Cambodia: Siem Reap

Base tan pink laid down on Koh Rong Sanloem, it was time for us to head to Siem Reap for one of the ancient world’s marvels, the temples of Angkor. We bid our pooch pal farewell and headed off. The ferry journey was uneventful, bar the numerous requests from the locals for photos – first I thought they wanted me to take photos of them, but then I realised they actually wanted them with me, for I am the palest in all the land. Sigh.

Ferry fans satisfied, we were off to the bus station for our first experience of a traveling staple: The Night Bus. Gulp. A 10-hour journey on Cambodian roads, lying down, doesn’t exactly float the boat of someone like me who gets quite travel sick, but Stugeron-ed up, I stepped on and past the point of no return. It was actually much more comfortable and enjoyable than expected. I found a Harry Potter audiobook on the old iPod I’d revived, plugged in, and let Stephen Fry’s dulcet tones lull me to sleep. Night bus tip for solo travellers; it seems a few of them have bunks in rows of A, B and D – unless you fancy getting close and personal with an unknown, be sure to pick the one by itself as A and B are pretty much a double! For anyone who gets travel sick, also pick the bottom level as it’s more stable. 

We actually arrived in Siem Reap 45 mins early – at a crisp 5:30am. At the bus station we hailed a tuk-tuk driver and whizzed down to the hostel, the roads quiet and the city nice and peaceful at dawn. When we arrived at the hostel, luck was on our side: our beds were available so the kind little reception man let us check-in a full 7 hours early. We trudged up the stairs and fell into our beds for a top-up nap.

Sheltering from a thunderstorm

We woke a few hours later feeling much more rested, and ready to explore Siem Reap. It’s actually a city I really liked, still with the hustle and bustle of a busy place going about its daily business, but not as hectic as Phnom Penh. We went to the Old Market and put our bartering to the test, emerging victorious with a tshirt. An improvement on my performance in Phnom Penh.

We then headed back to the hostel and proceeded to research ourselves into a bit of a black hole as to how best to do the temples of Angkor. It’s not a particularly backpacker budget-friendly activity, with 3-day tickets increasing from $40 to $62 a few months ago. You then have to arrange transport and any guide you might want, so 3 days can end up being fairly chunky. In the end, we decided to do a mixture of guided and self-guided to save a few pennies. I’d recommend this approach to anyone wanting to do more than the 1 day; book yourself onto the ‘small circuit’ tour on your first day (SRTTCM do it for half the price of the others and our tour guide was excellent) and just share a tuk-tuk round the rest of the temples on following days, armed with Lonely Planet and Wikipedia entries to read at each.

Smiling like a loon to be at Angkor Wat

You first need to visit the ticket office to get your pass; a massive building but a well-oiled machine. After handing over my dollars I was given my pass, sporting what might be the worst photo of me ever taken.

We continued on into the national park to start our tour. I won’t bore you with all the details of each temple as you need to form your own impressions, but it really was a great day. The small circuit covers the big boys: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom & the Bayon, Ta Prohm (of Tomb Raider fame) and the Bakheng for sunset. If you only have one day at the temples, do this, as it covers the most important and most interesting history. 

Dancing Buddhas on the pillars of Bayon temple

The temples of Angkor were built under different kings of the Khmer Empire, with some dedicated to Hindu gods and some to Buddha (a religious mix that came about through Khmer marriages to Indian royals). When a king died, however, work always stopped, as the temple complexes would become their tomb – so no successor could continue development of a site. Clues to this are seen in some of the temples where the stonework is still rough, before it’s been smoothed down and carved into.

Many of the temples have ‘guardian’ animals outside doors and gateways – often lions. Most of these are faceless, looted during the 1970s by Khmer Rouge looking for treasure (some of these statues had small gold versions of themselves built into the head) – which is sad given how long until then these structures had stood relatively intact.

Being ‘guardians’ at East Mebon temple

I was a bit worried that after Angkor Wat, the others wouldn’t compare, but I was really wrong – there are actually a number of differences between each temple that make them all really interesting to see back to back. They’re in different styles, different scales and different states of disrepair, each with their own story of construction, religion and rediscovery.

Looking through 900 years of history at Ta Som temple

Aside from the temples, Siem Reap’s a lively city which is great for wandering, shopping, eating and drinking. Aptly-christened Pub Street has a number of buzzy bars (a bit of a tourist trap, though many a traveller to meet), and the Container Night Market has various food stalls, drinks stands and live music. Can also highly recommend Try Me for a cheap and delicious meal – get the fish Amok.

On our last night in Siem Reap, we went to the Phare Circus – a nightly show from a school set up by refugees of the Khmer Rouge regime, wanting to give kids who were affected a chance at an education and job opportunities. The shows are different stories about the experience of the circus team under the Khmer Rouge, so the first half is quite intense, but it’s excellent. There are a variety of skills and some amazing acrobatics. The cheapest tickets are $18, and as the big top is pretty small, this was absolutely fine with a great view – we were sat about 5m from the people paying $38. Again book through SRTTCM and they’ll pick you up and drop you back at your hostel for free.

An excellent night at the Phare Circus

Would also highly recommend The Mekong Hostel. With a pool, cheap laundry service, hot water, decent food menu and sociable atmosphere, it’s a bargain at $3 a night. One more unusual/amusing feature was the guy in the bunk next to me who slept face down, hands by sides, with the pillow on top of his head. Even as someone who has been told I sleep a little corpse-like, even I was half-minded to check for his pulse once or twice.

Next stop, somewhere with a bit of French post-colonial ‘je ne sais quoi’…

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 5. Two of which were Irish brothers who gave us some good tips on what not to do in Laos, namely try stealing a tuk-tuk…
Interaction was: good craic.

One Woman and her Backpack x

Follow me @ellielfield

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