01 Mar SIEM REAP – AUTHENTIC CITY FULL OF CHARM
After exploring bigger towns in Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia it was difficult to imagine that Siem Reap in Cambodia could be so much different, and so much special.
It was early morning when we came to this northwest Cambodian city, and the 15 minutes drive from the airport to the Secret Retreats hotel The Samar was quite enough to understand that this is the place of special energy. Here you will experience special peace and some kind of Zen feeling that we didn’t experience anywhere else in the neighboring region.
Maybe because tamed jungle is everywhere around and close to all the city streets. Maybe because clay roads are still common part of the city. Or maybe because of the people who calmly starting their day, with no hurry and mostly on the bikes and rickshaws heading to their jobs, schools and other daily duties. Everything seemed like time had stopped giving people the opportunity to feel the air and sounds of surrounding nature.
From jungle paths to modern restaurants in five minutes
After the first morning glance at Siem Reap, we expected it to show its more lively face in the afternoon and in the evening. And, the true is when you sit on popular rickshaw and head to the old part of the town, visit Central market or walk through the best know night point Pub Street you will experience glamour of trading, massages, crazy pubs and crazy people drinking on the streets. You will also experience wonderful flavors from street stalls selling tasty food for US$1-2 per each meal. Bustling and artistic, Siem Reap’s streets has some special boho charm filled with a great combination of new and old on every step. Place where creativity and innovation definitely have a special place.
There are many modern shops here and many modern restaurants but still the Khmer tradition lives in every corner of the city leaving the impression that modern things are trapped just to show that people here don’t live out of civilization. Most simply to describe, Siem Reap is one of those cities where you could stay for weeks just to sit in local coffee bar and watch people passing by in their simple outfits. People with simple smile on the face and state of mind that in just one eye contact tells you how lost you are in your modern head full of worries, and in an overrated run to keep up with everything you think you should.
Home to the incredible temples of Angkor
Before traveling here we were familiar with Angkor Wat scenes and Ta Phrom temple thanks to “Tomb Raider,” starring Angelina Jolie that was filmed here over fifteen years ago. But we did not know much about the surrounding temples, of which there are many even more fascinating than the most famous ones.
Stretching over 400 square kilometres and one of the world’s most esteemed treasures, this UNESCO World Heritage site contains dozens of temples and other magnificent Khmer Empire remains from the 9th to the 15th century. In addition to the revered 12th century masterpiece dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu Angkor Wat, other wonders found here include: Angkor Thom’s Bayon Temple, Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre, and the astonishing temple overtaken by vines and roots Ta Prohm.
After visiting Angkor Wat, we headed north to the area called Angkor Thom. We were getting around by rickshaw, the most popular way of travelling around the city and around Angkor temples. Although to those who have more time and are travelling without young kids bicycles are also great choice to move around. Unfortunately we had only two days to discover Siem Reap and Angkor temples, and therefore had to use faster ways of transportation. It is hard to describe magic and greatness of the Angkor temples. The place where it would be easy to spend a week moving from one to another temple site, and just sit and feel the extraordinary power of silence and peace.
Pub Street – the liveliest street in the city
A lively avenue of restaurants, bars, stalls and entertainment, this is a great place to settle in for some people-watching, while enjoying a great meal at low prices. Most of the buildings have two storeys, with open-air upper levels so you can keep an eye on the action. Place where you can enjoy massage on every step, having fun in fish spa, drink cocktails on open air stands with million decibels or try fried snakes, scorpions, tarantulas.
Each evening the street is blocked to traffic, adding to the festival feel as people promenade up and down. Some restaurants feature traditional Cambodian music and dancing as well as dishes such as amok try fish coated in coconut milk and curry, wrapped in banana leaf and steamed.
Go local in Siem Reap
In order to go truly local you’ll need to move from popular party avenue Pub Street to find the street stalls. Opposite the The Old Market come night time a few set up on the road you’ll see the night market with its neon lights on the other side of the river. They offer take-away, selling things like pancakes filled with banana or noodles, and also having dozens of stalls selling clothing, jewelry, arts and crafts and some traditional souvenirs like small alligators. With plenty of plastic chairs and basic tables, this is cheerful but not fancy place.
Street food is must try in Siem Reap
The prices reflect the basic setup, with fruit shakes at US$1, and noodle soup at US$1.50. Almost all the food is US$1.50 – including at least 45 items listed on the menu beginning with the word fried. Fried noodle, fried rice, fried meat, fried vegetables – and their many variations.
Flavors are simple, nothing too spicy, but it could be done upon your taste. The knowledge of English here is very poor but enough to find your way to the all things you want to try or buy.
Bargain is common, and as expected it is far more difficult to bargain in the Old Market and in the city centre. Some less famous markets and streets had their prices cut to the lowest and it would be totally inappropriate to even try to bargain. Khmer people still live modestly and poorly, and you have to bear in mind that every dollar means a lot to their daily budget.
Best places to see authentic Cambodia in Siem Reap
- Siem Reap Old Market – situated right in the heart of town. Here you can buy almost everything; from clothing, spices, house wares, jewelry, fabrics, souvenirs, food any type and in any condition. This place is must if you want to feel local life, get to know local customs and to see the unusual fruit and meat in hundreds of forms. Needless to say that it will give you opportunity to taste some really unusual food that you will hardly remember the name.
- Made in Cambodia market – located on Oum Khun Street, 10 minutes walk from Pld Market area. Aside from the colorful, original array of food, art, clothing, home wares, cosmetics, toys, jewelry and more, its major defining characteristic is, as the name suggests, that everything sold here is made in Cambodia.
- Psar Leu Market – For the real authentic experience you need to venture slightly further afield to Siem Reap’s Psar Leu or Higher Market, about three kilometers from Old Market on National Road 6, in the direction of Phnom Penh. Colorful workaday market where prices are low, the air is surprisingly fragrant, and where you don’t get asked for a dollar every time you try to take a photograph.
Secret Retreats place to stay in Siem Reap
Close to the entrance to Angkor temples and in an unrivaled location only one kilometer from the centre of Siem Reap we found an elegant boutique hotel offering complete tranquility. The Samar Villas & Spa Resort is set around the pool and lush tropical garden combining Khmer style aesthetics with a touch of modern design.
Not only for style and intimate atmosphere, the most amazing part of this small hotel is that it is situated amidst traditional village. When you go for a walk you can easily get in touch with local people, get to know their daily rituals and feel the breeze of tropical vegetation that is untamed and beautifully surrounds the hotel.
From profound gastronomy to gorgeous details in every corner of the hotel and its garden, the Samar tells the unique story about this secret retreat place where mornings and evenings feels like heaven on earth. The sound of silence and only few gentle tones of village animals waking up and finding their place to sleep.
Photo credit: magic4.club