48 hours in Siem Reap
By Masako Iijima July 15, 2008 09:23am
GOT 48 hours to explore the ruins of the ancient Angkor empire? Foreign correspondents with local knowledge can help you make the most of the temples and Siem Reap, the booming tourist town in the shadow of Angkor Wat.
6 pm: Cocktail hour
Relax on rattan armchairs in the pleasant garden of the Singing Tree Cafe just down the street from the Siem Reap river. It's a nice place for an evening drink or a healthy meal or for those seeking to unwind completely, there's an evening yoga class in the wooden, traditional Khmer house.
8 pm: Starlit temples
Every year, more than two million tourists visit Angkor Wat, the 12th century Hindu-Buddhist temple which is synonomous with Cambodia. By day, flag-waving guides herd package tourists through the world heritage site.
But if you go to the night viewing, you can gaze at the reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology and the intricately carved apsaras, or celestial nymphs, in solitude and immerse yourself in the grandeur of the ancient architecture while other tourists eat dinner.
7 am: Hit the temples After a quick breakfast, head for the temples. Drive around the Angkor Wat moat to Angkor Thom, the last and capital of the Khmer empire. The Bayon temple, with its 200 enormous faces smiling down on visitors from stone towers is a must-see. The Terrace of the Elephants, the platform from where King Jayavarman VII viewed public ceremonies, is well preserved compared to some of the surrounding temples which need a bit of imagination to appreciate.
11 am: Crafty potters
Go back to Siem Reap to avoid the midday sun. On the way, take a detour on the airport road to the National Centre for Khmer Ceramics Revival, a workshop which seeks to recreate ancient Khmer pottery using clay from the nearby hills, fired in a giant kiln built based on information found by archaeologists researching similar ancient sites.
Watch the potters create giant jars like the ones that are found at archaeolgical digs or try throwing a pot yourself on the primitive potters' wheel the women use and take home a special souvenir.
12.30 pm: Amok for lunch
Siem Reap's food choices have expanded dramatically in recent years. Go to Amok Restaurant, named after the Khmer curry which is made by steaming the coconut-based dish in a banana leaf for a typical Cambodian lunch. Besides the fish amok, the banana flower salad and the green papaya salad – which is similar to the Thai version but without the chillis – are also nice.
1.30 pm: Shopping hour
A good time to wander around the air conditioned shops selling silks and trinkets. Angkor Candles stocks a selection of handcarved candles in the shape of guardian lions, faces of Bayon and other local motifs.
Rajana is a fair trade shop which sells handmade silver jewellery, cushion covers and other knick-knacks. For cotton "krama" or gingham check scarves worn by Khmer Rouge fighters, head to the Old Market where they are sold in every color combination imaginable.
3.30 pm: Try the fried crickets
For a quick and unusual snack, try the fried crickets and other creepy crawlies sold on the bridge spanning the Siem Reap River. Or, for those less adventurous, you can go to the Blue Pumpkin for a banana ginger tart and iced coffee before journeying back to the temples.
4 pm: Play Tomb Raider
If the Angkor temples had not been restored, they would all look like Ta Prohm, located about 1km from Angkor Thom. Trees with enormous roots threaten to swallow the moss-covered walls of this temple and return the monument to the jungle that surrounds it. It's a familiar sight for Tomb Raider fans.
Proceed on to Pre Rup, a 10th century Shiva temple whose sandstone and brick walls glow orange in the late afternoon light. Then, climb up Phnom Bakheng, a temple mountain also dedicated to Shiva, to watch the sun set over what remains of the Angkor empire.
7 pm: Chat up an archeologist
To catch the latest gossip on archaelogical finds, have a drink with the experts. The French team will be at the Laundry Bar in the centre of town. The Japanese, who are the second largest contingent of achaeologists after the French, are usually at Cafe Moi Moi on the road back to town from the temples.
8 pm: Recall colonial Indochina over dinner
Keeping with the Angkor theme, dine at Le Malraux, a bistrot named after writer and statesman Andre Malraux who embarked on an exploratory mission into the Cambodian jungle in the early 1900s and was arrested by French colonial authorites for trying to steal bas-reliefs from one of the Angkor temples. Confit de canard and other things French will help you enjoy the atmosphere of Indochina of bygone years.
10 pm: Chase the neon lights
Night comes early to Siem Reap. But if you follow the neon lights and noise emanating from places like the Sok San Palace and Sokha Entertainment Club, you'll find yourself amid young Cambodians singing, dancing and trying their luck on the poker machines.
7.30 am: Try a Khmer breakfast
From dawn, the Old Market is a hive of activity as housewives rush to buy fresh vegetables, meat and fish to feed their families. That is also when the food stalls offer the most choices. Rice porridge, duck noodles and sticky rice steamed in banana leaf packets make an interesting Khmer breakfast.
8 am: Hike with the Hindu gods
Drive out to Kbal Spean or the Valley of the 1000 Lingas. Wear sturdy shoes as it is a bit of a hike to the myriad of stone lingas carved into the riverbed and boulders on the banks. The Angkoreans believed the water passing over the symbols of Shiva would fertilize their rice fields and ensure a bumper crop. There are also carvings of various Hindu motifs depicting gods and sacred animals which have been watching over the water since the 11th century.
1.30 pm: Sunday lunch
Despite the Hindu overtones, there's no Kama Sutra at Kbal Spean. But there is in Siem Reap. The Indian restaurant is one of the classier ones in town and serves both north and south Indian favourites. Try their dosas – very thin and crispy.
2.30 pm: Weave some magic
Cambodia's weaving masters at the Institute of Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT) will be back from siesta and at their looms creating silk in intricate ikat designs. You can watch them spin, dye and weave at their workshop on the edge of town.
If you are a textile fanatic, journey to their farm to see silk worms being raised and dyes of different hues being created from tree bark, leaves and other natural sources. The organisation is trying to revive the country's silk traditions which were lost during decades of conflict.
4 pm: Explore village life
Follow the road to the right of IKTT, past the crocodile farm and basket shops, and you will soon be in Roluos, an area that is home to a clutch of 9th century temples.
Ancient architecture buffs can study the structural differences between the Bakong and Preah Ko temples and Angkor Wat, which was built centuries later. Ordinary tourists will enjoy the journey which takes you through villages, rice paddies and herds of water buffalo wallowing in the mud.
6 pm: Massage out those knots
Paved roads are increasing in Cambodia, but many are still spine-jarring dirt tracks. Go to Chai Massage near the road to Angkor Wat and let the masseuse knead the knots away and work out the kinks.
7 pm: G&T o'clock
Tourism exceeds journalism by far in Siem Reap, but there is still an FCC – Foreign Correspondents Club. It's near the river and the garden is the perfect place for a last gin and tonic before the journey home.