Cambodia provides a fascinating mix of history and culture along with a beautiful environment, neither feeling ruined by extensive over-development by tourism.
My first encounter with the country perhaps gave a very jet lagged me, the wrong impression of the people I was going to meet in Cambodia. Passport control around the world it is the place of hard nosed, smile-free faces and in Siem Reap I was met with seven such faces behind a long wide desk – like a panel at a talent show or prison guards at a jail (I imagine!). Despite having arrived with with money for my visa but no photo, I discovered this wasn’t a problem as I paid an extra two dollars and got into the country anyway. Was that a bribe, or an official payment? They obviously didn’t care too much about who I was.
As a place to start Siem Reap is where most people head, it being the nearest town to the world famous and UNESCO world heritage sites of the Angkor temples. I recommend before you jump in a tuk tuk and follow the crowds to the temples check out the town itself. So many people arrive here on an organised trip and don’t have the time to wander. Its a great place to start an adventure in the country as it is small enough to explore on foot – just remember where the river that runs through the town is in relation to you and you won’t get too lost. Or that’s how I navigated the myriad of roads and back alleys.
There’s the ‘old’ market, while now catering for the growing number of tourists, there is still a delightful mix of handicrafts and knick-knacks alongside housewares, fruit and vegetables and fish and meats. There’s other markets in town but this is a good start being easy to find, right next to the river, and small enough not to be overwhelming. Some of the other markets in town are purely for locals and much more of a maze. There is also the night market on the other side of the river opposite the old market, but honestly this is purely touristy items.
Pub street and the alleys around it are the tourist centre of town, especially after dark, but are still worth a visit for a cheap meal, a budget massage or amazing ice cream from The Blue Pumpkin (I recommend the ginger and black sesame). You’ll still find the odd bar where locals and tourists drink together and if jet lag has left you wide awake at midnight you’ll find somewhere to drink no problem.
Bored of drinking and eating, I had an evening at the Phare Cambodian Circus which is run by a growing social enterprise based in nearby Battambang that providing training to young people in arts and circus skills. They provide a nightly show at the circus in Siem Reap and it’s a fantastic display of acrobatics performed and directed by young people from difficult backgrounds who’ve been trained to enable them to benefit from a career in the growing arts industry in Cambodia. At $10 its worth it for the hour long show.
During the day, seeking peace and a chance to lose jet lag and for my mind to catch up with my body I went to Wat Preah Prohm Rath, adjacent to the river. This was my first introduction to Buddhism in Cambodia and is a beautifully managed and maintained temple which welcomes tourists wandering in from the street. Just remember to remove shoes and cover shoulders when you enter.
Sitting with the monks and meditating to their chants was an experience I’ll never forget, and is something I struggled to find elsewhere in Cambodia. The Wat was constructed in 1915, though was the site of a monastery as early as the 13th Century. There’s certainly older and more specatular Wat’s in Cambodia but many are on tourist itineraries and as such are busier and not always used by monks for prayer.
The traffic in Siem Reap was a gentle introduction to the chaos of driving in South East Asia, so if like me this is you’re first encounter in this part of the world and with the myriad of mopeds, tuk tuks, cars and vans, all driving in seeming chaos but somehow not colliding, then take note that the traffic is not as bad here as it is in Phnom Penh.
Siem Reap is also a good introduction to shopping in Cambodia, which I found to be a joy. You can haggle to your heart’s content and no-one will bully you to buy – this isn’t north Africa. Cambodia is largely a Buddhist country where people are by their nature polite and friendly and as a female traveller I certainly never felt threatened or worried about wandering around at night on my own.
As well as the markets try to visit some of the amazing craft shops run by local social enterprises. I was struck by the amount of locally run organisations tackling unemployment and helping the country’s disabled and those affected by the legacy of conflict by providing training and support. It is clear that they make a more significant impact in the country than the large NGO’s – but you can read about that here.
When you do head out to the Angkor temples make sure you also stop at the Banteay Srey Butterfly centre nearby, which works with local farmers to collect species, trains local people to raise them and help to prevent their extinction. So in many ways it helps the people as much as the butterflies. I learnt so much from the guide Lux Phem who took me around the small centre, about butterfly conservation and their lifecycle. I even got to see the chrysalis and some of the biggest caterpillars I’ve ever seen.
And of course there’s the Angkor Temples, which I cycled around over the course of three days, but more about that later…..