A holiday in ruins
Friday 25 November 2011, 05:23PM
TRAVEL: “I know why you don’t have a boyfriend,” the 12-year-old souvenir seller tells me as she follows me down the road.
I’m dreading the answer, knowing it surely won’t be good for my self esteem.
“Why?” I ask her with caution.
“It’s because you don’t buy my bracelets,” she says, running away laughing.
I’ve been in Siem Reap for less than 24 hours, and already have been pestered by what seems like several hundred street kids, holding onto my hand and trying to drag me toward one shop or other.
It’s heartbreaking, but sadly seems to be the norm in Cambodia, particularly around the famous Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia’s pride and joy.
Built in the early 12th century, these temples attract thousands of tourists every year, eager to see the ancient masterpieces. Day passes are $20 (B600), but cheaper multi-day passes are also available. Most people seem to get around the temples on tuk-tuks or motorbikes, with a few tourists braving the scorching midday heat on pedal power alone.
I spent one day visiting Angkor Wat (the main one), Angkor Thom (famous for its face carvings) and Ta Prohm (featured in the movie Tomb Raider and surrounded by trees).
With its hundreds of carved faces, the statues look majestic at Angkor Thom. Due to its height, there is some climbing of ladders involved, though you’re rewarded by an awesome view from the top.
Later in the day I visited Angkor Wat, which, while still impressive, had been somewhat over-hyped – though its sheer size makes it worth the trip. One downside was that during my visit extensive refurbishment was under way, meaning much of the temple was covered in green plastic sheeting.
A two and a half hour tuk-tuk drive out of Siem Reap sits Beng Mealea temple. Built in the same style as Angkor Wat, over the years it has been heavily destroyed by landmines set during the Khmer Rouge regime. Because the temple is in ruins, fewer tourists visit – making it one of the most pleasant to visit. Every group is given a guide (free, but you’re expected to tip) who shows you through the temple.
This is where the fun begins. Every visitor faces an epic scramble through fallen concrete ruins, up and over the large boulders that block many entrances and exits, with only enough space left to squeeze through. On our three hour tour, we even passed through a gallery which our guide said used to be home to several tigers during the Angkor period, though I remained somewhat sceptical.
While I only spent two days at the temple, history enthusiasts could easily spend a week here. If you are heading to Cambodia these UNESCO world heritage sites are definitely worth making the five or so hour trip north from Phnom Penh – even if you’re hassled by 12-year-olds querying your dating status.
– Claire Connell
GETTING THERE: Bangkok Airways offers flights from Phuket to Siem Reap, with a 2-3 hour layover in Bangkok. Alternatively you can fly into Phnom Penh, and take the bus north for under $10.
WHERE TO STAY: High-end: Pavillon d'Orient Boutique-Hotel (pavillon-orient-hotel.com), rooms from $100 (B3,000 per night). Mid-range: Golden Orange Hotel (goldenorangehotel.com), rooms from $16 (B480 per night).
WHERE TO EAT: Le Tigre de Papier (letigredepapier.com), a great Italian restaurant and hotel in Siem Reap central, serves meals from $4 (B120). The Blue Pumpkin Cafe (tbpumpkin.com) is an upmarket western cafe with delicious desserts and other treats.
MORE INFORMATION: Visit the official website at siemreap-town.gov.kh