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I’ve felt the need to write about Siem Reap for some time now, but finding the words to describe my emotions without falling into banality is not easy. Then I postpone it, but maybe Siem Reap is trivially extraordinary and unique, and it is useless to look for other terms to define it.

Siem Reap

I stayed there five days, at the end of a Cambodian journey that left me fascinated by the beauty of what I saw but unnerved by the chaos, filth, corruption, and contradictions. Upon my arrival in town, I was tired and not really well disposed, but even like this, I was enchanted, and years later, I would go back to enjoy it quietly, without the chock in front of the immensity of the site.

About Siem Reap

This town on the banks of the Tonle Sap, whose name means “Siam Defeated,” has become in recent years the tourist capital of Cambodia, of course, thanks to the short distance from the fabled Angkor temples, declared in 1992 a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The town is tranquil and clean compared to the rest of the country, and the tourist standards got rapidly westernized with the opening of mega-hotels and shopping centers that open as quickly as pop-up windows beside traditional guesthouse and craft markets, which actually sell also many odds and ends, it must be said.

Siem Reap

Only the small French District has a certain charm from the architectural point of view. It is also where the offer in terms of food & beverage is more varied and the most expensive, especially compared to the Cambodian standards. Noblesse oblige …

The only source of stress is the troubling tuk-tuk drivers literally following you to offer their services. So much so that the night market is selling T-shirts with a “No tuk-tuk! Thank-you” inscription.

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The National Museum

Being the site so vast and historically and architecturally rich, I recommend you start with a visit to the National Museum ($ 12 for adults and $ 6 for children under 12) to capture the full value of what will leave you gaping afterwords. The styles that have occurred at Angkor are, in fact, different, each with its own codes and characteristics. Although the guidebooks do mention it, I think that the museum’s overall view can be really helpful for a full understanding.

I also discovered many architectural curiosities related to popular belief and religion, which I did not find mention in the guidebooks. For instance, why the stairs of Angkor Wat follow a certain inclination…

The locals do not really like this museum because of the Thai management and following their advice. I postponed my visit, but I was wrong, and if I started here, I would have lived the rest of my stay in a different way, but we know that nothing is as hindsight.

The Angkor Archaeological Park

The park covers over 400 square kilometers between emerald green tropical forests, lakes, and the spectacular remains of different capitals of the Khmer empire, built between the ninth and fifteenth centuries.

Among them, there is also the largest city in the pre-industrial world, inhabited by more than one million inhabitants. Like the other great civilizations of history, the Khmer fell too defeated by the ancient Siam, and Angkor was abandoned and swallowed by the Asian jungle. Only in 1860, after several visits by other explorers, the French Henri Mouhot unveiled it to the world.

Siem Reap

Only the religious architecture survived because it was the only one built-in stone during the Angkor period … between them, “only” forty-eight temples – divided by French archaeologists who studied the complex between the small circuit and the great circuit – are accessible to visitors and for foreigners are expected to buy a cumulative pass, including also the temples of the Roluos Group.

The pass can be purchased only at official box offices, the APSARA, on presentation of a passport and a passport photo. It can last one day ($ 20), three days (40 $ – to be used within one week), or a week ($ 60 – to be used within a month). Children under 12 are given a free pass on the presentation of a passport.

* Buying it upon your arrival after 5 pm, you can access the site right away to enjoy the sunset and without this access being counted!

I needed silence, and I relied on no guide except a guidebook for sale at the entrance of the temples at $ 1. It is a wild copy of Ancient Angkor by Claude Jacques and Michael Freeman, and I found it very valuable. If you want it before leaving, you can also buy it on Amazon, but it’s much more expensive…

Apart from two evening bike rides to see Angkor Wat at sunset, I rented a tuk-tuk with a driver ($ 30 for three days) for tours of the various sites.

Siem Reap

Having failed in the past, now I plan my travel itineraries so that the beauty and the importance of what I’m visiting increase stage after stage.

