If you just want to see some pretty pictures, scroll ⇓ to the gallery.
A few weeks ago, I flew from Bangkok into Siem Reap in northwest Cambodia.
As the closest city to Angkor Wat, it’s super popular with tourists, and on my first day exploring, I wasn’t really sure what to make of it. The wide streets lined with café upon café upon restaurant, elegant colonial architecture, and brightly coloured awnings, seemed to almost have a theme-park vibe about it, a sense reinforced by the little stalls on wheels selling huge (and I mean HUGE) fried spiders, coiled snakes, and scorpions, around which groups of visitors would bunch around to pay a dollar to take a photo, or if they were feeling brave, buy one and nibble on a leg.
My hostel was a short walk away from the centre of town, about two minutes from the famous Pub Street, Cambodia’s answer to Magaluf Strip, which lights up at night, and fills with bars on bikes and inebriated tourists, full-up from tasty Khmer dishes and 50 cent beers, and on the hunt for Temple Club.
It was on my second day in Siem Reap, when I felt like I was beginning to get the place.
I both loved and hated the thrill of crossing the roads – there don’t seem to be any obvious rules, no traffic lights; nothing, so you take your life in your hands, as you step off the kerb, out into a constant stream of remorks (tuk tuks powered by motorbikes), cars, bikes and scooters, which don’t stop, but weave around you.
I loved the market, which, around the edge sells gifts, clothing, and jewellery (I got myself a pretty sweet pair of “same same but different” Ray Bans from one stall), but becomes a labyrinth of lanes leading to a food market, selling everything from chicken feet and dried fish to skinned frogs, fruits and vegetables, and spices, and houses a big central canteen, where the locals can be found getting breakfast or buying fresh ingredients for dinner.
I loved the variety of cuisines available, and the cool hidden bars and cafés tucked away down the narrow lanes leading off the main streets. Khmer food is amazing – kind of like Thai, except perhaps a bit sweeter and not as spicy. I discovered my love for tamarind (tastes just like sour sweets) and kaffir lime leaves. But you’ll also find places serving pretty decent western food, especially French – Cambodia was a French colony from 1863 up until 1953, and it’s influences can be seen in the architecture and the food. Some of the older Cambodians even still speak French.
I loved that you can wander through the large gilt gates, and within seconds have escaped the clamor of the street, retreating into the grounds of one of the temples, or the Centre for Khmer Studies, where you can meander through the shrines and tombs, watch the turtles and fish in the pond, see the monks go in and out of the temples, and shelter from the sun in the shade of a huge jackfruit tree. Considering its central location, I was surprised by how few people I saw there, and it became my favourite place to chill out in the afternoon.
I loved that, despite the fact it is perhaps the main hub of tourism in Cambodia, it still felt relatively untouched, particularly towards the outskirts. Even the centre (ok, minus Pub Street and the Night Market) had an air of authenticity about it. Maybe I was just comparing it to Bangkok, where people were super tourist-savvy, and having to say “no thank you” became fairly exhausting, in an atmosphere that was intense almost to the point of suffocation. But in Siem Reap, it felt chilled, I never felt any pressure, and towards the end of my stay, it almost felt homely.
I wished I could have stayed longer in Cambodia, perhaps visiting the capital, Phnom Penh, and then heading to the coast. From what I experienced during my week in Siem Reap, it’s a truly stunning country, brimming with rich and vibrant culture, and home to some of the friendliest, most welcoming people I’ve ever met; proud of their heritage, religions, and traditions, and more than happy to share it with you.
I ♥ SR
Below are a few of my favourite pictures of Siem Reap. If you’re squeamish, beware.