Experience Awe and Ahhs in Cambodia
Standing on the rough, giant stone slabs of a 1000 year-old Buddhist temple, a shiver may run up your spine as your finger gently traces the delicate arm of a dancing girl carved into an archway. When your eyes sweep across the expansive complex, taking in the tree roots that have melted over walls and doors in an attempt to swallow them into the forest, you become aware of your thumping heart. But you may wonder if you’re hearing the pulse of a long-lost culture echoing in your head. And as you climb up the huge temple steps – yes, you get to climb on ancient history here – your breath catches at the sight of serene, stone Buddhas smiling at you.
There are a few truly amazing places on this planet that seem to heighten your senses, where you’re able to feel more than you do elsewhere. Siem Reap, Cambodia is one of those rare, mesmerizing locations. It’s home to one of the most awe-inspiring historical sites in the world, and there’s even more to experience beyond the walls of Angkor Wat. The vibrant, colorful town will also pique your senses with tantalizing foods being served in open-air restaurants, relaxing massages around every corner and stylish shops filled with art, gifts and textiles. And the floating villages, where the descendants of some of those temple complex builders live today, will make you gasp when you see their rickety homes being moved by long-tail boats.
So grab your Indiana Jones hat and let’s explore some of these places together.
Pro Tip: The key to creating a memorable Siem Reap trip is hiring a really solid guide. My favorite, by far, is a truly wonderful English-speaking guide named Rachna An, owner of Angkorway.com. He made history come to life for us, knew how to avoid the tourist crush so we could have some of the temples to ourselves, and showed us some secrets and mysteries of the temples that I’ve never even read about before. Plus, it’s really eye-opening to talk with him about the more recent Khmer Rouge history, and he’s a great guy.
Hunt for Ancient Ruins
Let’s start with the main attraction: the big three temples in the Angkor Archeological Park. Let’s also visit the red temple, which is quite different than the others and a bit off the beaten track.
Even though you may have seen this iconic temple in the Tomb Raider movies, your jaw will likely still drop when you see this majestic place in person. Once totally concealed by the jungle before being discovered in the late 19th century, archeologists decided to keep many of the ficus, silk and strangler fig trees in place during renovations since the giant roots had become one with the ancient walls of this long-lost Buddhist monastery, university and temple. And if you close your eyes, you can still picture the precious stones glittering on the walls and hear music playing for the temple dancers. Be sure to get there as early as you can to beat the tourists and have this wondrous place all to yourself.
You can’t help but smile when you see the smiling faces of so many Buddhas. As the central temple of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, Bayon Temple is meant to represent the intersection of earth and heaven, and it certainly feels that way when you’re in it.
Don’t miss the more than 11,000 figures carved into the walls around the temple, which signify historical events, battles, close-encounters with crocodiles and even a surprise or two.
Pro Tip: Bring an umbrella with you to give you shade from the blazing-hot sun, and extra water to keep you hydrated while climbing all those steps.
Arguably the most iconic of all the temples, Angkor Wat is a truly spectacular example of Khmer architecture and art. You can climb up the giant, steep stairs, feel the bas-reliefs under your fingertips, and watch saffron-robed monks praying in its eaves. Unlike Bayon, this was built as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, and because of its stunningly perfect balance, proportions and carvings, its widely considered one of the most magnificent structures on earth. Even if you’re not really into architecture, history or art, its sheer magnitude and beauty will still take your breath away.
A little ways outside of Siem Reap is another gorgeous temple that gets far fewer visitors than the big 3: the red temple. Built from unique red standstone, this smallish Hindu temple features intricately carved walls and statues. The pediments and lintels are so ornate and detailed, you could lose yourself within their beauty for hours. Be sure to hunt for kala – a monster with big teeth, which symbolizes time – and the demi-goddess devata, who is featured in many places throughout the complex.
Pro Tip: Many temples now require visitors to wear “respectful” attire. So be sure to wear something that covers your shoulders, and either pants/long shorts that cover your knees, or bring a sarong to wrap around your waist.
