Recently I just flew back from my short vacation to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Little did I know that Siem Reap had been chosen as a number one must-visit destination in Asia via TripAdvisor in 2015. My family and I just simply picked a country in Asia which was completely foreign to us. After exploring Siem Reap for about 4 days, all of us felt so glad we picked the right travel destination, as Siem Reap offered its own unique and unbelievable history, which contributed to a massive ancient temple complex, called Angkor Wat.
We arrived in Siem Reap International Airport around 9 in the morning. Unfortunately, there is no direct flight form my country to this city, and we had to take a flight from Malaysia instead. What the airport looked like quite impressed us. Yes, it was pretty small without sophisticated shops or restaurants, but it was very clean and neat.
Interestingly, there were no officers to check our customs claim at the airport. You just put your cards stating that whether you bring some hazardous or suspicious stuffs with you at a table, and you can approached the exit door. We got our tuk-tuk driver directly in the arrival hall. Tuk-tuk was a very common mean of transport there, and you should definitely try to ride it if you visit Siem Reap.
At the first glance, Siem Reap looked like a typical Asian city, but older, without many high buildings or vehicles in the street. I could see people who sell food at the corner of the street and kids walked to school. But they drive in the left-side, which is quite different from other South-East Asian countries!
We explored the city by our own on the first day. Surprisingly, almost everything is in US Dollars, even though Cambodian people have their own currency, called Cambodian Riel. If they want to give you change, most of the times, it’s a mix of USD and Cambodian Riel. (1 USD equals 4,000 KHR). And so many things are sold in the price of 1 USD, so the paper money of 1 USD will be so useful for travelers. You can basically get one coconut, one glass of fresh juice, one set of postcards, one short trip for tuk-tuk, all for 1 USD. We said hi to one Cambodian kid, he’s probably 4 years old. We said “Hi, how are you?” and he replied back, “Hi! One dollar!”, excitedly. It was so hilarious. So, “one dollar” is a very known phrase there.
We took a look of the old market in the center of the city (10 minutes by walking from our hotel). They mostly sold T’Shirts and cute bags with a typical pattern which looked like tribal thingy or elephants, souvenirs such as key chains or scarves, anything with Angkor Wat’s figure on it, or spices for cooking.
However, we couldn’t stand the heat (35-38 degrees!) and decided to have a lunch in a restaurant nearby, Yellow Mango Cafe. Food was fantastic and they had indoor, outdoor, and also a small balcony. They served traditional Khmer food and also Western menu. A normal meal in a normal restaurant cost around 5-7 USD per person. You can save more by having a meal in an outdoor restaurant without concrete buildings at the side of the street, order 3-4 dishes with rice for the entire groups, and share them.
We visited Angkor National Museum and it is located side by side by the sophisticated duty-free store. The entrance for the museum was quite pricy, $12 per person, plus extra $3 if you want to have the audio guide. But well I’m always excited by the idea to visit a museum, no matter where, so I visited that too. I learnt a lot about the history of Cambodia as a country, the religious influences towards Khmer people, and the detail of the Angkor Wat, which apparently means holy city. Actually, Angkor means Holy City. Later on when the king was changed, he believed in Buddhism, and so he added “Wat” which means temple at the end of it.
At the evening, most tourists go to the Pub Street or Night Market. There were countless options of bar, pub, restaurants, stores, street foods, and also a massage parlor!
The next day, we woke up around 4am to be able to see the sunrise in the Angkor Wat. We set up our 2 days tour with Angkor Guide Sam and guided by Mr. Ong Voetha. We picked the 3-days pass ticket of Angkor Wat which cost 40USD per person.The sunrise view was amazing; slowly you can see a better image of the temple itself.
Then, we continued our journey to go inside the Angkor Wat. The complex was massive. I think it was not a good idea to go there without a guide because you wouldn’t know what’s to see first and so on. We got a plenty of information too from our guide; how Angkor Wat first discovered by a French man who walked on foot throughout Cambodia and Laos, how ancient people use to go to Angkor Wat to pray and they often got there by riding elephants (that explained why the entrance was so wide), the fact that people built Angkor Wat in 12th century without modern tools to measure or to calculate but yet, every detail of the building is precisely accurate and carefully thought, how the restoration took place, and how the Angkor Wat actually represented our universe.
There are many other buildings inside the Angkor Wat. It was mostly built from a sandstone; researcher thought the stones came from a mountain about 50km far from the temple, and if you look closely, every stone has a circle sign on them. People used that to carry the stones by a bamboo stick, and also transported them from the river nearby. The King decided to choose this locations too because of the water system surrounding the area.
