Stepping out of the aircraft at the Siem Reap airport in Cambodia, I felt I was walking into a resort. Used to straight jacketed glass windows and sliding doors and ugly looking gates projecting out from the building, the sloping thatched roof tops of the airport gates as we walked out of the plane was a very welcoming sight.
There was a long queue for folks who were going for Visa on Arrival. Since we already had our visas stamped, we headed straight for immigration and walked out within a short period. Our hotel, the Empress Angkor Resort & Spa was just about 10 minutes from the airport. There was a row of hotels on that road which was called NR6. Do remember the full name of the hotel since practically every one of them has the word Angkor in the name. We were greeted warmly with “Sawasdee” (which means good day/welcome/hello) at a very fancy lobby with Cambodian paintings and scriptures all over. The room was quite spacious, and the overall feel of the hotel was quite grand for the price. Hotels in Siem Reap are not too expensive and you get good value for money. USD is commonly accepted across all shops and restaurants, so you don’t need to convert USD to local currency in Cambodia. Only for change less than 1 USD, the shops would return the change in Cambodian Riel otherwise they would even return the change in USD.
Cambodia has a much slower pace on the road as compared to the aggressive traffic witnessed in Vietnam just before arriving in Siem Reap. The primary attraction of Siem Reap are the beautiful temples in the ancient city of Angkor Thom. You get 1- day, 3 -day passes to visit the various temples. Since the temples require a lot of walking, a 1-day pass may not be sufficient. You can do Angkor Wat, Bayon Temple and Ta Prohm on the same day but more than that can be a very tiring experience. Angkor Thom is about a 30-40 minutes’ drive from Siem Reap.
On our first day in Siem Reap, we went to the Banteay Srei temple. Though the name of the temple means Citadel of Women, it is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The carvings on the red sandstone of the temple have key episodes from Ramayana and Mahabharata. The inner square of the temple is not accessible though one can see the beautiful ruins from the middle square. There is souvenir market when you exit the market and it is definitely worth a look since the souvenirs are different from the ones you get in the city.
There are various options for the evening such as watching the sunset at the fishing village, or the Phare circus or watching a traditional Apsara dance show offered in some of the restaurants. We chose to go for the signature Apsara dance show. The Koulen restaurant where we went for the show was massive in size with seating for around 300 people. The restaurant offers a buffet dinner. You can choose to see the show for $7.5 or dinner along with show as $15. The Pub Street is a 10 minute walk from the restaurant so if you don’t feel like having traditional Cambodian dinner, you can head out to Pub Street after the show. The show lasted for an hour and included 4-5 folk dances including the Apsara performance.
We went to Pub Street after the show which is abuzz at night, with the night market on both sides. This is the best place to get good bargains on souvenirs, silk clothes and linen as well as trinkets. Every shop is selling the same stuff so do a recce around instead of spending all your money in the first shop. There are massage spas offering massages at dirt cheap rates. These are dormitory style spas like you have at the airports. A foot massage for 30 minutes costed us only $4! This is a great place to sooth your nerves after a lot of walking at the temples.
The next day we went early in the morning to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Well I should add that there were 2000 others there to watch the sunrise so expect a huge crowd. To add to the dramatic impact of the sunrise, there are no lights in the entire temple premise so one needs to walk through the pitch-dark path to get near the temple. Thanks to our guide who suggested that we sit at a place which had huge stone slabs to watch the sunrise vs jostling with the crowds at the pond next to the temple to watch the reflection. The concept of watching the sunrise reflection in the pond is so overhyped that no one gets good pictures as there are hundreds of people standing there. Post the sunrise, the crowd dispersed in a few minutes and we were able to get a great click as you can see below 😊.
If you want to get up the main temple of Angkor Wat, there is a long flight of steep stairs. Otherwise you can access all other areas of the massive temple complex, though they are not disabled friendly. The carvings are beautiful and jaw dropping. One would take at least 2 hours to see the entire temple.
We then went to the Bayon temple that is also a signature symbol of Cambodia. Though the temple built in the 12th-13th century is dedicated to Buddha, other Gods like Vishnu, Shiva, Indra were also worshipped here. The close to 200 Buddha faces in the temple are a true work of art. Don’t get lost in the temple, each tower looks similar so you may not remember where you came in from.
After lunch we headed to our third and final destination for the day, the Ta Prohm temple. This temple is interesting as when it was discovered, there were huge trees that had grown over the ruins. It’s a bit eerie as when you see the trees, it seems the trees grew over the temple and crushed it. The trees have grown in weird ways and make for a great shooting spot and can make your imagination run wild on what would have happened there. No wonder the Tomb Raider movie had some scenes here.
Commuting locally is very easy in Siem Reap. The tuk tuk which seems to be a carriage behind a bike costs $ 2-3 for 4 people based on the distance you have to go to. They are available outside all hotels, tourist attractions and market places.
Overall Cambodia is a warm and friendly country with a rich heritage. Definitely a place I would want to go back to!