Guide to SIEM REAP – beyond ANGKOR WAT

The world famous reflection can be captured as well at 7 a. m.

But as a matter of fact, Siem Reap was not this trip’s most memorable part; and even Angkor was only one of the highlights. But that’s definitely a personal story. Here’s a roundup of four days in Cambodia’s tourist hot spot.

Yesterday I felt bad. I felt ignorant: Contrary to expectations Angkor did not blow me away.
I think it’s because the expectations were too high after all the hype there is about it. I felt like such a jaded snob who thinks to have seen it all since I’ve remembered how enchanted I was by the temple site in Sukhothai. Was the spell broken? Will I never be mesmerized by temple ruins again?

Today, having been back to Angkor to do the long circuit, I realized that yesterday’s oblivion wasn’t on me. At least not totally.

(Note: This diary entry goes backwards)

Angkor – Day 2

“You should go to Machu Picchu.” I turn around and there is a very handsome guy, blasé latino type. “I’ve been to Machu Picchu”, I inform him, “and I was very impressed. Actually so impressed that I cried. But I think it’s because of the height: You can see the whole complex at once on these mist covered mountains – you feel so close to heaven. Where are you from, anyway?” “From Perú.” Ok, that explains it all.

Preah Khan
Just one example of the finest craftsmanship at Preah Khan, one of the most intriguing temples in Angkor and definitely the highlight of the long circuit.
Preah Khan
The Khmer’s architectural abilities were amazing:
Preah Khan consist of four absolutely symmetrical
hallways with countless doors.

And yes, here we have reason #1 why Angkor didn’t take me in storm and brought me to tears like Machu Picchu did: It’s a really, really vast area with lots of jungle-ish parts, rice paddies, rows of hawker shops and restaurants between the temples’ remnants, so that you are meandering from ruin to ruin – that are undoubtably all very nice and impressive, each and every one in its own way, but there is not the overwhelming effect of seeing it at once in all its glory. I sort of expected that.

Reason #2 were the masses of people – at least yesterday, when I did the so-called short circuit that everybody does since it includes i. a. the famous Angkor Wat. Everybody means hordes, especially Chinese performing stampedes, pushing people aside and occupying merciless the most beautiful spots with never ending shootings of the most ridiculous poses.

I mean, you are basically climbing very dusty rocks in a hellish heat. These chicks were wearing cute summer dresses with strappy sandals, using this rich heritage simply to stage themselves, spurred on by the directing yells of their photographing husbands. And they are always in big, very noisy crowds, so they are very hard to ignore.

That, my friends, has a very disenchanting impact.

Preah Khan
Miracles do happen at Preah Khan!
I don’t know how the guard did it – it’s just the light incidence in the building’s very center.

Today I did the long circuit which is more expensive, but less popular and much less crowded, and look at this, I was happily frolicking on moss covered rocks and under scarily fixed constructions. No groups! Just individual travellers like me – we all had a good time and I do not worry about my ability to appreciate beautiful things anymore.

Preah Khan Lake
Eventually did come the moment that I almost cried: When I saw the glittering lake at Preah Khan.

Angkor – Day 1

First Angkor-day – long anticipated, and that is probably reason #3 for my initial indifference: Angkor simply couldn’t meet my expectations that everybody had triggered so much. I expected I would be ready to faint; but I was not.

I arrived on the site at approximately 5:30 a. m. to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat. Great idea. Great idea that I had shared with a couple of hundreds other early birds who arrived from all sides mostly in tuk-tuks, but also in cars, vans, motorcycles and even bicycles. These hundreds of people crossed in the pitch dark a plastic bridge that felt like a bouncy castle towards Angkor Wat. And then we were standing there staring towards the temple while the eager hawkers were noisily advertising all sort of goods including the only reasonable one: hot coffee.

Angkor Wat
5:30 in the morning, and there were so many early birds – whole flocks of them.

Standing there staring for a while, it became evident that this day there would be no proper sunrise. Of course the sun did rise, it was not the end of the world after all, but it did its job bashfully hidden behind clouds.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat: Up where we belong.

As soon as I realized that, I left the crowds and went into the temple. Let me tell you, at 5:45 a. m. you find yourself even at Angkor Wat with about two handful of other pessimists who gave up the idea of a sunrise. It’s a perfect timing: No groups, no crowds. The central tower that now can be more or less comfortably climbed over wooden stairs (still very steep!) opens at 6:40 a. m., I was in line at 6:25 – about twenty people before me, perfect timing. Today I’ve met a guy who had had to wait for three hours since they let in a hundred people at a time max.

Angkor Wat
Temple with a view.

But Angkor Wat, although the largest and most of all best-preserved complex, is by far not my favorite temple.

Angkor Wat - Dancers
Even in the early morning the mood’s in full swing at Angkor Wat.

