Phuket, for all its beauty, is a pressure cooker. The nagging urge to get off the island and release the valve with a few days’ travel is much better heeded to. Even more so as we’re blessed in this part of the world with myriad places and cultures to reinvigorate the senses.
And this month’s cure from Grumpy Expat Syndrome… Siem Reap, Cambodia.
The town of Siem Reap is nestled in the countryside of northwestern Cambodia. It’s a short-hop 90-minute direct flight from Phuket. But in terms of its people, culture and architecture it’s a world away.
The town is best known as the gateway to visit the neighbouring ruins of Angkor. A Unesco World Heritage Site, Angkor, literally meaning “city” in Sanskrit, was the capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries.
The ruined city displays a vast network of spectacular Hindu and Buddhist temples hidden amongst the surrounding forests and farmland. Most notably the main temple, Angkor Wat is said to be the world’s largest single religious monument. And boy is it impressive. It’ll bring out the temple-bounding Indiana Jones in the most OCD-confined shrinking violets.
Equally stunning are both Angkor Thom, with its vast gateways and towers adorned by hundreds of giant, serene faces carved into the rock, and Ta Prohm, the silk cotton tree and jungle-covered ruins made internationally renowned by the 2001 action-adventure film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
There’s a tome written about these stunning memorials to a time otherwise forgotten, so I shall instead move on to other experiences in this delightful land. My only advice: haul yourself up for a sunrise visit. Not only are the temples otherworldly baked in the first-light red hues, but you’ll also escape the stampede of a thousand camera-wielding holidaymakers.
This was my first visit to Cambodia, and I profess to know little of this country, other than its painful recent history due to the communist leader Pol Pot, and the mass genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge regime.
Little prepared me for the incredible warmth and generosity of the Cambodian people.
The first thing that hits you as you enter the small town of Siem Reap is the pace of life. From the tourist-intensive environment back home, Siem Reap is a welcome teleportation into the Asia of old.
The town sits on a slow and winding river, and life ambles along around its Parisian style tree-lined banks.
This is cha cha for real. The gentle traffic moves at a snail’s pace, with its tuk-tuk and taxi drivers cheerfully going with the leisurely flow. And no extortionate meter prices here. Ninety baht will comfortably get you from one end of the town to the other. They wouldn’t start the motor for that back home.
The architecture is a treat to behold. There’s a crucible of style, from the local markets and Chinese shophouses, to the grand boulevards and opulent French influence that gives a distinct and enriched flavour of the town’s colonial history. It’s all very quaint.
But before you doze off in this idyllic, snoozy setting, a short stroll will land you in every Asian destination’s obligatory bar-laden and neon nightlife backpacker haven, helpfully called Pub Street.
The choice of quality restaurants and bars across the town is diverse, from local hangout and street cafes to eloquent dining experiences. And the prices and level of service will have you beaming.
For those searching for a spot of authentic cultural art to embellish the trip, check out the fantastic performance venue of Bambu Stage. This social enterprise and collaboration project is a welcome platform for performing arts in the town with daily shows, workshops with Cambodian puppeteers and a gathering space for artists and art lovers.
But after all the wonders you will experience across this town, the real jewel in the crown that is Siem Reap is its people. My overriding memory will always be the inherent and sincere friendliness displayed in every engagement with these welcoming and gentle Khmer locals.
As soon as the blood pressure starts to rise, may I advise you take a little trip north and reap the rewards of this charming and seductive Cambodian hideaway.