Despite not being the capital city bustling with urban life, Siem Reap is visited by more than one million travelers annually, marveling at intricate stonework and relics of what remains from over a thousand years of Khmer heritage, situated in its humble rural backyard.
“Khmer,” which is both the language and the people, is pronounced by the locals as /kmaɪ/ or /kʰmaːe/, as in “my” although it is fine for foreigners to pronounce it as /kmɛɚ/ as in “blur”. At any rate, a basic knowledge of Khmer language will go a long way. For instance, when taking a tuktuk, their primary means of transportation, drivers usually ask foreigners to pay $5. But if one haggles using Khmer language and says, for instance, “pi-dola” ($2 -“pi” means “two” while “dola” is how they pronounce “dollars”), there is a chance that they would agree. Another useful phrase is “arkoun chraen,” pronounced as “okun charan,” which means “thank you very much.”
A trip to Siem Reap will not be complete without paying the temples a visit. The majestic Khmer temples bear the nostalgia of the distant past and the rich culture shared with the rest of the Indochina region. These historical monuments are remnants of ancient civilizations, powerful empires, and the intense warfare and rivalry among them.
For our trip, we booked a one-day (7:30am to 6pm) tour package with Chhayakim Angkor Guide covering the temples Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Phimeanakas, Bayon, and the Phnom Bakheng, for $10, on top of the entrance fee of $20. Other must-visit temples that were unfortunately not part of our itinerary include Banteay Srei and the Beng Mealea.
The Angkor Wat Temple
Undoubtedly the most famous tourist destination in Cambodia, the Angkor Wat temple is considered to be the largest religious monument in the world. According to our tour guide, Mr. Chhayakim, it was originally built for the Hindu god Vishnu and to serve as tombs for Khmer emperors, but was eventually transformed into a Buddhist temple as a result of their changing of religion from Hinduism to Buddhism.
The Ta Prohm Temple
Located in Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm temple is popularly known for its eerie appearance in the movie and game Tomb Raider. Upon entering, visitors are greeted by an ethnic band playing Khmer violins at one side of the street, and heaps of moss-covered bricks in the other. But Ta Prohm temple’s most iconic feature are the lofty deciduous Spung trees whose roots give the half-collapsed edifices an eternal embrace. Built between the 12th and 13th centuries and originally called Rajavihara, Ta Prohm served as a university and monastery to Mahayana Buddhism.
The Bayon Temple
Standing at the center of the enduring city of Angkor Thom, Bayon temple is known for its richly-decorated structures and prominent bas-relief carvings such as the serene and smiling faces, as well as scenes of daily life in the Khmer empire.
Tips for temple hopping in Siem Reap:
1. Ideal time to visit: Pay Angkor Wat a visit just before sunrise to witness and capture the stunning view fitting for postcards. It is also important to note that Siem Reap’s temple complex, known as Angkor Archeological Park, is composed of around 50 temples which makes it impossible to explore them all in a single day. What you could do is book a 3-day pass, or, if you only have a day to spare, plan your temple hopping strategically to make the most of your trip.
2. On choosing whether to book a tour or go on your own: Going on your own would allow you to explore the temples at your own time and pace, plus saves you an extra $10 added to the $20 one-day entrance fee ($40 for a three-day pass), but would mean that you’ll be missing out on the historical narratives that would otherwise be given by the tour guide. If you do decide to take a tour, on the other hand, expect to stay close together with your group and follow a strict schedule. One of my tour mates from Chile commented that we were going quite fast that she can no longer enjoy the beautiful place. As for its upside, not only will the tour guide help you appreciate the significance of the structures and artifacts, but will also give you tips on where and how to take your photos.
3. Going around the temples: If you book a tour, you won’t have to worry about your means of transportation because a van will be provided. However, if you decide to go on your own, you would have to ride a tuktuk, or an elephant costing $20, or walk long distances, in order to go from one temple to another. As for biking, you may only bike around the temples but you could not go inside as there are no parking areas for bicycles.
4. Proper attire: Asking around and searching the Internet about the acceptable attire for the temples can be quite confusing as they give different answers. But based on our experience, sleeveless clothes and short pants are allowed in the temples except for Phnom Bakheng, which is a sacred temple for the Khmer people, and where people flock to for the ideal sunset view spot. To be sure, it is best to bring a shawl and long pants should you opt to wear a sleeveless top and short pants.
5. Weather: The weather in Siem Reap can be sweltering from the scorching sun so don’t forget your hat and sunblock; other tourists wear long sleeves. However, it rains a lot there, too, so bring light raincoats and umbrellas (tour packages provide umbrella), just in case!
OTHER SIEM REAP MUST-DOS
The Cambodia Cultural Village is a must-see for tourists for it features 13 villages, each representing different cultural heritage through several short shows. In each performance, the tourists are treated with traditional dances, humorous story-telling, and *gasp* audience participation! The 210,000-square-meter theme park also features wax museums and buffet dining halls. All these and more for $15, but a huge discount could be obtained if visiting with a local.
Costume pictorials are also popular among tourists. Khmer costumes cost $20 while Thai ones cost $15, both of which include full hair and make-up. Other places worth visiting are the Floating Village at Tonle Sap and the Angkor National Museum, while other activities to try are cooking classes and yoga sessions.
SHOPPING AND EATING OUT
One common mistake committed by tourists traveling to Cambodia is converting their money to Riel, because, even though the local currency is accepted and could be useful for prices that are not exact, US Dollar is the main bill of the trade. It is also vital to note that just like in most countries, goods and services are offered to foreigners in overpriced rates, so, it would be best to have a local with you if you intend to maximize your budget. If you don’t know any local, just don’t take the first price that is offered to you.
Food is relatively cheap in Siem Reap. Their menu staples fried rice and noodles, both given in big servings and mixed with generous amount of veggies, and a choice between chicken, beef, and seafood, range from $2 to $5. But my personal favorites are: beef barbeque ($0.20 per stick!), round rice pudding with veggies, spring roll with sweet potato, taro, and carrot, and their street pancake which is roti with chocolate and banana filling ($1).
Coming back from Siem Reap, I brought home with me memories of scenic tuktuk rides, lovely hat-wearing locals, hand-bending dancers, and a fusion of history and myth engraved in the ruins of Indianized kingdoms.
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