Siem Reap looks like a revived memory of the gold fever times. A small town in the Cambodian beaten track appeared and grew in the blink of an eye only because famous Angkor Wat was found nearby. Imagine not the cleanest, here and there threadbare, picturesque gold-diggers’ town near the gold mines with the center located in the pub quarter near the night market.
Siem Reap speaks all languages at once – it is a buzzing beehive. Perhaps this is just the way fallen-into-oblivion Babylon looked. Not less than two dozen of the temples of the Angkor complex – small and big, famous and not – compete for the role of the gold mines. These ancient architectural masterpieces are the reason why people come to Cambodia.
Are there any periods when Siem Reap stays unpopulated? I don’t think so. Maybe during the rainy season. We came to Cambodia for holidays and landed in the tiny airport of Siem Reap. Suspiciously clean for Asia, green and beautiful – definitely not the way we have imagined the motherland of the Khmer Rouge and the bloody dictator Pol Pot. The procedure with the Cambodian visa is maximally simplified – you fill out the tourist visa, pay 25 US dollars, and you are in the country of the ancient temples and Apsaras.
Siem Reap is the only civilization spot in this region. The city appeared thanks to tourists and still exists only on the tourist income. It is a stopping place for everyone who longs to see Angkor Wat. I think this former village in the north of Cambodia will only keep growing and getting rich because not every country has such a splendid historic heritage as the Angkor temples.
The variety of Siem Reap hotels is impressive: plenty of modest guest houses and splendid 5* hotels in the same district. In order to save some money without sacrificing our comfort, we stopped at the Prince D’Angkor Hotel & Spa. A pool in the hotel is a great bonus in such archaeological trips, and Prince D’Angkor Hotel had it. Both outside and especially inside, the hotel looks like a real palace.
In the Prince D’Angkor Hotel you easily forget that you are not in the most prosperous country in the world. The personnel are perfect and eager to satisfy all needs of their guests. They bow all the time keeping the hands together. After a while, you start to copy their moves and bow, bow, and bow in Buddhist style.
Siem Reap is a gathering place for the seekers of adventure and the exotic from all over the world. We all rush to these lands in order to take a glance at the unique creations of the Khmer architects: Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm , Bayon, and other temples.
The lifestyle of the city is very simple. All day, everybody looks at the antiquities, but we all meet in the food quarter in the evening. Crocodile, or grilled snake? Both are not that delicious, by the way, but the local beer Angkor is quite good, and the Italian wines, too. But don’t be in a hurry to make a choice right now. The merchants of the night market will feed you the local culinary wonders for pennies, and the restaurants of most national cuisines of the world are all over the place. “Happy pizza” is for those who wish it, and the local ice cream “ginger with sesame” for gourmets!
There is an incredible number of shops with silver and precious stones here. Silverware is sold here by weight and in kilograms. We personally watched as a merchant weighed a full-size silver bunch of bananas on the standard scales for an English-speaking couple. We also bought a small silver elephant for the memory and luck.
However, there is something you want to do prior to dinner. You should definitely give a rest to your exhausted feet and simultaneously organize a laughter therapy session by visiting the Fish Spa. First, you have really deserved it today; second, tomorrow you’re going to spend one more day in the jungle. You won’t have to search for such salons: the pub quarter of Siem Reap is full of the aquariums. They are on every step, just like pubs. The main thing is to find the hungry fishes!
So, how does the procedure work? I must admit that it took all Irina’s eloquence and powers of persuasion to make me to go through this experiment. So, a boy/girl will wash your feet properly, and you sit on the edge of a huge aquarium with the purest filtered water. Then you put your feet into the water and the piranhas’ relatives attack them in a moment!
These fishes do not have teeth, so don’t be afraid – you won’t be suffering any pain and won’t see your bones picked. The first five minutes, you spend in hysterical laughter caused by the tickling, and in constant attempts to pull your feet out of the water. Tiny fishes, in a wink, fly in all directions after your every movement, but give them a couple seconds, and they are back again eager to attack your feet. It is not just a laughter therapy session. These little friends with their mighty mouths eat the dead skin of your feet, and you get an amazing natural peeling. When you get used to the sensation, try to spread your toes, and the fishes will trustingly shove themselves between to continue the cleaning procedure which cannot be provided by any beauty salon.
