Following a rather uneventful 6 hour bus journey, we arrived in the tourist hotspot of Siem Reap. As expected we were spoilt for choice when it came to our tuk tuk driver to take us to our hotel; in fact we had no choice at all, it simply came down to who was more desperate to take us! It’s nice to feel wanted.
Joella’s hotel booking skills again proved their weight in gold – Rose Apple Boutique Bed and Breakfast was a lovely setup that felt more like a second home, than an 18 bed hotel. The kitchen and restaurant was open plan, with both seamlessly merging into the tranquil swimming pool area outside. All the staff were lovely, and took time to show us round our room and all the communal spaces. Even the owner took time to chat to us on multiple occasions, and being a patriotic Belgian, gave us an update on the Flemish initiative to gain UNESCO world heritage status for their fries.
Day 1 – The Large temple circuit (and Mr Pheach)
The second we were introduced to our designated tuk tuk driver, we were immediately impressed: Mr Pheach was a keen, happy and thoughtful chap, who always went that extra mile. Despite only paying him to drive us round, he made sure to give us a brief introduction to each temple, and led us to a few bonus sights along the way too! He was so good in fact, we appointed him our driver for the all three days worth of templing.
Following a scrumptious breakfast of pancakes then purchasing our tickets, we made our way around the large temple circuit (large in terms of distance). The first few we came to were amazing, and it was difficult to take in their sheer size, design complexity and carving intricacy. The magical atmosphere most likely helped too, as often we were entirely alone in the sometimes cavernous hallways and dense jungles that surrounded them – Indiana Jones eat your heart out! The latter temples began to feel a little similar and got busier as the day went on, but they were still well worth the visit.
Day 2 – The Small temple circuit (and Pub Street)
I entirely blame FOMO (fear of missing out) on our decision to get up at 4am, in order to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat – the largest religious monument in the world. Despite suggestions from some people [cough, cough Rebecca McLellan] that “it’ll be quieter the earlier you go”, it was in fact tourist central despite being 5.15 in the morning. After arriving, we merged into the eager crowds of approximately 200 – 300 tourists made up from a hotchpotch of nationalities, who were gathering around the moat. Everyone waited patiently for around half an hour, but due to the cloud cover we didn’t actually see anything resembling a ‘sunrise’ – what an anti-climax…
Four hours of temple exploration later, and we were ready for some drinks – Pub Street here we come! I guess you could say Pub St is Siem Reap’s answer to Magaluf – one street dedicated to the act of eating and getting drunk. It was very easy to sink a few $2 cocktails and $0.50 Angkor beers in this melting pot of people, sounds and smells, while we soaked up the electric atmosphere and became masters of the art of people watching. We even managed to find a Scottish themed bar that stocked a variety of excellent single malts, although the place was dead and decor incredibly cheesy.
Day 3 – Art galleries (and scorpion eating)
After two days of hardcore temple touring, we felt the need to take some time out from Cambodia’s past, to enjoy some of the fine craftsmanship happening today. It was really heartwarming and inspiring to discover that many of the craft shops and galleries are run by charities setup to support the children, disabled and land mine victims of Cambodia. Not only were we able to browse through their beautiful creations, but we could also tour some of the workshops and see their creativity in action. Although our backpacks were near bursting already, we couldn’t resist buying a beautiful painting of a temple done by an ex-pupil, turned art teacher.
We finished the day off by trying a few local delicacies, scorpions to be precise. The passionate Frenchman that runs the show was especially surprised by our daring choice, and equally impressed that we finished all four of the crispy critters served up with fried cashew nuts and vegetables. They were edible, but not exactly tasty – at least our jaw and teeth got a good work out from crunching and chewing the claws to pieces.
Day 4 – Banteay Srei (and policing the waterfall)
Not wanting to lose out on our third and last day’s worth of temple access left on our pass, we set off on a marathon tuk tuk ride to Banteay Srei – ‘The Women’s temple’. After an hour’s worth of tuk tuking, we arrived and were immediately uber disappointed by how touristy the place was, especially given that many people had told us it tends to be less busy than other temples given it’s distance from Siem Reap. Unlike the other temples, here there was a huge dedicated car park already full with dozens of coaches, and even a holding-pen at the entrance for when it got too busy. We quickly sped round and moved on to see the waterfalls and carvings atop of a nearby hill.
After climbing said hill, we reached the summit to find a small tranquil stream surrounded by an assortment of ancient Khmer carvings that then led to a waterfall below. Despite there being a handful of tourists about, it was relatively peaceful. Or at least it was, until a disinterested teenager started blaring some angry hip-hop from his phone, while a tour guide was talking to his group. At first I thought perhaps it was a mistake; his headphones had come out, or perhaps maybe it was his ringtone. But no, it continued, and with my blood boiling and no one else saying anything (not even the tour guide), I couldn’t hold back from shouting over at him. Following a few awkward glances from people at me, then at him, he proceeded to turn it down; and my risk of heart seizure evaporated with the noise.
No matter who you are, Siem Reap and its surroundings definitely deserve their place in everyone’s bucket list. This is thanks to achieving a fine balance in offerings, an almost juxtaposition in fact; between the central party atmosphere downtown and breathtaking ancient temples surrounding it.