Near Siem Reap, capital of the Cambodian province of the same name, the French School of the Far East has been endeavoring for some years to restore the temples of Angkor, a unique archaeological complex built in friable sandstone in the 10th and 11th Centuries, then abandoned by the kings in the 15th. Swiftly swallowed up by vegetation, the royal city fell into obscurity until the Frenchman Henri Mouhot rediscovered it, writing, “These temples would feature credibly alongside our most beautiful basilicas; for magnificence they prevail over everything which the art of the Greeks and the Romans ever built… The work of giants!”
Now these dozens of ruined buildings attract a plethora of visitors and serve as a backdrop to numerous documentaries and even fiction such as Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Two Brothers. It is even the course for the marathons and half marathons of Angkor and Siem Reap. It is, however, difficult to run whilst being enraptured before the Churning of the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat, a marvelous bas-relief deriving from Hindu mythology but taken up by Khmer culture; whilst wondering before the five monumental gates of Angkor Thom; whilst in open-mouthed contemplation of the thirty-seven towers of Bayon each decorated with four faces; or even whilst trying to penetrate the mysteries of Preah Khan, a magnificent ancient city.
Visits organised over several days will open the sites up to you but, so as to avoid saturation, it is good to intersperse architectural visits with trips on the Tonlé Sap and its villages on piles to meet a fishing and farming folk. It is an essential port of call in November during the Bon Om Touk, the “Water Festival” when the river reverses its flow, the only such phenomenon in the world, which the Cambodians welcome by organising processions of junks and other illuminated boats. After these celebrations, there will always be time to pace the aisles of the Angkor National Museum, which presents Khmer art in an interactive and very contemporary way. Then, with a heavy heart and dry throat, to cross the threshold of the Cambodia Landmine Museum, founded by a former child soldier so as never to forget the folly of man.
Siem Reap, a hub for exploring the region, undoubtedly benefits from the godsend of tourism. But certain initiatives prevent the town from becoming a gathering of tourist shops. With good intentions some have also set up organisations which highlight Khmer know-how. “Artisans Angkor” is a product of this approach, bringing the manual production of silk, weaving, lacquer, sculpted wood and stone together in one place. “Made in Cambodia” is written in the same vein. And, surprisingly, at the night market on Pub Street, the nerve centre for night owls, traders offer local quality produce. Even Lucky Mall, a sort of supermarket for expats, offers selected fruit, vegetables and other edible goods from the region alongside Western brands.
Taken by storm in mid-April, at the time of Chaul Chnam Thmey, the Khmer New Year, these places anchor Siem Reap in Cambodian tradition. Even though it is bolstered by its success, it never loses its unique identity.
Siem Reap has a warm and humid tropical climate with average temperature of 27°C.
It is a great destination to visit all year round, however avoid the rainy and monsoon season from June to October. At that time of the year you can expect 90% humidity and abundant rainfall.
November to May is the best moment of the year to visit Siem Reap, when temperature is warm and the rainfall totally absent.
Victory Day over Genocide, end of the Khmer Rouge regime, 7 January 2016
Meak Bochea Day, Buddhist tradition, 22 February 2016
International Women’s Day, 8 March 2016
Khmer New Year Day and Khmer New Year Holidays, 13 – 16 April 2016
Buddha’s Holiday in Cambodia, 13 – 14 May 2016
Queen Mother Norodom Monineath’s birthday, 18 June 2016
Book a Balloon Ride Over Angkor Wat in the early morning
Visit the floating villages of Tonle Sap Lake
Constitution Day, Cambodian Public Holiday, 24 September 2016
Pchun Ben Day, Ancestor’s day religious celebration, 11 – 13 October 2016
Bon Om Touk, Cambodian’s water festival, 13 November 2016
Angkor Wat International Half-Marathon, 4 December 2016
Transportation is limited in Siem Reap and mainly includes taxi, motorbike taxis and tuk-tuks. Many bus companies link Siem Reap to the other major Cambodian and regional cities, such as Phnom Penh. However, Siem Reap’s centre is fairly compact and can easily be discovered by foot. Most hotels rent bikes, which can be a very convenient option to discover the city and the Angkor Archaeological Park. Note that foreigners are not generally allowed to rent motorcycles.
The best way to move around Siem Reap is by taxi, motorbike-taxi and tuk-tuk. You can hail them in the street and the journey is usually very inexpensive. For example, a motorbike taxi ride will cost approximately $1, a tuk-tuk less than $2 and a taxi $4. Always clearly agree on the price with the driver before each trip.
A full day through Siem Reap and Angkor can be organised with a motorbike taxi for about $10.
Siem Reap-Angkor International airport is located 7 km from the city centre of Siem Reap. A taxi will cost you less than $10, and $7 if you use a tuk-tuk. Always agree on the price with the driver before the trip.
The shuttle between the airport and the city center will cost $10 per person for a one-way ticket.