My bus from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh with Giant Ibis was smooth other than for the air con breaking halfway there and us having to open the windows instead – fine as it was quite breezy and we were driving fast. I had a 2 hour layover in Phnom Penh were I grabbed some food before getting on board my 11pm sleeper bus to Siem Reap. Luckily there were only a few of us onboard so I managed to bag 2 beds to myself and, having taken a sleeping pill, I slept pretty well, until I was rudely awoken at 5am as we had arrived into Siem Reap earlier than planned, and much further away from my hostel than I expected. Being me, I refused the offers of motorbike rides and instead walked 40 minutes to my accommodation – Pool Party Hostel – as the working day was just getting going around me; street stalls being set up and shops being opened.
Once at my hostel I checked into my beautifully air-conditioned room and slept. Rock and Roll. At around midday I decided to hire a bicycle for $2 for the day to explore the city and get my bearings, looping round the streets and crisis-crossing the river. Lining the river – on the other side to the centre – are loads of market stalls selling an eclectic mix of merchandise that I wandered round, before taking a pew alongside the river. I was really surprised by how peaceful Siem Reap felt despite being busy, and how relaxed I felt being there. I spent my whole afternoon cycling around, stopping to have one of the best soya lattes I have ever had at New Leaf Cafe (a chilled-out comfy eatery that donates their profits to educational projects in Siem Reap; win, win) and to peruse the main market in the centre.
At around 4pm I started my cycle over to the Angkor Heritage Site ticket office – from 5pm you can purchase your ticket for the next day and even start your exploration that evening by visiting one of the sites for sunset. I paid 20 dollars for a one-day ticket (you can also purchase a three-day ticket for 40 dollars) and had my mug shot taken, then headed in the direction of Pre Rup; where I had been advised to go for the best sunsets. Although the streets were wide and in the countryside, it took quite a while to cycle and it was pretty damn hot, but I arrived just before 6pm, parked my bike and climbed up the temple to sit with my feet dangling over the edge to watch the sun’s slow descent along with all the other tourists. Whilst it was a beautiful sunset, it took place behind the trees and mountains rather than behind the temple itself, so it wasn’t as easy to take in the temple itself.
By the time I climbed backdown it was approaching 7 and, with little daylight left and at least a 1.5 hour cycle ahead of me, I decided to get over myself and try to catch a Tuk Tuk. I found someone whom would take both me and my bike to Marum (where I planned to go for dinner), although I had to hold the bike, which was longer than the width of the Tuk Tuk) in place with my foot for the duration of the red while the driver navigated the streets, trying his best not to KO motorcyclists as we passed them by. I spent the entire journey laughing to myself at the absurdity of the situation and how the sort of thing NEVER would happen in the UK, whereas he seemed pretty relieved when we arrived at my destination.
Marum is a not-for-profit organisation that had been working with street children since 2005 and helps build a new life for the students in training there. Not only was it mentioned in Lonely Planet but a friend of mine (Claire, you’re getting a mention!) had been and couldn’t recommend it enough. I chose to sit outside in one of their low sofa chairs, surrounded by lanterns, and perused the menu filled with creative local cuisine. They recommended 1-2 plates per person and, wanting to sample different and interesting dishes, I opted for the Red Ant & Beef Stir Fry and the Mini Crocodile Burger with banana chips. The stir fry had so many flavour and the beef was cooked really well, although I couldn’t pinpoint a distinctive taste from the red ants as it was all mixed in together. The not-so-mini-after-all crocodile burger was topped with cheese and a home-made (ridic tasty) sauce, and was absolutely incredible. This is the second time I have had crocodile – the first being more of a fillet preparation – and loved it before, and this time didn’t disappoint. I would highly, HIGHLY, recommend. Washed down with a crisp glass of wine and in a warm,cosy atmosphere, this meal was one of my favourites.
