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For those of you who travel, most will agree that airports don’t garner oohs and ahs or even compliments from those passing through. Well, I am here to tell you that the very small, two room Siem Reap airport is an absolute jewel. Built in a minimalist style with smooth dark stones and richly colored woods, it is truly a breath of fresh air in airport architecture. If it was the lobby of a luxury hotel, I wouldn’t have blinked and would have been just as enthralled. You know you are somewhere special when you arrive someplace and get very excited to see the city beyond, just based on the airport. Silly, I know, but in this case, I was not let down.
Airport Road and Siem Reap Town
Siem Reap is a bustling town with grand hotels going up in every size and shape, but none over four stories so as not to block the sunset of Angkor Wat!! Nice. Airport road, which is the main thoroughfare that runs from the Airport to Siem Reap and its environs seemingly has one hotel project after another breaking ground. Some are quite large resorts with Khmer architecture, while others are sort of a hodgepodge of styles and looks. The road is better dubbed hotel row. Once in town, there are a wealth of hostels, inns, hotels and true resorts to choose from. I stayed at the Hotel De La Paix and have to say it was one of the best hotels I have ever stayed in. See article on Hotel De la Paix at . Among the hostels that I saw and thought were quite cute were Mom’s Guesthouse, Happy Guest house and the Villa Siem Reap. There are countless guesthouses and hostels in Siem Reap, so check out as on source of advice. As for hotels, there are a number of 4 and 5* truly luxurious resorts to stay at that rival and beat many of their brethren around the world. The aforementioned, Hotel De La Paix (in Siem Reap town), the huber posh Amansara hotel (just a few steps from the center of town) where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stayed only a few days prior to my arrival in Siem Reap, Le Meridien Angkor (about 1 kilometer from the town), Sofitel d’Angkor (1 kilometer from town) and Le Residence (about 1 kilometer from town). These last two hotels are quite large resort properties. For a more intimate stay there is the 4* FCC Angkor hotel that is set in the former French Ambassador’s residence. The hotel’s restaurant is one of the best and outdoor dining is a must should weather permit. Then there is the 75 year old plus Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor (centrally located) and one of the most revered hotels in Asia. I remember reading about this hotel when I was younger. It sounded so regal with the world’s social elite meeting in her restaurants to wine and dine. When I went for cocktails, I was taken with the sense of history, but I must say that I was not overwhelmed with the public areas. The hotel is pretty for sure, but there was definitely something missing for me. I was talking to a hotel guest and his wife from Hawaii who came to the Raffles for their honeymoon. They stayed in a deluxe suite and asked to change rooms twice before settling into a room that wasn’t “worn around the edges and looking all of its age.”
Money is pouring into this small part of Cambodia as are tourists, en masse. There is no doubt in my mind that in ten to twenty years, there will be no one allowed to walk within the Wats themselves, viewing them from a distance unless the number of people admitted is severely curtailed. To put it simply, these awe inspiring, mind numbingly beautiful creations, some built by man over 1000 years ago are crumbling faster than at any other time. Sure, it has to do with global warming an changing weather patterns, but millions of hands touching the walls of these wats as well as climbing up, down and around them have definitely taken there toll. I even saw a number of places where the walls of many of these wats are covered in vandalism, which is so disturbing on many levels.
I can’t adequately describe the feelings I had when I first stepped foot into the first temple at Angkor Thom. You can see these architectural wonders on TV and in many of the glossy travel magazines, but seeing them in person is overwhelmingly powerful.
After getting a Wat pass, good for 24 hours and up to, in my case 2 temple complexes, (cost was $40 US) I took a 15 minute tuk tuk ride from my hotel to the first of several Wats. We passed up Angkor Wat because I am told that it is better to visit later in the day when it is less crowded. When we did motor past, there must have been thousands of people, no exaggeration, all around the massive complex.
We proceeded to Angkor Thom which was mesmerizingly beautiful. It looked like a land of the lost set, being that it was built in 1295. The nice thing was that there weren’t a lot of tourists clamoring for photos or anything else for that matter. I truly had a chance to take everything in.
