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Kingdom of Cambodia
Discovering Angkor & Siem Reap
 

      
 
 



Stretching over some 400 square kilometres of forested area,  the legendary Angkor Archaeological Park, UNESCO World Heritage since 1992, is one of the most important sites in Southeast Asia. It contains the magnificent remains of several capitals of the 9th till 15th centuries Khmer Empire: featuring the temples of Angkor Wat and Bayon.

The symbolic structures of the temple-mountain Hindu concept represents the mythical Mount Meru: surrounded by moats, shaped like pyramids and topped by precisely five towers, representing the 5 peaks of Mount Meru. The Baray (water reservoirs) surrounding Angkor were used for irrigation; though some historians argue that their primary function was political or religious.

Those are still holy spaces for the Cambodian people: so do like them, and try to your best to keep on with the dress code of “long pants/skirt and covered shoulders.”

Describing the rich Angkor Archaeological Park needs a perfect acknowledgment of History, architecture, tradition and religion, which we delegate to the excellent websites published on the matter: “Angkor Road”, and the UNESCO Angkor homepage.



Climate


November to February is the ideal season to visit Angkor, with a dry and cool weather (25-30°C). Just expect lots of tourists... and higher hotel rates. We like to stay there in April-May (avoiding mass tourism), and never suffered from the premise of the hot season (when temperature reaches 40°C). Avoid June to October, when the rainy season turns outlying temples and the roads leading to them into quagmires of mud.

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Getting to Siem Reap


You may come directly to Siem Reap by air with Bangkok Airways (check our in-flight review of this expensive though good “boutique airlines”) from Bangkok, or by the the low cost Air Asia: flying from plenty of destinations in Asia, and all countries from Southeast Asia, it has direct routes to Siem Reap from/to Kuala Lumpur and China (Chengdu and Hanghzou). It also flies to Phnom Penh from/to much more destinations. We like Air Asia, as it is good value for money and extremely reliable in term of schedule and security. Though they employ young, kind, highly motivated and efficient staff, they still have one major problem: don't expect any compensation from them if they break, delay or simply lose your luggage. Which happens quite often (at least flying from Bangkok): we unfortunately experienced it for you... Make sure that you make use of your Gold, Platinum or Black credit card upon Internet booking, and keep cool: the card insurance will compensate efficiently and quickly, and you will not have to battle in vain against Air Asia... Jet Star Asia, Cambodia Angkor Air, China Southern and Vietnam Airlines are now flying to the more and more active Siem Reap International Airport.

Those coming from Phnom Penh won't travel by railways (no passengers trains in Cambodia), but either by air, taxi (very cheap; but local roads are too dangerous to risk one's precious life in a old Japanese sedan car...) or by bus. Be careful, as there is only very few safe companies: the best -with few if none accidents- is Mekong Express. Just make sure to book at least a couple of weeks in advance by Internet (all major credit cards are accepted on-line). The fare is US$ 12 one way, by air-conditioned bus with comfortable seats, clean toilet, video, free water and snacks and, supposedly, WiFi (we could not connect, as it was out of order, both legs on our journey). You can use alternatively use Internet in Mekong Express pleasant waiting lounge in Phnom Penh. Other transportation companies should be used cautiously, as many accidents involve buses on the Phnom Penh to Siem Read “highway”...



Getting to Angkor Archaeological Park


Angkor is a 20 minutes drive from central Siem Reap.

You can get around the easiest way: by guided-tour in a comfortable AC bus. Though we didn't like this classical option, subject to large crowds (...of noisy Chinese tourists, the days of our visit...) and lack of options. Depending on how many temples are toured, the average cost is US$ 40 per day (excluding drinks and meals), 3-day ($40), or 7-day ($60). Private taxis and tuk-tuk (offering space for two, at US$12 per day) can show you around for a modest fee (US$ 30 – 50 maximum, excluding the US$ 20 one day entrance fee to the whole site). We  tried in vain to rent a  motorbike without a driver (only motorbikes with drivers can be arranged through hotels for very cheap  US$6-$8/day), and therefore made it sportively riding bicycle form central Siem Reap (about 45 minutes on a plain, easy road)). US$ 1 per day was the price of our freedom: a good -and old- Baedeker guide in hand, a GPS in our pocket (download a map from Google Maps before getting there: it helps a lot);

