The serenely smiling faces of the Bayon temple loom benignly over visitors to the Angkor Archaeological Park, who are accompanied on their way by friezes of gauzily-clad apsara nymphs and undulating stone naga snakes. Siem Reap holidays are the gateway to a thrilling exploration of evocative ruins scattered over 400 square kilometres of jungle in Cambodia.
The wonders of Siem Reap holidays
From watching the iconic temple of Angkor Wat reflected in its sacred reservoir at sunrise, to exploring the exquisitely decorated Banteay Srei complex, this is a travel bucket list moment you’ll treasure forever.
Learn more about the mighty Khmer civilisation that developed here between the 9th and 12th centuries. The thought of the largest city in the pre-industrial world being here is truly awe-inspiring. See the river of 1,000 lingas, the temple mountains and the jungle-choked ruins of Ta Prohm.
Thailand to Siem Reap by bus
The road to Siem Reap in Cambodia is a rough one, alternately rocky and muddy, rutted but with occasional stretches of ancient seal. When it starts to rain the bus tyres send up huge sprays of red mud.
It’s a bone-shaking ride through beautiful countryside. Rice fields stretch away forever across the flat, flat land. Tall-standing umbrella palms stalk the Cambodian landscape like sentinels.
Small villages line the road. Thatch houses on stilts, some planted squarely up to their knees in water in the low lying land. A marching team of four small boys, stick rifles over their shoulders, look around and up at the bus in unison, providing an innocent reminder of more violent times.
The bus passes a group of young men bathing in one of the muddy roadside reservoirs. As well as themselves, they are washing precious possessions in the pond: the cow and the motorbike.
Siem Reap itself is a pleasant little town, with plenty of options for dining, shopping and pampering. There is a burgeoning foodie scene and cooking classes are a great way to gain insight into the culture while exploring the subtle flavours and textures of Cambodian cuisine.
Hotel and guesthouse touts, moto-drivers, amputees with hat in hand and ragged children; none of these will leave you alone. But I do not begrudge them trying to earn a living.
There is a good range of accommodations, from luxurious to the cheerfully cheap. It was easy to arrange a moto-drawn cart to spend a few days exploring the nearby temples. Siem Reap also has a lively foodie scene with good restaurants and authentic vegetarian eats.
Siem Reap offers a huge selection of restaurants, but its street food is an experience not to be missed. From 5pm onwards, stroll along the riverside or take a ride to Road 60, be adventurous in tasting anything from fried noodles to skewers to bugs.
For shopping in Siem Reap wander through the Old Market near Pub Street which a wide range of souvenirs. If you want to discover local, more hip, high-end and original boutiques, go to Kandal Village.
Other popular things to do in Siem Reap include a day trip to the dense marshes and picturesque floating villages of Tonle Sap Lake. In the dry season take a boat tour to the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary to see thousands of exotic birds in residence during the breeding months.
Exploring the Angkor temples
Wandering through the widespread temple complex that starts just a few miles away from Siem Reap is nothing short of amazing. Expecting it to be crowded with tourists I was pleasantly surprised to find myself exploring the ruins of the many temples in peace. Only at sunset, at the great temple of Angkor Wat, do the Cambodia tour buses provide a crowd.
I looked, imagined, wandered, climbed and marvelled. Looked up at the enigmatic and serene stone faces of the Bayon. Imagined parades and pageants on the Terrace of the Elephants. Climbed the temple mountains representing the spatial universe in miniature. Marvelled at the trees entwining the ruined jungle monasteries; their enormous aerial roots creating fantastic shapes as they become one with the stone (very Indiana Jones). Read more about the five monuments to see in Angkor Thom here.
The bas-reliefs and carvings in many places are exquisite. History and mythology, kings and armies, processions and battles, dancing princesses and concubines, portly elephants and bearded wise men. And you can’t forget the bare breasted, gauzy-skirted, celestial nymphs, the Angkor Angels, the Apsaras.
The main event, Angkor Wat itself, gives you chills as you cross the moat and approach the inner causeway through massive gates. This Cambodia treasure is 10 times more breathtaking than approaching any European monument, such as St Peters Basilica in Rome.
I was drawn through the courtyards and galleries; up the stomach-lurchingly steep steps of the central tower. Around every corner another stunning decorative flourish. I saw it at sunrise and sunset and many different times of the day.
Everywhere you go amongst the huge area of temples (and in Cambodia) you will be found by the children from the local villages, selling or begging or just making conversation. They are very sweet and it is all in good humour, they seem to enjoy the joke as much as the harassed westerners.
Again, it was only outside Angkor Wat that the pressure became more intense (though still hilarious): “You wan moto, scarf, flute, water, postcard, bracelet, baby?” Baby? Well it was an ugly baby.
Onwards to Phnom Penh
Heading to Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh was again a rollercoaster bus ride. This is a country where cattle are vehicles, pulling the plough through the muddy water of a paddy field, plodding along the roads in front of the high wheeled wooden carts the people have used for over a thousand years. Every square inch of land is turned to continuous rice cultivation.
By Natasha von Geldern