It’s Christmas Eve morning and we’re walking the streets of Siem Reap.
“What’s with all the strange pizza restaurant names?” I say to Rob.
“What do you mean?”, he says.
I point out that we’ve walked past Ecstatic Pizza, Herb Pizza, Happy Pizza and Magic Pizza.
“They seem pretty impressed with their own pizza making skills from what I can see. I mean, what makes a pizza ecstatic?” I ask.
The answer comes the following day when we’re told by our tour guide that marijuana is legal, and in fact, very common for medicinal and ‘taste’ purposes. It’s offered in restaurants and bars – often on pizza, with noodles, mixed with alcohol, even in fruit shakes.
Whilst Cambodia seems to have a complicated relationship with the drug – including how to police it – marijuana is widely grown across the country and openly offered to you on the streets. If a drink at the bar has the word ‘happy’ in it, just know that it’s coming with an extra special ingredient.
It goes without saying that whilst Cambodia has what appears to be a relaxed approach to the drug – which extends to smoking – be very careful. If you are wanting to try the local speciality, it’s best done in food – you know, for “taste”.
Whilst the ‘weed discovery’ is amusing, we’re really here to explore the temples, culture and cuisine. Here’s our recommendation on how to spend four days in Siem Reap.
TEMPLES OF ANGKOR
During the period 1010-1220, Angkor was a megacity supporting at least 0.1% of the global population, and was the capital city of the Khmer Empire during the 9th to 15th centuries.
Today, the temples are a source of national pride to all Khmers as they rebuild their lives after the years of terror and trauma during the Khmer Rouge rule. The grand scale of the temple city provides for a full day of exploration, ideally starting at sunrise at the world’s largest religious building, Angkor Wat.
We start our day at 4.30am on Christmas morning. As we make our way in darkness, we’re struck by the number of headlights before and after us. “I really thought we’d almost be the only one’s here”, my husband quips. Of a similar mindset, I’m not expecting so many people to have travelled to be here on Christmas Day, but they make the long walk across the moat by the thousands.
This means you are jostling for space to photograph the sun rise behind the temple without capturing a few hundred heads in the same shot. Whilst it’s an early start, it’s a spiritual experience and not to be missed. We’re also told that Christmas morning is the most popular day to attend the sunrise so you can expect less crowds by going on any of the other 364 days of the year.
We recommend that you enter through the picturesque South Gate to the Bayon with the magical faced towers and atmospheric interior shrines. The Bayon is a photographic wonder and a great location for the use of wide angle and telephoto lenses. Here, you enter dark chambers to shoot the activity surrounding the central Buddha shrine.
From here, you can walk to the recently completed Baphuon temple, the Royal Palace complex to the elephants and Leper King Terraces; exploring walls and pristine reliefs and chambers uncovered during recent restorations. These are great places to practice wide-angle lens techniques.
Preah Khan is the second largest temple in the Angkor Group, which has a maze of passages and courtyards leading to the Halls of the dancers and the north east quadrant; often a favoured photographic area, with its Naga balustrades and a unique two story round columned building. The East Gopura has the most spectacular tree in temple shots at Angkor.
Ta Prohm temple is also known as the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’ or the ‘Angelina Jolie Temple’ from its starring role in the Tomb Raider movie and is best known for its famous tree roots.
BANTEAY SREY & PHNOM KULEN WATERFALLS
Banteay Srey temple – often referred to as the Women’s Temple – is a small site, which has the finest carvings at Angkor and is best seen in the morning light and with less tourists (it’s recommended to arrive by 7.30am).
From here, continue driving to the Kulen Range where you take the steep mountain road to Kulen Mountain sanctuary. This is the most sacred of all Khmer Pilgrimage sites, situated in a picturesque location one-hour drive from Banteay Srey. Approached by a scenic mountain road, it gives some of the best landscape views in the area.
The Kulen falls are a popular bathing place for local families. At festival times and weekends the wats and reclining Buddha are a place of great atmosphere. There is an area of Hindu Lingas on the riverbed; similar to those at Kbal Spean.
In addition to the falls, lingas, hilltop temple and shrines; Kulen is a great place to see Khmers practicing their religion. You can listen to the traditional music and get a real taste of living Khmer culture, and bathe with the monks in the cold waters of the Falls.
TONLE SAP LAKE KAMPONG KHLEANG VILLAGE
One of the largest settlements on the Tonle Sap Lake, Kampong Khleang has over 20,000 people. It is a mixed community of fishermen and traders. Most live in high stilt houses, which at low water tower up to ten metres above the river. Others live on floating houses, which move with the rise and fall of the Tonle Sap Lake.
We drive approximately one hour to the northern causeway to the main part of the village (depending on water levels), stopping to photograph the friendly villagers on the way. We take a boat cruise past the impressive stilt houses, which line the riverbanks, along ancient causeways, which flood in the rainy season. The fishermen in the floating fish market are highly accustomed to photography and may even allow you on to their boats to observe their fish catch for the day. Kompong Khleang is a fabulous place to practice portraiture of people in their environment.
We have lunch in village house, which is fresh fish caught from the lake this morning.
