Arriving at Siem Reap’s glamorous Golden Temple Residence Hotel was a complete shock to the system after 4 weeks living in humble abodes. This fabulous hotel is currently no.1 on Trip Advisor because guests couldn’t get over the quality of customer service. I must say, getting picked up from the airport and having someone replace your suitcases with a cold beer, hot towel and complimentary shawl was a wonderful welcome gesture. Yet this was merely a warm-up for the real show that awaited us at the fountain sheltered hotel hidden right in the heart of Siem Reap. The friendly staff spoiled us with complimentary cocktails, a food platter and helped us to organise our stay in the city, booking a tuktuk for our day trip to the temples and arranging for packed breakfasts to be picked up with us. It certainly took the stress out of travelling, particularly considering our tight time-schedule in the city. Classy convenience at its best as the hotel is just moments away from the city’s party area- aptly named ‘Pub Street’- yet somehow manages to offer a quiet sanctuary away from the madness of the metropolis!
The centre of Siem Reap, known as Old Market or Psah Chas, is a sea of sights, sounds and smells, offering nighttime entertainment for the thousands of tourists who have come to see the crown jewels of Cambodia: the temples of Angkor. After experiencing Sihanoukville’s tentative tourism trade, the excellent English and westernized waiting in Siem Reap really took us by surprise. We also found ourselves experiencing the Western-World problem of too much choice, as there’s almost every food and drink imaginable in Siem Reap’s central tourist district which offers a fusion of Khmer-Asian-Western cuisine! Although I would encourage you to resist the temptation of Fish and chips in favour of some culinary traditions of the Khmer people. My favourite, flavourful dish was a simple, coconut-based Khmer curry served with sticky rice and a side of morning glory. The city comes to life at night when rows of street food vendors and tuktuk bars open for business. This once tiny town transformed by an influx of tourism would rival any university city with its lively night market and late night bars.
Yet, in spite of all the unexpected fun of the city centre we hadn’t visited Siem Reap to sit in a bar until the early hours. Instead we were up before dawn to see the sunrise at Ankgor Wat, a very early start aided by the complimentary coffee flasks provided by our hotel (they really thought of everything to ease our stay!) Like most people we opted for the private tuktuk option. Costing approximately $15-$25 for a day, your driver will take you wherever you like and wait for you outside each stop. We decided against a guided tour in the end as there’s so much to explore in one day that I would only consider a more in-depth itinerary if you are taking multiple trips to the temples. Instead, we bartered ourselves a guide book and discovered the temples for ourselves as we toured around the small circuit which takes in several of the major and minor temples in the area.
We certainly wished we had more days in Siem Reap as there are more than a thousand temples spread across the 400 square kilometres- it’s essentially one big archaeological theme park! But thankfully the 17km small circuit beginning at Angkor Wat takes in the major elements of Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, Bayon and some of the more minor but interesting temples such as the Baphoun. The temples are truly stunning and in spite of the surrounding tourism, still give a sense that you are the first person to stumble across the jungle covered ruins, unkempt but alive with spiritual devotion. It’s a place that seems too magical to be real as if an off-duty movie set. In fact, Ta Prohm is famed for is connection to the Lara Croft franchise, where several scenes from Tomb Raider were filmed. It’s unsurprising why they chose this mysterious, overgrown temple for its backdrop, as the half-crumbled stone with exotic trees rising out of the ruins suggests a lost world hidden by hundreds of years of dense wilderness.
As you might expect, there are some overcrowded areas around the temples where people seem more concerned with taking selfies than seeing the 12th or 13th century spiritual structures. However, due to its vast scale it’s not hard to find your way off the beaten track and into quiet corners of this ancient Angkorian city. Clouds covered our Angkor Wat sunrise shots, but the lack of photos didn’t matter as the ambiance and the magnificence of the largest religious monument in the world is something that needs to be experienced in reality. In the case of Angkor Wat, feeling is believing as the temple invokes far more awe and enchantment than I ever could of imagined from seeing photos. It should have a place on everyone’s bucket list because of the way it weaves the past into the present; nature intertwines itself in and around the temples and is slowly pulling them back to Earth, highlighting the impermanence of all things. We must enjoy the magic of the moment without trying to capture it in photo or thought, because before we notice, it will be gone.
After an exhausting day climbing around temples it was a great relief to return home to a much more relaxing temple: The Golden Temple Residence! We spent the late afternoon lounging around the pool before wining and dining at the glorious in-house restaurant. The next morning we enjoyed late breakfast and complimentary massages, which was much needed after a big but brilliant day traipsing around the spectacular temples of Siem Reap!
Where we stayed:
Golden Temple Residence Hotel
They have some excellent offers available. We paid a bit more than the going rate in Siem Reap (approximately $130 dollars per night) but this included airport transfers, a 3-course meal, 2 full body massages, welcome drinks and afternoon tea.
Getting to Siem Reap from Sihnoukville:
We flew from Sihanoukvile to Siem Reap. This is the most expensive option (approximately $60 per person) but by far the most convenient if time is of the essence as the flight was barely 70 minutes. Alternatively there is a night or day bus which takes 12 hours and costs around $12.