Finding Siem Reap from Thailand has never been easier whether you decide to drive or fly there, there is so much to see and do from the majestic temples to the country's French colonial past. While some 15 million tourists visit Cambodia's most famous temple Angkor Wat each year, it's easy to avoid the crowds at the temple complex than you might think.
And if Cambodia is on your travel list then you've probably heard Siem Reap as it's the standard trading post for the extraordinary jungle temples of Angkor Wat, barely six kilometres away. Prepare to have your prejudices overturned because you're are going to be mesmerised as mine were.
All you need to do is simply ask your hotel to recommend a good guide to show you around. These guides are well-equipped to avoid the hordes so that you won't have to waste time researching how to escape the human traffic jams. And you don't only have to be fixated on Angkor Wat. While the temple complex may be spectacular, it's just one temple.
Angkor proper is a massive complex spread over 200 sq kilometres with about 100 stunning monuments that are able to provide arguably more magical moments, thanks to their more than tranquil atmosphere. Why not then go in reverse. While most tourists are predictable, imagination is not often one of them.
Most will follow the well-trodden route of sunrise at Angkor Wat and sunset at Phnom Bakheng. Switch this around and the reward is far fewer people blocking your view.
It also may be in your best interest to bring along an umbrella with you as the complex is pretty exposed. It can get stifling hot during most of the year as well the rain during the monsoon season. The best time to go is between November and March after the rainy season and before it gets too hot. You'll appreciate a brolly.
I went there just after the monsoon in October before the tourist season began. Still hot though. You can of course visit during the low season between April to October which automatically cuts down the tourist numbers. However, you could be in for a rainy period.
You should also take plenty of water to stay hydrated and an insect repellent can come in handy too. If the romantic in you insist on seeing Angkor Wat at dawn, you might want to avoid the western causeway, the most popular photographic spot.
Instead, take the eastern entrance and walk through to the forest to the back of the building so that you have your pick of suitable as well as serenely quiet perches. This is a wonderful experience that comes minus the constant click of someone else's camera.
While many holidaymakers may wilt around 3 pm in the afternoon, why not stay a little later even if it means going without a siesta or that cold drink at your hotel bar. Try staying late after 4 pm when things may be a little cooler. Either try to stick it out or head back to base for an afternoon snooze at lunchtime when the sun is at its hottest and return in the late afternoon.
By which time the temples such as the beautiful Banteay Srei will usually have only a handful of fellow canny travellers. In this case, bring along a small torch to get a better look inside the windowless chambers. To get the best out of the temples you really do need a guide. And to find a good guide, that's if you opt out of any paid tours, your hotel would be able to assist you in arranging one for you.
Or you can try online at www.angkortemplesguide.webs.com A half-day guided tour will cost you around $100. If you are up to it you can also ask your guide to take you on a tour of the Cambodia Landmine Museum which is on the main road to Banteay Srei temple. The museum is open year round and the admission fee is around $5.
Monoreach Angkor is a 4-Star hotel comprising of 110 deluxe and standard rooms and suites, all with air-conditioning, TV, international direct dialling, both shower and bathtub, a mini bar and superb views overlooking the town or pool. This is the hotel I stayed in.
The Golden Banana is a stylish boutique hotel comprising of twenty-six suites, a pool, tropical garden and a restaurant. All the suites are prettily furnished in Cambodian style with both indoor and outdoor showers. The hotel is set in a quiet location close to the Old Market
The Heritage Suites is a Relais & Chateau property with twenty-six suites and rooms set in a tropical garden setting on the Siem Reap River. This hotel also offers personalised tours and excursions with its own on-site tour manager.
La Residence d'Angkor is a Khmer-style Orient Express property on the Siem Reap River complete with sixty-two spacious rooms and suites with balconies and really good spas. There's also a stunning pool to cool off on those hot and balmy days. This luxurious hotel isn't complete without its charming staff and two restaurants.
The Khmer Kitchen is a small but busy restaurant that serves inexpensive authentic Khmer cuisine including Lok Lak beef, amok and Khmer curry. You will find the eatery just behind Pub Street and they are open of both lunch and dinner.
The Sugar Palm is a traditional wooden house restaurant just outside the Pub Street area and offers a sophisticated take on local cuisine. There are a wraparound balcony, friendly atmosphere and delicious food.
The Amansara restaurant at the Aman Resorts is as good as it Siem Riep gets with such delights as Krueng Samott, a seafood curry and Koh Tronouch, grilled beef skewers with crushed lemongrass all set in chic and friendly surroundings. Reservations are essential for non-residents.
A trip to The Old Market (Phsar Chas) is also a trip to remember and is surely going to be etched into your memory for years to come. It's a lively place where you'll find a lot more than you could ever expect. You'll find everything from handcrafted wooden ornaments to galleries and boutiques.
There you'll find exquisite silver gelatin prints by renowned photographer John McDermott, affordable haute couture pieces by Eric Raisina who used to work for Yves Saint Laurent and stylish streetwear by Elizabeth Kiester, a former director at Abercrombie & Fitch. they all arrived as tourists and stayed seduced by Siem Reap's easy-going boho ambience.
And the best of all you can wander alone at night and feel completely safe. You can simply admire the local silk and delicate silverware as you dodge the Tuk Tuk's on the dusty streets and chickens on the pavements. It's time to sample the delicious Khmer food at the handful of restaurants. All this while in the midst of the Pol Pot's genocide legacy that to this day remains eerily apparent.
Today you hardly see a single pensioner as almost two million Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the seventies effectively wiping out a generation and the continuing abject poverty is etched on the faces of mothers in the floating villages of Tonle Sap Lake where they paddle their brood about in old washing-up basins.
Yet despite this, the general vibe is very much one of youthful optimism. Everyone here is studying to improve themselves and everyone everywhere is still full of hope especially the young men who walk around wearing crash helmets in an attempt to fool pretty girls into thinking that they are rich enough to own a motorbike.
The optimism here is so infectious you'll find yourself wanting to lend a hand and you can do this by either purchasing goods directly from the street kids or buying goods from the locally run shops. If you are a book lover as I am, you can buy some great books albeit photostat copied in the side avenues off Pub Street at around one dollar a book.
Most of the books here are not found anywhere else in the world. Don't concern yourself too much about the often scruffy nature of this Asian outpost, every other shop and cafe here pledges a few pence per purchase to its favourite NCO. Everyone here does their level best to make this a better place to live, work and play.
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