Okay, I apologize in advance for the length of this blog, because this was our favourite city by far of any of the places that we’ve been to, so, we stayed for a whole week in this one place. And have plans to go back and spend Christmas there.
Siem Reap at First Glance
After we crossed the Cambodia/Thailand border by bus (read our other blog here for that chaotic adventure), we arrived in Siem Reap around 5 pm. Keep in mind that the sun sets in this part of the world pretty much on the dot at 6pm. And its never a slow sunset, usually by 6:15pm its black outside.
So, having an hour of sunlight left we checked into our Hostel. This is the first hostel we’ve stayed in so far, but we thought we’d try our hand at meeting other people in a social setting. And it was $6 CAD per night for each of us.
Then we set off to explore the city. We found Pub Street. Siem Reaps’ biggest tourist street filled with a myriad of resturants serving a combination of Khmer (Cambodian) and Western food! Being that we were soooo sick of rice and noodles, we happily split a cheese pizza for $6 CAD.
But the best part of Siem Reap (and majority of Cambodia i think) is the alcohol prices! We enjoyed glasses of draft beer for $0.50 USD so like $0.60CAD?
Also, we loved that the downtown city area was lit up with lots of twinkling lights.
Honestly, Siem Reap was about the population of Saskatoon, had a river running down part of it, and was really easy to get around so we felt very at home.
Exploring the Country Side Villages, Floating Villages and seeing the Real Cambodia
One of the first things we loved about Cambodia versus Thailand is they don’t seem to separate their local life from the tourist life quite as much. In thailand you are hard pressed to find locals just going about their daily life unless it involves working in restaurant or area catered towards tourists. In cambodia, you get to see lots of locals, stalls, and markets if you just take a short walk away from the downtown area.
However, we read online that it is still worth seeing the surrounding countryside and villages as it gives you a more in depth look into Cambodians real lives.
We found a tour online through Triple A Cambodia tours, and we signed up for their Cycling and Floating Village tour.
They picked us up at our hostel at 8:30am and drove us in a mini bus to a village nearby the outskirts of Siem Reap (about 20 min). There we hopped on bicycles to take a guided tour to the center of the village where there was a gigantic local market!
We were literally the only tourists in this village so it was really cool to just see the locals way of life. They sell live fish a the market, as well as many different meats and vegetables. All of the stuff they sell comes fresh each morning at 6 am.
Our tour guides bought some small fried crickets and silk worms and I actually tried them both. .The silk worms even tasted kind of cheese like, but the crickets were way better. Just tasted crunchy and fried. Mitch didn’t try any.
Then, they took us through a walking tour of an elementary school grounds. Apparently teachers are 1 per every 40-50 kids and they only get paid $150 USD every month. The kids are so cute too. Even though they must see at least the same tour every day, they were still shouting and waving hello as we passed and they still were so excited to see us. We have seriously not seen one ugly Cambodian child. They are all absolutely adorable, and always smiling.
For lunch, we drove to the farthest away floating village of Kampong Kleang. There are four floating villages all along the Tonle Sap Lake (lake near siem reap). They have two seasons here, dry and wet. Basically this lake doubles – triples in size during their wet season. So, in order to plan for the rising of the water levels, the houses in the village are built on high stilts. When its dry they are just raised above the ground, but when its wet, they just take a boat up to their front door.
We got to eat lunch in one of these houses on stilts. A local family made lunch for us, and we got to hang out and relax in their hammocks after our lunch. They also showed us around to the kitchen and living area.
However, the most shocking part is that on a few rare years, the water level has risen higher than these homes have been built and these people have had to erect temporary higher levels in their home to stay dry and out of the water.
After lunch, we went by boat to see the true floating village. This part of the village actually floats on the water. Houses and markets, and stores are all built to float on top of the water, and they use either paddle or motor boats to go to and from. When it is dry season, these house move towards the center of the lake that doesn’t dry up, and when it is wet season they move back to the outskirts.
Its a very poor way of life. In the wet season they make a living as fisherman and in the dry they farm rice. The people use the water from the lake to bathe and wash in, but they don’t drink it. Unfortunately lots of garbage just gets tossed into the lake as well, so when the lake dries up in dry season its apparently pretty gross to see the garbage laying around. However, lots of the inhabitants either don’t know better, or don’t care to.
Finally as a last little surprise our tour guides took us to where they make clay bricks. They cut the clay from the hill side, and then mix it with water.
Then by hand they put it through a machine that forms it into brick formation.
