Siem Reap, which means ‘Defeat of Siam’, is a humble town in the northwestern Cambodia. But despite its down-to-earth feel, Siem Reap is also the gateway to one of the world’s most ancient monuments: Angkor Wat.
While the notion ‘no trip to Siem Reap is complete without visiting Angkor Wat’ is indeed unerring, during my recent visit, I find the town, unpretentious and authentic, offering more than just ancient temples.
WHAT TO VISIT
If you are unsure where to begin your Siem Reap experience, then Angkor National Museum might be a good start. To be frank, I barely remember the story behind the Khmer civilisation when I learned it during secondary school. A visit to this museum definitely refreshes my memory and improves my understanding towards the civilisation due to its highly educational content.
There are seven galleries inside the museum namely the Gallery of 1,000 Buddha Images, Khmer Civilisation, Religion and Beliefs, The Great Khmer Kings, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Story from Stones and Ancient Costumes. Travellers can rent an audio guide at an additional fee of USD5.
Entrance fee: USD12 (Adult) / USD6 (Child)
Cameras are not allowed in most parts of the museum, so it is advised that you simply indulge in learning about the mind-blowing history of Khmer civilisation, as well as admiring the aesthetics of the ancient Angkor artefacts and stories behind them, rather than taking photos.
45 minutes by car from the town centre lies a hidden attraction called Cambodia Land Mine Museum. Founded by Aki Ra, a Cambodian man who once served as a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge, this museum not only proves his dedication in collecting and removing defused ordnances across the country, but a wake-up call to the devastating aftermath of wars. His job as a deminer continues to this day because although millions of ordnances had been deactivated, millions more still left buried under Cambodian soil.
Entrance fee: USD5 (Adult) / Free (Child)
Though it takes some time to get to the museum from the centre of Siem Reap, the view of slow-paced rural areas along the way certainly pays off.
Wat Thmey Killing Field
Before reaching this site, our local driver shared with us his family’s story during the infamous era of Khmer Rouge. He said his father and a few other friends were forced to flee to another place to escape prison, therefore were separated from their families – the driver still can’t trace his lost father and relatives up until today.
Wat Thmey Killing Field is just one of many killing fields that can be found across the country where innocent citizens were executed by Khmer Rouge and buried in mass graves. Here, travellers can witness a memorial stupa that functions as an ossuary containing skulls and bones of those killed by Khmer Rouge as a grim reminder to Cambodia’s deeply tragic past.
Angkor Archaeological Park
Covering 400 square kilometres of land, this park is the ultimate destination travellers from all over the world flocked to the city of Siem Reap. It was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992 and unofficially regarded as the 8th Wonder of the World. The entrance fee to this park for a day-pass is USD37.
The most popular attraction is Angkor Wat, an ancient temple complex that is one of the largest and finest in the world. Built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century, it was originally built as a Hindu temple before gradually converted into a Buddhist temple. One of the highly-recommended activities here is to witness the sunrise over the temple complex, which is absolutely glorious!
The temple is said to be completed by fifty thousand workers in a span of 37 years, which is insanely fast considering its incredibly huge size and rudimentary technology used that time!
Other notable temple is Ta Prohm. This temple distinguishes itself from other temples due to the large trees grown between the structures as a result of centuries of abandonment. Built as a Buddhist monastery and education centre, the temple is also made famous by Angelina Jolie’s blockbuster movie, Tomb Raider, which used the temple as one of its shooting locations.
We visited Bayon, popular among tourists due to its distinctive 216 smiling faces of Avalokiteśvara assiduously carved on its 54 towers.
Since the entire park consists of so many temples, if you are really into history or photography, a day-pass is definitely not enough! And that is why I am planning to return to Siem Reap soon…
A member of World Crafts Council since 2012, Artisans Angkor is also the place where travellers can witness how diligent locals painstakingly make traditional Khmer arts and crafts by hand. This non-governmental organisation is recognised by UNESCO, winning several Awards of Excellence for Handicrafts. Besides preserving Khmer arts and crafts, the centre also help workers from rural areas to improve their economic standing by teaching them skills in making such crafts.
Phsar Leu Thom Thmey
It is always good to get up close and personal with locals, and travellers can do so at Phsar Leu Thom Thmey, the biggest local market in Siem Reap. Come in the morning and stroll around the indoor market where locals buy their daily provisions ranging from textiles to fresh produce. If you are stout-hearted, you can also taste exotic foods here.
Pub Street and Angkor Night Market
Pub Street, as its name suggests, is a street full of pubs and bars that you could hop from one to another the whole night! Angkor Night Market, on the other hand, is a great shopping idea for souvenirs and tasting local delicacies at the many small stalls available. And when I say ‘local delicacies’, it also refers to exotic ones like crickets, silkworms, scorpions and tarantulas!
WHERE TO EAT
This fusion restaurant is quite well-known among travellers and expatriates, mainly serving French cuisine with Asian twist. Most interestingly, the menus are all made from natural ingredients and rich in not only Cambodian flavours but also Japanese and even Creole, based on spices and herbs imported from La Reunion Island, where the owner came from.
Located within the Angkor Archaeological Park and set in a traditional Khmer house overlooking the royal bathing pool of Sra Srang, this restaurant only accepts advance booking, making it exclusively private. This place is probably one of the best places for travellers to have breakfast after witnessing sunrise or lunch after exploring at least half of the park. This restaurant specialises in Khmer traditional cuisine.
This is another restaurant where you can experience Khmer specialties. Nestled in the riverside district of Siem Reap river, Chanrey Tree Restaurant is actually built from a restored Khmer traditional wooden house with a contemporary design. Among the popular menus are Homemade Fresh Spring Rolls, Fish Amok (traditional Khmer curry with steamed bar fish), and mango and sticky rice.
If you’re looking for halal restaurants, then head your way to Steung Thmey Village where a small community of Muslim families live. There are more than five halal restaurants here but among the popular ones is Muslim Friendly Kitchen, which serves delectable dishes like green mango salad, seafood fried rice and lok lak fried rice.
WHERE TO STAY
Set in a modern Khmer architecture, this resort has everything you need for an ideal stay in the heart of Siem Reap. From spacious and comfy room, state-of-the-art facilities including gym, spa, Kid’s Club and huge pool to culinary excellence via Lok Lak Restaurant and Upper Deck rooftop bar, this property is ideal for business and leisure travellers alike.
One thing we like about this property is its villa, which has homely and relaxing ambience. Stepping inside made me feel as if I were at home with other villas fronting each other, forming a small, vibrant village in a garden-like setting. There is a pool of salt water in the middle and a restaurant, bar, reading space and spa. This property is hidden from the main road but only five minutes’ walk to Phsar Cha Old Market in the centre of town.