I woke up just after 4am the following morning to continue with my Angkor tour, having decided I couldn’t miss seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat. I was picked up by my Tuk Tuk driver at 4:40 (a time I would otherwise refuse to engage in) and we took the twenty minute ride to the Angkor Wat entrance. In the pitch black, along with many other tourists, I made my way to the temple, stopping just short of the most surrounding the temple (where all the other tourists were gathered) and instead taking a seat on a bit of ruin with a few hours. And there I remained for an hour, watching in awe as the sun slowly rose behind Angkor Wat, casting the temple into a silhouette. It was one of those moments where you forget to breathe and feel immobilised by what you are absorbing.
Once the sun was up I wandered round the temple before taking a slow walk back to my Tuk Tuk driver, whom had been patiently waiting, and we made our way to Bayon (the Faces temple). This was a really cool one to walk around and explore, with the faces in various shapes and sizes being so fascinating. Plus I was fortunate to arrive just as it was open to the public and not many other people were around. Next we drove (ok he drove, I sat back with my feet up taking in the peaceful and rural surroundings) to Ta Keo, much smaller than the other temples but if you climb the steep steps to the top there are some great views to just sit and take in.
We then headed to Ta Prohm, which was used as a location in Tomb Raider. I was dropped off at one side and told to meet my driver at the other, first walking down a path surrounded by trees before reaching this enchanting and “homely” temple. The maze-like quality and garden feel made this my favourite so far (the incredible Grandiosity of Angkor Wat aside) and I spent my most amount of time here.
Before leaving the main site, my driver took me to this beautiful, still, peaceful river at the edge. It was 11am by this point and the sun was out in all its glory, beating down on my clothe-covered body (shoulders and knees must not be on display) as I sat by the edge of the water. Totally unexpected and glorious.
I also wanted to visit the Landmine Museum, which is north of the Angkor Wat Heritage Site and therefore worth combing the two into one day, and because of this paid 25 dollars for my full day with my Tuk Tuk driver taking me around to the various spots (whereas day prices usually start from 15/20 dollars depending on whether you go early for the sunrise). So, after leaving the main site we drove the 30 minutes to the museum. I’ve learnt a lot about the impact of the Vietnam war on both Laos and Cambodia on my travels, but this was the first insight into the impact of the unexploded land mines in Cambodia on the day-to-day lives of the local people. It’s devastating and humbling to read about the injuries caused and their approach to the way their lives have been completely changed, especially as it is still such a huge issue for Cambodians. It is definitely worth a visit.
As we were in the right direction we then continued on to Banteay Srei, another temple of the Angkor site but away from the rest and, for me, one of my favourites – a lot less busy than the other sites and the temple not so high as the others, it was easier to explore and really take it in. Plus, as I came out the other side, I was met with music by a group of men injured by the land mines – some blind, some without limbs, some with disfigurements, they played the most beautiful harmony together.
At 2pm it was time to head back into the centre of Siem Reap, asking my driver to drop me off at New Leaf Cafe (as I had speed their blueberry pancakes the previous day) but not before I grabbed him for a selfie. After all, we had spent over 9 hours together and were practically an item. Oh, and the blueberry pancakes at New Leaf were delicious, FYI.
Once back at the hostel, hot and tired I ventured straight for the pool (Pool Party Hostel is partly misleading – whilst sociable it certainly wasn’t a “party” hostel, however it did have a pool!) to cool down and relax. The following morning I hired a bicycle again as I wanted to make the most of my few hours before leaving, and cycled straight to Blossom Cafe for its 10am opening. Blossom cafe is a “cupcake boutique”, a cake art gallery and not-for-profit organisation that empowers and skills Cambodian women in Siem Reap. Always being one for supporting the local community (especially when it’s a Cambodian one – have I mentioned how much I love Cambodia and its people, yet?!) and eating cakes, I happily ordered a Chai Latte Cupcake and coffee shake. It did set me back almost $5 but it was definitely worth it.
I then cycled round the streets and across the rivers once again – I was so delighted and surprised by how much I liked Siem Reap and how easy I found it to be there – before heading back to my hostel to laze around by the pool until my bus arrived to take me to Battambang. I would, however, have happily stayed in Siem Reap longer; my wonderful Cambodian surprise.