The Cambodian resort town of SIEM REAP is not only the gateway to the millennium-old temple ruins of the Khmer Empire, but also to the hearts yearning for the simpler life
When the French explorers first stumbled upon Angkor Wat in the 19th century, Siem Reap was just a remote village. As Angkor’s fame spread across the world attracting an increasing number of travellers, the village grew in size and population.
It went back into slumber during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and it is only in the past decade or so that the city started to get busy again as hordes of tourists arrive by the busloads to jam up the narrow dusty roads. Hotels, shops and restaurants are growing in numbers and shopping malls are emerging.
During peak season Angkor Wat and the nearby temples are so crowded with tourists that it’s almost impossible to take a snapshot without someone getting in the way – but the place is still worth a visit before it gets even more crowded.
DAY 1 – ANGKOR WAT
Located about 7km north of Siem Reap, or 20 minutes by taxi or tuk tuk, the famous Angkor Wat temple complex is Cambodia’s top tourist attraction. Encompassing an area measuring 162.6 hectares, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is the largest religious monument in the world. It was originally built between roughly AD 1113 and 1150 as a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, which was later gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century.
You should allocate at least half the day to explore Angkor Wat and the neighbouring temples such as Bayon at the heart of Angkor Thom, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm.
If there is enough time, allocate another three to four hours to explore Banteay Srei, located about 30km north of Angkor Wat, or 50 minutes by taxi. Banteay Srei is a well-preserved Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and known for its intricate carvings depicting epic scenes from the Ramayana.
A good time to start your day-visit to Angkor Wat would be at 4am so that you can arrive by 5am (opening time) to catch the sunrise – but do bear in mind that hordes of other tourists would have the same idea. For your visit to Banteay Srei, do note that the place closes at 5.30pm, which leaves you with enough time to get back to Siem Reap before dark.
If you skip Banteay Srei, you can hang around Pre Rup temple, about 12km east of Angkor Wat, to watch the sunset before heading back to Siem Reap.
To visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, you would need to buy entrance tickets at the official ticket centre about 4km outside the city. A one-day pass costs US$37, while a three-day pass is US$62. Your taxi or tuk tuk will take you there before proceeding to the temple grounds. Do note that shorts, tank-tops or revealing clothes are not allowed inside the temple grounds. Some parts of the temple may be in ruins but it’s best not to contribute further to the erosion but jumping on or pulling the rocks.
The main temple, Angkor Wat, closes at 6pm sharp and guards will shoo away day-time visitors to pave the way for evening guests who pay a premium US$15 to see the temple bathe in colourful floodlights.
DAY 2 – KAMPONG PHLUK & TONLE SAP
Located about 30km south of Siem Reap, or one hour by taxi, is Kampong Phluk, a village located on the edge of Tonle Sap, the region’s largest freshwater lake. At the village, you can see how the locals live on stilt houses and how they go about their daily lives.
An alternative to Kampong Phluk is Chong Khneas which is just 17km south of Siem Reap. Make sure you visit outside of the dry season or right after the monsoon season in November. Otherwise, the village would be dried out and there will only be muddy paths instead of water. There have been cases of tourists being scammed on visits to Tonle Sap, so do pick a reputable tour organiser. Tours usually last half the day with lunch included.
Back in town, you can visit the Old Market (Psar Chaa or Psar Chas) at the centre of Siem Reap. This is the place to shop for items ranging from local souvenirs and handicrafts to cheap t-shirts and Buddha carvings.
There is a Pub Street around the Psar Chaa area which has the largest concentration of watering holes. Within walking distance from Pub Street is the Angkor Night Market where you can do more shopping or go for a massage.
DAY 3 – REST & RELAX
On your final day in Siem Reap, you can visit the Angkor National Museum (www.angkornationalmuseum.com) to find out more about the origin of the Khmer art and culture. Wat Preah Prom Rath, located near the Old Market, is a colourful temple that you might find interesting.
You can also sign up for a yoga class at Peace Cafe (www.peacecafeangkor.org/program.htm) or a cooking class at one of the culinary schools such as Lily’s Secret Garden (www.lilysecretgarden.com) or Countryside Cooking Class (www.countrysidecookingclass.com). For evening entertainment with dinner thrown in, you could consider the Phare Circus (pharecircus.org).
If you are looking for attractions without the tourist crowd, visit the beautiful Wat Bakong that was built in the late 9th century just 15km east of the city. You can also arrange to visit one of the local monasteries outside of town such as the Wath Rokar Monastery. If you get there before 7am, you’d be able to see the monks lining up at the temple grounds to receive alms from the villagers.
AirAsia offers direct flights from KL International Airport (klia2 Terminal) to Siem Reap International Airport, the second busiest airport in Cambodia; flight time is less than 2.5 hours. Getting to the city centre, which is less than 7km away, is effortless as there is no shortage of taxis and tuk-tuks outside the airport.
The best time to visit Siem Reap is between November and January when the temperatures are mild. Summer, between February and June, can be hot and humid, while the wet season is between July and October.
If you plan your visit around November 10, you can catch the Cambodia Water Festival (Bon Om Touk) which marks the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap river. During this period, you can see locals visiting temples to give offerings, traditional dances held at public areas and candles being set off along the river in the evening creating a lovely atmosphere.
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