This is a place where the ancient jostles for space with the new: Luxury hotels are fronted by dusty roads bustling with bicycles, scooters and tuktuk, and the ancient treasure that is Angkor Wat is mentioned by tourists in the same breath as Pub Street, famous for US$1 (RM4) beers and an incredibly happening nightlife.
My tour guide himself personified this contradiction – decked out in Converse sneakers and clutching his iPhone, he looked completely at home in the temple complex of Angkor Wat surrounded by thousand-year-old carvings of apsara, the Buddhist spirit of clouds and water.
Siem Reap, which only really started developing in 2008 after the government opened up Angkor Wat to tourists in the mid-1990s, used to be the second-poorest state in Cambodia.
It’s not a place for agriculture, said my guide, Raman Nashidi, and the dusty ground, baked a pale brown in the fierce heat, did not dispute him. Tourism now makes up the bulk of Siem Reap’s economy, contributing to an estimated 50% of Cambodia’s tourism revenue.
While its recent boom is apparent from its frankly haphazard development – link houses that wouldn’t look out of place in upscale Damansara sit cheek-by-jowl with one-room shacks made of woven leaves, and tarred roads turn off onto dirt streets – it has managed to retain its air of mystery.
Explore the side lanes of Pub Street; hidden mere steps away from its garish neon lights and loud music are mini oases of peace studded with quaint restaurants and chic bars nestled amongst boutiques and shoplot homes.
I came across a young boy in such a home, doing his homework with his father beside him while tourists raised the roof in a miniscule bar just across the lane. He looked at me, uninterested. Tourists are a dime a dozen there, and he was likely more interested in his school work than yet another gawking foreigner.
He did give me a little wave, though, but his father declined any pictures (again, gawking foreigner). I wandered back onto the buzzing main street after that random encounter, at peace in a way I myself could not really fathom.
There is much to see and do in Siem Reap – for a price, of course.
Don’t expect free museums here, cultural activity-inclined tourists may find their experiences enriched but themselves quite a bit poorer after hitting up all the culture hotspots in the area.
The Angkor National Museum charges US$12 (RM48) per ticket, not including the audio guide that is another US$3 (RM12). The Cambodian Cultural Village, featuring waxworks of Cambodians through time and model villages is US$15 (RM60) per ticket.
And, of course, there’s Angkor Wat. Every brochure and travel piece waxes lyrical over its distinctive towers, and cultural significance, this icon of the golden Khmer empire.
In reality, it’s incredibly hot (I was there at the height of the dry season where temperatures can soar to 42°C) so please bring bottled water and a hat. Also, be prepared to fend off a multitude of vendors selling you everything from books to T-shirts and souvenirs.
It’s incredibly beautiful, though. Those brochures and pictures don’t lie. It’s worth waking up at 4am to catch the sun rising over the temple and then braving potential sunstroke to take your time walking around the temple complex. Explore temples like Ta Phrom, with huge old trees firmly rooted into its ruins, and Bayon with a four-faced statue crowning its archway. Take a moment to imagine the labour that went into these temples and the monks who undoubtedly wore paths into the uneven stone floors all those centuries ago.
Be sure to cover up, though – the tower in the middle of Angkor Wat, being an earthly representation of the mythical Mount Meru, is especially sacred, and inappropriately dressed tourists will not be allowed to ascend.
Main tourist attraction that it is, Angkor Wat is a slightly eye-watering US$20 (RM80) for a one-day pass (if you’re really into exploring each temple in minute detail you could go for the three-day pass at US$60 / RM320), but of course that is one thing you shouldn’t try to skimp on.
Pro tip: Hire a tuktuk for a day! The driver will wait for you or even – at extra charge – drive you from temple to temple for a speedier tour around the complex.
Another must-do in Siem Reap is the famed Apsara dance performance, available at restaurants like the Koulen 2 Restaurant or the Alliance Cafe. Once performed solely at the royal court for the king’s pleasure, Apsara dances are now performed for tourists’ entertainment, and can cost anywhere from US$7 (RM28) to US$20 (RM80) for a dinner show. I, however, took the (cheaper) road less travelled and caught a performance for free at the Temple Restaurant and Bar on Pub Street.
Speaking of shopping, there are shops galore in the art centre and night market. Paintings, lacquered boxes, and even gemstones are for sale heaped together with the regular touristy T-shirts and hobo sling bags. It’s easy to go crazy, but remember to bargain. A good rule of thumb is to offer half of what was quoted, and go from there.
Cambodian salespeople are refreshingly honest, telling me upfront almost apologetically that “Yeah, it’s not real” when I questioned a couple of gemstone sellers. They did give me a pretty good show (and a huge shock) by bringing out a blowtorch and burning a glittering “ruby” before my eyes! You don’t have to feel pressured into buying anything, either, unlike shops in places like Hong Kong where you browse without buying, at your own risk. “Looking is free, lady” was an oft-repeated chorus while I window-shopped, along with cheerful “Bye! Come again tomorrow!” when I left empty-handed.
Like most Malaysians, sampling local cuisine is always a big part of my travel experience. I was pleasantly surprised by the food in Siem Reap; just foreign enough to feel unique yet similar enough to our own fried rice and stir-fries to not be a shock to the system. Suffice it to say, I was a happy camper.
And Muslim tourists, fret not. There are quite a few Muslim-run restaurants serving authentic halal Cambodian fare so you definitely won’t miss out on the Siem Reap foodie experience!
Those who embrace the more adventurous side of gastronomy may look out for the bugs. Yes, bugs, and even scorpions; fried until crispy and sold from roadside stalls near Pub Street and the Old Market.
For those less inclined to eat creepy-crawlies, pictures are free, or at least that’s what the sign said. You’d still have a crowd-pleasing photo to show everyone back home.
And lastly, after a long day of sightseeing, shopping and eating (very hard work, I know), a proper tourist would stop at one of the many massage centres to catch one’s breath and have a good foot rub or, if you’re into that sort of thing, a fish spa where carnivorous little fish nibble at your dead skin.
Preferring to eat fish than be eaten myself, I chose the massage. At US$3 (RM12) for half an hour, it was money very well spent. It was an amazing way to end a day full of cultural and gastronomic delights, and I floated home on a cloud, ready to hit the sack and begin a new round of Angkor adventures the next day.
This trip was courtesy of the Malaysian Travel & Tour Agents Association. AirAsia offers 120 flights between Kuala Lumpur and Siem Reap every week.