Don't hesitate to bring some spice to your exploration by riding elephants (available only on the route between Angkor Thom and Bayon). If you are not on a tight budget, fly Sokha Helicopters: a fantastic way to see Angkor and outlying temples like Boeng Mealea, Banteay Chhmar, or Koh Ker. Prices are more than reasonable, starting from US$110 per person for the basic 12 minutes tour. Booking is essential and shall be managed by your hotel without extra fee.

Be an early bird,: the park starts operating at sunrise (5 AM). There are fewer visitors early in the morning, and the sun isn’t at full force. Arriving at the temples one step ahead of the crowds can make much difference during the high season. A visit in the afternoon is also a good alternative: too hot for many visitors, the temples are not overcrowded between 2 and 5pm. Then, tourists come back to enjoy the cinematographic sunset over Angkor Wat.

Be extremely prudent with the sun: Bring a strong sun screen, wear a thick and large hat and DO protect your neck with a scarf (Cambodian scarves, which are smart souvenirs and gifts, are on sale in the Old Market).

Purchase the excellent “Ancient Angkor” guidebook: available in any bookshops in Siem Reap, and hawked at every temple, it is surprisingly good. This is, with the antique Baedeker classic and classy guide books, one of the best alternatives to the local guides (most of them are OK, though their explanation could take long on some details which would only capture the attention of a Khmer art specialist).

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Surviving in style


Don't worry, you will survive the exploration at ease, even if you forgot to bring water and sandwiches. Soft drinks are hawked by stalls in front of practically every temple, at US$ 0.5 – 1 for 1 litre of cold water. We saw fat, wealthy tourists shamelessly bargaining; we didn't, as price is so reasonable and sellers so friendly... and hard working: staying at visitors' disposal from sunset until dawn, always with a smile. Dozens of small noodle and snack shops have sprung up near the major attractions of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. We found the food as simple as delicious, and surprisingly cheap in such a world famous tourist attraction: we didn't spent more than US$ 3, including a large glass of Angkor Beer, for a generous two course lunch, featuring grilled chicken and fresh mangoes... not even the price of a small bottle of water in front of the Eiffel Tower!

Those who find the noodle shops too basic can try the French restaurant “Chez Sophie”:  an expatriates' hang-out, located just outside Angkor Wat main entrance. Rated as one of the best restaurants in Siem Reap, it features quite a high standard for US$ 7 – 20. Which is quite a lot in Cambodia, but cheap -and worth the visit- for Western travellers. Just for the anecdote, the French owner is the one and only foreigner living within the temple compound.

Siem Reap is fantastic for its restaurants and bars atmosphere: back from Angkor, after a good shower and some rest in your hotel, take a tuk-tuk to the Night Market. Established in the former, carefully restored Old French Quarter, this is a concentration of bistros and pubs (lots of them with a street or roof-top terrace), where yummy French and Cambodian specialities are available at excitingly cheap price. French wine and liquors are four till five time cheaper compared with Bangkok. The service is young, friendly and efficient everywhere: staff looks so happy to serve you!

The first evening should be dedicated to Koulen, booking a few days in advance via your hotel in this touristic restaurant,  reputed for its excellent Khmer dances performances with live music. We found the buffet better than expected; if not over sophisticated, the local specialities available in huge quantity are really yummy. It gave us the possibility the most popular specialities of the Khmer cuisine in one night, for a few dollars (US$ 12).

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Next day (s) you should definitely have lunch or, better, dinner in the Night Market / Old French Quarter area. We recommend the very kind Perk Sophal's “Khmer Kitchen” restaurant. This is where local peoples and expats like to invite their visiting friends. A favorite for Mick Jagger and Angelina Jolie who has a foundation in Cambodia (she also likes to dine at The Red Piano, which is not bad though too touristic nowadays): jet setters and anonymous visitors come for the coconut milk soup, the “fish amok” and the traditional Khmer vegetable curry. Very cheap (less than US$10 for two, plus a couple of dollars for two or three bottles of Cambodia Beer).