Hike to the Penises
After a couple days of exploring the ancient ruins, you can get a little “templed out,” and a great way to soothe your overworked eyeballs is to take a hike through the lush tropical jungle. Our guide, Rachna, took us out to Kbal Spean where we hiked to the sacred river. At its head (sorry for the pun – couldn’t resist), is where you’ll find a whole bunch of penises carved into the stone. That’s why it’s known as the River of a Thousand Lingas. There are also lots of Hindu gods and goddesses carved into the sandstone bedrock and beside the beautiful waterfall, which you can access just a bit downstream. It’s believed that many of the stones quarried for the temples traveled down this river, hence the reverence for it. The magical little spotted butterflies that can often be found flittering around the river certainly adds to the mystical peace and beauty of this place.
Most visitors to Siem Reap never get to see one of the most fascinating and unique things about the area: the floating villages on the Tonle Sap Lake, just a short ways outside the city. You’ll need a guide to take you out to a tributary leading to the lake, and hire a long-tail boat to take you out to meet the migratory inhabitants. Close to 6,000 people live on top of the lake in floating homes made from reeds, scrap wood and corrugated tin. There’s no electricity, plumbing, or even running water – save for the lake, which rises and falls with the wet and dry season. The inhabitants, most of who fish for a living and have small fish-farms beneath their homes – move based on the water level. It’s pretty fascinating to learn how they live.
Grub and Rub on Pub Street
Downtown Siem Reap is as lively as it is charming. It’s beating heart is Pub Street, lit by festive multi-colored lights and lined with creative eateries and chair-massage shops. After a long, hot day of adventure, there’s nothing quite like having a passionfruit margarita, followed by a delicious $5 foot massage to reenergize your tired legs. There are also lots of art boutiques full of stunning pieces created by local artists, and a great little night market around the corner where you can buy anything from pashmina dresses and silk scarves to fresh mango on a stick.
Pro Tip: Weirdly, the currency used everywhere in Siem Reap is the American dollar. It’s even dispensed out of the ATMs in town. So if you’ve got dollars on hand, don’t worry about changing money prior to going to Siem Reap.
Awaken Your Soul with Awe and Ahh
Being able to reenact Tomb Raider in the morning and dine on jackfruit curry and margaritas in the evening under the stars, all your senses will be tingling with the stunning array of adventures you can experience in a single day in Siem Reap. But you may also get a sense for both the awe and ahh in a single moment if you get the chance to meet one of the land mine survivors who make their living as artists, musicians and merchants around town. While many people avert their eyes when they see a man without legs or eyes, I suggest you do something different: talk with him about his life and learn how he’s working hard to earn a living for his family. Then you’ll truly feel more than you ever expected, and Siem Reap, its people, its history and its culture, will be part of you forever.
When to go:
The driest time of the year is between November to March. And while it’s hot throughout the year, the least blazing months are typically December and January. But during the wet season – April to October – there aren’t as many tourists, and hotels are far cheaper.
How many days to stay:
You can squeeze a lot into a couple of days at Siem Reap. If you want to experience everything listed above, you can crank it out in two full days. But add a couple extra days if you’d like to take your time enjoying the splendor of the Archeological Park, visit temples that are further afield, or just to take in this interesting place at a relaxed pace.
Where to stay:
Since you’ll be doing lots of walking in the day, it’s nice to be close to great restaurants at night, so I’d recommend staying in downtown Siem Reap close to Pub Street. But don’t worry – if you find something you like on the outskirts, tuk-tuk rides are super cheap. There are loads of highly affordable, quality hotel options in Siem Reap, and my favorites are: The Golden Temple, which is exceptionally affordable, a very comfortable stay and good value; The Shinta Mani Club for a luxurious treat; and Memoire d’Angkor Boutique Hotel, for affordable luxury.
Unless you hold a passport from a Southeast Asian nation, you are required to have a visa to enter Cambodia. You can do a visa-on-arrival, which will cost you $30USD and you will need to present them with two passport photos.
If you’d like to skip the lines, you can purchase an e-visa in advance of your trip by visiting the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation website. You will need to submit a digital passport photo and pay the $37USD fee by credit card.
Have fun, my friends!