Posted by: Richard Marshall | March 8, 2010

Siem Reap and Angkor

Angkor Wat

It’s been a few weeks since my Cambodia trip so I guess an update is due. I was pretty exhausted when I got back and then had to launch immediately into a weekend of teaching, so writing the trip up slid down the list of priorities as my time began to blur back into its usual routine.

Getting to Siem Reap from HCMC was easy enough. The bus trip was long and tiresome, the border was a bit chaotic, especially on the Vietnamese side (though incomparably better than any African border I have been through), but I was pretty fresh at that stage and coped well enough. The landscape in Cambodia was very attractive, and much closer to the South East Asia I had imagined before I got here than anywhere I’ve seen so far in Vietnam. It’s mostly as flat as billiard table, a patch work of paddy fields with clumps of Washingtonia palms and the occasional village raised on stilts. It’s certainly poorer than Vietnam, but it also seemed a lot less crowded and claustrophobic. The town of Siem Reap came as a real surprise. The town is a few kilometres away from the temples at Angkor, and is teeming with tourists who are pouring money into the place. There’s lots of development going, but it doesn’t seem to be the kind of unchecked, unregulated free-for-all I’ve been seeing in Vietnam. The colonial town centre has been mostly preserved, and the majority of the newer buildings have been designed to harmonize with the older ones. Some of the streets in the centre of town are closed to traffic at night, or even entirely pedestrianised. As a result, instead of the Vietnamese shambles of ugly hotels, filthy streets, broken pavements and lawless motorbike traffic, central Siem Reap has long, shady arcades with pleasant restaurants and cafes spilling out into the street. They also have shady trees, benches and a walkway along the river, which is again in contrast to the slimy, polluted, stinking waterways of HCMC. That said, the scars of Cambodia’s brutal past and present poverty are still in evidence. There are plenty of beggars with appalling disfigurements and diseases, and they form an uncomfortable contrast to the foreigners eating well and getting drunk in the cafes. Also, there are far fewer locals in the restaurants than one would find in HCMC with it’s growing middle class. But all the same, the town of Siem Reap really deserves commendation.

My Hotel

Old buildings, Siem Reap

I decided to get to the temples by bicycle. With my not terribly healthy lifestyle in HCMC I thought I could use the exercise, and I didn’t feel like getting ripped off by local motorbike or tuk-tuk drivers. Cycling around the temples is very pleasant. It’s a very large complex – on one of the days I rode about 30 km – and is either through forest or, in some places, paddies. I had great independence and mobility. There were certain disadvantages, though. I hired bikes from my hotel which weren’t great at all. The absence of gears or shocks wasn’t such a big problem in such a flat environment, but on the last day I ended up with a bike which simply wasn’t big enough, and a day on that thing left me feeling sore. The other problem was that it was hot -really, really hot. The weather, and in some ways the environment generally, reminded me of the Zambezi Valley – hot, dry, muggy and dusty. I was pouring sweat the whole time, and by the time I’d done three days on the bike I actually felt very unwell – it took me several days before I didn’t feel exhausted and have a chronic headache.

The Bike

The temples themselves were, of course, incredible. Angkor Wat is the most famous, and probably the most impressive, of them, but is only one of a complex which covers a really large area. Just north of Angkor Wat is Angkor Thom, which contains some of the other famous temples – Bayon, Baphoun etc – and is surrounded by a really impressive wall. There are then dozens of “smaller” structures, some of which would be considered absolute marvels if they weren’t overshadowed by the bigger buildings.  Some of these smaller temples, such as Preah Khan, ended up being my favorites, since it was possible to get away from everyone else and even find oneself alone, which obviously was more atmospheric than the teeming Angkor Wat or Bayon.

Preah Khan

Angkor Wat

Bayon, Angkor Thom

One of the smaller temples

Other than wander around the temples, I also managed to get some fairly good birding in. Being on the bicycle I was reluctant to travel in the dark, so I wasn’t able to birdwatch at ideal times of the day, but even in the heat I didn’t do too badly. In Siem Reap I spent money like water, shopping at the market, drinking G ‘n’ Ts and eating well, and generally having a good time. The bus trip back was dreadful, particularly as I was still feeling unwell, but it was overall a tremendous experience.


  1. Wow! those photos are amazing! it looks like such an awesome place. I’m pretty impressed that you rode 30ks in one day as well! Keep the posts coming, loads of love Tess

  2. I like your travel blog very much. It’s always so descriptive and alive. No wonder you would make a good English teacher. ;P

    Glad to know that you had done more exercising as the months go (after the trekking). What’s next in your plan?

  3. Sounds really awesome. We’ll have to meet up there sometime! But you won’t get me to ride around on a Ugandan-type bicycle until I collapse from heatstroke, that’s for sure!! You need lots of coke and carbs! It also looks really beautiful in the pics. Ah…Asia…! 🙂

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