The benefit of doing Phnom Penh before Siem Reap was evident the moment I was greeted by the hotel welcoming committee outside the Siem Reap airport. Leaving Phnom Penh, my thoughts were still lingering on the new-found appreciation of the Cambodian people and the struggles that the nation has had to endure to bring itself into the 21st century. This connection laid a foundation as solid as the sandstone monuments that I would soon encounter. As the sweet concierge in her traditional yellow Sampot Hol dress ushered me into the back of the air-conditioned hotel van, I felt at peace with approaching Siem Reap from a completely different perspective. The blue butterflies fluttering around me seemed to agree.
In Siem Reap, I decided that the best approach for me was not to burden myself with trying to remember the names of the kings and the dates associated with the amazing temples scattered around the region. Everything you will see was roughly built between 800-1300AD. And my approach to this blog post will be done in the same spirit. I will leave the history of Angkor Wat to Wikipedia. If you just want to sit back and soak it all in like I wanted to, then read further. But to do that, I recommend getting a pretty good Tuk Tuk driver.
Trip Advisor is full of aspiring and entrepreneurial Tuk Tuk drivers. One I recommend goes by the name of Tom. How can memories of a place not be enhanced when you can look back and recall Tuk Tuk Tom? Tom is prompt, responsive, flexible, and very easy going. Tom will offer historical commentary with some not-so-easy-to-understand English, but unless you start asking questions, Tom grows much less talkative after a couple temples. What is great about Tom is that he has a good strategy for visiting the temples to avoid the crowds. Rather than stressing yourself out about which temples to see and when, just sit back and let Tom do his thing. What transpired was two days of pure chilling in the back of a Tuk Tuk bliss.
Tuk Tuk Tom Day One
Tom’s strategy is to go right for one of the main highlights first thing in the morning, the Tomb Raider site, Ta Prohm. The day that would unfold would essentially be a variation of the Small Loop circuit ending at Angkor Wat. I am not sure what I found most fun. The hop on-hop off convenience of the tuk tuk ride, visiting the various amazing temples themselves, or playfully engaging the various girls hawking souvenirs. Rather than shooing them away like irritating flies, I decided it would be more fun to stump them with off-the-wall comments and see their reactions. Some would be friendly and play along, others would proceed unfazed to shove their souvenirs in my face, and then there were the ones, usually the youngest, which would frustratedly wrinkle their eyebrows in confusion and move quickly on to the next person. Damn, I miss those encounters. I am sure the blue butterflies had a good laugh.
Without further ado, a photographic review of Day One.
Tuk Tuk Tom Day Two
Day Two was supposed to start with the ultimate pictorial moment in Cambodia, the sunrise over Angkor Wat. But on this morning, the weather did not cooperate. Tom kept in touch and offered to extend the reservation until the next morning which had a better forecast. Therefore, Day Two skipped directly to a variation on the Large Loop circuit but extending it all the way to Banteay Srei and then returning to Bayon and other Angkor Thom temples. The route to Banteay Srei is quite a long relaxing drive and gives plenty of opportunity to view the rural farming life in Cambodia.
It feels like nowadays, there are very few items left on my Bucket List that were there when I started this amazing journey living in Europe nine years ago (many were added afterwards). One of them was visiting Angkor Wat. But I had no idea until a few weeks before that the thing to do at Angkor Wat was to arrive there in the dark and watch the sunrise. After the first attempt was rained out, there was one last chance. And thanks to Tom’s advice, I was already there at 5:00am (time stamp on my first pic was 5:04am). Anything later would have been suboptimal. This enabled me and the blue butterflies to have a front row vantage point along the southern reflection pond. Judge for yourself if we had a copious amount of good fortune in the weather.
The map contains all of the places discussed or shown in this blog post. Maroon stars are Tuk Tuk Tom Day One sights. Blue stars are Tuk Tuk Tom Day Two sights.
Brewtiful Siem Reap
Any city whose main drag is called Pub Street probably deserves the moniker Brewtiful in front of its name. (Note: Pub Street is actually two streets which intersect in the city center.) However three extremely active days did not leave me much energy to explore the bar scene in Siem Reap. Therefore my review of the drinking establishments is quite slim and I am forced to include a cocktail bar which normally is outside my realm of influence. However, if you want to go out for a beer and enjoy the madness of the Siem Reap nightlife, there are no shortage of places. There is a reason its called Pub Street.
Miss Wong Cocktail Bar
This provocative little cocktail bar feels like a place you’d see in a movie from the 1920’s or 1930’s where a foreigner could have a drink and pick up a special friend for the evening or make some kind of opium deal. Neither of those things were my goal, however, but having a nightcap after a fantastic dinner was.
Sombai is a local artisan making 8 flavors of liquor and also alcoholic jam. Of course, the blue butterflies encouraged me to try all of them. But I was not simply a freeloader in this transaction. I brought some home with me.
iem Rea Brewpub
The Siem Reap Brewpub offers six regular beers and a couple seasonal specials which can all be enjoyed on flights. I admit that I didn’t find the beers all that remarkable. However, it was here that I had an epiphany. There are two problems with ordering flights, especially in Southern Asia. One is that the beers stay exposed too long to the hot ambient before you can drink them all and Two is that the small glasses smother the aroma of the beer. If I could do it all over again, I would choose one normal sized glass and enjoy it both at the proper temperature and with the beer allowed to breathe in the glass. But freaking Untappd trains us beer drinkers to go for quantity of check-ins over quality of check-ins. I have since changed my mindset about that.
Edible Siem Reap
Despite being surrounded by endless street food, most meals in Siem Reap were a bit more of a refined nature. Here is a list of recommended restaurants. Devatas is a particularly convenient lunch spot if you take the Tuk Tuk ride all the way to Banteay Srei. All of these locations are on the map.
- Rohatt Cafe
- Wat Damnak
As a counterpart to these fine establishments, it is highly recommended to book a tour with Siem Reap Food Tours to get a fantastic variety of street and local foods. The evening tour also includes a visit to a night market where the most exotic food can be found. During the peak season, you will get chef Steven Halcrow as your guide.
More coincidentally than on purpose, I managed to be in Siem Reap during the annual Water Festival which is held every November. It marks the time when the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers reverse direction. I just missed the start of the festival in Phnom Penh where the main festival is held but found the Siem Reap experience to be vibrant and colorful.
The first question that probably pops into everyone’s minds when they plan a trip to Siem Reap is how many days do you need to see the temples. I think the blue butterflies and I practically nailed it. Two full days exploring the temples with a good Tuk Tuk driver is enough but give yourself a spare day to increase your chances of capturing the sunset. On the non-temple day, do the food tour.
I left Siem Reap with a level of satisfaction I am not sure I have ever felt leaving a city. I can’t think of anything I would have done differently. Combined with Phnom Penh, I simply had become mesmerized by Cambodia, by the people, the food, and the beauty… all of which were shattering my own preconceptions and childhood stereotypes.
As I made my way to the Siem Reap Airport for the final leg of my journey, little did I know that it wasn’t childhood stereotypes that would soon be shattered, but my own concept of food itself. And with that foreshadowing, the blue butterflies carried me on to… Bangkok, Thailand.