Gateway to Ancient Angkor
Siem Reap is the gateway to the temples of Angkor which is just a 4 mile tuk tuk ride away, we stayed here for 4 nights to explore these magnificent man made wonders. After filling out our immigration forms, we handed over a passport photo and US$35 each and we were all set with our visa on arrival, the queues were nice and speedy too.
Siem Reap is now a major tourist hub and caters for all travellers all year round from chic 5 star resorts to budget conscious backpacker hostels, it even has PGA golf courses, this is a busy resort town which is still expanding. Garth was surprised how green it was, there’s lovely Frangipani trees everywhere.
The Cambodian people refer to themselves as Khmer, a reference to the past kingdom. People greet you with their hands in prayer position called Sampeah, similar to Thailand, but there is etiquette. The higher they hold the hands the more important you are, Phil did the hand greeting back and then changed it to a nod in fear of offending, we never did find out what the best thing to do was!
Getting around is easy with the plentiful supply of tuk tuks in Siem Reap. Find a driver that speaks a bit of English and negotiate a price up front. Expect to pay US$2 for short trips around town, and around US$15-$25 for a round trip to the Angkor Wat temples. Most tuk tuk drivers will also offer to be your guide for the day around the temples for around US$30, bargain!
Khmer Cooking Class
We took a cooking class with Cooks in Tuk Tuks which was a brilliant experience, we’d highly recommend taking a cooking class if you have the time. Our chef started the class with a visit to the local food market where she explained what were the most common vegetables and herbs used in Khmer cooking. She then showed us which ingredients we would be using to create our dishes during her lesson. The indoor market was ridiculously humid, even some of the vendors were laid flat under electric fans. It’s not for the faint hearted, especially when the odd cockroach wanders by your feet!
We found Khmer food neither hot or spicy, just very fragrant and tasty. Our chef showed showed us how to prepare and cook the classic Khmer curry dish – Fish Amok and a banana flower chicken salad.
Our chef spoke great English, and was really engaging answering lots of questions, like explaining what herbs and veg we could use instead if something wasn’t available to buy back in England. The outdoor setting was great too, we even got to enjoy couple of beers whilst cooking! Phil enjoyed all the small details learning how to chop things in different ways, using the little tools she had to chop ingredients. Garth is not exactly a cook but joined in with preparing lemongrass, Phil learnt how to take out baby banana seeds from the flower of a banana.
Our finished Fish Amok dish, absolutely delicious!
For evenings out start with Pub Street to get your bearings, and then explore the various markets all around here like The Angkor Night Market which has over 100 stalls selling the usual tourist tat.
Pub Street is packed wth foreigners and backpackers and lots of cheap beer, yes it’s gaudy and looks like a street from Magaluf but thankfully no brits behaving badly here, instead a very nice atmosphere. There’s tons of food options here from popular Khmer barbecues to cheap street food, aswell as plenty of Western dishes. If you’re feeling adventurous on the other side of town you can chow down on deep fried snake, locust or chilli cockroaches, try Bugs Cafe that specialises in bug tapas, eek!
A tuk tuk ride away from Pub Street and we arrived at the Phare Circus. Garth was a bit sceptical about seeing this, but as soon as it started was captivated by their energy and speed of the performance, this is not a boring show, you can’t help but smile at their performance.
The show tells the story of a disabled boy rejected by a village, we won’t say anymore as we don’t want to spoil it, except the message they want you to take away is quite deep. It’s modern and full of stunts, acrobatics and dance it’s very impressive and quite funny at times.
Set in a traditional big top tent, it’s hot, really hot, there’s some air conditioning and they gave us hand fans as we went in. The Phare Circus is run by an arts charity who help and transform the lives of young Cambodians at a school that provides education and arts training. Donations and profits from the circus go back to the school, so they can continue their work training the next generations of artists.
Apsara Dance & Dinner
Another evening we had dinner at Apsara Theatre opposite the Angkor Village Hotel. The evening started with a meal – lots of different Khmer dishes, the fish amok in banana leaf was lovely. The traditional Khmer dances were excellent 40 dancers, singers and musicians performed various apsara dancing, who tell stories referred to as palatine dances. The girls with their stunning headdresses were dressed as Apsaras, dancing girls from Hindu mythology, we also saw them depicted in bas-reliefs on the walls at Angkor Wat. They performed various hand gestures and were fascinating to watch as they bend back their fingers almost to their wrists, these apparently have different meanings.
The musicians are part of a traditional Khmer orchestra called a “pinpeat” with a strong emphasis on percussion. Drums, gongs, xylophone and oboe are just some of the instruments used. It’s completely touristy, but the dancers and extremely talented and the dance is authentic, so worth seeing. Tip – get into a comfortable position after eating and before the show starts.
Our 5 Star stay
We paid for a stay at the Borei Angkor which was a fabulous 5 star hotel and spa resort, we couldn’t fault anything, in fact the hospitality was the best we’ve ever experienced in all of our Asia trips. If you’re visiting in November like we did, then a hotel pool is essential and a welcome escape from the heat and humidity, especially after a hard day of temple sightseeing!
Phil and Garth’s Top 5 Siem Reap Tips
- Tip #1: Buying souvenirs? haggling is always expected, so don’t settle for the first price offered.
- Tip #2: For responsible tourism try a meal at charity run restaurants like Haven.
- Tip #3: Remember water is unsafe, don’t use those fishy foot spas as they’re not hygienic.
- Tip #4: Even though the official currency is Cambodian Riel, US Dollars is what tourists should use.
- Tip #5: Got more time? See the spectacular floating villages at Tonle Sap Lake.