Make no mistake, Siem Reap is a tourist town. Everything here is geared towards tourists, or towards the infrastructure that the industry necessitates. Only here it is on an unprecedented scale. It feels as big as Phnom Penh as you drive towards its centre, with enormous resort hotels on the outskirts giving way to the bustle of dusty roads and boutique guesthouses further in.
That being said, they’ve done a decent job of it. The restaurants are excellent and varied, the massage parlours are professional, and the bustling night market is colourful and exciting. The night life isn’t too bad either.
Our first evening in town we spent on Pub Street – an inappropriately named pedestrianised corridor of restaurants. Happy hours can run all day (which is pointless, but effective marketing), serving a mug of Angkor for as little as 50 cents, or cocktails for a couple of dollars.
As night falls, two facing establishments – the loudest on the strip – spill out onto the street, their sound systems locked in an escalating arms race of volume that makes dancing to a single beat more an act of faith than rhythm.
Dancing in the goon light
The punters seem to enjoy this musical klaxon, engaging in dance-offs with a sweet and talented young local hawker, who boogies with a box of handmade braids bouncing from her hip. Or a bizarre spectacle in which a baby waddled around being mimicked by a drunk western girl, with a hundred people standing watching.
At some point, pop dance will melt your mind, so you opt to enter the much more sensible drum & bass club.
They sell buckets in the club. Have you ever heard of anything as absurd as a bucket of gin & tonic? Because that’s how us thirty-somethings party; sharing a bucket of gin & tonic.
Dancing on the furniture like prats for several hours tends to make you hungry. We ate something – I know because I have this picture – but once devoured and on our way home, three people climbing into a tuk-tuk called to us saying, “Wanna party?!” Our answer came subconsciously. Our bodies had not yet finished dancing.
So, suddenly we’re heading to X Bar, a place that’s so MTV-generation it has a half-pipe on the roof. By the time we were there it was mostly empty, but the staff were happy to serve the dozen people who were there, jumping around like drunken gibbons.
We made it home by 5.30 in the AM, but the next day was a write-off. The young folk can party at this pace and pick up where they left off in the morning, but our bodies are old and tired, and our brains have been pulped by years of abuse.
No, we get a day off, thank you very much.
A right way, and a Wong way
You don’t have to party like a maniac; there are bars of a considerably smoother vibe, like the tucked away Miss Wong’s, which feels like stepping into 1920s Shanghai, as you sip cocktails between bites of dim sum.
Our first hotel was reasonable, but we only had one night there while we waited for a space in the Mad Monkey. We’d been treated to such luxury at their sister hostel in Phnom Penh (specifically in their new Villa building), we thought this one could only be better, seeing as it also has a pool.
Unfortunately, it was shit. The pool was full of youths with astonishingly athletic bodies, rendering my limp five-minute swim a self-conscious nightmare. No, that’s not the fault of Mad Monkey, but of my own lifestyle choices. However, the restaurant on the roof (with its gimmicky beach floor) was nowhere near the Phnom Penh hostel’s high standards.
Meanwhile, the room was small, stuffy and full of mosquitoes. But the worst thing, the mattress was full of bedbugs. By the time we found tiny bloodstains on the sheets and noticed little dead creatures scattered around, it was too late.
To be fair, the Mad Monkey staff acted quickly, changing the mattress for a new one and calling in the exterminators, but they didn’t give us a different room and we found bugs hiding in cracks in the wooden bed frame, so we politely asked for our money back. They directed us to Kiri Hotel, an upgrade in every department and less than half the price. I was literally itching to change rooms.
Wat we’re here to see
All that nonsense to one side, we were here to see the largest religious building the world has ever seen, built within an ancient metropolis dating back to the 9th century AD. Angkor Wat is the biggest draw in south-east Asia, and for good reason.
