The plane from Manila landed smoothly on the tarmac of Siem Reap International Airport, taxiing to its strip. It was already 2130H and the spill of passengers enlivened the airport at such a time. It’s my first in Cambodia and early on, I was already struck at the beauty of the terminal: great architecture, transparent with all those glass, full of charming character and inviting.
I’ve been to many places and there are only a few ones that I find endearing. Places with its own charms and personality that you just want to linger or, if time is a little bit short, like this trip, to just come back again and stay longer.
There is Batanes at the northern tip of the Philippines. Or Dapitan City in Mindanao. Though some will say it’s not worth it, but Boracay for me is also one. And so is Siem Reap. The city is a great place to explore and there are interesting spots other than the ruins of Angkor.
Its wide boulevard, the National Highway 6 that stretches from Phnom Penh all the way to Poipet is at times impersonal with all those big hotels lining at both sides from the airport and always teeming with motorcycles and tuktuks alongside buses, cars and other vehicles. But once you turn to the minor arteries. It’s a different matter.
“Just walk, it takes 10 minutes.” Moy, the guest house owner told me when I asked her how I can get to the Old Market. And I just did that, following Sivatha Road, passing various shops and mostly modern structures.
When I did get near Pub Street, the scene seemed to have changed. It’s not only lively, with the tuktuk drivers calling out for a ride, but the atmosphere is just different. Old colonial architecture is still present and the old market is a hive of activity. Stepping into its interior is one chaotic but beautiful scene probably played out for the past hundred years or so.
There is always something pulling me into traditional markets: the sweaty and humid atmosphere, the interesting items being sold, the haggling, the narrow and sometimes muddy pathways, or the types of food stuff available. In this visit, I was entertained at the different kinds of sausages displayed, the abundant harvest of fruits, skinned frogs, an assortment of rice cakes and snacks, a smorgasbord of the edible and inedible. Something is always new! At its periphery are various items and curios.
For the night lifer, Pub Street is the place to go. Great food, beer and spirits. Nightly traditional dance performances in one of the bars. There are also interesting nooks to hang out or just enjoy the night away.
No visit to the temples is complete, or should I say, visit first the Angkor National Museum ($12 entrance fee) before heading out to the temple ruins of Angkor. This beautiful landmark is a sight to behold: the architecture is bold and imposing but stepping inside its doors, you will be in awe of its collections and the information you’ll get out of it from 8 galleries with state of the art multimedia presentations and explanations will surely arm you with a better understanding of the Khmer civilization and the ruins. And that will make your $20 or $40 pass well worth it.
A 5-10 minute walk to the Royal Gardens, between the Royal House at one end and the beautiful Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor, built in 1929, is a must. It’s a good area to sit to read a book or watch people during a lazy afternoon or just walking through the lotus pond or path lined with tall trees. Or you can pay homage at the shrine just within the park.
With all major rivers in Metro Manila considered as biologically dead, Siem Ream River, on the other hand is not only scenic but refreshing as well. A walk along its riverbanks lined with trees, a cement path, grassed ground and many cement seats is one of the things that I really like of the city.
It’s another place to just sit or walk around during the afternoon. Many people are jogging in the area as well.
At the other side of the road is interesting colonial architecture with some refurbished and given a new life. The FCC – Angkor is one. A beautiful two story structure, it’s a very romantic place and people do come for its food and ambiance.
There are also galleries and a hotel, like The 1961 which is an art space and its guest rooms are mini exhibition spaces in itself.
There are still other interesting spots around Siem Reap other than the temple ruins. A visit to the Tonle Sap and its interesting floating village is recommended. There’s also a silk farm, the Landmine Museum as well as various handicraft shops, and cheap but filling restaurants offering traditional Asian or Khmer cuisine.
I love Siem Reap. In just the few days I was here, I am already thinking of coming back and staying longer. The place is just beautiful and laid back and most important of all? Smiling and very hospitable people who will often get out of their ways to help you. And that is one of the components that make this city endearing.
Great history and culture. Great food. Great people. Great city, Siem Reap.