Everyone knows that at the mention of Cambodia or Siem Reap, automatically the thought of Angkor Wat comes into mind. For a very long time this unofficial 8th wonder of the world has been in my bucket list and finally, I’ve managed to see it with my own two eyes and step my own two feet upon the ancient stones of Angkor!
What I’ve discovered is that Siem Reap is not all about the magnificence of Angkor but also the beauty of the people and their culture. If you don’t know already, Cambodia recently won “The Nicest People in the World” for 2016 by the World Countries Award. Mind you, this was not the first time Cambodians has received this award. It came as no surprise having spend my days interacting with the people there to see how genuinely friendly and helpful they are, even to an outsider like me! Needless to say, I am missing their hospitality now that I am back home.
I’ve divided my articles on Siem Reap into 3 main categories according to topics:
(Don’t miss the last section of this article which contains some useful information on the currency and mobile data usage in Siem Reap!)
Do also have a look also at Thanis’ (we went there together) all-in-one article (link here) about our experience when visiting Siem Reap!
Like most other cities, the scene can be very different from day and night. Come night time, the city transforms into a very different image. For our whole stay in Siem Reap, we chose Central Indochine Hotel (website here) which offered a very affordable price of USD27 per night and its location which was in the city yet away from the noise of party goers. Upon arrival, we were welcomed by the warm and friendly greetings of the hotel staff. This was our first-hand experience of Cambodian friendliness.
First-hand experience of Cambodian friendliness; Theary gave us a very informative briefing of Siem Reap and how to get around the city and places of interest in the city. She even checked to make sure if we already have arrangement for the temple visits in place, otherwise she would also be able to offer some assistance.
We were given a much needed refreshingly cold lime juice for the hot and dry weather there. We were there late April which is known to be one of the most driest season of the year.
They even took the trouble to decorate our hotel beds prior to our arrival. Two swans made out of our bathroom towel formed a heart, while petals of flowers showered all around the bed with our names spelled out with a leaf.
This was our hotel room; extremely comfortable and clean. I immediately love the very bright and modern colours of the room. The bed was as comfortable as it was spotless. The toilet is big and spacey, supplied with all toiletries as well. For the price that we pay, we felt that this was extremely value for money, to the point that it is almost unbelievable.
Picture: (Left) I found this very photogenic hole on the roof of the hotel which overlooks part of Siem Reap. Being on the 4th floor, we were higher than most of the other buildings and structures there. (Right) The hotel’s restaurant has a nice ambience to it, all natural wooden chairs with an abundant of plants and trees all around.
The hotel also has a very important necessity in the heat of the city; the swimming pool! A swimming pool that is chlorine-free yet very clean (no moss or dirt on the pool bed at all). It is a haven to swim in after a long day of temple runs and city walkabouts, to just dip yourself in the poor sipping on the cold ice beer allowing the body to cool down.
UP AND ABOUT DURING THE DAY
The most convenient and cheaper way to travel in and around Siem Reap is with the Tuk-Tuk. The tuk-tuk is capable of carrying a maximum of 4 persons. Any trip within the city proper is around USD 1 or 2 per trip (not per person). We had Shafii, our tuk-tuk driver for the whole duration of our stay. He is the most reliable, flexible and extremely patient you can find. We would strongly recommend him for his services without any doubt. His website can be found here.
Is it convenient to the point that you can basically catch a tuk-tuk anywhere at all without any worry. They are everywhere! What I’ve found to be very impressive is that none of the tuk-tuk drivers are aggressive when they try to offer you a ride. They would just go “Tuk-tuk?” and will move along if you decline. Some drivers are even friendlier and would just strike up a conversation just for fun. That’s how friendly people there can get! Coming from a country where we are taught to not trust anyone, this needed a lot of getting used to at first, but believe me… they are just genuinely friendly!
Life there seems to be quite easy-going (although it is obvious that they do work very hard to make ends meet). I watched this grandma cycling with her heavy load on the bicycle when she decided stop by the side to have a short rest while watching all the people go about their everyday life.
There are a lot of traders that goes around the city just on their bicycles. The picture above shows a lady selling her handicrafts and feather dusters, among many other bicycles traders in the city that holds many other variety of products.
Although not as widespread as in Hanoi, there were also a few people who was going around with their dogs either on their motorbikes, bicycle or just by walking. This pooch was really enjoying the ride that he did not even notice me pointing the camera at him!