Triangle BBQ Restaurant & Lounge-Bar is also one of the finest and coolest addresses in the Night Market district. It has a Khmer Show, not as popular as Koulen; but people mostly come there for the tapas-like specialities. The terrace is fantastic, with always a frantic and friendly atmosphere. Smoking isn't prohibited in Cambodia -one of latest free countries in this mad world!- and we could smoke our Cuban cigar peacefully, with a glass of Pastis 51 served exactly like in a Paris brasserie... at a portion of the European price (tax on imported alcohol is very low in Cambodia).

Mie Café is the newest and best gastronomic restaurant in the city. We loved at first sight this traditional Khmer wooden house with an outdoor patio and garden, located half way between Angkor and Siem Reap city center. The dreamed place for a romantic, definitely best gastronomic luxury romantic restaurant in angkor siem reap mie cafeatmospheric dinner al fresco punctuating a sunset visit to the temples, it makes lying those affirming that Cambodia is the antithesis of a gastronomic destination.

Chef Pola Siv, recognized as the master of Khmer Nouvelle Cuisine, mixes his freshly imported European skill with a personal, fusion vision of the local cuisine. Which makes some dishes taste more Western, and others more Asian. With of course some popular Khmer musts: like the sapid “Traditional Khmer Chicken Amok”, with lemongrass paste, coconut milk, noni leave and eggplant, or the tender “Rib Eye Beef Lok Lak”, with mushrooms, onion, green peppercorn stir fried with oyster sauce topped with egg sunny side up. Those looking for a new, more interesting version of the Cambodian cuisine should rather order a noteworthy appetizer (available from the attractive Gourmet Menu ): “Carpaccio of Fresh Snake Head Fish Fillet”,  cooked in fresh citrus juice with Cambodian spices, grapefruit and hazelnut oil dressing, served with a delicious poached egg tempura. On the same high mark, and from the same Gourmet Menu, the “Grilled Beef La Ap”, marinated with local herbs and chili, then chopped grilled medium rare with tomato sauce and a touch of balsamic vinegar, is topped with parmesan cheese… and red ant eggs. Cambodian eat tarantulas, worms, and cockroach: so there is nothing actually surprising locally in the introduction of this special ingredient into a gastronomic dish. You can experience red ants in the distinctive “Cat-Fish Consommé”: it gives this classic Asian specialty some power. More signature dishes, like “Grilled Prawn with Amok Butter”, roasted somanea seed, eggplant with coconut milk and dry cure ham, or “Fried Pork with Oven Roasted Giant Eggplant”, bell pepper and wild mushroom, are well worth the try.

Chef Pola has been trained in Switzerland: we could realize it from the supreme quality of his “Hot and Creamy Chocolate Cake”, with vanilla ice cream, and fresh mango passion fruit sauce. Like all the master chefs, he uses the best cocoa (from Valhrona) to produce really professional pastries.

Note that all ingredients come from the best local farms, and that the bio-vegetables are grown up in the restaurant kitchen garden.
The bill is rather high on the Siem Reap standards, yet more than reasonable for international fooders. It will cost approximately USD 80 for a couple of dinners, with one bottle of refreshing “South of Africa Chenin Blanc, The Winery of Good Hope” (USD 25 by the bottle). The entertaining song of a colony of frogs in a pound nearby is included in the bill.

This recommended restaurant is one of the “Secret Tables” lovingly selected by “Secret Retreats”.

Open Wednesday to Monday, 11am – 2pm for lunch, 5.30pm – 9.15pm (last sitting) for dinner.

MIE CAFÉ: #0085, Phum Treng Khum Slorgram, Siem Reap, Cambodia
PHONE: +855 12 791 371
E-MAIL: chef@miecafe-siemreap.com


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Lodging


You won't sleep in Angkor Archaeological Park, as this carefully protected area is of course exempted from hotels. Siem  Reap has got plenty of resources, from dirty cheap guest houses to legendary high-end hotels and romantic boutique hotels (we have experienced and reviewed the best ones for you).


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