Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

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July 11th 2012
Published: July 18th 2012
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My “side trip” to Siem Reap during my five-week summer journey ended up being the highlight of my travels. Angkor Wat and the other surrounding temples were great but the people were even better. After experiencing Cambodian culture for a short 5 days and witnessing the kindness and generosity of the people it is difficult to even imagine that the “killing fields” took place here just three decades ago.Even now those atrocities are still front and center with the large number of amputees (from landmines) you see walking the streets.

I stayed in a great hotel, the Bunwin Boutique Hotel, which was quite expensive by Cambodian standards ($62/day) and I the most expensive place I stayed in during my couple weeks in SE Asia. And, after being delivered there at night during the rain, on the bumpy dirt road off of the busy National Highway 6 I was wondering why I had picked it. However, it turned out to be a great location, with exceedingly helpful staff, great rooms, and free tuk tuk rides downtown with an accompanying cell phone to call them for pick up. Admittedly you can get good rooms much cheaper in Siem Reap but I was very happy with Bunwin. Also of note, if you are traveling to Cambodia be aware that they take primarily US dollars everywhere. Yes, you will get change in Cambodian riel but dollars are the primary currency. I was a bit shocked at this upon arrival.

Thanks to a good friend’s sister (thanks Andrea!) I was set up with a great tuk tuk driver named Peak who took me on all of my day trips during my four days. Peak was invaluable as a driver and guide. He was flexible, patient, and a good translator at times. If you are going to Siem Reap and need his contact info send me a message. My friends Betty and Amy whom I had met in Thailand even came with me one to dinner at Peak’s house. His wife cooked us an amazing Cambodian dinner and his 3-year-old son impressed us with his video game skills. Peak’s invitation to his house, after only knowing him a single day, is a great example of the kindness of the Cambodian people that I experienced. The visit to his home was also a highlight of this trip. For excursions I spent one day seeing Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Angkor Thom and another day on the Grand Tour (Banteay Srey, Ta Som, Neak Pean, and Preah Khan) followed by a visit to the floating river village and view on the nearby hill overlooking the rice fields. I also visited a school and an educationally-focused NGO, the silk farm on the outskirts of the city, and also some time in the countryside seeing the rice fields and rice harvesting.

Angkor Wat is, of course, the big draw in Siem Reap. And, in my mind, it delivers. Unfortunately during my visit the face of Angkor Wat was having some repairs and was covered in two sections by green tarp. So, pictures of the front aren’t as ‘stunning’ as they could have been. I spent about 2 and ½ hours taking my time and wondering around this ancient wonder. I couldn’t help by wonder what this place looked like during its heyday. The intricacy of the design was apparent around every corner in Angkor Wat . . . and in the other temple structures that I visited also. The effort that went into the building process must have been unbelievable. If you visit not only will you see intricate designs carved into walls and doorways but also historical scenes and battles are depicted in large scale running the length of long passageways in many cases. In addition to intricacy and detail, the scale of the sites is also quite striking. For instance, many of the main temple structures are surrounded by walls, moats, and separate outlying structures that cover a lot of ground. The entrance to Angkor Wat must have been quite impressive in its day. The other notable temples include Ta Prohm and the Bayon Temple that you might recognize from the Tomb Raider movie. They are both quite impressive (see pics below) as is Banteay Srey that is actually 37km from Siem Reap itself.

The floating village is also on the itinerary for most tourist packages. It is interesting but be aware that it is really a tourist trap. If you go and are interested in taking photos, consider going just before sunset as the views are very nice. Be aware that you will rent the services of a longboat ($20) and then as you take off someone will jump in to function as your “tour guide.” Mine was so bold as to say that he expected at least a $10 tip plus a tip for the driver. You will also be hit up for $$ from kids selling drinks or holding snakes in addition to buying food/supplies for the school. I ended up not purchasing the very overpriced rice/noodles because of the business relationship worked between the tour boat and the “store”. When I asked to deliver money straight to the school my young tour guide balked and came up with a number of excuses of why that would not be possible. I realize that the people in this community are working the tourists to try to earn money for a living however during my time in Cambodia I saw many other villages that were far poorer with less resources than the floating village. However, in the end I’m glad I went because of some of the lasting images that I have of the place. Finally, you might consider a stop at the Silk Farm. I really had no interest initially in going until Peak just added it to our itinerary. I’m glad he did because I found it very interesting seeing the whole process of silk production. Seeing this really makes one appreciate the final products.

In terms of eating I would encourage tourists to try some places outside the central tourist area downtown. This is easy to find if you just head straight for Pub Street. The Red Piano did have some very good desserts though in case you are interested. Also, the Khmer Kitchen served up good meals all for $4-$4.50 each. Betty, Amy, and I really enjoyed our adventure of trying one of the BBQ places (on Wat Bo Road) just a couple blocks south of National Road #6. It is obviously popular with the locals as one night Andrea and I couldn’t even get a seat. The process of eating here is what makes it fun. When you sit down the staff bring over some flaming hot coals and then a cover where you cook your food. Then you go up to the buffet table and get whatever you want to cook. For instance, we had a mix of noodles, rice, chicken, prawns, other assorted meats, lettuce, and some sauces. You sit and add these all in and pretty soon you have a pretty good cooked meal. I think the three of us at for $16 and that included food, 4 beers and 2 cokes.

One thing that really stood out in Cambodia was the children. You couldn’t help but enjoy them. I don’t remember ever being in a country where it was so enjoyable to interact with and see kids. You might also notice that the kids at the temples are some of the most English-literate Cambodians you will find. They are very strategic about saying just the right things to melt your heart and get you to buy whatever they are selling. For instance, “Spidergirl” asked my name and waited for me to return at one of the temples and shouted my name as I came back across the road towards her. Of course 5 minutes later I had a picture of her and had bought a packet of her bamboo bracelets. The kids around Siem Reap were quick to return smiles and react in positive ways if you chose to interact with them and I really enjoyed that and found it to be different than in some of my other travel destinations.

In terms of exercise I didn't find many options. However, I did get my runs in by just going straight down the Siem Reap River. Also, another thing I found interesting about Siem Reap was the traffic. When first introduced to it it might appear a bit chaotic with people merging in cars, motorbikes, and tuk tuks going the wrong direction and cars/trucks expecting oncoming motorbikes and tuk tuks to move over to the right so that they can overtake other vehicles. By the time I left I was seeing it much differently as things seemed to move along more effeciently even though rules of the road and convention were thrown out completely. If was something I found quite fascinating and I would enjoy seeing a Cambodian's reaction to driving in the U.S.

In sum, Siem Reap is ideal for a 4-5 day trip. And now I am curious to find other interesting Cambodian destinations to explore.

Additional photos below
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