Touring the Temple Towns, Part 1: Siem Reap

We opted to book a taxi to take us on the  5 to 6 hour drive from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. A flight would have taken us just as long door-to-door, would have cost more, and have a reputation for hitting people up for extra luggage charges at the gate. We booked the car and were picked up in a beautiful, air conditioned Lexus SUV for the ride, which turned out to be quite pleasant and on a very new road. Along the way, our driver chatted with us about life in Cambodia and also stopped at a few sites, including a market where we could buy such local delicacies as fried spider, grasshopper, and silkworms, along with a roadside stand where we could buy sticky rice and black beans that had been roasted in bamboo. John tried the fried insects and we both tasted the sticky rice.

John with a fried spider
Tasting it
Sticky rice with black beans cooked in bamboo
and the stand where we bought it

People go to Siem Reap mostly to tour the temples of Angkor Wat, the famous ancient temples that are world-renowned for their beauty and historical importance. The city of Siem Reap itself is a mix of dusty streets lined with cheap hostels and cafes and an upscale section of hotels and fine dining restaurants. We stayed in the Golden Butterfly Villa, a small guest house just off one of the dusty streets. We were awakened at 7:00 sharp each morning to the sound of loud PA announcements from a school just next door. Even if I knew the Cambodian language, I doubt I would have understood much of the lengthy  announcements, which had the sound of Charlie Brown’s teacher from the Peanuts specials we grew up with. The guest house itself was staffed with a well-meaning, but slightly inept staff. On check-in, our room was missing towels and other amenities, which we requested and, eventually, received. Later, when we tried to lock our room door to go to dinner, the key didn’t work. We figured out that our room key fit the room across the hall, not our room. We summoned the manager up to our floor to show her the problem and, in her limited English she kept pointing to our room and saying “no one stays in there,” to which we replied, “we stay in there” and she would repeat, “but no one stays there.” This went on for a while. This exchange, we later realized, set the tone for our five nights at the Golden Butterfly Villa. The remainder of the week had multiple comedic misunderstandings around internet service, requesting tuk-tuks, and hotel amentities. But what can you say? This is a small villa in a country that is developing rapidly but is still behind its Southeast Asia neighbors.

A countryside bike ride

The countryside bike ride in Hoi An, Vietnam was so enjoyable that we decided to schedule one for Siem Reap through the same outfitter, Grasshopper Adventures. Heang was our tour guide and our ride took us through small villages, as had our Vietnam ride. We met a woman in her eighties who had been young during the Khmer Rouge years in the late 1970s and had been separated from her family, some of whom were killed. We visited a Buddhist Monastery, a village market, and rode past rice fields.

Local woman in her eighties – she was separated from her family and village during the Khmer Rouge years but returned to the village and now has children and grandchildren close by
Our tour guide, Heang
Stupas at a local monastery – families purchase these and commit the cremated remains of loved ones here
Bicycling through the rice fields – we could hear preparations for a wedding taking place nearby

Evening in Siem Reap

Siem Reap’s riverside area comes alive at night, with outdoor exercise classes in the park, markets selling jack fruits the size of footballs, bubble tea, and tourist trinkets, along with pavement kitchens selling delicious treats. The many bridges over the Siem Reap River are lit in festive colors, and riverside streets are closed to everything except the tuk-tuks. We enjoyed walking through Siem Reap’s famous Pub Street area, alive at night with diners and the party crowd alike, however, we preferred our small, quiet street for dining where the food is cheaper and tastier.

At a night market
One of the city’s many festive bridges

A Night at the Circus

The Bamboo Circus in Saigon had been so much fun that we decided to buy tickets to the highly-rated Cambodia Circus. What a great time, and very talented and athletic performers!

Angkor Wat

Every tuk-tuk driver we hired who spoke any English at all tried to interest us in a “tour” of the Angkor Wat buildings. This actually meant that the driver would pick us up in the pre-dawn hours to stake out a spot to watch sunrise over Angkor Wat, a popular experience for a visit to the temples, then drive us around to all of the other temples we might care to see. No tour guiding, just transportation.  We waited until later in the week for our Angkor Wat tour and hired an enthusiastic young man to take us on the tour. He picked us up at 5:00 a.m. and we took the 20 minute tuk-tuk ride to join the hundreds of others sitting in the dark waiting for first light. Was it a beautiful and magical experience? Yes. Was it really worth getting up at 4:00 a.m.? For us, maybe not – don’t get me wrong, the Angkor Wat temples are magical, I’m just not sure it’s necessary to join the throngs for the sunrise pilgrimage. That said, the temples are pretty amazing, especially Ta Prohm, with trees overtaking the ancient buildings looking almost like hardened liquid poured over the structures. I’ve never seen anything quite like this and if you’re lucky enough to go to Siem Reap, I suspect you’ll say the same thing.

With our tuk-tuk tour guide
Angkor Wat at sunrise
Ta Prohm with its tree roots consuming the temple ruins
Ta Prohm has a magical look to it
At Angkor Thom

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