Cambodia is universally known as one of the friendliest countries in the world. Full of laughing children, cheeky monkeys and breathtaking views, combined with it’s rich history and ancient architecture, Cambodia becomes a must visit country for all travellers.
As you can rightfully imagine there is so much to see and do, therefore this post is part one of a four-part series on things to do in Cambodia. Stay tuned in the next few weeks for what to do in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Kampot!
PART 1: Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
Some information: Siem Reap is the launching pad for tourists to explore the giant Angkor Wat temple complex. Angkor Wat was the capital or the Khmer Empire up until the 13th century and it contains many more temples and ancient artefacts in the 400km area than just the iconic Angkor Wat. These ancient temples were lost to the world as border conflicts infused the region, until during the French Occupation the temples were “rediscovered” and protected (I imagine that the local people never lost these spectacular buildings).
How Long: There is a lot to do in Siem Reap and the surrounding area so I would recommend an extra day or two on top of what you plan on spending at the temples. You need to buy a tourist pass before you enter the Angkor Wat complex. I recommend the three-day pass, as it gives you time to see what you want and come and go as you need. If you are pushed for time you can buy a one day pass and just see the big temples. There is also the option of a five-day pass – this would be best for ancient history enthusiasts only, as no matter how spectacular the temples are they soon become confused in your mind after a few days.
Beware: There are many scams that are in effect in the area. Some involve your moto driver dropping you off in the middle of the countryside where you will wait long enough to become panicked before a bus comes along and charges you a huge amount of money to take you back to town. On the bus from Phnom Penh there are companies that will drop you off at a specific guest house and tell you that all others are full – I suggest booking your accommodation in advance to avoid this. There are many children who beg around the temples, they are very poor and so will snatch up your bag if you leave it unattended. Like everywhere, be sensible and follow your gut but also be polite.
Things to Do:
Angkor Wat is spectacular in half-light, I recommend sunrise as opposed to sunset as there are less crowds and once you have finish at Angkor you can wander around the rest of the temples near by without the hordes of people ruining your photos or spiritual contemplation.
So many temples, there are three circuits of temples. Circuit one can be walked around and contains the big ones such as Angkor Wat and the Bayon temple. Hire bikes and cycle through Big Temple Circuit, where you will discover loads of little artefacts that you might miss as you whizz past in a moto. Outer Circuit is best explored in a moto with a driver who knows some history about the temples – your guest house should be able to recommend a good driver.
Feeling hungry? A great way to experience the amazing food of Cambodia is to do a cooking class. You will be taken through the markets and shown what ingredients to pick, then taught how to make more food than you can possibly consume (take the left overs back to your home for a midnight feast). My choice is Tigre De Papier.
Swimming is a great way to wash away the tension you may have built up from cycling through all of those temples, not to mention a great way to cool down in the humid oppressive heat. You can pay just $5 to most of the major hotels to use their pool and towels for the day.
Still hungry? Give back by eating or drinking for a cause. Places like the Butterflies Garden Restaurant are a great place to grab a coffee, cake or lunch while supporting
causes such as reviving the traditional Cambodian performing arts.
Tomb Raider was filmed at the Ta Prohm Temple, so not only is it a movie set but it is one of the most magical and intact temples in the complex. Spend sometime getting in touch with your inner Lara Croft as your scramble over the ruins.
Psar Chaa is the market to go to if you are planning on doing any souvenir shopping. It dominates the old quarter most evenings and it has everything from silver jewellery, slogan T-shirts, place-mats and chopsticks to finely carved furniture and woven rugs. If your feet are a little callused from all that temple walking, stick your feet in a fish tank and have the amphibians eat all the dead skin off your soles.
Cocktail hour is done with style in Siem Reap where a bubbling nightlife ripples through the two main tourist streets. Pub hop from Temple Club to Funky Monkey tasting the rich array of cocktails that can be bought by the jug. Some places even offer a free T-shirt if you buy two jugs!
Siem Reap has so much to offer that you can easily spend a couple of weeks in this laid-back lazy town, just soaking up the history and a few cocktails. The people are constantly helpful and friendly – service is always done with a smile (if a little laid-back). You will fall in love with the people as much as you do the temples.
Final Tip – Educate Yourself: Cambodia has a very chequered past filled with conflict, however, I am not going to delve into that in this post – there is just too much to be said. If your education, like mine has a few holes in it where this country is concerned then I suggest reading up on the Khmer Rouge, the French Occupation and the Khmer Empire before you get there (seriously when I arrived in Cambodia and learnt all about the history of the area I was shocked that they hadn’t taught us this during school). In learning about these many complicated aspects of Cambodia’s history you will greatly enhance your whole trip.