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el2995 Siem Reap - A travel report by USC
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Siem Reap,  Cambodia - flag Cambodia -  Si«m Réab
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el2995's travel reports

Siem Reap: Gateway to Angkor

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Located in northwestern Cambodia, the city of Siem Reap is the point of entry most people use to experience the wonders of Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom. Though rough around to edges, the city has its charms and can make for a memorable experience.

The Heads of Bayon Temple
The Heads of Bayon Temple
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.

Favourite spots:
Peaceful Temple Outside the 'Tourist Wire'
Peaceful Temple Outside the 'Tourist Wire'
The north end of Psar Chaa (Old Market) that offers meats, fish, produce and fried insects can make for interesting browsing. Follow Pokambor Ave. (south end of Psar Chaa) to the left and check out the nearby picturesque Buddhist temple. Walk south on Pokambor Ave. following the Stung Siem Reap (River) downstream and at the bend in the river you'll see a very village-like settling with stilted thatched huts on the far bank. Turn left and proceed down Sivatha St. and you will soon come to the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles, where you can watch all the steps involved in the weaving process. Further down Sivatha St. you will come to the Siem Reap Crocodile Farm (USD $3), and as you continue down the street, the settling becomes more village-like, with stilted homes and shops lining the river. A bridge on the left will take you across to a large Buddhist temple compound featuring long rows of multiple colorful stupas. The walk is a pleasant journey outside the 'tourist zone'.

What's really great:
Sunrise Over Angkor Wat
Sunrise Over Angkor Wat
As the sites of Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom are the main reason that people come to Siem Reap, the temples and associated structures are the highlight of a trip to Siem Reap. With 4 full days in Cambodia, I opted for a 3-day Angkor region temple pass (USD $40), and used the 4th day to explore Siem Reap and the surrounding area. Angkor Wat itself, the largest of the Angkor monuments, is really something to behold, especially at sunrise and during the low angle early morning and late afternoon sunlight. Bayon, part of the Angkor Thom complex, is particularly interesting given its numerous face towers with almost Mona Lisa-like smiles that look down upon the visitors from the cardinal directions. Ta Prohm, featured in the movie 'Tomb Raider', is the most intriguing and photogenic site, with its temples and structures sporadically overgrown and draped with silk-cotton and strangler fig tree trunks and roots. Farther afield and also covered by the temple pass are Banteay Srei & Kbal Spean.

The Siem Reap Killing Fields Memorial at Wat Thmei
The Siem Reap Killing Fields Memorial at Wat Thmei
Wat Thmei, which is on the road to Angkor Wat but outside of the 'temple pass' zone, contains a small memorial stupa containing the skulls and bones of the victims of Siem Reap's own 'Killing Fields'. The yellow three-storied building situated between the memorial stupa and the large wat (which contains colorful wall and ceiling murals depicting the life of The Buddha, and a large gilded Buddha) was once used as a jail and torture facility by the Khmer Rouge. The Les Chantiers Ecoles school, which teaches impoverished teens and young adults painting, wood and stone carving, offers tours of the workshops where you can watch the young artisans at work. South of Siem Reap, you can tour the floating village of Chong Kneas on Tonle Sap Lake, though at USD $10 per person, the rather short boat tour could have been a bit more inspiring (in my opinion).

UPDATE: I've uploaded a collection of my short Siem Reap video clips to my YouTube page. Enjoy!

Thunborey Hotel
Thunborey Hotel
I stayed at the Thunborey Hotel on Phsa Krom Street (a 300 meter walk from Psar Chaa, 350 meter walk from 'Pub Street'). The hotel is said to have been recently opened, though the location is on a less than fashionable street that, while not lacking in Third World Asia charm, can make for a dusty (and gloomy at night) walk back to where the action is; there are some open-front shop houses a few doors down where you can conveniently buy some water and snacks during the day if needed. The cost was USD $35 per night for a room with double bed, air conditioner, mini bar, internet connection (no computers on-site, though), cable TV, 2 complimentary bottles of drinking water per day and breakfast (Cambodian, western or continental) in the restaurant on the 5th floor included in the price of the room. As my wife did not accompany me on the trip, I was assumed by the staff to be single and the offer to send a girl to my room for massage (or boom-boom) was extended, which I graciously refused.

Angkor Night Market
Angkor Night Market
The Angkor Night Market and adjacent Crocodile Night Bazaar (near Sivatha St.) can entertain the whole family. There are a variety of restaurant / bar establishments on Pub St. and 'The Alley' to please the adult crowd, some of which offer live music. In the way of 'gentlemen's entertainment' a trip to Sok San ('Happiness') Palace may be just the ticket. Located off of Sivatha St. (the sign can be seen opposite The Alley), Sok San offers scantily-clad exotic dancers shaking it on a flashy stage bathed in sweeping smoke-reflected laser beams to a throbbing beat provided by a quality sound system. A bevy of smartly-dressed Cambodian beauties stand ready to join you on the simulated leather couches for conversation & ulterior motive-driven flirtation over USD $3.50 beers. Bear in mind that if you do not want to take things to the next level (body massage), but still want to enjoy the earthy Apsara's pleasant company, you will shortly be advised of the required USD $5 fee to the house.