We then drove about 25 minutes to Banteay Srei which was the oldest Wat that we went to, built in the 10th century. It was small in comparison to the other Wats that we saw, but visually stunning. The reds and oranges of the stone shimmered in the sun. It was eerily quiet when we got there and it gave me the opportunity to sit and look at the carvings that were of course all done by hand. Walking in and out of some of the temple chambers allowed me to get an up close and personal look at a wonder of the world. Again, I can’t imagine the Cambodian government letting people freely walk around. The foot traffic is just too great. Yes, I know, no one was there when I happened to arrive, but, I have a feeling that I was lucky.
A word about the bazaars that populate the areas just outside the Wats. You will be surrounded by people trying to sell their wares. You can get inexpensive t-shirts and the like at these places, but for the most part the souvenirs are the same everywhere, so if you are looking for cheap gifts, these road side markets are the places to do that For nicer object d’art, there are a number of galleries in Siem Reap’s “bar town,” which I will write about in a bit.
After a late afternoon lunch of vegetables and fish for about $3, I got back in my tuk and headed over to Angkor Wat, which I was very much looking forward to.. and I wasn’t let down by any means. The amount of people at the temple was disconcerting, but Angkor Wat is just so majestic, I was not going to be thwarted in getting to the sanctuary itself. God, this place was immense. And so indescribable. I almost cried. It was a weird sensation. I always wanted to travel to Cambodia and to be more exact, Angkor Wat. I’d read about it growing up in my travel anthologies that I used to read and in the Asia travel newsletters that my dad subscribed to. I’ve gotten close many times when I traveled to Thailand and Vietnam, but there were always extenuating circumstances that prevented me from going. Back in the 1990s, it was the fighting that was still taking place… and only about five or six years ago was it safe to truly travel around, although tourists have been visiting for many years at that point. As I walked through the first gate you realize just how big the Watt grounds are. Acres and acres of grass other monuments lead to the central Wat that is Angkor Wat.
The steps at the Wat are worn to a beautiful patina. The walls are massive and the carvings beautiful. In most spots you can touch the walls and feel the history…and also the bullet holes that pierced many of the walls during the war. When I arrived at a very steep stairwell leading up to the central gallery of the tallest most inner tower I thought of the pyramids of Chitzen Itza, Mexico where my brother when he was very young climbed up to the top, but couldn’t climb back down. We laugh about it all the time, but now, I wasn’t laughing. These were steep and narrow stairs and while I am not afraid of heights, I don’t like the idea of slipping and falling backwards. Needless to say, I didn’t travel all this way not to make it to the top of one of the most iconic architectural wonders! I climbed and climbed and didn’t look up nor back. I just focused on the steps. When I made it, I felt triumphant and exhilarated. The view was glorious. I just wish there weren’t hundreds of other people up there with me. But I have to say that everyone was equally as awed and excited to be there. Now, going down was another matter. One could either have waited in a 35 minute line to climb back down using a chain link stairwell or simply climb down the impossibly steep grade with no wait at all. Of course, others in my party simply skipped down the steps as if it were a game. Me, I waited and waited and waited…and couldn’t have been happier. I can’t wait to go back.
A tip or two: bring handy wipes since your hands will be filthy as will your clothing, bring bottled water and very comfortable RUBBER SOLED walking shoes or sneakers. You will definitely find yourself slipping if you have anything other than rubber on your feet.
AFTER THE SIGHTSEEING
PUB STREET (SIEM REAP) and PUB STREET ALLEY
Talk about being in a small town in Cambodia and the first thing you hear coming out of a bar is Donna Summer’s McCarthur Park. The world is not that big. The now famous and some would say infamous Pub Street is a few blocks east of the “old market” and is a two block area that is cordoned off to all cars and motor bikes. These are small walking streets and quaint side alleys, jammed packed with restaurants (French, Thai, Cambodian, Indian, Italian, etc…) art galleries and bars of every stripe. From raucous shot bars to more sedate and upscale piano and jazz bars. I had a great time walking around and taking it all in. Most of the bars and restaurants don’t start getting crowded until say 5 or 6, but if you want atmosphere, go around 9 or later. Some stay open very late. There are always tuk tuks to take you back to where you are staying.
Some fun bars and restaurants:
The Temple Club
The Red Piano Restaurant
Karma Sutra Restaurant
One advice: Beware of the Happy Herb Pizza. It is what it sounds like.
Have fun, travel safe.
write by davis