EAT, DRINK, SHOP
There is a wealth of restaurants – across all price points – to select from. Most of the nightlife action occurs around Pub Street, but if you are looking for something more refined, many of the higher end restaurants are tucked away on quiet streets and often a distance from Pub Street.
Recommended restaurants include:
- Angkor Palm Restaurant; their amok (baked fish in banana leaf) is legendary. The chef worked in Paris for 31 years, highly authentic Cambodian food.
- Curry Walla; Punjabi Indian food.
- Le Tigre de Paper; wood-fired oven and great Italian, French and Khmer food.
- Le Café; five star French inspired cakes and sandwiches.
- Café de la Paix; recommended for breakfast.
- The street market on The Alley – for cheap, authentic and delicious eats.
- The Crocodile River Bistro; if you are like us and crave a German pork schnitzel whilst away, this restaurant dishes up serves large enough to feed a crocodile. Massive, delicious and fabulous.
- Tucked behind the Hard Rock Café is a new development called King’s Road – featuring a diverse range of restaurants and bars.
- Miss Wongs: If you can’t make it to 1920s Shanghai, stop by here for one of their spectacular cocktails and sophisticated atmosphere. This tiny place makes the most of its space through great design and decor. Great for pre-dinner drinks.
- Laundry Bar; located in Psar Chaa area and one of the most alluring bars in town. Happy hour from 5.30-9.00pm.
- Molly Malone’s, Pub Street; first Irish pub, occasional live band.
- Linga Bar, The Alley; chic gay bar, colourful, cool and contemporary with a cracking cocktail list.
- The piano bar at Grand Angkor
- Buddha Lounge
- Ivy Bar
- The Red Piano
- Temple Bar
- Other recommendations here
When shopping at the markets, bargaining is expected. Prices are fixed in the shops.
Old Market (Phsar Chas)
This is the original Khmer market in Siem Reap, and has some of everything. Sells: souvenirs, silks, silver, jewellery, some antiques, clothes, shoes, household items, hardware, and fresh food. Also, Khmer food stalls, and sewing repair. Located downtown near the Siem Reap River.
Central Market (Phsar Kandal)
Sells: souvenirs, clothes, luggage, gems, silver, paintings, etc. Also, Khmer food stalls/restaurants. Located downtown on Sivatha Blvd.
Noon Night Market
This is the second oldest, and second largest of the night markets. They also sell the same type of souvenir items. Located off of Sivatha Blvd. on same street to Angkor Night Market.
Siem Reap Night Market
The newest and smallest night market, it offers mostly souvenirs, but also has antiques. Located on Sivatha Blvd.
For expats and tourists alike, up until a couple of years ago, this was the only place to shop. With a large selection of imported food and groceries, it is still the best place to shop for international items that even the supermarket doesn’t stock. Apparently, tourists come by the busload. Open from 7:30 to 22:00, located 1-2 Eo Sivatha Blvd., corner of Oum Khun St.
Located in a two story shop-house, there are around ten Cambodian artists displaying their works at any one time. Enjoy your cocktail, beer or coffee whilst you listen to jazz and take in the art works. Open from 09:00 to 23:30, located The Alley West, Old Market area.
They make unique handbags, and other products, out of completely recycled materials. Their products are actually a protest against waste, and the “throw away” culture. They believe in paying workers a fair wage, while helping the planet. We loved this shop and all it stood for! Open from 10:00 to 22:00, and located at the corner of Street 7 and Pi Thnou St.
Blush Boutique is located in a quiet pedestrian alley in central Siem Reap and offers huge variety of items including; Clothes, swimwear, shoes and boots, full range of Spa and beauty Products, accessories from hair bands, rings, bracelets, necklaces and nose-studs to a selection of hand-bags and clutches. Open from 10:00 – 22:00, located at The Lane, north of Pub Street, behind Temple Bar.
Treasure of Angkor
If you are looking for quality Cambodian antiques, they have a good collection of wood, bronze and stone pieces. They have old and new items, and many large and small Buddhist statues. Open from 8:00 to 23:00, located 089 Sivatha Blvd., at Oum Khun St.
- The Golden Temple Hotel; located a short stroll from the river, markets and Pub Street, this boutique hotel is perfect for couples. You only need to look on Trip Advisor to read the rave reviews to know that aside from its charm, location and cuisine, it has the most outstanding staff in town. Book direct with the hotel to score a range of complementary add-ons.
- Peace of Angkor Tours; offering experienced guides and drivers for your own private and custom designed tours, they also have a number of photographic guides available to teach you how to take the perfect photo. Email enquiries here:firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Travel in the Cambodian winter months (November through to February); it’s dry but still hot enough to swim and drink cocktails by the pool all day if that is your preference.
- Take US dollars; the US dollar is most widely used in conjunction with their own currency (Cambodian Riel). You can pay in US dollar but where small change (ie coin) is required, it will be provided to you in riel.
A FINAL WORD ON THE PIZZA
Did we try an Ecstatic Pizza? Of course we did. But heed the warning. Marijuana is not just sprinkled over your cheese topping like a herb, it’s stuffed into the layer. And for this reason, best eaten hot…..AND in moderation!