The first minutes after I plunged my feet into the water – I am very ticklish – Irina was laughing at me. She already knew what it was like, because she went through this procedure for the whole body in China a long time ago. She says only the Europeans show such a reaction, the Chinese are resistant to Fish Spa – none of their facial muscles move.
The result: magically taken away fatigue, and unbelievable skin just as newborns have. The main thing is to get the hungry fishes; well-fed ones do not have such an appetite. So, if you notice the Fish Spa, go ahead and try it. As a tip from me: for the first time choose the aquarium with smaller fishes.
Now it is the right time for a well-deserved dinner. But do not overdo it with the happy-pizza, because tomorrow you’re on the road again. Did you notice that all local temples are decorated with a skillfully done stone carving, depicting the ancient dancers, Apsaras? They are thought to be the «divine sisters of the first woman on earth», who – as the legend says – escorted people to heaven. So, you will see these beauties, but probably with angry faces, after too much happy-pizza (this is the pizza with cannabis).
For me the atmosphere of Siem Reap was the most sincere and warm, just as it happens to be in the seaside towns in summer, when everybody is happy. Though, it’s no wonder – this place attracts like-minded people living on the same wavelength. Everyone will go back to the Angkor temples early in the morning.
Is it wise to postpone a trip? I am not sure. Not so long ago, Egypt was incomparably more acceptable for a visit. Cambodia still remains the exotic place, but now it is a much more secure country. It has been very recently released from a dictatorship. I don’t think that anything threatens your life here, but the local freedom and freedom in New York are not equal. You should not explore unknown fields and the jungle alone. Don’t forget, you are invincible only in your imagination, and there are a lot of mines remaining after the war in Cambodia. They still continue to cripple people.
It is thought that Angkor Wat stayed abandoned and forgotten for a long time, and only in the middle of the 19th century it was re-opened by the French Henri Mouhot (but some people think differently). Such places cannot and must not disappear into the depth of history. Highly respected, Henri Mouhot managed to promote the “lost in the jungle” temples in Europe on such a scale that the curious Europeans started to come to Cambodia to gaze at the architectural miracles just as they used to go to Egypt to see the pyramids.
Today, every single sunrise and sunset, at least a hundred photographers, amateurs and professionals, gather near Angkor Wat. Suspecting that you don’t need the one-thousand-one-hundred-twenty-fifth sunrise shot of this Cambodian symbol, we headed to the less known temples. This manoeuvre allowed us to see the most of the temples without the crowds which would overfill all the local attractions by the afternoon.
The most interesting thing about the Cambodian temples is the possibility to reach the most secluded spots. You cautiously walk along the corridors trying not to break the solemn calmness. Even the gentle rustle of a bat’s wings seems a rumble here.
The temples of the so-called small and big circles are available for everyone today. However, the magical Ta Keo temple can frighten one off with its forty-centimeter steps, (but we climbed there). This temple is a special one for the Angkor complex, unlike its brothers. The fragments of stones with traces of mechanical treatment – more precisely the T-slot on the bottom of the blocks – were found here. What is so amazing, you might ask? Well, such a mechanical treatment was typical for South America, which suggests the idea of the accuracy of some temples’ age determination. It’s probably, some of them are much more ancient than we think, and Ta Keo is an Aztec temple.
As a note: all the Angkor temples are crystal clean – the local attendants sweep and clean them all the time. The resting and eating areas are also well-appointed.
It is impossible to describe and post photos of every single temple – it would be a heavy album. I just want to say that we were trying to visit them opposite to the tourist groups in order to escape people as much as possible.
Our route over three days looked like this:
The first day: Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Prah Khan, Bayon.
The second day: Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat.
The third day: Beng Mealea, Banteay Srei
We wrote the blog posts about some of the temples. Check out the links.
The map and description of Angkor Archaeological Park you will find here.
Whatever your route is, see you in the evening in the pub quarter of Siem Reap!
More about temples in Cambodia:
Banteay Srey: Genuine Cambodian Woman
Ta Keo: Talking with the Temple
‘Breathtaking’ Excursion from Sihanoukville, Cambodia