03 Sep 2012
SIEM REAP, Cambodia – Everyone goes to Siem Reap for one reason – to see the world-famous Angkor temple complex.
Siem Reap is the gateway to the Angkor temple complex, wherein its centuries-old architecture and art give meaning to Cambodia's tourism campaign "Kingdom of Wonder." Walking the grounds of the temple ruins amid the dense forests and fields will make you feel like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft.
But there’s more to Siem Reap than just the temples.
Here are some of the essential Siem Reap experiences:
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
No trip to Siem Reap would be complete without seeing the ancient stone city of Angkor. There are hundreds of temples, each with impressive architecture and art. Some temples are better-restored than others, but each has a unique charm.
The most famous of the temples is Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th century, Angkor Wat was built as a temple for the Hindu god Vishnu.
A view of the world-famous Angkor Wat at sunrise / Photo by Cathy Rose A. Garcia, ABS-CBNnews.com
Visit the Angkor Wat at sunrise. The majestic spires are bathed in early morning glow making it a very memorable sight. Going in the early morning is also a good idea to avoid the heavy crowds, especially during the weekend.
For a unique experience, go on a balloon ride for an aerial view of the Angkor complex.
Other Angkor temples are no less impressive than the Angkor Wat.
In Angkor Thom, Bayon Temple stands in the center of the walled city. It is known as a complex of "face towers," or towers with huge stone faces of Buddha. Ta Prohm, a temple-monastery built in the late 12th to 13th century, is perhaps best known as the location for the "Tomb Raider" movie. There are huge trees growing on top of the temple ruins, giving it an eerie but romantic atmosphere.
Banteay Srei, which means Citadel of Women, has a unique beauty that lives up to its reputation as "Jewel of Khmer Art." The buildings, which were built in the second half of the 10th century are made of red sandstone and decorated with intricate wall carvings.
Your inner Indiana Jones will be unleashed when you go to Beng Melea, located about an hour and a half's drive from downtown Siem Reap. Built in the middle of the 12th century, Beng Melea is still largely unrestored with collapsed towers and galleries. You might find yourself crawling and climbing up large chunks of stone. It can be quite exhausting, but worth the experience.
Cambodia's national dish, fish amok (fish curry), is a must try. Usually it is served in banana leaf, but the version we tried was served in a coconut. The curry is lightly spiced but flavorful, and perfect with steamed rice.
Another must try dish is Khmer curry. The red curry might give the impression it is spicy, but it is surprisingly not since the red chili is tempered by the coconut cream.
Cambodian noodle dishes are also quite tasty. Mee ketang is a Cantonese-style noodle dish with wide rice noodles, vegetables, mushrooms in oyster sauce.
Lok lak, stir-fried marinated beef served with a fried egg on a bed of lettuce and tomatoes, was a bit disappointing. The beef wasn't tender and dipping it in a sauce of black pepper, salt and lime juice didn't help. Depending on the restaurant, it can be served with French fries or rice.
Cambodian dish Lok Lak
The green mango salad, which has carrots, mango, onion and basil in fish sauce, was a refreshing surprise. The fresh spring rolls, with its raw vegetables, thicker rice paper and not-so-sweet peanut sauce, was bland. Fried spring rolls, with cabbage, carrots and taro, are a much better choice.
Freshly cooked sticky rice with a slice of jackfruit wrapped in banana leaves may remind Filipinos of "suman", but it still has a unique Cambodian flavor.
If you want to try the most Cambodian dishes in one sitting, head to Koulen II restaurant which offers a buffet with Apsara traditional dance show only for $10. If you want to learn how to make Khmer dishes, there are cooking classes offered at Temple, along Pub Street.
Search for Cambodian souvenirs
Tourists can get a feel for a traditional Cambodian market at the Phasar Chas (Old Market). But after a day at the temples, most tourists head to the night market. There are several night markets in Siem Reap, but don't worry about getting lost since there are big flashing signs of "Night Market" everywhere.
The night market offers a wide range of souvenirs, such as T-shirts, keychains, ref magnets, silk scarves, silver accessories and wood carvings. Haggling is a must!
For high quality products, go to Artisans d' Angkor which showcases silk fabrics, stone and wood carvings, silver plating and lacquer items. A social business, Artisans Angkor has helped revive Khmer arts and crafts, as it established workshops that educates and trains young, disadvantaged Cambodians.
Workshop at Artisan d'Angkor
Visit the Landmine Museum
Cambodia Landmine Museum
The Cambodia Landmine Museum is a reminder of the horrors that landmines have caused in the country. In fact, if you look closely, some of the temples have signs that say the area has been cleared of landmines.
Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, is at the forefront of de-mining efforts, having established the museum and the NGO Cambodian Self-Help Demining. The museum, a 30-minute tuk tuk ride from downtown Siem Reap, gives visitors a closer look of how landmines work, the destruction it inflicted and what they can do to help rid the world of landmines.
It's a sobering look at Cambodia's past, and gives visitors a sense of just how much suffering Cambodians went through. Visitors can donate to the Museum Relief Center, a shelter for some Cambodian children who were injured or orphaned due to landmines.
After a long day of trekking at the temples and shopping, relax by getting a Khmer massage. There are several places offering massage and reflexology treatments along Pub Street and even in the night market.
There's also several "fish foot massage" stalls, where fish nibble at the dead skin on your feet. It may feel ticklish at first, but you'd be surprised at how clean your feet look after. A 30-minute fish foot massage costs just $3 with a can of Angkor or Cambodia beer.