The old market of Siem Reap is a bit more special that other markets I’ve visited before; it seems to be a one-stop place to get anything. By ‘anything,’ I really mean anything! From souvenirs of all kinds, dried food of many varieties, both traditional and modern Cambodian all the way to fresh fruits, fresh meat which includes exotic body parts of animals which I can’t even recognize, hardware shop, goldsmith shop and even hair salons (look at the picture on the bottom right, that’s proof I kid you not)!
For the first time, shopping for souvenirs in the market was stress-free! From experience, the market sellers of other countries would be aggressive in trying to sell their products which has already been marked-up to high ‘tourist’ prices and one would have to hassle extensively to get a good bargain. This was not the case here, most prices was already considerably good, to the point that most of the time I just asked for another USD 1 or 2 off the price they offered.
Walking around the city, flowers are all around. From the simple lotus flowers placed on water-filled pots (pictured right) to pain-stackingly stacked flowers from smaller petal of flowers (pictured left). The significance of the Lotus and its flower can be seen all around the city from
The Wat Preah Prom Rath Temple is one of the places of interest within the city. In the temple, there is a reclining Buddha as well as many other statues and decorations. Glittering gold buildings and structures brighten up the place. In my opinion, the place only lacks proper description of each momument and statue.
This is one of the most gruesome statues I have ever seen, which can be found within the compounds of the Wat Preah Prom Rath temple. It depicts Ney Chan being defeated by King Ang Chan and the Khmer people with his corpse being gored out by vultures.
WHEN NIGHT FALLS
When day gives way to night, the city is transformed into a city with neon lights and loud music, just as the visitors transform from their modest temple-suitable attire to the ready-to-party not-so-modest clothing. There is a street called Pub Street that houses all the clubs and bars with different offerings and even themes and different ambience. If you’re not one for partying, there’s always the night market to visit or the ice-cream and cafes to indulge in!
Mobile bars are aplenty around the Pub Street. These mobile bars are basically housed on a cart and they are so mobile and flexible that it can be pushed around anytime and anywhere. How convenient is that!
Beer as cheap as USD 1 and some even USD 0.50 can be easily found on Pub Street. Cocktails of all kinds of unique names which are also cheap comparatively are available.
Other than the pubs and bars, you can also find night market where most of the items available at the day market can also be found here.
That’s Thanis and Jess peering into Miss Wong, a famous Chinese-themed vintage Shanghai feel cocktail bar. You won’t miss it with its many red chinese lanterns hanging outside and the red-glow emitting from it’s corner.
Or you could just spend some time having your feet being nibbled at by the hundreds of tiny fishes. They call this the fish massage. I found it hilarious that the sign on the aquarium reads “Please feed our hungry fish your dead skin”.
The Aspara Dance is a traditional dance of Cambodia. Some of the pubs in Siem Reap has scheduled Aspara Dance performance for its patrons to watch. The best and most grand Aspara Dance show is performed at a place called ‘The Smile of Angkor’. I paid USD42 for the ticket and having witnessed the performance myself, I can say that a lot of effort has been put into the show to make sure it is the best. The show employs very sophisticated laser and light techniques to wow the audience (I know I was), More information on the show and its schedule/pricing here. Please take note, photography and video-recording is not allowed during the show! This picture was taken with my handphone at the end of the show.
HEADING OUT OF TOWN
To visit the temples, you will have to head north out of town. A single tuk-tuk ride from town to the temple area will cost around USD 10. Again, I would advice that is would be easier to hire a tuk-tuk driver for the duration of your trip, rather than finding one every day. You will be relieved of the burden of trying to look for a driver and then negotiating a price each time. Having a dedicated tuk-tuk for the entire duration means an agreed upon price and you would have the flexibility to go anywhere (as long as it’s not too far out into the outskirts).
Upon passing the check-point where the officers will check your temple visit pass, you will notice immediately that the traffic on the road has changed. You won’t see cars and motorcycles using these roads unless they are ferrying tourist to the temples. You will also notice the cold fresh air taking over the hot dry city air.
The moat that surrounds Angkor Wat is HUGE! So huge that it takes what seems like a long ride on the tuk-tuk to get from one end of the moat to the other diagonal end. Couples rest themselves by the bank enjoying the romantic view. The gigantic towers that are towering from inside of the walls of Angkor Wat adds on to the magical ambience. Buffalo herders can be seen herding to their flocks while fishermen hauling their catch into their boats.
The tuk-tuk ride along brings us through many villages, each offering and selling many different types of arts and handicrafts. I was impressed by the number of artist in Siem Reap, there seems to be a lot of them just sitting around the temple grounds and just drawing and painting with their freehand. Other delicate handicraft made by craving and weaving can also be seen.
