In the Khmer language, Siem Reap translates to ‘Siamese Defeated’, despite that fact that Thailand was the victor and controlled the city from 1794 to 1907, upon which time control was passed to the French (the evidence of this abundant in the French architecture noted throughout the city). With the discovery of the ruins of Angkor Wat by the French in the 19th century, the then-small town of Siem Reap began an evolution that would see it become an Asian jewel to the rich and famous, only to fall into hibernation under the strain of war and brutal rule under the Khmer Rouge. By the mid-1990′s, Siem Reap resumed its climb to promenence as Cambodia’s top tourist destination, with the concern now being that the city might become too developed and over-crowded with tourists, thus losing its charm. As with other Southeast Asian tourist destinations, Siem Reap is not without its annoyances, with the top one being the myriad beggars encountered. A large number of people in Siem Reap live in poverty, with many being those who have lost limbs due to landmines and can no longer work to support themselves.
You will also see many children begging for food, as their families’ limited income does not allow them sufficient food on a daily basis. For the charitable at heart, frustration can easily arise as a small donation to one person or child will often create a swarm of other beggars; this predicament is unfortunately unavoidable and must be taken in stride. The aggressive wandering vendors (which are predominantly children) present another annoyance, as does the usual endless inquiries about your need for a tuk-tuk or moto, or (if you’re a male tourist traveling alone) your need for a massage, a girl (‘boom-boom’), or drugs. Thankfully, there are many Tourist Police visible in the popular areas of Siem Reap to help keep things safe. Motorcycle traffic (and exhaust) can also be quite heavy and make street crossings a challenge, and the city is prone to periodic power failures.
Angkor Wat and other temples
Angkor Wat and its satellite temples are the main reason why people visit Siem Reap and you will understand why once you have visited them. Angkor is one of mankind’s amazing achievements built from around 800 to 1200 AD by the Khmer Empire. Over 200 of the temples have been restored in some way to allow visitors to imagine what it must of been like living during that period of time. There are actually over 1,000 temple sites of Angkor, but most of them are now barely standing, if even standing at all. I will write a separate review on all or most of the temples soon. Stay tuned…
This would be one of my favourite spots in Siem Reap. This tiny museum was set up by local deminer called Aki Ra to educate locals and tourists about the dangers of land mines. Piles of defused mines and UXO lie around the site and the guides are mostly teenagers who were orphaned or injured by mines, many of whom live on site. A very worthwhile trip that brings home the scale of the problem and shows you a slice of “real” Cambodia. US$1 entry, and donations very welcome â€” everything will be used to provide support for land mine relief initiatives, education and victim assistance. The museum moved in 2007, so make sure your motodop doesn’t try to take you to the old location in a village near Angkor Wat. I got to know that the wife of Aki Ra had passed away during my recent visit to the museum.
A short distance outside of the city center, there is a small bone stupa to mark the Khmer Rouge killing fields that were near Siem Reap. There is no cost to enter, but donations are requested, as the temple Wat Thmei that hosts the memorial is under expansion. For donations, use only the donation boxes in the temple altars or at the bone stupa. There are some cheaters standing at the temple entrance or on the graves on the right side, who will welcome you. After a short introduction they will ask you to give them directly donations/tips for their school in the temple. In fact they are not from the school and are trying to cheat on tourists.
Tonle Sap Lake
Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia and is an ecological hot spot that was designated as a UNESCO biosphere in 1997. The Tonle Sap is unusual for two reasons: 1) its flow changes direction twice a year, and 2) the portion that forms the lake expands and shrinks dramatically with the seasons.
From November to May, Cambodia’s dry season, the Tonle Sap drains into the Mekong River at Phnom Penh. However, when the year’s heavy rains begin in June, the Tonle Sap backs up to form an enormous lake. The area is home to many ethnic Vietnamese and numerous Cham communities, living in floating villages around the lake. The Catholic Church Chong Khnies is located on the lake. You can tour the floating village at USD $10 per person, the rather short boat tour could have been a bit more inspiring (in my opinion).