I liked Bayon with all these mellow, chubby Khmer-faces much better and also the Baphuon complex with the beautiful elephant-terrace is very alluring.

Wat Bayon
Wat Bayon – short before the Chinese tourist groups arrived.
Wat Buophon - Elephant terrace
Just two examples of the many, many elephants decorating this terrace – and they are all different.

The most enchanted, almost bewitched temple was today’s last stop: Ta Prohm, where nature really reconquered what men had wrested from earth.

Ta Prohm
A tree growing over Ta Prohm’s fence.
Please notice the exquisite reliefs on the wall.
Ta Prohm
These roots have a firm grip on the remains of Ta Prohm’s structures.
Ta Prohm
There is always room for shenanigans: squeezing myself into a hollow trunk.

Siem Reap – Day 2: Outing to the countryside

Since my guest house offers tours to all the points of interest at the same price like most of the tuk tuk-drivers (after what I’ve heard along the trip), I agreed with them on three tours: Angkor short circuit including sun rise, Angkor longe circuit and a trip to the Roluos temples and the Kompong Phluk floating village.

Angkor Wat - North Gate
This is adorable Mr. Syna who took good care
of me the entire three days.

8 a. m., Mr. Syna is waiting and ready to go and the first thing I do is I misbehave.

Yesterday I had cycled to the sales point for the Angkor tickets and told them I wanted to go on the 4th and 5th to Angkor Wat. The lady told me to buy my ticket from the 2nd of December since it’s valid for 10 days, but no, I knew it better and told her to make it work from the 4th.

You should know they are super-strict with the tickets, they even have your picture on it and if you falsify it, you pay 100 bucks penalty per day.

So I had a ticket but didn’t know that it was not exclusively for Angkor Wat, but for many other sites around Siem Reap, too. Too bad that since I hadn’t listen to the lady mine was not good yet.

Instead of getting a grip I was barking around how expensive everything is and that I had already paid for the Angkor Wat ticket and now I had to pay for the Roluos site, too, blablabla.

Anyway, luckily there came a moment when I understood that they didn’t try to rip me off, but that I’ve been a fool for not listening. Tough shit, now I had a ticket, only not for the day. What the heck, Mr. Syna, let’s go, we’ll manage.

Well, I wouldn’t say ‘we managed’ – I did one of my hysterical routines as the guy at the control point pointed out the date to me – which unfortunately was not the one on my ticket. I explained how the lady didn’t tell me that the ticket was good also for other sites and how sad I am now and there was a lot of talking and even more ‘pleasepleaseplease’ and he kept calling someone and repeating to me that the ticket wasn’t good.

And then his boss came and I repeated my hysterical ‘I will cry’ and ‘pleasepleaseplease’ routine and the boss – actually a young kid – said it was ok and punched a hole in the ‘3’ on my ticket and quoted his ID-number (which actually helped me the next day at Angkor Wat where of course they immediately noticed that the 3rd was validated although the ticket was valid only from the 4th) and I got to see the Roluos temples.

Roluos temples
You gotta fight for your right to see the Roluos temples.
Roluos Temples
The sarong is not an ethnic fashion statement: I was wearing shorts and although the temples are partly ruins, celebrations are still taking place so you are requested to dress decent, i. e. knees and shoulders covered.

Later Mr. Syna brought me to the gateway for the floating village rides where I got another fit when the teller demanded 40 bucks for the boat ride. Hm, we were driving quite a long way so that I couldn’t tell Mr. Syna that I had changed my mind; and I didn’t change my mind, I just didn’t expect to pay 40 bucks for a boat ride. I asked some ladies from Taiwan that I had met the the Roluos temples how much they paid: 20 $. Back to the teller, complaining that others had to pay only 20. Yes, but you are by yourself. Although he got that right, I don’t understand why they hire a boat per party (which in my case was 1, indeed) instead of putting people together on boats and charge let’s say 15 or even 20 bucks per person. But it doesn’t matter if I understand it or not – it’s their business and they can run it as they please and if I don’t like it, I don’t get to see the floating village. It’s not the teller telling me that, it’s my sense, but I’m sure the teller would tell me exactly that only his English is not good enough.

Kompong Phluk
I’m such a copy cat: Since I’ve learned that Martin Parr has a whole collection of these incredibly tacky souvenir pictures, I’m not that avert to buying them like I used to be.
This one is particularly carelessly cobbled together.
A word about my facial expression: I had just made the calculation in my head how much I’ve been duped when unexpectedly the guy with the camera showed up in my face. He was lucky that I didn’t punch him.

Anyway, the trip to the village was really nice, I’ve never seen anything like this before, and what I appreciated the most is that the visitors are really seeing the village and the real village life and it’s not some made up Disney Worldish nonsense like I’ve seen e. g. in Tunisia where they take you to fake villages in the desert and you see exactly that the whole thing is a charade for the tourists and not genuine at all. So I really liked floating through this legitimate area of Cambodian culture.