The Alley, Another Popular Hangout
The Alley, Another Popular Hangout
During my four-day stay in Siem Reap, I found myself stepping into Blue Pumpkin on Pithnou Street to re-charge with a cup of coffee and something sweet from their assortment of homemade cakes, breads and ice creams. The nearby Funky Munky (closed on Mondays) was also a nice place to chill with a Beer Lao while listening to some classic rock and appreciating the collection of movie posters, artistic renditions of movies stills from such great films as 'Scare Face', 'The Deer Hunter' & 'The Big Lewbowsky', and other visual salutes to American pop culture; the Munky is also said to turn out some great custom burgers. Though I did not check it out, the Red Piano Restaurant, made famous by visits from Angelina Jolie during the filming of 'Tomb Raider' (which has been commemorated there by the creation of her namesake cocktail) is said to be a cool place to hang out and people-watch. There are some addition hangout-worthy bars along the west side of Sivatha Street south of Pub Street.

Amok, Cambodia's National Dish
Amok, Cambodia's National Dish
Let your tastebuds run amuck at Amok. Located in 'The Alley' near Psar Chaa and named for the Cambodian national dish (a fish curry with lemon grass and coconut milk baked in a banana leaf), Amok restaurant is said to offer the best example of its namesake in all of Siem Reap, and is definitely a must-try. Also worth while is Ancient House Restaurant (on Svay Dangkom, in front of ANZ Bank and also near Psar Chaa), which offers Khmer, European and Burmese Cuisine. The owner, Nyan Win, is a talented photographer and displays some of his Burma photos (which can be purchased) in the restaurant; his wife's Burmese chicken curry is excellent. Khmer Family Restaurant on Pub Street is a good place for traditional Khmer cuisine. For a variety of cuisines and a free variety show (actually a Khmer cultural show featuring traditional dance and live music) upstairs to boot, be sure to check the Temple Club (also on Pub St.) Try Blue Pumpkin on Pithnou St. afterwards for coffee and dessert.

Other recommendations:
Carved Streambeds Seen on the 3km Kbal Spean Hike
Carved Streambeds Seen on the 3km Kbal Spean Hike
On the road to Banteay Srei temple, about 30 minutes outside Siem Reap, is a public shooting range that offers the chance to fire a variety of fully-automatic military firearms. Located on the grounds of the Cambodian Army's 4th Battalion Military Training Center (the red and white sign appears on the right side of the road), the range features three enclosed firing bays with one wall open to the outside; there is no forced ventilation, so things can get very smokey and warm; note that light-colored T-shirts may get smudged while shouldering the weapons. Costs run USD $40 - $70 and include 1 full hi-cap magazine. Despite the healthy array of weapons on display (including RPG's, grenade launchers and belt-feed machine guns), limited ammo supplies allows the firing of only about 7 different weapons. I fired the AK-47, Czech SA26, PPSH-41 and Russian DP-27 light machine gun. Combine this with an Angkor Wat sunrise, Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean & the Land Mine Museum for a good half-day trip.

Published on Tuesday March 31th, 2009

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Tue, Jan 11 2011 - 07:17 PM rating by trekkerman

It seems that Siem Reap offers much more these days compared with my trip there in 2004. I found the small city almost ghost town like with a lack of things to see and do other than the Temples, and the outdoor War Museum. Well written report, before reading this report i probably wouldn't have considered going back, but you have inspired me to consider going back there.
Thank you for a report filled with great content.

Sun, Apr 26 2009 - 06:36 PM rating by bootlegga

Great report!

Thu, Apr 23 2009 - 09:52 AM rating by frenchfrog

Great detailed report, thanks for sharing as I am planning a trip there next year. Thanks for your tips!!!

Fri, Apr 10 2009 - 04:22 AM rating by jorgesanchez

Wonderful report and pictures.

Wed, Apr 01 2009 - 10:30 PM rating by pesu

Though this shooting range doesn't sound interesting to me at all (in agreement with bineba) I liked this detailed report much - and the 'Sunrise over Angkor Wat' pic is just fantastic!

Wed, Apr 01 2009 - 03:03 PM rating by mistybleu

A very interesting report, I also loved the sunrise shot over Angkor Wat - really wonderful

Wed, Apr 01 2009 - 12:07 PM rating by jacko1

I, like most Europeans, knew almost nothing about this country except from Hollywood films, your report was most informative, thank you. Tony.

Wed, Apr 01 2009 - 02:25 AM rating by krisek

Nice report, with great illustrations. It has been a while since I was in Angkor, so memories returned. I went on a shooting range in the capital, where I was taken against my will... I really did not enjoy it due to the attitude towards such establishment.

Tue, Mar 31 2009 - 08:40 PM rating by bineba

Interesting report, full of local colour and great photos.
Not so sure about the shooting range, though, especially in a country that has seen so much violence in it's history. It certainly wouldn't be on my 'to do' list.

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