Tonle Sap lake from the plane
The War museum has tanks and other war artifacts from previous wars and it is located just off National Road No.6 to Siem Reap airport on the right hand side, where you will see a big sign when to turn off. The war museum is US$3 to enter and opens from 8:00am to 5:30pm daily. The war museum is not as popular as the Land Mine Museum, but may be more interesting to some people. The price of a tuk tuk to the museum is between US$6 and US$7 for a return trip. Take note that the museum curator was a veteran war army and he is now the caretaker of the museum. He claimed to have survived several landmine explosions.
Silk Worm Farm
The silk worm farm is worth the hike. It’s far from the town centre. The farm is still using some traditional menthods and machineries in their process. Items sold at the farm like shirts, handbags, etc are not cheap though. Again, ask any tuk-tuk driver for direction.
Phsar Chas (Old Market)
Phsar Chas (pronounced as Pasar Chas) is the best known market in Siem Reap, both to the locals and to tourists. It is a great landmark for visitors to Siem Reap due to its location, which has many restaurants, bars, cafes and shops nearby and in the surrounding area. You will find a large range of items in the Old Market including souvenirs, silks, clothes, gold jewellery, silver jewellery, homewares, electrical items, fresh produce, food stalls and lots more. Haggling or bargaining is normal in the markets of Cambodia, so you can expect to get a good discount on whatever price the vendor starts from.
The Old Market is open from around 6:00am to 6:00pm, but it is very hot and humid during the hottest times of the day so it is best to visit it either early morning or a few hours before closing time. Getting to the Old Market is easy, as every tuk tuk and taxi driver knows where it is, so getting them to understand where you want to go is easy. If you are staying within walking distance (like i did), then just ask your reception for directions.
Traditional Khmer Massage
Several Khmer massage parlours can be found in Siem Reap. Unlike their namesake counterparts in Bangkok, these are generally genuine massage parlours and not a front for sexual services. The Khmers believe that the Thai massage is derived from Khmer massage – which is just as relaxing (and requires less twisting and turning) as a Thai massage. A good 1-hour massage costs about USD 10
For something a bit more special, head into town. There are whole streets catering for the travellers tastes, with pizzas, hamburgers, or tasty westernised offerings such as Amok and ‘Khmer curry’
Best Way to Get Around:
Most of the sights in Siem Reap can be seen on foot. For the foot-sore and sun-weary, you’ll have plenty of offers from locals on motorbikes. Only the longest rides should be more than US$1 though prices go up at night. Simply agree a price and hop on the back.
Many guesthouses provide bicycles free for “round town” use, or US$1/day (single speed) and from US$2/day (with gears). It’s also a good way to see Angkor on your own – the terrain is flat and most roads are decent – but leave early to avoid the mid-day heat. I didn’t have the opportunity to try out as i don’t know how to cycle. Haha…
You can hire a motodop (motorbike taxi with driver) for a full day for US$8-10 or so. Some motodops may be able to provide you with a helmet if you request one in advance.
Tuk-tuk drivers can be hired for US$13 – $15/day for temples within the main part of the archaeological park. For temples or sights further afield, such as Banteay Srei, Beng Mealea or Kbal Spean, there will be an additional surcharge. The driver will arrange meeting places with you or wait where you tell them to. They are a great way of see the surrounds without the barrier of a car window! You will not find it hard finding a tuk-tuk, as you will be offered the service everywhere you walk on the streets, especially in the touristy areas such as Pub Street. A word of advice, pay them for their services after everything you have arranged is completed. For example, if you arrange for a later trip to the airport and pay them, chances are that you will have to find another ride. Although you can also bargain on the fees beforehand please think of the fact that an extra dollar or a couple of dollars is a great deal of money for your driver and his family.
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