VIP Trip: Siem Reap, Cambodia
South-East Asia has no shortage of exciting destinations. From bustling cities like Bangkok and Singapore to the beautiful beaches of Bali and Phi Phi, the region has something to offer every calibre of traveller. In fact, many of these destinations have become too popular for some, resulting in locations that merely exist for the purpose of tourism. Anyone who visited Phuket 20 years ago will tell you the Thai island is a far cry from what it used to be. Untouched beaches and peace and quiet have been replaced with the bright lights and party scene of Patong.
Locals previously couldn’t speak English, but these days, their English is good enough to sell you overpriced knock-offs and tuk-tuk rides, not to mention the scams you keep hearing about. Each to their own, depending on what kind of holiday you seek, but the truth is: tourism can ruin the reasons a destination became popular in the first place. And while we will always love the beaches, and even party scenes, of Thailand and Indonesia, sometimes you want to relax in a location that’s still seemingly untouched and rich in cultural history. Enter, Siem Reap.
Siem Reap, located in northwest Cambodia, is one of the country’s major tourist hubs, but on a much smaller scale than its nearby South-East Asian neighbours. Featuring the world famous Angkor Wat, the city (it’s actually more of a small town, if you ask us) attracts tourists who want to explore the ancient ruins. In other words, you are less likely to find groups of stag dos and hen parties causing havoc. Don’t get us wrong – Siem Reap has a buzzing nightlife scene, but that’s not why people go there.
Just 20 years ago, Siem Reap was a Cambodian town with few facilities and minor surfaced roads. The tourism industry catered mainly to hardcore backpackers willing to brave the tortuous roads from the Thai border to get there. There were only a couple of hotels and a handful of guesthouses. Tuk-tuks and taxis were non-existent back then.
Thanks to the Angkorian ruins, Siem Reap turned into a boomtown in less than half a decade. Luxury hotels have sprung up throughout the region, and more affordable budget hotels have also mushroomed. The Siem Reap of today is a far cry from the Siem Reap of 20 years ago. Fortunately it has kept its authenticity and charm intact, but it’s much easier to access.
Just as no trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the Eiffel Tower, no trip to Siem Reap is complete without a trip to Angkor Wat and the surrounding ruins. Angkor, dating back to the 12th century, is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world, extending over approximately 400 square kilometres. For several centuries, Angkor was the centre of the Khmer Kingdom, with impressive monuments, several different ancient urban sprawls and large water reservoirs. The site is a unique concentration of features testifying to an exceptional civilisation. Ancient ruins such as Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm, examples of Khmer architecture, are closely linked to their geographical context as well as being filled with symbolic significance.
The park is still inhabited, with many locals’ ancestors dating back to the Angkor period. These days the population practices agriculture and more specifically rice cultivation.
While there are a variety of ticket options to explore these magnificent ruins, a one-day pass will set you back US$37. Instead of joining a big tour group, simply hire a tuk-tuk for the day. All the tuk-tuk drivers around Siem Reap know the ruins like the back of their hands, and will happily drive you between the sights, at your leisure, for approximately US$20 per day. Bargain!
Take your time and explore each of the ruins, because it’s certainly not a case of ‘seen one, seem ‘em all’. Each ruin has its own vibe and history, and they’re all completely different. You may recognise Angkor Wat as a world-famous landmark, but you may also recognise smaller sights like Ta Prohm from the Tomb Raider film. Yes, Angelina Jolie made one of her most famous films there.
SMALL CITY LIFE
Just a few minutes from the peace, calmness and serenity of Angkor, you’ll find the exciting sights and sounds of downtown Siem Reap. You won’t come across any skyscrapers, shopping malls or highways here. Instead you’ll find a charming town of small roads and alleys mostly reachable by tuk-tuk.
While Siem Reap isn’t exactly the shopping haven that is nearby Bangkok, it has a fascinating night market which is a must-see. You’ll be able to purchase clothes, bags, accessories, wood and stone carvings, brass and silverware, local artwork, and even massages, at a steal.
However the town’s most popular spot is undoubtedly Pub Street. As the name suggests, it’s a road consisting entirely of bars and restaurants, attracting hordes of tourists every night of the week. It’s here that you can find local hops at just US$0.50, and an endless variety of local and international cuisine. Due to the incredible variety on offer, we suggest having starters, mains and desserts at different restaurants. Make a night of it!
WHERE TO STAY
Located only 14 kilometres from Siem Reap International Airport and minutes away from Angkor Wat, Le Méridien Angkor is both beautiful and convenient. In fact, the hotel is the closest international five-star hotel to Angkor Wat. To get to downtown Siem Reap, the hotel staff will happily call for a tuk-tuk, which will cost you a mere US$3, one way.
Designed with the contemporary traveller in mind, Le Méridien Angkor is comfortably modern with touches of local Khmer motif. Whether you opt for a superior room, deluxe room, deluxe family room or grand suite, all are spacious and overlook the hotel’s luscious green gardens. The 213 guestrooms and suites are also equipped with an electronic safe, tea- and coffee-making facilities, mini bar, a hairdryer and everything you need for a comfortable stay.
Need to top-up your tan? Fortunately Siem Reap offers year-round tropical climate, and Le Méridien Angkor’s stunning pool is the perfect spot to unwind and catch some sun. Surrounded by cascading waterfalls and gardens, you can also order a poolside meal in between sunning and swimming.
Still hungry? Not for long! Le Méridien Angkor offers a variety of dining options. The hotel’s all-day dining destination, Angkor Royal Café, serves Western and Asian cuisine from 6am to 11pm, while Italian restaurant L’Angelo serves the most authentic food outside of Italy. After dinner, head over to Naga Bar where you can enjoy mixed drinks and tasty bar snacks through to midnight.
INFO: From Dhs364 per night, Le Méridien Angkor, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia, +855 63 963 900, lemeridienangkor.com
CLIMATE: Cambodia has a tropical climate – warm and humid – and can be visited throughout the year. The hot season is between March and May, and the rainy season is between May and October.
CURRENCY: The local currency is Riel, however Siem Reap mainly operates in US$ for tourists. You’ll even be able to withdraw dollars from the local ATMs.
VISA: Cambodian visas for most nationalities can be arranged in advance online as an e-visa. Visa-on-arrival is also available for US$25.
HOW TO GET THERE: A variety of airlines fly to Siem Reap from Bangkok, Singapore and other nearby destinations. This month Emirates launched its first flight from Dubai to Phnom Penh (Cambodia’s capital), where you can connect to Siem Reap on a short domestic flight.