They lay it out to dry for 5 days and then they stick it in a big clay oven to burn for 2 weeks to harden.
Pretty crazy to realize how much is still done manually over here.
On our way home they also stopped us on the side of the road for a snack. It was sticky rice and beans stuck inside a hollowed out piece of bamboo to keep it good. Apparently people going to work in the rice fields would take this as a snack because it could keep for up to 2 days.
That ended our countryside and village tour. We were so lucky to have found this tour online because it was absolutely amazing. The tour guides were knowledgeable and funny and it was just an eye opening experience.
Angkor Wat – Siem Reaps biggest tourist attraction
In case you don’t know what Angkor Wat is, it is the main temple in a large complex of ancient templex just north of Siem Reap. This is what the city of Siem Reap is known for and what tourists go there for – to see all of these temples.
We managed to find good reviews online of a tourist company that actually took you to the temples and went in with you to give you the history of them all. Our friend Sofie and Ulrik were also coming to Siem Reap near the end of our stay so we arranged a private tour for the 4 of us with this company, which actually made it affordable.
We got up bright and early at 4:00am to be picked up for 4:45am as we were told seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat was a spectacular event you didn’t want to miss. Plus it gets you a good start on evading the heat of the day when exploring these temples.
I could go on and on about every temple we visited but I’ll give you the short version. Keep in mind, these temples were built for Hindu/Buddhist gods (it changed as the kings’ throughout the years religion changed). People did not live in these temples, and only the select few actually worshiped in them. They were built by “volunteers” of the Cambodian people whenever each King decided he wanted to build a new temple to show how much he honored the gods. The King himself did not live in these temples. The people had villages surrounding the temples that were made of wood and burned long ago by raiding tribes.
Angkor Wat – the largest temple in the area (the one in the pics above). Took over 30 years to complete the entire complex. The sunrise was nice, but not the spectacular that everyone made it to be, however it was still very nice to see. Probably our favourite temple because of how large it was.
Bayon – part of the Angkor Thom complex, known to be the temple with the many faces. We didn’t like this one because it was smaller and therefore so crowded it was hard to move.
Ta Prohm – the Tomb Raider temple. This temple features in Angelina Jolie’s rise to fame as Lara Croft in the tomb raider movies. Unlike the other temples, this one has not been restored and had nature cleared away. Instead, the gigantic trees that have grown over the ruins have been left to remain. Also one of our favourites.
We visited other smaller temples that I’m unsure of the names of, but they were really nice too. Eventually though, temple fatigue sets in and the heat gets to you and all you want to do is lay in your bed and sleep and not see another temple for awhile. So, at around 2pm our tour ended with us being dropped off at our hotel and having a 2 hour nap.
Side note: We did love Angkor Wat, however one day of it was enough for us, and we were just tired from being up so early, and staying out a bit too late with our friends that had arrived the night before, enjoying that cheap beer I mentioned earlier.
Exploring Siem Reap and Hanging out with Friends
Finally, siem reap has more to offer than just Angkor Wat and a floating village.
We took a completely free tour to and around a Silk Farm. They showed us how they breed the silk worms and then get the silk from them.
Then they showed us the various amount of ways that they have ladies working on looms weaving different patterns to create different items out of silk. It was really cool. The same company (an NGO that encourages young people to develop crafts called Artisans Angkor) also had an area where we saw how souveniers are hand crafted and painted by these youth too.
Siem Reap also has its own monument for the Killing Fields. If you’ve never seen the movie, just know that in the 70’s there was leader called Pol Pot that took over Cambodia and forced everyone out of the major cities to work as farmers. He wanted Cambodia to be self sufficient and destroyed alot of their documents and literature and culture as he thought they shouldn’t have all of that. It led to millions of Cambodians being killed through starvation, forced labour, and others dying from a bullet in the head if they disagreed with the regime. The bodies were taken to mass graves in fields throughout the country to be disposed of. The capitol Phnom Penh is most known for it, and I’ll give you more info when we visit there, but Siem Reap also had its own little monument to it as well.
Lastly, we just enjoyed, eating and hanging out around town by ourselves and with our friends that we had met in Thailand who joined us. Siem Reap is a cheap city, and has both great Khmer (Cambodian) and Western food, which was a nice change of pace. We’re excited to be going back for Christmas!
Thanks for Reading!
Next Stop –> Sihanoukville and Koh Rong
(This is my seat in Sihanoukville where I just sat writing this blog about Siem Reap)