Last March, I took my 11, 12 and 14 year old children to Southeast Asia for 17 days. We went to Phuket, Chiang Mai and Bangkok in Thailand. Afterwards, we spent a few days in Siem Reap in Cambodia and took a three day cruise along the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Essentially, I planned this holiday to make sure that we hit as many “highlights” in this region as I could fit. For me, that meant spending time on the beaches in Phuket and with elephants in Chiang Mai. I wanted to experience the cosmopolitan life of Bangkok and witness the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. Finally, I hoped to witness jungle and authentic living of the Vietnamese along the Mekong Delta.
It is so interesting how wrong certain of my expectations were. The cruise along the Mekong Delta was disappointing. There was hardly any jungle or Vietnamese living a traditional lifestyle along its shores. Evidence of industry and modernization were visible most everywhere we looked. It was hard to lose oneself in a feeling of remoteness or timelessness. Even though I wanted to visit Bangkok, I was a little nervous going there with my children. I heard the traffic was crazy and dangerous, and the underworld of sexual depravity and child exploitation would be commonplace. But, I was wrong. Well, the traffic was a little crazy. However, it was an amazing, thriving, exciting city that was sophisticated in some places but still felt very traditional in others. When not in a tuk-tuk being driven by a maniac, I felt very safe there and would love to return one day.
However, Siem Reap in Cambodia was my biggest surprise. I had very little expectations of the city as a whole. I was very excited to see Angkor Wat and enjoyed exploring its grounds. However, over four days, I fell in love with Siem Reap.
This is the question. Why? Cambodia is a very poor country. Siem Reap is landlocked and it was brutally hot and dry when we were there. The roads were barely paved. Consequently, it was dusty and in many places, very stark. I think it is hard to grow things there without a lot of effort.
But, it was my favourite place on this holiday for many reasons. Here is a list of Siem Reap’s secrets for you to discover.
1. Siem Reap has it all
Siem Reap provided a microcosm into Cambodian life without sacrificing a strong tourism infrastructure. There were beautiful hotels, restaurants and shops scattered in the main tourist corridor that would make any type of traveller happy. However, a few blocks away, there were busy streets with Cambodians going about their day to day lives. Food stands, shops catering to locals’ needs, vegetable and fruit markets, and motorcycle repair shops lined the streets. I loved watching the ebb and flow of everyday life – the blend of traditional living with nods to modern life.
We headed a few more miles away, and we were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by farm land for as far as you could see. Cars and motorcycles were replaced by horses and oxen pulling carts, or people stacked onto bikes precariously pedalling by. Cows and water buffalo casually existed side by side with locals. This transformation from sophisticated hotels and restaurants to rural life happened within a 15 minute drive from start to finish.
2. Angkor Rural Boutique Resort
We stayed at one of my favourite hotels of all time. Angkor Rural Boutique Resort was not in the tourist centre of Siem Reap. Instead, it was about a 15 minute drive away, nestled amongst farm land and rice paddy fields.
It was very small. There was a handful of bungalows scattered about the property, a small pool, and a little restaurant. Each bungalow was large, filled with beautiful traditional furniture, comfortable beds, and a luxurious modern bathroom. We also had a small deck and an outdoor jacuzzi.
It felt authentic
There were many things that made this place special to me. I loved being surrounded by authentic rural living. As I said, the hotel was very small. I could walk from one end of the property to the other in around 3 minutes. However, beyond the walls of the property was a small village, a local store, and lots of farm land and rice paddy fields. I felt like I was part of the community. I was able to watch the traditional lives of the locals by sharing their space and yet, I didn’t feel like I was interfering with them.
As a tourist, I often feel like my presence in a traditional community is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that I am spending money on food, housing, or tours and therefore, helping the community prosper. The curse is that my mere presence changes the focus of the community. They give up their normal schedule or traditional way of doing things to cater to me, the tourist. But here, I didn’t feel like anyone was taking any notice of us and I liked that.
The Food and Service
The food was unbelievable. Everything was exceptionally fresh and the flavours were unlike anything that I have ever eaten in North America. They grew a lot of their own food or purchased the ingredients mere hours before a meal was prepared.
The staff was small, but they were very kind and helpful. One night, they surprised us with dinner in the garden. They hung lights around us and we had our own disc jockey who played music while we danced. On another night, we had a cooking lesson with the owner and the chef. We were taught family recipes that I wish we had written down.
Included in the cost of our stay was airport pick up and drop off, massages, and our own car and driver in the late afternoon/evening so that we could spend time in downtown Siem Reap. We loved having the car and driver. We never felt like we were giving up access to the trendy bars, restaurants and shops in town by staying in a remote part of Siem Reap.
All of this was offered for a little more than 100 USD per night per bungalow. It was amazing.
3. The Temples
Most people come to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat which is a temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world. We had a tour of it and it was extraordinary. However, what I wasn’t prepared for was how many other temples exist in and around Siem Reap and how remarkable they were. We only saw a few others, which included Bayon and Ta Prohm, but I understand there are dozens of temples to explore. The ones we saw were well preserved and showed phenomenal craftsmanship.
We had a fantastic full day tour of these temples which included a large air conditioned van, a driver, guide, and cold bottled water as needed for only a couple hundred dollars. I don’t remember the name of the company that we used (this was before I started my blog and I wasn’t keeping track of this information), but there were a number of companies offering similar tours for the same cost. I found ours on TripAdvisor.
4. Cambodia Quad Bike
A highlight of our stay in Siem Reap was a three hour ATV tour of the countryside offered by Cambodia Quad Bike. Even though my children were only 11, 12 and 14 years old, they were each given their own ATV to drive. I was a little apprehensive about my youngest driving alone, so another guide sat with her and helped her out.
This tour was one of the funnest we have ever taken. We drove along country roads and dirt paths that barely had any cars. Several times, we ended up in wide open fields where we sped around without worrying about pedestrians, motorcycles or stray animals. We visited small modern temples and corner stores, and were able to fully take in the dry, stark nature of the countryside. By the end, we were covered in sweat and dirt, and wanted to do it all again.
There isn’t a shortage of shopping in Southeast Asia. On the contrary, you could probably spend all day every day shopping in certain towns and cities. However, I felt that in Thailand, the same products were offered again and again no matter what city, town or market we were in.
Siem Reap was different. There were a lot of shops offering unique sophisticated crafts and original art. It was refreshing exploring the different stores and their goods, and witnessing some extraordinary craftsmanship.
Siem Reap is a city that I would definitely recommend adding to your itinerary on a visit to Southeast Asia. It offers you an opportunity to see traditional living, without sacrificing modern and luxury conveniences. There is a strong tourism industry which allows for both interesting and exciting tours, fantastic hotels, and terrific shopping. The food is absolutely delicious and the service is excellent. Angkor Wat and the other temples were fascinating to see and explore. Best of all, it was very inexpensive for comparable products and services in North America.
In only four days, we uncovered these hidden gems. I know there must be more. Do you have any?
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