Siem Reap is magical. Full of centuries-old temples like the mighty Angkor Wat, the Cambodian city has intrigued me for years. The rich culture and deep history of the area beckoned for so long that this week I finally answered their siren call and traveled to Southeast Asia.
I arrived in Cambodia, the 83rd country on my 90 under 30 Travel Project, in the evening. After getting a visa and clearing customs at Siem Reap airport, I met the driver from my accommodation outside of the arrivals hall. It was a five-minute drive to the Alila Sothea Hotel, a luxury property in Siem Reap that had offered me a room for two nights.
When I arrived at the hotel, I was shown the beautiful outdoor courtyard, the airy restaurant, the spa, and the swimming pool. From there I went to my room, which was spacious and contained a large bed, two lounging sofas, a desk, a TV, and a bathroom with a shower and an enormous claw foot bathtub. The outer wall was all windows, one of which opened onto a private terrace that overlooked the pool. It was lovely.
Unfortunately, I didn’t spend long there. With only two days in Siem Reap, I had to maximize my time at the main attraction: the temples. On my first morning in the city, I woke up at 4:30am and was on the road in a hotel tuk tuk by 5am. I bought my visitor pass at an already crowded entry gate to the Angkor Archaeological Park, then proceeded to the first stop of the day: Angkor Wat.
Watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat was one of the most beautiful things I have seen on my travels. The towering cones of the temple were thrown into relief as the sky went from inky blue to light purple to bright pink. Hundreds of people lined the reflecting pool in front of the complex to photograph Angkor Wat at the first light of day.
After the sun came up I spent time exploring the large temple complex, then hopped back in my tuk tuk to visit several others. First there was Bayon, a beautiful temple in the ancient royal city of Angkor Thom. Near it were the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King, and the smaller Phimeanakas temple.
From Angkor Thom we traveled north to Preah Khan, a beautiful crumbling temple with a long series of doorways that decreased in size as they went.
Retracing our path, we drove to two small temples, Thommanom and Chau Say Thevoda, which were located across the street from one another right outside of Angkor Thom.
Those were followed by a visit to Ta Keo and Ta Prohm, the latter of which being where most of the iconic tree-in-temple photos of Siem Reap are taken.
Over the course of many centuries, trees had grown up through the temple walls of Ta Prohm and many others, engulfing them in roots that looked like the legs of giant elephants. The result was picture pretty, but perilous for the temples. Many are undergoing restoration work to ensure that no further damage is done.
After visiting Ta Prohm, my driver took me to the Village Restaurant along the rectangular Sras Srang lake. My heaping plate of vegetable fried rice was greasy but filling, and welcome after a long morning of temple climbing in Cambodia.
The next morning I was back on the temple trail, but this time my agenda was different. I was off to see some of the more remote temples to the north of the Angkor Archaeological Park. The first stop was Banteay Srey, which was also called the Ladies’ Temple. Dating back to the 10th century, the small temple was renowned for its intricate carvings.
After visiting the temple, we retraced our drive, passing by rows of market vendors making palm sugar and long strings of houses built on stilts until we reached the final temple of my Siem Reap travels: Pre Rup. The structure was stunning in its height and detail, and I felt no small sense of vertigo as I scaled the steep steps to the top.
After two mornings of seeing the temples in Siem Reap, I needed a bit of a break. This came in two forms: the town and the hotel. The main part of town was located five minutes’ drive from the Alila, and I availed myself of the hotel’s complimentary tuk tuk service several times.
The city center was large and bustling, and there was no shortage of shops, restaurants, and bars to choose from. I visited night markets and day markets, chi chi boutiques like Wanderlust, Waterlily, Wild Poppy on Alley West, and Pub Street, with its famous late-night watering holes.
I dined at restaurants like the traditional Khmer Kitchen and the upscale AHA, and ate foods like pumpkin curry and green mango salad with dried snake. Yes, dried snake.
I walked by innumerable fish pedicure tanks and massage chairs, all of which were right out on the sidewalk providing easy access to participants and easy people watching to passers by.
Back at the hotel, I enjoyed a traditional Khmer massage at the spa. It was different from any massage I have ever had in that I was fully clothed in a loose fitting tunic and trousers, and the therapist used a combination of stretching and kneading techniques. It was pleasantly invigorating, and I felt great afterwards.
I did not, however, feel great about the prospect of leaving Siem Reap. My two days there had been enjoyable, and I couldn’t help wanting to discover more temples, more of the city, and more relaxing experiences inside and outside of the hotel. But it was time to leave Siem Reap and Cambodia, and travel to the next destination on my Southeast Asia trip: the enchanting city of Luang Prabang, Laos.