Rising early, at four or five in the morning, the streets of Siem Reap are buzzing with tuk-tuks and mini-vans, ferrying their passengers to the Unesco park entrance. But when you arrive, dismount and are directed to the ticket booths, the sheer volume of tourists is still remarkable. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people queuing patiently, with night still prevailing.
It’s a slick operation; they take a photo of you that gets printed on your ticket to combat fraud. The tickets are then inspected at every temple you visit.
So off you go into the ancient metropolis, now a vast forest, in which clearings sporadically open to reveal the ancient ruins within.
First on the agenda, of course, is to watch the sun rise from behind the Angkor Wat’s soaring towers. Take note, this is first on everyone’s agenda. The place is packed, despite being absolutely huge. The main congregation accumulates around the far banks of the ponds either side of the main approach, the goal being to take the perfect photograph of the temple reflected in the surface of the water, the sun lifting majestically behind it.
But if it’s cloudy, there won’t be much of a sunrise to speak of, which was unfortunately the case for us. Our driver had said to scarper back once the sun was up, to explore other places before the crowds arrive, and then look round Angkor Wat later. This we did, and we were grateful for it, as we were treated to the bizarre temple Bayon with only a few people milling about.
A head of its time
Bayon is the most peculiar building I’ve ever seen. In the realms of the bizarre, it exceeds even Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. This maze-like structure connects shrines and gloomy corridors with courtyards surrounded by giant stone heads.
Almost every wall is engraved with detailed accounts of ancient wars or the legends of creation, with more strange four-faced heads at every turn. It’s a fascinating structure, and we were blessed with peace and quiet as we explored its nooks and crannies.
The Bayon building is one part of the wider temple complex of Angkor Thom. The second structure in that system we visited was the Baphuon pyramid. Not as large as Angkor Wat, nor as peculiar as Bayon, its approach is just as grand – intimidating even – with its layers mounting to represent the mythical mountain Meru. The views from the summit are stunning.
We stopped in at a few more temples, and by the time we’d arrived at Ta Prohm, the hordes had descended. There’s little wonder why this is one of the most visited buildings in Angkor – nor why the location director of Tomb Raider gave it a prominent take in the Angelina Jolie movie.
Siem Reap what you sow
It can be a little frustrating wanting to take a picture or just gaze in wonder at the crumbling, root-riddled ruins, when there’s 300 Asian tourists taking pictures of themselves with selfie sticks throwing up the peace signs. Here’s me in front of a tree! Here’s me obscuring the view of an ancient wonder! HERE’S ANOTHER PICTURE OF MY FACE. LOOK AT MY FACE AGAIN. LOOK AT IT!
But every once in a while the crowds break and you can snap a pic of the beauty around you. And it really is beautiful. Every turn reminded me of Ozymandius, the great poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley – the arrogance of ancient empires laid bare to the forces of nature, their legacies crumbling to dust, nothing beside remains.
Truly a wonder of the world; I hope the Khmer people and Unesco can safeguard this ancient heritage from erosion, though allowing so many thousands free reign to clamber over it all might not be the best start. Blessedly, there were sections closed off to the public, although I’m not sure if it was to keep the public safe from an unstable building, or to keep the buildings safe from the public.
Finally, we ventured to Angkor Wat itself. Its grandeur and magnificence is extraordinary, as is its sheer size, but it doesn’t have the overgrown romance of Ta Prohm, nor the bizarre oddity of Bayon. Still, long walls of relief statues are a fascinating insight into the Angkorian culture – notably of their vision of heaven and hell – and the climb to the towers is spectacular.
Many people explore the temples for several days, but the heat is punishing and the crowds are a little off-putting, so we settled for a day’s itinerary. Besides, our visas were due to expire and it was a long way to the Laos border.
Cambodia was spell-binding; captivating in its history, its food, its culture and its people. We saw things here neither of us had ever experienced – wonders of nature and ancient architecture – but we’d also missed so much, like the freshwater dolphins of Kratie, or the rainforest mountains of Koh Rong.
But you can’t see everything, and I think we’d had a good innings.
Through the looking glass
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