Later I’ve learned from an Italian couple who denied to fork over 40 bucks that there is a possibility to visit at least parts of the village by tuk tuk – they paid their driver 10 bucks extra for that. I remember having seen a dust-road behind the houses built on steles. Still, I find it more adequate to visit a village on water from the water.

Kompong Phluk
Real people really working – of course on the river.
Kompong Phluk
Kompong Phluk floating village.
Kompong Phluk village
The following rowing through the water ‘jungle’ was nice, but quite pointless.
I love the girl’s facial expression in this picture a lot.
…and of course there were vendors waiting – and since we were on the water, their was no escape.
I’m afriad this permanent ‘Madame, buy something, only one Dollar’ – all with the same accent, all at an identical pitch will be haunting me for weeks.

Kompong Phluk


Siem Reap – Day 1: City tour by bicycle

Honestly, I had been very nervous before the trip by night bus from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap. There are so many accidents reported – especially on night busses – and after my adventures on boats and ferries I felt like tickling my luck. Plus, it was my daughter’s birthday, so I’d found it particularly tragic if I had died because the bus collided with a cow (that a bus hits a cow seems to happen very often; the passengers don’t necessarily die from it, though). Hence, I was very happy having arrived safe and sound at Siem Reap after quite a long sleep.

Giant Ibis night bus
As long as the night bus doesn’t collide with a cow, it’s a great and reasonably priced way to travel (but be sure to pick the right bus company – recommendations will follow in the upcoming informative résumé of my trip) 

My guest house is somewhere in the outskirts of Siem Reap, supposedly about 2 miles from the center, but I think that’s as the crow flies, and I am no crow, I’m a cyclist.

Siem Reap could even be quite charming if there weren’t this Angkor overkill and all the locals that understood quite well that the Barang is just a cash cow. I don’t particularly like it here, but I don’t dislike it, either. It has its spots.

Wat Preah Prom Rath
Wat Preah Prom Rath downtown Siem Reap

What’s funny in Cambodia is how provincial even bigger cities deem – even Phnom Penh has something countrified to it – by no means comparable to Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. And Siem Reap, although being home to 175,000 inhabitants and therefore Cambodia’s fourth largest city, even has lots of dust roads as soon as you leave the mere center.

Siem Reap
Tuk tuk drivers waiting for customers.
Judging from his smile, I have the feeling the one to the right is winning.

There’s a river – that’s an asset, and there are a couple of Wats. There’s a big market where mainly tourists shop and therefore it’s a big rip off. I don’t even want to think about the amounts that I have overpaid – starting with the silk scarves in Koh Dach (by now I think that I’ve paid six times as much as they cost elsewhere!). Again: I only hope that all the money that I’m overpaying goes to some really needy families with old parents and young kids.

Little Girl at Preah Khan
This little girl was sitting all by herself at the entrance to Preah Khan. I assume that she’s the daughter or grand-daughter
of one of the musicians you can see in the background: At many temples there are little orchestras of handicapped people
that fell victim to the remaining land mines. In this case I don’t think twice to put some money in the collecting box:
Since already for young, strong and healthy people life isn’t easy in Cambodia, how hard must it be for a handicapped person!?

This said, I need to make a confession: I did a bad, bad thing today, I bought a pirated copy of a book. It’s the sequel to the truly fantastic story “First they killed my father” by Loung Ung. I was very hesitant because being a blogger I strongly believe in copyright. But I intended to buy it, anyway, and most probably I had ordered it from amazon, hence supported a pretty shady corporation, so that would be a bad thing, too, only legal. So I hope that Ms. Ung, whom I admire and respect a lot, forgives me that I’ve preferred to support this young man selling really badly made copies of her books – please, Ms. Ung, look at it as kind of a donation from both of us.

But now back to Siem Reap’s attractions: There is a ‘pub street’ which is meant for individual travellers like you and me, but it’s definitely not for me – for you, I don’t know since I don’t know your liking. I strongly dislike streets where tourists are supposed to let their hair hang down.

On the way to the airport I saw the alternative: Enormous hotel buildings catering to large groups – at present mainly from China and Korea. They sure are milking the Angkor-cow here. The city itself will lose the little charm that’s left over the next years.
And with that said, I’m afraid Siem Reap is lost for good.

Siem Reap
Actually, there is something very laid-back – or down, for that matter – about Siem Reap.

Siem Reap is synonymous with Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s most famous sight.

The reflection of Angkor Wat in the morning sun.

The reflection of Angkor Wat in the morning sun.

And this will very soon put the final nail in Siem Reap’s coffin.

this way to read the whole story >>>