Greg Alexander

More than Just Angkor

Just Say Go, June 15, 2009

When we were planning our trip recently to Vietnam, I decided that if I was going to be that close to one of the significant archaeological sites in the world – Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage site – that a side trip to Cambodia would have to fit into the itinerary. I did some quick research, and most of the guide books all said the same thing: allow 1-2 days maximum, see Angkor and leave, as there is not much else to see in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I heeded their advice and added on two days to the itinerary, got a Cambodian visa and booked the necessary flights.

Within moments of arrival into Siem Reap, I realized that the guide books were all wrong and that I had made a terrible mistake: while Angkor is what brings most tourists to Siam Reap, there is much more to do and see in this charming town, and the people alone will make you want to stay for days and days.

We flew from Hanoi to Siem Reap via Vietnam Airlines, one of the few choices available. The airline is efficient and the service is top-notch; however, one warning – the airline has very strict carry-on allowances (one very small bag only) and weight restrictions for checked luggage. Since we were at the end of a three-week trip, our bags exceeded the limits, and we had to pay $70 cash. Once you arrive in Cambodia, there is no need to exchange into the local currency, as the U.S. is the de facto currency and accepted everywhere.

We stayed at the gorgeous Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa ( a Colonial 1930s-themed resort located conveniently located next to the King’s Residence and minutes from downtown Siem Reap and Angkor. We were picked up in a vintage 1927 convertible – so authentic that the driver had to crank the engine to get it started. It was a fun, quick ride to the hotel with pedestrians turning their heads as we drove by. The resort is calm and serene, yet moments from everything. The décor is classically beautiful, and rooms are spacious and have modern amenities. We arrived late in the afternoon, and the Cambodian heat can be overwhelming, so we opted to spend the afternoon in the resort’s enormous saltwater pool and dine at the onsite L’Escale restaurant, which offers international cuisine in a relaxing outdoor patio. Also, be sure to enjoy a drink in at the L’Explorateur Bar by the pool (there is also the upscale Bistrot De Siem Reap, regarded as the best French restaurant in town; however, our short stay did not allow for it).

When going to Angkor, go early! Sunrise is an especially magical time; however, if you are not that early of a riser, then it’s still better to aim for the morning, as the afternoon heat can be exhausting. We chose to have an early breakfast at the resort, which offers a delicious buffet, complete with Champagne. The morning light is beautiful, too, at the resort, and I noticed for the first time that the ample floral displays had leaves that had been hand wrapped into interesting shapes by the staff. We booked a car service for the day via the resort for $30, and our driver was informative and helpful.

Visitors to Angkor buy either single-day or multi-day tickets at a designated ticket booth outside of the grounds, and a single-day ticket allows multiple visits that day, allowing you to return for sunset. Bring water with you (our driver bought some for us for 25 cents from a roadside vendor and said that we would have paid over $1), as the bottled water sold onsite is about 10 times the price, but, whatever you do, drink lots of water to hydrate. Angkor is enormous, so allow several hours, if not days. Meander through the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries and marvel at the carved etchings that somehow remain intact. Inside most of the structures, shade provides a relief from the sun. Take the time to observe other visitors, many of whom come here on an emotional spiritual journey.

We spent morning at Angkor and then returned back to the Victoria resort for a refreshing dip in the pool and an iced cold ginger ale, delivered poolside by a friendly and attentive waiter dressed in a crisp white shirt, dark blue shorts and long white socks. Next, we walked to the old town of Siem Reap. A new air-conditioned mall, Lucky Mall Shopping Centre, has assorted shops, the best of them being The Bamboo Company, located directly to the right of the front entrance. Here, you’ll find high-quality and colorful T-shirts, jewelry and dress shirts with unique designs. Also, the Lucky Mall has an ATM that dispenses U.S. dollars.

Downtown, you’ll find all the necessary souvenirs and T-shirts you’ll need (for the best silver jewelry, check out the boutique shop at the Victoria resort). While downtown, a must stop is Pub Street, which is a long street of, well, pubs and restaurants. Prices in Cambodia are extremely cheap – we had an amazing lunch with four beers for $10. After a long day of shopping, we opted for a tuk-tuk ride back to the hotel for $3.

Unfortunately, we had to fly back home that night, so we were unable to visit some of Siem Reap’s other attractions, including the various temples, markets, Cambodian Cultural Village or take a Khmer cooking class. If you have not satisfied all your shopping needs, check out the shop at the Siem Reap airport where we bought beautiful silk and bamboo placemats ($2 each), coasters ($0.50 each) and bookmarks ($1) made by local artisans, and the money goes back to the local community. Also, keep in mind that there is a $25 exit fee to leave Cambodia, although the airport does take credit cards.

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