When we arrived in Siem Reap it was 11pm, 28 degrees and the last day of Songkran, the Khmer water festival. I had no idea what to expect.
I soon found out when we were doused by a barrage of water guns wielded by youngsters lining the streets. It was certainly a refreshing way to be welcomed to one of the most visited tourist sites in the region.
Our first homestay was four kilometres out of town, as we were initially looking for something more remote. After a maze of dirt roads, we arrived and were warmly welcomed by our hosts.
Despite the driving bass from a nearby Cambodian wedding, our hosts were accommodating and informative. They also gave us our first taste of Cambodian cuisine: the delectable lak lok beef and vegetables, which comes with a potent salt, pepper and lime dipping sauce.
Our second home was a hotel in the heart of town, surrounded by markets, meals and general bustle. Unlike our homestay, it was incredibly quiet. Having a swimming pool also provided much needed respite from the heat, a huge advantage.
The markets in town boast hand-crafted jewellery at a fair price. Spice farms and silk shops exhibit much of the local wares.
The three-day temple pass is US$67 (VND1.53 million) and while that may seem steep it is only about US$20 a day for a world-renowned heritage site.
Reasonable compared to doing touristy things in other parts of the world.
Temples are the name of the game here. I found them fascinating; from the variety of structural designs to the array of meticulous detail that changed with each location. There are two main circuits, the big or the small route, and you can get around in a number of ways. We opted for the tuk tuk allowing us to sit back, relax in the shade, eat snacks and take photos, all the while enjoying the breeze. It cost US$20 a day.
While Angkor Wat was impressive due to its vastness and setting, I found it the least appealing of the temples. Swarming crowds made the experience disruptive and to see some people disrespecting such an important site was not great. But that’s what happens when you get mass tourism.
The temples of Ta Prohm and Ta Som were fascinating and displayed the effects of time beautifully with huge, exposed roots intertwined with the aged structures. True examples of ancient civilization and nature collaborating over the centuries.
Sunset at Pre Rup was incredible, but again we had to bear the crowds. Seeing the temple bathed in the golden light did make up for it. I found watching the sunrise over the Srah Srang, a reservoir located just east of the Banteay Kdei temple far more memorable. Peaceful, picturesque and an awesome way to start the day. The Siem Reap sky certainly impresses at the start and end of each day.
Banteay Srei was off the beaten track, but being both quieter, intricately detailed and surrounded by a moat and towering trees, made it easily one of the most spectacular places to visit in the area.
After trudging around temples in the heat you definitely need to balance it out with substantial relaxation, shopping and serious sustenance. Luckily all are abundant.
Fish foot massages can be found all around town and became a standard part of each day. One place in particular offered unlimited time in any one of the various, well-maintained tanks and a free pint. All for just US$1. Hard to argue with.
The food was also outstanding, especially if you are into spices. A variety of local dishes and curries were sampled along the way with the quintessentially Cambodian fish amok and beef Khmer curry.
The local night market also gives you the chance to try a spectrum of seafood from full fried squid to barbequed crawfish. If street meat or seafood isn’t for you, you can opt for street sweet with the fried ice-cream rolls that are available on most corners.
Siem Reap is a special place steeped in ancient history scattered among towering forests. The locals are friendly and helpful, and with the variety and price of the food it’s hard to complain.
Make use of local knowledge and choose your location wisely, and the rest should fall into place.
PHOTOS BY TEIGUE JOHN BLOKPOEL