Discover Siem Reap

Chandra A. Benggolo, Contributor, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Proudly branding itself as the gateway to the centuries-old ruins of the temples of Angkor, Siem Reap has been crowded by tourists from all corners of the world for more than 100 years.

Though it is widely known as the most touristy area in Cambodia, the nostalgic air of the French colonial era, which breezily blends with the warm hospitality and relaxed lifestyle, has managed to keep Siem Reap in its toes as a peaceful, modest town without all the glitz from modernization.

In fact, to my liking, there is hardly any US giant fast food joint or coffee shop in sight. And that is what makes Siem Reap authentically mesmerizing.

Comprised from a cluster of old villages, which was originally built around individual pagodas, and was later added with a French colonial-era center; Siem Reap is a unique mix of heavy European colonial structures and Chinese-inspired shop houses and traditional markets.

There is always plenty of affordable dining, shopping and spa indulging opportunities as well as an exciting nightlife to take on, making it the perfect antidote for any weary or overworked traveler.

First time visitors to Siem Reap will undoubtedly be curious to know about the Angkor Archaeological Park, which has been named as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO.

The park hosts more than 200 temple ruins from the Angkorian-era Khmer Empire, including three of the most popular temples every travelers should pay a visit: Bayon, the giant stone faces in the complex; Ta Prohm, known as the set for Angelina Jolie’s swashbuckling character in the Hollywood blockbuster, Tomb Raider; and of course, the legendary Angkor Wat with architecture and artistic grandeur that can compete with the likes of Machu Pichu and the pyramids.

You will likely need a minimum of three days to explore the park, which includes a sojourn to the large temples, a visit to several small ones, and extra time to visit objects of your own choosing. However, a one-day tour still allows you to see the highlights of the most famous temples.

The Bayon (photo above) and reflection of Angkor Wat (photo right).

Armed with a one-day admission pass, available at US$20, my tour started early at 5 a.m. I was ready for a breathtaking sunrise at Angkor Wat and with a camera ready at all times, it was time to explore every inch of Angkor Wat’s front gate area. For more than half an hour, I managed to capture magnificent silhouette images of the temple from a dozen different angles.

Even with hundreds of tourist swarming the compound, the experience of seeing Angkor Wat gleaming against the morning light was surreal and magical.

Still transfixed by the timeless beauty of Angkor Wat in mind, the first glimpse of Ta Prohm quickly diverted my attention. The jungle-covered temple gave me goose bumps with all the giant strangler figs and silk-cotton trees standing among the ruins, projecting an artistic yet eerie visual impact.

The École Française d’Extrême Orient institution recommended the ruins to be left in its natural state, Ta Prohm is an example of how most of the Angkor Archaeological Park looked exactly like when it was discovered by the French in the 19th century.

Snapping pictures on the exact location of the Tomb Raider set seemed to be the highlight for many visitors, including myself.

Another stunning view of ancient Angkor awaited me at the Bayon with its 37 standing towers carved with four faces on each cardinal point, of which have become one of the signature images of classic Khmer art and architecture.

To this day, what the faces represent is still a moot point. Some say, perhaps a combination of Buddha and King Jayavarman VII, the temple builder. The reliefs on the exterior walls also hold fascinating scenes of daily life as well as Khmer history.

At one corner on the upper terrace of the towers, a group of traditional dancers dressed in colorful costumes wait for visitors and will charge $2 for each photo taken. Not much for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

For the Angkor temples trip, I made sure that I had booked the most appropriate means of transportation beforehand, as the temples are just too far for a trip on foot.

It is also preferable that you put on light clothing as Siem Reap is usually sunny and humid. On my trek I used the traditional Khmer scarf (krama) to protect my neck from sunburn.

The scarf is easily available at any traditional market in town and is one of the best souvenirs to take home. And just like krama, many traditional Cambodian-made keepsakes are deliciously eye-catching and budget-friendly.

