded with one of Angkor’s top sights.
The land-mining of Cambodia was a great tragedy. Many Cambodians have been disfigured and even killed in mining accidents. A stop by the Landmine Museum is necessary to put the damage into perspective. Learning about the founder’s life story is especially interesting. Museum founder Aki Ra fought as a child soldier, and some of his childhood narratives will leave a deep impression. Today he defuses land-mines and educates the public about their destructiveness. A movie was made about his life titled A Perfect Soldier, and he was named a CNN hero of 2010.
Late in the afternoon, visit the local carnival grounds on the outskirts of Siem Reap. Many games and local foods are there to sample. If you are feeling adventurous, try the delectable fried cricket. Several of the games, like “pop a balloon with a dart,” have prizes. You can win ice-cold Coca Cola and other beverages. The sodas are a welcome respite from the Cambodian heat.
The more local you get, the less people harass you. Walking through this foreign fairground, I felt like an American ghost. Watching Cambodian society undisturbed was an extraordinary experience.
Spend your last night at a traditional Cambodian barbecue spot. Touich Restaurant provides a tasty tour of this fiery cuisine style known as phnom pleung or “hill of fire.” Be sure to arrange reservations to guarantee a seat.
Extras – Bang Melea is a temple that has been left to the elements and is about an hour or two from Siem Reap. Roughly the size of Angkor Wat, you will feel like Indiana Jones exploring the unkempt ruins. On my visit, it was completely devoid of tourists. Some local kids gave me an impromptu tour of the dilapidated temple, and we climbed trees and explored dark hallways.
All photography by Justin Delaney