I started with a first full day dedicated to the Grand Circuit, about six kilometers from Siem Reap and covering twenty-six. The road to reach it passes through ordered villages and rice fields after the chaos, and after the rest of Cambodia, one gets the effect of a soothing balm. Almost every house exposes stalls for water, grilled corn, and fantastic cane sugar candies packaged in a banana leaf. The sites of this circuit are seventeen, and their beauty surprised me and left me breathless.

Siem Reap

My favorite one is the Pre Rup temple mountain of Hindu origin. Both the reliefs and the sculptures are in an excellent state of preservation, and scaling it up to the summit; you can enjoy a splendid view of the Cambodian countryside.

The second day, after a long, alas late visit to the museum, I visited the so-called Roluos Group named after the neighboring town about thirteen kilometers from Siem Reap. This is the first capital of the Empire, which marked by the architectural point of view the beginning of the Khmer classical style. All guides will recommend a visit in the morning, but the locals advised me against it because the readers of Lonely Planet are too many, and in the late afternoon, the site is almost desert and makes you dream. The sunset on the temple Bakong then is truly magical.

Siem Reap

The Small Circuit covers seventeen kilometers starting from Angkor Wat. It includes the most important and architecturally spectacular temples of the region, built to enhance Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer Empire under Jayavarman VII. The heart of this amazing citadel is the Buddhist temple of Bayon, with its smiling faces able to attract the attention of those who lock eyes and its beautiful libraries that arise in the yard.

Siem Reap

However, the most famous is the Ta Prohm, always in Bayon style; this temple swallowed by the jungle was chosen years ago as a set for the movie Tomb Raider and is now the star of the tourist area despite numerous collapses that will greatly reduce its usability.

Siem Reap

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is simply an architectural masterpiece. Pure breathtaking perfection that numbs and makes everything else looking not beautiful and important enough, and this is just the biggest flaw of this site … once seen, Angkor Wat other Asian sites are not quite special, and you tend to visit them with a certain sufficiency, at least for my part.

The first time I saw it, I arrived by bicycle at sunset and to sit reading along the bank of the outer moat, looking up from time to time to gape in front of such splendor, observing the monks gradually came out and then the fantastic play of light and shadow reflections in the water in between shiny pink water lilies.

Siem Reap

Then I returned before dawn and went back to sit at the same place to watch the thousands of lights of many bikes and tuk-tuk approaching in the night and then the torches of tourists that looked like many fireflies as they crossed the bridge to access the site. With every passing minute, the sheet of water begun to reflect the sunrise, and it was magic. Images and sensations that I will always remember.

Siem Reap

Once the sun came up, I saw a procession in reverse and finally entering, I could visit Angkor Wat in peace. Walking among its soaring towers, labyrinthine galleries, the many rooms, porches, and overlaid courtyards, it was a wonderful adventure through the history and personal fantasies also dictated by the novel I was reading, Temple of a Thousand Faces by John Shors, set right here 🙂

Angkor Wat was conceived as a funerary temple for King Suryavarman II. To fully grasp the symbolism related to death as sunset, the gallery of reliefs should be visited from left to right, as per the official funeral Hindu ritual. In truth, however, I wandered for hours, getting carried only by sensations and personal taste, and have walked along this gallery in the opposite direction …

Siem Reap

The trip to Cambodia hit me and nervously sunk me so much that I could not wait to leave. Years later, however, as mentioned at the beginning of the post, the nostalgia grips me, and I need to revisit this extraordinary site. Therefore I predict a stop in Siem Reap as soon as possible, maybe at the Water Festival in late October, to see the change of the current flow of the Tonle Sap, seen by Cambodians as a thanksgiving to the Mekong river that gives life and fertility …

* for practical tips on transport, where to sleep or to eat, and what to pack, check this post.

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Silvia's Trips

Hi there! My name is Silvia and after 15 years between the Paris Opera and the Palau de les Arts in Valencia I now run a boutique hotel in Cinque Terre, deal with tourism management and blogging, sail, horse-ride, play guitar and write about my solo trips around the world. For more info about me and my travel blog check my full bio.