Tomb Raider spot at Ta Prohm

Take a stroll inside the Old Market (Phsar Chas), for instance, one souvenir stall after another displays traditional Cambodian statues and woodcarvings, including Buddha and Hindu Gods, adorable and colorful handicrafts such as handmade beaded bags, crocheted wallets and striped silk clutches, silk shawls and scarves, soft cotton t-shirts, and uniquely wrapped spices, teas and coffee in sugar palm leaves.

Opposite the Siem Reap River at the south end of the Old French Quarter, the Old Market and its surrounding area are a must-see for visitors. The Old Market offers the widest selection of souvenirs and is the most popular shopping destination in town.

Lining the northern edge of the market, a number of affordable Khmer food vendors are serving mouthwatering fare in a friendly atmosphere. Here, I had the most ideal budget meal ever, the sumptuous beef noodle, vegetable spring rolls and ice lemon tea for only $2.50.

The streets in the area around the Old Market are crammed with small shops, galleries, and boutiques offering various local arts and fashion. One that particularly stands out is the Happy Painting Gallery, which houses the bright-colored paintings of contemporary artist Stef Delaprée, who cleverly portrays the everyday life of Cambodia with a humorous touch.

I also came across several unique lifestyle shops in the nearby Alley West, which to my surprise, offers the most unique and eclectic collectibles in town. I instantly swooned over Circle Boutique’s collection of scarves, bags, accessories and clothes made from environmentally friendly materials. These products are all handmade by Cambodian women who are trained by two social enterprises, Iida and KeoK’jay.

Right next door to Circle Boutique is Poetry, a strikingly vibrant creative store selling clothing and accessories in quirky motifs and designs as well as matchboxes and stickers full of tongue-in-cheek statements, such as “Hell in a Little Box” and “Shopping is finding your soul in a pile of things”.

The store’s interior speaks volume of the witty personalities of the owners, Loven Ramos and Don Protasio.

The Old Market neighborhood is also teeming with rows of restaurants, cafés and pubs, which mainly concentrate along Pub Street. The lively hangout district started buzzing in 1998, when the Angkor What Bar opened as the first pub on once a quiet street.

If you are a foodie, Pub Street with restaurants serving Khmer, Thai, Vietnamese, French and Italian food is certainly the place to be. Trying out the Cambodian barbecue of seafood, beef, chicken and various meats of exotic animals – snakes, crocodiles and kangaroos to name a few — takes a certain courage but it quickly paid off as it could be the tastiest food you ever tasted.

In the evening, Pub Street, which has become the nightlife’s center of town, is closed to motorized vehicles and only pedestrians are allowed in the lot. Besides Pub Street, I cannot recall any other place in Asia that serves a $1 beer and $2 cocktails of any kind.

What’s more, thirsty visitors who had just returned from the temples in the afternoon can recharge themselves with a glass of cold beer for just 50 cents or a cocktail for $1 thanks to a half price for happy hours. Amazingly enough, at Temple Bar, you will get a free t-shirt when buying any $8 cocktail pitcher.

Only a block away from Pub Street is the Passage, a more artsy narrow lane that hosts little shops, restaurants, galleries and boutique guesthouses. Here, I discovered one of the finest art photography of Angkor and Asia by John McDermott and other international photographers in the sophisticated, minimalist McDermott Gallery.

The tiny, high-end gallery is the perfect joint to buy limited edition photographs, reproductions, posters and cards. Adjacent to the gallery is the modern One Hotel Angkor offering exclusive rooms with a private Jacuzzi and rooftop lounge.

In the evening, when the Old Market closes for the day, the Angkor Night Market soon take place. Billed as the authentic original night market in Siem Reap, it boasts more than 200 shops, the superb Island Bar, the secluded Brick House Bar, the Movie Mall with 3-D and regular films showing, a food court and many fish massage pools where small fish nibble the dead skin from your feet. The night market is filled with Khmer-style laid out huts, built from natural materials (wood, bamboo and straw) ideal for souvenir hunting.

And after your stay ends, you could not surely ask for more.

—Photos by JP/Chandra A. Benggolo

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