Almost every sides of the sandstone has a detailed crafting on it. Sometimes it’s a beautiful flower-alike pattern, but mostly it’s a figure of beautiful women or goddesses, war illustration, Hindu mythology, Buddha image, and form of activities in the past, such as dancing, musical performances, martial arts, and even weight-lifting. In a few crafting, I even spotted images of dinosaurs, like how it’s even possible for them to know that dinosaurs were once exist in this world! Our guide kept repeating several times that we can learn a lot from the past, and people at that time understood a lot of things about the universe by watching the moon and the stars.
Then, we moved on by car to other temple called Bayon, which means magic in the local language. Its shape was very unique, you can find a lot of faces in the temple. The king mixed up his own face with Buddha’s face. I’ve been told that I can understand the differences between each faces only if you looked closely to them.
On the way back, we saw the real elephant (yes you can ride them if you wish!) and also the Elephant Terrace. It used to be the place where people sit to watch towards the field. I reckon’ it could be a beautiful spot for audience to see whatever played on the central field back in the past time.
Next stop was the temple in the Tomb Raider movie! It’s called Ta Prohm. Except the fact that Angelina Jolie once walk around and jumped from the top of the temple, this temple is famous because it has a lot of old trees inside it. The trees were so huge that their roots going crazily everywhere searching for the grounds and you can see it going through the temple building.
And the following day, the tour is continued. We visited Preah Khan temple. It was my favorite one! King Jayavarman VII built this one specially for his father. And we had to go through some kind of ancient gate before getting into every temple. There was a row of Buddha as well as Asura figures on each side of the gate. Unfortunately, most of them now has been demolished, so you cannot see the full rows of figures, you can see only the foundations.
Preah Khan was special because its structures contains a lot of pillars. I felt like being in an Asian version of ancient buildings in Greek! The guide told me that it used to have a connecting majestic roof, but it was now all gone, so you can only see the pillars. In almost every temples, the Buddha images were ruined, because once the King converted back to Hinduism and he instructed people to destruct the Buddha images. But in Preah Khan, the King tried to divide equally the eastern and western part of the aisles, one for all Hindu symbolism, and one for Buddhists.
The next temple was also pretty impressive. Banteay Srei, or the Lady Temple. It was made by a pink stones and the motives that you can see here are impossibly comparable to what you can find in the other temples! This temple was dedicated for Shiva, one of the Hindu god.
You can find many young children who sell souvenirs inside the temple. We met one little girl who can count from 1 to 10 in English, Chinese, Indonesian, Russian, French, and German. She can communicate and negotiate with us in Chinese can you imagine that. Locals are friendly, polite, and they never charge us higher prices than what it supposed to be, but some of them can be really persistent to persuade you to buy something. But as long as you say no directly they will stop following you around.
Well, we also visited some other places, like Neak Poan, Ta Som, Ancient Crematorium, and Ta Nei. All of them was located around the Angkor Wat complex, including the Banteay Srei which is located 35km from the main temple of Angkor. And all of that required the same entrance ticket that you bought previously. Make sure you carry it with you everywhere because in every temple’s entrance the officer will check it. It’s a good idea to wear something that is long enough to not show your bare shoulders and skirt or pants that is long enough to cover your thighs. And wear something very thin because you will definitely be sweating a lot! Pick the right shoes (strong but comfortable) as you will climb a lot of steps and some of the sandstone are uneven! Always bring the sunscreen with you as the weather was very very hot with strong sunlight exposure.
Some visitors traveled around Angkor Wat complex by tuk-tuk, and I even saw some travelers who went around by bicycle (super crazy, knowing that it’s extremely hot outside). My family and I was not the one who can stand the heat and my mother especially was not so physically strong, so we decided to use the family car along with the guide. It’s just a matter of preference, but I personally think it takes more time to go around by tuk-tuk and you cannot rest on it.
Siem Reap was amazing and if you plan to visit it in the future, I would happily recommend you this tour operator called Angkor Guide Sam. Our tour guide, Mr. Voetha, was really informative, helpful, funny, and caring. We never run out of cold bottle waters and cold towels. He also told us a numerous spot in the temple where we can have great pictures. He speaks perfect English and made us laugh a lot on the journey. Feel free to ask me if you’re interested in contacting him.
អរគុណ, Siem Reap!