Ever since Angelina Jolie swung through temple ruins in Cambodia as Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, the place has been crawling with tourists. Siem Reap, the town closest to a vast complex of ancient Hindu/Buddhist Temples, is in fact a tourist bubble (with 127 hotels from hostel to ultra luxe) within an otherwise fearful, unkempt country. Pockets of opulence exist, but visitors should not turn a blind eye to reality in Cambodia. A good tour guide – or good itinerary – will show you everything.
1. Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Siem Reap Cambodia;
Everyone does it; you’d be amazed by how many tourists show up at 5:30am. You just have to know how to beat the crowds and where to sit for optimal unobstructed viewing. (Hint – get off the main walkway and sit on the steps of the outpost buildings). Angkor Wat, built over the course of thirty years in the 1100’s as a home for King Suryavarman II after his death, was unknown and undiscovered until France colonized Cambodia in the mid 1800’s. What they uncovered in the midst of the jungle, both overgrown and somewhat well-preserved, is now considered one of the Wonders of the World. A good tour guide will direct you to the magnificent bas-relief walls depicting many levels of heaven and hell – some quite gruesome – and to some of the 1,800 seductive Dancing Maidens carvings. One warning; beware of monkeys. They swarm the place and will grab stuff out of your hands (a few were enjoying tearing up a guidebook when we visited), and come after you if you dis them.
2. Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Locals pronounce this temple “Uncle Tom,” and though it hasn’t been restored to the degree of Angkor Wat, it does have several interesting elements. Angkor Thom’s defining feature is an entry bridge flanked by 54 stone warriors who seem to be playing tug-of-war with the sacred Naga Snake. Most of the warriors’ heads are missing (pop-up head, great photo op!), taken by looters after the Vietnam War. Bas reliefs here have less to do with the afterlife and more of the day to day aspect of this one; men playing chess, women cooking and having babies, a “Monkey 69” (use your imagination). “That would have never been on my father’s Metropolitan Museum of Art Tour,” quipped a friend.
3. Ta Prohm
Siem Reap, Cambodia; The “Tomb Raider” Temple, which was left as found – crumbling walls intertwined with tree roots – to show tourists the state in which the rest of the surrounding temples were discovered.
4. Artisans Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Watch artisans at work in this trade school for disadvantaged Cambodians, then shop in the colorful store where authentic goods fly off the shelves. We walked out with several ornamental silver-plate boxes ($17 each) and vividly colored silk scarves ($22). You’ll find everything from fashion to furniture and not one bit of junk.
5. Have lunch at New Hope Restaurant, Siem Reap
You will not only enjoy one of the best meals you’ll have in town, but you’ll feel good to know that this is a trade school for former sex workers, an elementary school for at risk kids and a local free medical clinic. The former head chef of a Siem Reap 5 star hotel runs the training restaurant,and her expertise shows. Plan to stay for a site tour and to meet the kids. They are so smart and engaging, you just want them to have a better life.
6. Sunset Tour Quad Adventures Cambodia, Siem Reap
I was instructed to keep my hands on the handlebars of my ATV at all times, as the rural dirt roads on the outskirts of Siem Reap are rutted and mogul-like, but what I really wanted to do was High Five the smiling village kids lined up, hands out. (I didn’t). I nearly hit a cow and the ubiquitous locals on bikes before stopping for one of the most stunning scenes that has ever graced my eyes; sunset in the rice-paddies. Eight of us on ATV’s with four guides (on their own rides) pulled over on a dirt road that bisected rice fields, green and fertile, with the glowing yellow-orange ball descending inch by inch, casting the surrounding landscape in transcendent light. We took pictures until the last sliver of sun disappeared from the horizon then zoomed and dipped back on dusty, sandy roads. Our black clothes were tan by the time we returned. Book way in advance — this is a very popular tour.
7. Take a Tuk-Tuk to Downtown Siem Reap
This nimble mode of transportation – essentially a 4 person carriage pulled by motorcycle – congests every alley, lane and road in Siem Reap. It takes just a few minutes (and about $2) to get to…..
8. Pub Street and Siem Reap Night Market
an area with the vibe of New Orleans at Mardi Gras. There are plenty of restaurants and “spas”. We dined at The Red Piano, beginning with the lip-smacking cocktail, “Tomb Raider,” and then stuck our feet in one of the many “fish pedicure” tanks out on the thrumming streets. If you are ticklish or in any way squeamish about fish, don’t. You’ll find deals in the Night Market – mostly knock-off Ray Bans ($5), hastily produced oil paintings ($15) and drawstring pants du jour (3 for $10).
(to be continued)
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