To avoid throngs of tourist that comes in the bus loads and to also the intense heat, we made all our temple visits early in the morning and left before the sun gets high above our heads. This also gave us the opportunity to see the villagers go about their daily morning life preparing their stalls or mending to their cows…
… or watering the plants in this dry season showering it with the much needed life force…
… or children going to school to pursue their education to have a better future for their families …
… or transporting the products of their labor to be sold somewhere; potteries, charcoals, coconut and even cows …
… one thing is for sure; the people are HAPPY. The smiles that the people have on their faces indirectly affects the whole mood of the atmosphere. Maybe this is the real secret to why they are the world’s most friendliest country?
The sugar palm tree is a very important tree in the rural Cambodia economy. It is also the national tree of Cambodia. These trees can be found everywhere especially in the villages and can even be seen growing in the compound of the temples. The tree is easy to spot; basically looks like a coconut tree but with long, fan-shaped leaves. The picture above shows the sugar palm fruit which is used to make palm sugar.
The fruit of the sugar palm is boiled for hours and left to evaporate to thicken the juice to essentially form a paste, which is called the palm sugar. This palm sugar can then be made into different forms; powder, paste, blocks and syrup.
In the picture above, the ladies are putting the paste into cylindered tubes to form the palm sugar blocks.
Once the palm sugar paste is placed into the tubes, they are left to cool and will eventually turn into the solid blocks that can be eaten like sweets.
Although it was the dry season when we were there and all the rice had already been harvested months before, there were still some areas that are growing rice by using hydroponic methods.
Shafii our tuk-tuk driver introduced us to a small coffee shop in a corner and recommended us to try the genuine Cambodian noodles. I loved it! The noodles are like vermicelli noodles and its accompanied by all sort of other herbs that I cannot recognize. The broth tastes a bit like coconut milk with a hint of curry.
This big basket of assorted local vegetables is placed on every table and is meant to accompany the food. This reminds me of the time I ate the Bánh cuốn in Vietnam that is also served with all the vegetables that you can ever imagine in one serving.
So if you ever manage to visit Siem Reap, remember to allocate time to explore the place especially in the rural areas. There are plenty of sights that the rural areas has to offer other than just the temples. Many tourist does are not aware of this but missing out of these also means that they are missing out on the real beauty of what Cambodia is. In the picture is Shafii our tuk-tuk driver, who stopped before one of the gates of Angkor Thom for us to take a picture of the magnificent gate doors.
As promised, here are some pointers when visiting Siem Reap:
All transactions are in USD. Even products in the local supermarket are price tagged in USD. The Cambodian Riel are used like coins when getting change. For example, if you pay for a USD 1.50 item but give USD 2, the change of USD 0.50 will be given in the Riel equivalent which is around 2000 Riel.
Mobile data is cheap there. Cellcard’s (one of the many operators in Cambodia) offers a 3GB 3G tourist plan for just USD 5.
Visit the temples early in the morning. We started our visits around 6 am everyday. Most tourist that comes in the bus loads will come after breakfast, around 8.30 am onwards. So if you aim to photograph the temple without tourist in your frame, make sure you are there before that time.
We use our afternoons to try out different eateries and cafes in Siem Reap, and also visits to the market as well as other places of interest.
- Hiring the right tuk-tuk is extremely essential to ensure your holidays in Siem Reap is enjoyable and stress free. If you ever need a Tuk-Tuk driver in Siem Reap, Shafii Angkor Tuktuk is the best! Many many many (excuse my grammar) times has he gone ‘above & beyond’ to ensure that our plans and wants are met and gives due recommendation and advice whenever possible! Check out his website here and contact him via WhatsApp. He replies very fast (unless when he’s driving of course).
- Do also have a look also at Thanis’ (we went there together) all-in-one article (link here) about our experience when visiting Siem Reap!
- I will be writing about the temples and the food of Siem Reap after this, so please stay tuned!
These were the first and last faces of my memorable visit to Cambodia. A big THANK YOU to all the staff of Central Indocine for making sure we had the most comfortable place to retire and rest each day and then going the extra mile thatto make sure we have everything we need for the entire duration. A huge THANK YOU also to our dedicated yet humble and extremely patient tuk-tuk driver Shafii for being so patient with us and our very random request to go everywhere. You guys are the real faces of Cambodia and definitely you are the ones that gives meaning to the name ‘Smiles of Angkor’! I miss all of you tremendously!