By Chloe Macri
Siem Reap is both one of the happiest and most eye-opening places you’ll ever go. The history, the culture and the spirit of the people were things I took away with me and have kept forever. From the startling magnificence of Angkor Wat, the French colonial influence, and the people; Siem Reap is absolutely amazing.
WHAT EVEN IS SIEM REAP?
Siam Reap roughly translates to “the defeat Siam” which is a reference to the ancient wars fought between the Siamese and Khmer people. Siem Reap is Cambodia’s second most populous city and the central tourist hub for Cambodia. Cambodia has a long and interesting but also extremely brutal history. During the Angkor empire the Cambodian people flourished, however they have endured much hardship over time, especially in fairly recent years during the Khmer Rouge; a radical restructuring of their society. By the very end of the 20th century, the oppressive Khmer Rouge had been stopped and Siam Reap and Cambodia in general has since enjoyed relative stability and peace.
THINGS YOU’LL WANT TO SEE
There is one major attraction in Siam Reap that you absolutely cannot miss! UNESCO world heritage listed and the reason why many people visit Siam Reap, the wondrous Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious monument. The temple was originally constructed as a Hindu temple however was converted to a Buddhist temple in the 12st Century. Tours that take you to Angkor Wat for the sunri se are highly recommended; it is a magical experience even if you do have to get out of bed at 4 in the morning.
In addition to the main temple there are a variety of temples within the Angkor Wat complex that are worth checking out. This includes the temple that featured on the Tomb Raider films (and is now known as the Tomb Raider temple) and Bayon temple which is known for its 216 different faces.
Once you’re all templed-out, the floating villages and Tonle Sap Lake are great to go see. In terms of shopping and chilling, the three markets within central Siam Reap and the aptly named Pub street are the places to go.
THE PEOPLE AND CULTURE
The Cambodian people are genuinely the nicest people you’ll ever meet. They’re friendly, modest and sincere. They’re all about respect and saving face and also like to have a good laugh.
There are a lot of organisations and programs set up in Siem Reap that look after orphaned children and those with troubled homes. Some businesses employ young adults, providing them with an education, a job and getting them off the street. One restaurant in particular, Green Star Restaurant, is a not-for-profit restaurant which supports the Green Gecko organisation, set up to help former street kids.
HOT TIPS BEFORE YOU GO
CURRENCY- Although they have their own local currency, touristy areas like Siem Reap use American dollars in most places. Hotels and restaurants will accept both but often, market stalls and some cafes will only accept the US monies. This can sometimes be problematic, as the exchange rate for us Aussies is much worse for US, than it is for Cambodia Riel, so things aren’t always that cheap. In saying that, we paid US$2.50 for a jug of beer.
SAFETY- Be cautious, Cambodia has a notoriously high corruption rate and can be a little dodgy at times, especially in the tourist-infected places like the airport, Angkor Wat, and markets. Never walk around by yourself, especially at night and carry your stuff nice and close. Common sense stuff really.
POVERTY- It’s an eye opener, and one that will probably make you sad at times. You will see children begging and selling things and some people living in poverty. If you want to make a difference (and trust me, you’ll want to), make sure you do your research, as there are many extremely fantastic options (like donating goods, time or money, volunteering, or visiting certain places) and organisations out there, many which rely on tourism to survive.
VISAS- You’ll need a Visa! The Australian embassy and Smart Traveller website have good tips and some links for where you can get them before you go, but be wary of fake websites that claim they’re legit. You can also buy your visas on arrival but that’s at the liberty of the customs officers and can potentially be quite pricey.
So have fun, be safe and enjoy the simple majesty that is Siem Reap.