I would venture a guess that 99.99% of the people who visit Siem Reap come for the temples. It makes sense. The temples are fascinating and unlike anything you’ll see, but after two full days of exploring these historical monuments in the blistering heat, you’ll probably want to do other less sweat-inducing activities. Surprisingly (Well, I was surprised, but maybe that’s because I’m ignorant.), there are plenty of non-temple things to do in this fun little city.
We were pleasantly shocked to find that the food variety and quality was excellent in Siem Reap. Due to its large expat community you can find great Western food in addition to traditional Khmer cuisine. If you’re only traveling for a couple of weeks finding a good Western food establishment might not be so exciting, but if you’re roaming around Southeast Asia for several months you’ll start imagining how tasty that cow would be between a toasted bun with a side of fries. Mmmmm I can haz cheezburger? Of course you will pay a little more for Western food, but it won’t break the bank. There’s also an ice cream chain that has traditional flavors as well as more “exotic” flavors like ginger, black sesame, and durian. It’s wonderful ice cream and a delightful treat in the Cambodian heat.
When Angelina Jolie was in Siem Reap filming her first Tomb Raider movie, she supposedly hung out at the local bar, which was the only one in town. Nowadays, the city is a little less country. There is a street appropriately called Pub Street with a vast array of restaurants and bars for tourists to choose from. The Old Market is chock full of cuisines from all over the world. Korean businesses are investing en masse in Siem Reap, and some streets are so full of signs in Hangul that it looks like rural South Korea. All of this was unexpected for me, but I really wasn’t mentally prepared for the temples.
On a hot sunny morning, we met our tuk-tuk driver Kauwee and told him we wanted to avoid as many tour groups as possible. He nodded knowingly. “You want to do the reverse order for the temples, okay.” He had an intense itinerary for us with something like six temples in five hours so we got him down to three so we could take our time. We sat back and felt like royalty on the back of the tuk-tuk before I got sand in my eye and mouth and had to stop doing the royal wave. Don’t ask me why but Siem Reap is really dusty and everything is covered in a fine red layer of it.
In total, we saw about ten temples, big and small. A good friend of ours had reminded us to spend some time at the lesser known temples besides the obvious Angkor Wat, and I’m glad she did because the temples we preferred ended up being these less popular guys. Each of them are unique, but our favorites were Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei.
Angkor Thom is an expansive complex for temples and buildings which was the last seat of the Khmer Empire. We were dropped off at a bridge lined with stone statues, and then made our way through the main gate, a four-faced Buddha. It was my first taste of the Khmer temples and I was hooked. At this point I thought about how we considered skipping Siem Reap. We were so close to making one of the biggest mistakes of our Southeast Asia trip.
We ogled some monkeys before heading to the gaudy Bayon temple and making our way through the complex in the blistering heat. The restoration of each building was sponsored by a foreign country, because Cambodia is so corrupt that its “prime minister” uses its money on more important things, like himself. David W. Roberts put it quite eloquently when he stated that Cambodia is a “vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy.” The Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Cambodia the second most corrupt nation in Asia after North Korea. That is pretty damn corrupt if you ask me.