Siem Reap

17th - 20th April:  Siem Reap

Accommodation:  Golden Butterfly Villa  -  £15 per night, double room

In spite of having to do all the organising of his fathers funeral later that day, Piset turned up at 7:30am to take me to the bus for the seven hour journey to Siem Reap. He’d already been to the market to get all the food for the occasion and was going to work right up until an hour before, this would save using one of his three days annual holiday!?!?

Once again I’d struck lucky, having the front two seats of the coach to myself, so it was just a matter of get comfortable, plug in the music and take in the sights. Thankfully Giant Ibis have the best & most modern coaches of the lot, as they’re in the throes of widening & renewing Highway One between the two cities and someone, in their infinite wisdom, decided to do the whole road at the same time meaning 300 miles of hardbake red dust track. The benefit when completed will be a much quicker journey.

Much as I enjoyed the insight into Cambodian life the journey gives you, it was good to finally get to  Siem Reap. From the posse of tuk-tuk drivers I chose Tom (actual name Tum), who not only delivered me to my hotel but persuaded me to use him for my trip to the temples the following morning. I don’t know why but I immediately felt a sense of enchantment on entering Golden Butterfly Villa, where I was greeted with a warm welcome from Chantou, who checked me in & provided local information over green tea & banana chips. My room was equally charming and, as usual, I quickly dumped the bags & set about exploring the area. I soon found the infamous Pub Street, which is a lot smaller than expected and, on first impressions, pretty underwhelming. I spent the rest of the day/night poodling around, capped off with a decidedly average meal at Red Piano before heading back to the hotel for an early-ish night. Ridiculously, given I'd already had two early starts and was being picked up at 5am, I decided to watch the 2½ hr long Killing Fields until midnight!? 

You can imagine my surprise when, instead of the persistent Tum, I was greeted the next morning by a smiling Paul (actual name Phalit). It turned out to be a real result as not only does he speak good English but is also knowledgeable on the temples and very good-humoured. The entrance to Angkor Archaelogical Park is 3km from Siem Reap and we’d soon joined the masses to pay the $20 per day entry fee. From there it was straight to Angkor Wat, a further 3km on, for the globally-renowned view of the temple at sunrise. Thankfully I was early enough to secure a good spot as everybody was jostling for position so you had to stand firm, especially against the Chinese! As someone who is very much ‘culture-light’ I have to say that watching the sunrise and the subsequent stroll around the temple was totally awesome and, in itself, worth the visit to Cambodia. From there it was on to the biggest of them all - Angkor Thom, which incorporates a collection of temples including another must-see, Bayon, and The Terrace of the Elephants.

It was then time for a spot of breakfast, which gave me the chance to chat with Phalit and get an idea of how tough it is just to exist for most Cambodians. Basically, like parents the world over, they just want to provide a better future for their kids. Having no formal schooling himself, he realises that the only chance for his two children to emerge from poverty is through education. If you're planning a visit to Siem Reap and need a guide/driver I can't recommend him highly enough, contact can be made through his website Life of Angkor Driver.

From here it was on to Ta Prohm, unique for the way in which the enormous trees have grown on top of the walls. As legend would have it, there are only two types, one with a golden bark and the other silver, because King Javayarman VII associated them with wealth. As interesting as it all was, by now I'd seen the three 'biggies' and my stamina was beginning to wain so I asked Phalit to head back towards town. Given that I assumed most visitors spent three days exploring the temples, I wondered if my five hours was some kind of record? Apparently not as he informed me that, while the Japanese and Chinese want to investigate every nook & cranny, most Europeans are ‘templed-out’ by lunchtime. A great morning but I was relieved to get back to the hotel for a siesta and my, by now much needed, complimentary massage. This set me up nicely for a pleasant, though uneventful, evening mainly spent eating & chatting at Nai Khmer Food Restaurant by the Old Market before finishing off with a few obligatory nightcaps back at the hotel.

Having satisfied my cultural needs, my last day in Siem Reap could be taken at a relaxed pace. A pleasant walk along the riverside brought me to the elegant FCC Restaurant, recommended by John Stewart so I thought I’d give it a go for brunch . . . . . . wow! I just wish I’d had every meal there, the food is fantastic! From here I carried on to a park by the Royal Palace where I was gobsmacked to find hundreds of fruit bats high in the trees, I watched, totally transfixed for the next hour.

Whenever going to or from the hotel, I passed the front yard of a house advertising Jimmys Village School. Always intrigued I finally went in on the way back to find out more about it and got the chance to talk to Jimmy Chan Sarath, who’d set-up the school to provide free education for local children whose families couldn’t afford the cost of education. As most of these kids also have to try to earn a living, hour-long lessons take place between 5-8pm in the evening. Unfortunately, as it was Khmer New Year, I didn’t get to see the school in action but I came away with unbelievable respect for this humble, inspirational young man and hope he succeeds with everything he’s trying to achieve for his people. As all of this is provided freely, Jimmy must also earn a living so works as a guide & tuk-tuk driver through his company Jimmys Angkor Tours,
providing bespoke tours of the temples & surrounding area. Happy Kids Cambodia website has recently been set-up to provide information and generate funds by a group of Australian benefactors who've taken the school to their hearts, I also recommend reading this article by talented Australian photographer Millie Brown, who articulates it far better than I ever could.

That evening I was back at FCC for another gorgeous meal while being entertained by a half-decent rock band performing from the roof of the bar, a great setting and a wonderful way to wrap up my visit to Siem Reap. Phalit was there, as arranged, for my transfer next morning, not before receiving a farewell as warm as the welcome from the wonderful staff of the hotel. Special people and a special place which is still very much in my thoughts.