With five days ‘templing’ by bus and bicycle, and two days partying at the hotel pool, a week in Siem Reap is a lot of fun, says Jason Pagliari.
Siem Reap in Central Cambodia, the doorstep to the iconic ruins of Angkor, might seem a bit of an unknown and too remote for a short break, suitable only for an Indiana Jones-type archaeological expedition. In fact, this top holiday destination is now only a two-hour, 10-minute direct flight away with our own, low-cost carrier HK Express. This makes the town perfect either for a long weekend with a day or two of ‘templing’, or as a longer stay base from which to explore the country.
Angkor’s ancient temple complex, the seat of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th centuries, is of course the highlight of a Siem Reap visit, but with plenty of good hotels for all budgets, a relaxed atmosphere and friendly locals, not to mention a buzzing restaurant, bar and live-music scene, you can’t really go wrong. The food is top-notch – both the local Khmer fare (think Thai meets Chinese) at the numerous roadside cafés and the fine dining options downtown in trendy Pub Street and Night Market Street.
Most transactions are made in US dollars, with the local riel only used as small change, and the good news is that just about everything in Cambodia is cheap. A taxi anywhere in the town costs you just US$1 (HK$7.8). What’s more, local internet connectivity is pretty amazing, with free wi-fi on tap almost everywhere and cheap 4G prepaid SIM cards readily available.
Siem Reap means literally Thailand Defeated, a reference to a thwarted invasion of Cambodia by the Thais, thought to have been in the 14th century. The town was just a village until the early 19th century when the rediscovery and renovations of the Angkor temples by French archaeologists expanded it into a service hub and an exotic travel destination for the well-to-do.
Slowly Siem Reap has evolved into a lively and relaxed tourist mecca, still relatively unspoilt and without the excesses of neighbouring Thailand. Five kilometres from the town – where you’ll find old-colonial, Chinese-style low-rises dotted along Siem Reap River – is mighty Angkor, one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 square-kilometres, including forested area, there are upwards of 16 Buddhist and Hindu temples, with plenty more accessible by car or bike. Key sights include the famous temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, Bayon temple with its numerous face towers and elaborate bas-reliefs.
To begin your Angkor explorations, don’t think twice about taking a full-day shuttle-bus tour of the major sites. This allows you to cover a lot of ground in one day (accompanied by a professional tour guide) and share the adventure with fellow explorers from all over the world.
You need to purchase an Angkor pass to gain access to all the sites – a one-day pass costs US$20, three days is US$40 and one week US$60. Only the days you enter Angkor count, so the one-week pass is a good option if you’re around for a while and want to ‘temple it’ only every few days.
Once you’ve got the lay of the land (it’s very flat), you’re ready to take off on your own. Renting a bicycle is a good way to explore at your leisure and avoid the crowds. The roads are fairly quiet and lined with stalls where you can pick up a chilled coconut, or freshly made fruit shake. Although temperatures can reach 42° centigrade (from April through June), the humidity is generally low and there’s plenty of forest cover, so the heat isn’t too punishing.
Cycling atop Angkor’s forest-canopied perimeter wall, you won’t know you’re on a man-made structure until you reach one of the four corners, each marked by Buddhist temples. At the four main gates, you are confronted by two 23-metre towers from which enormous stone heads, with four faces pointing in each direction, stare out at you. Just below, another trail worth exploring lies along the banks of the water-buffalo inhabited moat. It can get a bit overgrown in places, so you need a semi-decent mountain bike for this one. Explored by few tourists, it’s a real gem.
It takes about half an hour to cycle from downtown Siem Reap to the first spectacle, the majestic Angkor Wat. You then continue onwards to the South Gate of the 10th century, walled and moated city of Angkor Thom just 2 kilometres north. Follow the dirt track past Bayon temple, the Baphuon pyramid and the smaller, off-the-grid temples to the northeast. Then, bike it through the Terrace of the Leper King, the Terrace of the Elephants and out the East Gate towards Ta Prohm (now known as Tomb Raider Temple), with its giant trees growing on top of the ancient walls and sublime sense of mystery.
You’ll want to do this trip more than once, taking different routes to cover Preah Khan to the north and the temples of the East Baray. Sunset at Phnom Bakheng temple, on the only hilltop for miles around, is something to experience on the way back into town.
In the event of ‘temple fatigue’, there are plenty of other activities in and around Siem Reap to keep you occupied. Consider zip lining, horse riding, quad biking or testing your skill on the world-class golf course. Make a point of visiting the floating villages of Kompong Phluk and Chong Kneas, which are a little like inland Tai Os.
Further afield, the leafy, riverside town of Battambang, three hours’ drive to the west, is worth heading to for a few days for its colonial-era charm, and the unspoilt beaches of Sihanoukville province in the southwest are just an hour’s flight away on Cambodia Bayon Airlines.
It’s the ancient history and diversity of experience on offer that makes Siem Reap, and Cambodia as a whole, suitable for all – backpackers, families and partygoers, as well as history buffs. Once you’ve spent some time in the kingdom, it works its magic on you and you’ll want to come back for more.