The first title is not what we want to see happen to Bangkok taxi drivers but is instead the meaning of "Siem Reap'. We met a very knowledgable Khmer man at Orange House in Otres who explained the difficult relationship Cambodia has had with Thailand (and Vietnam) over the years. Apparaently Siem Reap (Siem means Siam, which is the old name for Thailand) translates into the above because one of the great kings of Cambodia had a resounding victory over Thailand (Siam) in this gateway city. Indeed, it used to belong to Thailand but Cambodia took it in this battle and has held it ever since. There were so many dead Thais, that they renamed the city Siem Reap to 'commemorate' the battle.
The fact is that Siem Reap is still a gateway city to the jewel in the crown of world heritage sites that is Ankhor Wat, even if that means you have to step on garbage to get there. It is dirty, a little hectic in places, there's a bit of harrassment and it can be unsafe down dark alleys and if you are too trusting of tuk tuk drivers (actually I just described all of Cambodia). But, it's also exciting, interesting, calm, friendly and a cool place to meet other travellers. We first went in November/December 2014 and updated ourselves on the 2017/18 trip.
Staying at a hostel is quite a good way to do Siem Reap as there's a real community feeling in most hostels, with a good mix of age ranges and you will end up making friends, hitting pub street for some drinks and food together and probably getting some bikes the next day and doing Ankhor Wat with them. Well, that's what happened to me anyway. I stayed at One Stop Hostel and I really liked the cleanliness, price and the common area there. It's in a good location near other hostels, Pub Street (where you can go out and have some fun), restaurants and local attractions. It's also not in the middle of things (about a three to five minute walk) so is a little calmer and it's a bit nearer the road you will cycle, walk or take a taxi up to get to Ankhor Wat.
A good way to spend the first day or night is to meet some people in your hostel, go for a walk around the tourist area near One Stop and check out Pub Street, eat some street food, or do some shopping in the markets. Food wise you could check out (like I did) some grilled snake, frog and crocodile. Or there's western food too! The next day we recommend hiring a bike for a few dollars and cycling to Ankhor Wat, for sunrise if you can make it. Sunset is also good and arguably you haven't 'done' Ankhor Wat without a sunrise or sunset there.
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You can hire a tuk tuk or taxi to take you around and hopefully they will explain things too. However you are reliant on their schedule and choices and it's not a very free and exploring way to do it and they can drag it out a bit too. We would avoid an organised tour. Much better to hire a bicycle and cycle around yourself (being vey very careful on the roads! If you are careful, there's no need to worry and once you get to the temple complex cycling is safe and easy).
Ankhor Wat is a symbolic complex according to our Khmer friend at Orange House. It represents the mountains in Hinduism where the Gods live and it is aligned with the sun at sunrise and sunset to symbolize the Gods leaving and going back to their holy mountain every day. It is a mixed Buddhist and Hindu religious complex and tells a history that is long forgotten. Access is quite expensive (one day access is nearly $40 and three day is around $70) but it is worth it and you will probably want at least two days there. There's lots to see and explore and there are some amazing things to find (especially Beng Mealea). That bit is down to you but with some water, a snack, deet, a camera, a torch in case you overun and possibly a waterproof jacket in case it rains, you will have everything you need for an awesome Ankhor Wat experience. Check out our pictures below to see what we found and for more info.
Overall Siem Reap is a cool city with lots to keep you occupied and, as the gateway to Ankhor Wat, you just have to go! There are also some other temple complexes in the area (and more that they are discovering to this day!) and they are worth a look too. I went in a tuk tuk to a glorious Hindu one (Banteay Srei) that boasts some of the best stone carving in antiquity. The drive there was through villages and rice paddies and the trip was beautiful on its own. We think 2 to 4 days is suffiicient for Siem Reap and Ankhor Wat, it's very well set up for tourism (one reason you have to be careful and also brace yourself for a little harrassment), generally safe and pleasant, and you should have an experience you will remember for the rest of your life. As usual, the info here will help you get on your own two feet for your own special adventure, so jump in!
Check out the photos below!
Siem Reap and Ankhor Wat photos: Click on the arrows to scroll, or on the image for a larger version (in a pop-up)
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