I recently took a last minute trip to Siem Reap, a city in northwest Cambodia. Only an hour’s flight from Bangkok, I decided to visit the area because it’s Thailand’s neighbour and pretty cheap. Plus I was travelling alone and heard that it’s pretty safe and there’s lots to see.
The Kingdom of Cambodia, also known as Khmer, is quite rightly also referred to as the “Kingdom of Wonder” where ancient and modern worlds meet to create outstanding adventures, that include; ancient architecture, fascinating silk industry, booming art-scene and cosmopolitan cafe culture.
I flew to Cambodia with “Asia’s Boutique Airline” Bangkok Airways who were wonderful, especially when it cam to the food and service. As they were celebrating 50 years in the industry, I received a complimentary blue macarons on both flights, along with my lunch. Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport impressed me a lot due to it’s modern layout, with attractive traditional Cambodian features, and swift service. It took under ten minutes for me to apply for my 30 day tourist visa (only $30) and go through immigration. (Top tip: always carry passport photos and U.S. dollars on arrival).
I was met in arrivals by my driver who was there to take me on my transfer to my hotel in Siem Reap. As it was the last day of the Khmer new year, a long the road to my hotel, we were met by several excited children who were equipped with loaded water pistols, ready to attack passing vehicles. It was much like the Thai Songkran festival and really fun to see others getting soaked and the thousands of fairy lights that decorated the homes. Our journey, the driver assured me, took longer because of the masses of traffic for the celebrations, but we arrived at Tara Angkor Hotel, dry and in good time.
At check-in I was informed that I had a complimentary cocktail, foot massage and bike hire during my stay which I could take advantage of at anytime. Plus, transfers to and from the airport were included in the price of the hotel – bargain! I treated myself to room-service and a long bath as soon as I got to room, excited for my few days in Cambodia.
I opted for a day around the hotel for my first full day in Siem Reap, so booked in my hour foot massage in the spa in the morning, after a wonderful big breakfast. Tara Spa was a quiet, aromatic haven, where upon arrival I was treated to some local tea and hot cleansing towel. I was then ushered into a treatment room where I lay down to enjoy the foot massage, as well as a bonus shoulder and neck massage, which set me up for my relaxing day.
For the rest of the day (until the rain came) I made myself comfortable around the pool, reading and swimming. During the brief showers, I hailed a tuk-tuk and asked the driver to take me to the nearest shops for a look around. Lucky Mall was the perfect respite from the rain and, although small, contained several beauty stores, electronic and clothing outlets, as well as a large supermarket which was packed with loads of fresh produce and some Western food. After a lot of window shopping and a few purchases of fresh fruit and face masks (an off combination, I know!) I returned to my hotel in the tuk-tuk and proceeded to pamper myself, before checking out the small gym and sauna.
After another filling breakfast, I hopped into my pre-booked tuk-tuk at 8am for a day of temple exploring. Located between the Tonle Sap lake and the Kulen Mountains and less than half an hour away from my hotel is the huge area of ancient temples, dedicated to Buddhist and Hindu gods. Dating back to the 12th century, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Archaeological Park has around 50 temples which are partially in ruin, but allow visitors to have a peek into the Khmer empire.
After paying $37 for my entry ‘Angkor Pass’, I was taken to the Angkor Thom area. My first stop was the Ta Prohm Temple, which is famous for being the set for both the movie and game Tomb Raider. This sprawling, yet tranquil monastery was once home to royalty but has now been engulfed by massive trees and vines, making it part of the surrounding jungle. As I wandered around the site, through some of the passage ways there were monks sat on the floor with a multitude of colourful pieces of string Buddhist bracelets that they sold in exchange for a prayer. This was a common sight in most of the temples I visited.
I let my tuk-tuk driver decide which route to take so that I could get a glimpse of the best temples, as I didn’t know where to start. He was also my personal photographer! Still in Angkor Thom, the next stop, I came across Ba Phuon Temple, that was built in honour of the Hindu God. The pyramid shaped temple represents the mythical Mount Meru by its three-tiers. As most of it is now collapsed, I had to tread carefully. There’s a really impressive path that cuts through some ponds leading up to the temple and I spotted the intriguing animal carvings at the entrance to the central sanctuary.
Impressive and featuring about 50 stone towers in the heart of Angkor Thom, Ba Yon Temple also has carvings of four faces of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Climbing up the three stories of this beautiful piece of architecture, and taking in the jungle views below, I met some traditionally dressed Khmer ladies, who were conveniently posing on some steps.
Although I didn’t go inside this temple, Ta Keo was very striking, mainly because it was constructed of green sandstone, unlike the other temples in the area. The temple is only half built and supposedly struck by lightening. It also possesses no carvings.
The main temple and largest in this area is Angkor Thom (or Big Angkor). With five sets of 20 metre tall gates surrounding it, the temple has many intricate stone carvings of elephants and the four faces of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, as well as statues of other gods and demons.
My driver saved the best and most iconic temple until last – Angkor Wat. This Hindu was said to have been constructed a burial temple in the 12th century but soon became a Buddhist temple in 14th century. The first thing that struck me was the stunning location of the temple, with lakes in the foreground and five lotus-like towers rising 65 metres up to the sky.
It was packed with tourists and the hottest part of the day when I arrived at the entrance where the first temple sits. This is only the beginning of the site, as there’s a second temple in the centre, which you have to walk to, once you pass through the second wall. As another earthly representation of Mount Meru, the ‘City Temple’ rises up to the sky magnificently. Around the temple I noticed carvings of angel-like creatures, ‘apsaras’ (or heavenly nymphs) on the walls.
Once in the centre, I queued up and I took a ticket to access another part of the temple, not really knowing what I was in for. I had ascend some crazily steep steps to Bakan, the upper level and was rewarded with views of the whole temple complex, including vast gardens. I could’ve spent hours at this site alone but it was nearing sun set and time to head back to the hotel.
That evening I treated myself to a meal in the hotel courtyard and a (free) cocktail from the Lily Lounge. It was the perfect way to unwind after a memorable day.
After a leisurely morning at the pool, I made use of the free bike hire at the hotel and rode into town, along the Siem Reap river. In search of the Old Market (or Phsar Chas), I passed the Angkor National Museum and had a quick look the galleries that had several interesting exhibits on Buddhist and Khmer culture. The entry fee is $12 and worth it if the weather’s bad or you’ve had enough of temples.
A few minutes down the road I found the Old Market, which wasn’t ‘old’ as I expected. It was full of everything from Cambodian silks, jewellery, clothes, shoes, wood and stone carvings, as well as fresh food stalls in the centre. Elsewhere, the Asana Organic Farmers Market held each Sunday morning is not just an artisan market but a social hub for locals. The Made in Cambodia market is also worth a visit for home-grown, ethical and eco-friendly stalls. After exploring the tourist area of Pub Street and rewarding my cycling effort with a fresh smoothie, I headed back to the hotel, via the colourful Royal Gardens.
That evening I went to the Koulen Restaurant to experience a Cambodian buffet and the traditional Khmer dancing show. The venue was a huge Khmer lintel with rows of tables that looked onto a large stage. Over three hours I enjoyed a range of cuisine, including Somlar Kako, a traditional Cambodian soup, whilst listening to an intro of percussion music which led up to a really entertaining show full of male and female dancers dressed in ornate and colourful costumes. I was mesmerised!
It was a great last night and send off for a truly incredible trip.