Our eyes met across the dusty red road. Neither of us moved. It was a sunset stand off. Man versus beast, or rather cow versus girl. But I was in his territory here, deep in the Cambodian countryside surrounded by vivid green rice paddies. So with a conciliatory nod I skirted around him and continued on towards the crimson horizon.
That was the moment I fell in love with Cambodia. We were riding quad bikes through the rural lands outside of Siem Reap organised by Quad Adventure Cambodia. Passing through impossibly green shimmering fields of rice and local villages, it was the perfect way to see the Cambodian way of life up close. Along the roadside people sell all manor of goods, from watermelons to wicker baskets, while others doze peacefully in their hammocks. The children would run out to greet us, waving and raising their hands for a high five as we rode by. It’s impossible not to feel serene here. Life is slow and simple, a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Siem Reap.
When the sun had almost dipped below the horizon and the sky was streaked with orange and red we pulled over for a cold beer and watched the sun set. Perfection! And all for $60 dollars each.
This was our first day in Cambodia and the first day of our 7 months of travelling. Maybe it was the thrill of being at the start of the trip we’d been saving for and planning for 2 years, or maybe it was the beer on a near empty stomach (something else we were going to have to get used to!) but we fell head over heels for Siem Reap that day.
We stayed in Siem Reap Rooms where the manager Lisa went out of her way to make our stay special. Not only did she arrange airport transfers and the quad bike tour for us, but she also arranged an unforgettable trip to see the Temples of Angkor, even getting up at 4.45am to make us hot tea and a packed lunch before we set off. Siem Reap Rooms is one of many budget hostels in the city and cost just £13 per night for a double room with private bathroom. It’s slightly set back from the hustle and bustle of aptly named Pub Street where the bars and restaurants are located, but still just a short walk or $1 dollar tuk tuk ride away. With the added bonus of a gorgeous rooftop terrace where we had our breakfast each morning, plus the amazing staff, we would highly recommend a stay here.
Temples of Angkor
On our second day we went to see what everyone visiting Siem Reap is there for: the breathtakingly beautiful Temples of Angkor. There are dozens of temples, all distinctly different from one another. The biggest and most impressive is Angkor Wat, which is also the largest religious building in the world and is traditionally viewed at sunrise. Don’t expect to be alone though. You’ll be sharing the experience with hundreds of other tourists which does diminish the magic slightly, so pick your spot carefully or you’ll end up with more backs of heads than ancient towers in your photos.
After Angkor Wat we went on to Ta Prohm, one of the more dilapidated temples which was used as a filming location for Tomb Raider. It’s nestled deep in the jungle and is gradually being reclaimed by nature with huge trees breaking through its crumbling walls giving it an eerie, other-worldly feel. We were lucky enough to view this one just after sunrise so the light was incredible, casting a dappled glow over the ruins making it feel truly magical.
We were also VERY lucky to have the place almost entirely to ourselves, as our tuk tuk driver whisked us away from Angkor Wat just after sunrise so while the hoards were still exploring the temple, we were on the way to the next and returned to explore Angkor Wat properly later in the day. This was Lisa’s suggestion and formed part of her exclusive ‘Megatour’ which takes in six temples in a single day – something which others say cannot be done!
The tour does cost a little more at $50 for 2 people, plus the $20 dollar temple pass, but worth it if you only have one day and want to see as much as possible. Make no mistake it’s a long day, but you have at least an hour to see each temple which we found was enough. The tour also includes a hike up to a pretty waterfall where you can cool off from the midday heat and receive a pedicure in the natural fish spa.
There’s lots more to do in Siem Reap which we sadly didn’t have time for in 3 days. For example the floating villages of Kompong Pluk look amazing and well worth a visit, as does Beng Mealea, a far flung temple in the jungle which promises a true Indiana Jones experience.
All in all Siem Reap has lots to offer and is a worthy destination in its own right, not just a stopping off point for visiting the temples. We merely scratched the surface in 3 days and fully intend to make a return visit to continue our love affair with the city.
- US dollars are widely accepted.
- If you’re continuing on to Vietnam, it’s much cheaper to arrange your visa through your hostel in Cambodia than the UK. We paid $45 dollars each.
- An average evening meal costs around $6 dollars per person excluding drinks.
- Be aware that if the temple police offer to take your picture they will force you to strike a number of ridiculous poses and charge you for the privilege! See below…