Siem Reap is an amazing place full of history and culture. If you’re looking for a fun and educational place to visit, definitely add Siem Reap to your list!
It was the fourteenth day of my ‘Big Indochina Adventure’ – a 27-day trip around four countries with Contiki, from Bangkok to Hanoi.
I’d just arrived in the northwestern resort town of Siem Reap after an hour’s flight from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.
Siem Reap is home to the largest religious monument in the world and we would be visiting the following day. It’s therefore a very popular destination spot for tourists. The city has certainly capitalized on this by creating a culturally exciting place, filled with things to see and do. Our transfer to our new hotel gave us a glimpse of life in Siem Reap and I was looking forward to exploring.
We got comfortable in our new, beautiful hotel and then went to lunch in groups, depending on what we felt like. Since we wanted to go to the night market halls in the evening and try Cambodian cuisine, my group opted for a different meal. We found a Mexican bar and grill station and I was excited, as I have been dying to have a burrito bowl since my time in New Zealand and Australia (where I came across many Mexican restaurants). This is one of my favorite dishes and Maybe Later Bar and Grill did not disappoint. The restaurant was also beautifully decorated with Mexican-themed art by Cambodian artists and the staff was super friendly!
After lunch, we wandered around Pub Street in Siem Reap, which is the center for pubs, clubs and bars. It was full of tourists and looked like it would be a great place to spend an evening.
Soon it was time for our afternoon activity – quad biking! Everybody was really excited. Some of us were from the UK, Australia and New Zealand, so we would have to learn to quad bike on the other side of the road. My only other experience with quad biking was on a school trip in primary school, where I was told to stop because I kept putting my feet on the ground! I’m not sure why I did that, but it wasn’t a good sign for today…
Fortunately, I was no longer a complete novice at quad biking and quickly got used to the new experience. It was exhilarating! It was also one of my first times wearing a face mask (to protect us from breathing in dust and dirt from the road), which would later become the norm around the world.
We pulled into an open meadow to watch the sunset before heading back to our starting point.
Then it was time to explore Pub Street at night. We checked out the markets and tried Khmer dishes for dinner (I tried and liked the popular Loc Lac dish). This was followed by ice cream from the cafe, which was highly recommended by our tour guide Lee. It was called “the best ice cream in Siem Reap” so we had to try it. I grabbed my two favorites: very chocolatey and lemon sorbet! I now definitely understood why it is so highly regarded – it was delicious.
Soon it was time to go to bed, because an early start the next morning would allow us to see the largest religious monument in the world at sunrise.
An unwanted 4 a.m. wake-up call greeted us, but it would be worth it for the day ahead. We boarded our tour bus and began our journey to Angkor Wat. First we had to buy tickets with our photos printed on them. This was not a particularly flattering experience so early in the morning, but now we were officially allowed to wander around the temple complex.
First, we waited for sunrise at a popular spot with the best view of the temple. Although it was overcast – it was worth the wait as the stunning temple outline appeared magnificent against the pink and purple sky.
Thara, our new guide, led us on an amazing tour of the temple complex of Angkor Wat. The temple was originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu in the early 12th century but was gradually turned into a Buddhist temple later on in the century. The temple is a beautiful example of classical Khmer architecture and has become a symbol of Cambodia. It’s also the prime attraction for tourists visiting the country.
Click here to view my 360° tour of Angkor Wat!
The temple complex is known as an artificial Himalayas because, in Hindu tradition, the Himalayas mountains are considered the heaven of the gods. It’s estimated that it took 5,000 craftsmen and 300,000 other workers to build the temple complex, using around 300 million tonnes of stone.
We walked up to the highest and most central point of the complex and were given some time to explore on our own.
After we had made the most of our time walking around Angkor Wat, we returned to our hotel for breakfast, and it wasn’t long before we got back on the road, this time in tuk tuks, to visit Angkor Thom. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, meaning they are heavily protected for their outstanding universal value. They are some of the most important archaeological sites of Southeast Asia.
Angkor Thom is a nine-kilometre walled city state with eight metre high walls and five impressive gates providing access to the ancient city. It was the last and longest capital city of the Khmer Empire, which stretched through much of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar to Vietnam.
The walled city is filled with ancient ruins and temples including the Phimeanakas, Mangalartha, Baphuon, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King, Prah Palilay, Tep Pranam and Prasat Suor Prat. We visited two of Angkor Thom’s most famous temples, the Bayon Temple and Ta Prohm.
The Bayon Temple was originally intended to serve as the Khmer King’s personal mausoleum. It was carved with 216 giant faces on its towers. Many believe these were representations of the king, with others saying they were intended to honour the Bodhisattva (somebody who has made a resolution to become a Buddha) of compassion, Avalokitesvara.
The Ta Prohm Buddhist temple is famous for appearing in the 2001 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film. The temple looks as though it is being swallowed by a large tree!
View my 360° tour of Ta Prohm here.
After some free time for the rest of the afternoon, we ended our travels through Cambodia with a trip to the circus and a night out. This was also sadly a farewell evening, as only seven of us were continuing on to Vietnam and we would really miss the rest of our wonderful tour friends!
Phare Circus has been helping young Cambodians turn their lives around through performing arts jobs since 2013. They use theatre, music, dance and modern circus arts, including high-flying acrobats, to tell Cambodian historical, folk and modern stories. Almost 75% of the circus’ profit goes directly to PPSA, their own social enterprise.
I found it fascinating to read about the enterprise’s missions in the circus’ programme. You can tell they invest in their performers and care about the sustainability of Cambodian culture. Their missions are to make meaningful employment opportunities for Cambodian artists, to create financially sustainable social businesses that provide reliable income streams and to revitalise the arts sector in Cambodia and promote Cambodian art locally and internationally.
The Phare Circus show was a lot of fun and the performers were very talented. We met and congratulated them after the show, and then continued the evening with some drinking and dancing as a group. Two of us even did some (probably very embarrassing) drunken karaoke!
The next morning, we said goodbye to our lovely friends and promised to keep in touch. I hope we’ll all see each other again one day! I also highly recommend a trip to Cambodia to anybody looking for the perfect mix of culture, good weather, food and lots of attractions.