THE OLD MARKET AND ARTISANS D’ANGKOR
Staying in Siem Reap for a fortnight, I soon realised there wasn’t much to see or do in the town itself. Its most picturesque area was around the Old Market with a couple of French colonial era buildings and a small river covered with a film of algae. The market itself consisted mostly of souvenir stalls with a core area being a rather foul smelling fresh market. If you’re not prepared to see hundreds of flies happily landing on raw meat, don’t venture. We visited the market hoping for more affordable fruit prices but with so many people around, the locals learned their one dollar mantra well.
It wasn’t a far walk from the market to Artisans D’Angkor: a huge workshop where high quality arts and crafts were made in front of the visitors’ eyes. Artisans D’Angkor is a huge social enterprise, giving the local people the training and reviving the half-forgotten crafts such as stone and wood carving, lacquer, metalwork, batik painting and many more. Unless you’re a millionaire, you can forget about buying any of these but it’s actually interesting to see the people working and read about the process. Artisans d’Angkor have many workshops around Siem Reap, including the silk farm where we paid a visit on our last day (see below).
OLD TEMPLE IN SIEM REAP
Wat Bo, a 16th century temple a short stroll from the city centre would be worth a visit if you have time to spare. Unfortunately, the temple was covered with a scaffolding as of 2018 and the best part of it- the paintings on the inner walls- was inaccessible.
Be aware of scammers: we were approached and guided by a friendly local who presented himself as a local teacher collecting money for the school. We were highly skeptical of his story.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ANGKOR- GREAT INTRODUCTION TO THE KHMER EMPIRE
After some deliberation, we went to see the National Museum of Angor before exploring Angkor Wat. The reason for hesitation was the price: hefty $12 (or even $15 with an audioguide). It was a brand new museum located near the river, on the road leading towards Angkor Wat. As it was just 1.5 km from the centre we simply walked there (though for inexplicable reason there was no pavement for the last 200 meteres or so).
The museum’s building looked huge but it actually consisted of just a couple of rooms. Still, it took us three hours to see it (an average is two hours) and we certainly didn’t regret going. It was a very modern and well-designed museum, with plenty of informative and visually appealing videos. There weren’t terribly many artifacts on display but all of them were really well presented. Even without an audioguide, we were able to learn a lot about the history of the Khmer empire, the syncretic beliefs of its people and the art of the Angor era.
If you’re not planning to spend $35 for services of an authorized guide, visiting the museum BEFORE buying ticket to the Angkor Archaeological Park makes a lot of sense. If you think you could educate yourself with the help of free apps and Wikipedia and didn’t really have a budget for the museum, you could give it a miss.
APSARA SHOW- A MAJOR DISAPPOINTMENT
One of town’s main attractions are numerous Apsara dance shows. Apsara is a divine creature from Hindu mythology and also a style of dance developed surprisingly recently, in the 19th and early 20th century. Before seeing the show, I had in my mind snapshots from movie Samsara, where beautifully dressed ladies with pointed golden hats and astoundingly long nails become a many handed goddess through perfectly synchronised movements. I should have researched it better as I was about to experience a major disappointment.
Many posh hotels in Siem Reap offer a dinner with and Apsara show for around $25-45. Such price bracket was absolutely out of question for us so we were quite excited to read about one place in Pub Street which offered a free show (so long as you bought a drink). The problem was, none of the guide books was updated with information that the venue was undergoing renovation, hence no shows were taking place for the past few months.
As I already set my mind on seeing a show that evening, I went for the second cheapest option: a $12 buffet dinner with a show. Unless you really want to take photos of Apsaras, don’t make the mistake of going for the cheapest option. The random selection of Western and Asian dishes (forget any traditional Khmer star dishes such as amok, sour soup or the like) was mediocre at best. Eating instant noodles with vegetables tasting just like their street $1 version felt almost an insult. Even a $12 price was misleading: in fact drinks (including $2.50 water) had to be bought separately and there was a 10% charge on top, making it really a $15 entry.
The show itself was less than one hour long and seriously underwhelming. The English commentary before each dance was unintelligible. The Apsara dance itself was really boring: it had neither dynamic pace, nor difficult steps. It didn’t even tell any particular story. The three folk dances shown that evening were equally uninspiring, involving shaking, rocking or striking against each other objects such as coconut shells or fishing equipment, all done in a very slow pace. Once the show was over (it was less than one hour long), the Apsara dancers posed patiently for the pictures with the tourists.
SILK WORKSHOP NEAR SIEM REAP
We reserved the last day in Siem Reap to see the silk workshop, part of the Artisan d’Angkor enterprise located outside the town. There was a free shuttle bus leaving at 9.30 am and 1.30 pm every day which had to be booked at least a few hours beforehand. We felt a bit shy to go there by free transport, knowing we were only going to take some photos, but went anyway. It was a very good decision as the guided tour (lasting around 40 minutes) was truly interesting.
A very eloquent guide showed us through the entire process of silk production, from growing mulberry trees, through feeding the caterpillars with mulberry leafs, providing them space for cocoon weaving, bleaching the inhabited cocoons in the sun and then boiling them (hard to hear and see for a vegan!), unfolding the cocoon threads and spooling them, dyeing the threads and a couple more preparation stages all the way till weaving.
It all looked very complicated indeed and the beautiful pattern emerging from nowhere seemed almost magical. After the trip the guide led us to the shop selling products way beyond backpackers budget (some of the scarves cost $100!).
We were given plenty of free time which we used to visit a small museum of silk with a couple extra interesting bits of information and lovely silk traditional costumes. It was a nice way of spending half a day and a good idea if you have plenty of time on your hands.
How to get to Siem Reap?
Siem Reap is, next to capital Phnom Penh, the most important airport in Cambodia and there are plenty of (supposedly) cheap carrier flights connecting it to most of the main destinations in South East Asia. Definitely the cheapest destination of all is Bangkok, just 1 hour away. There are quite a few flights from China and far Asia but no direct flights to the Western countries.
There are also long- distance buses connecting Siem Reap with Bangkok (if you’re coming from Thailand) or Ho Chi Minh City (if you’re coming from Vietnam). The journey should take less than 10 hours/ less than 12 hours respectively and cost below $25- $30. However, most of those buses aren’t as direct as promised and forum contributors tend to complain about those routes.
Siem Reap is a reasonable, 4 hours long bus ride away from Batambong and Kampong Cham, 6 hours from Phnom Penh and Kratie. Venturing any further in one go would be a long, bumpy and tiring ride, considering the poor quality of the roads in Cambodia.
Batambong is accessible also by boat on a scenic route through Tonle Sap Lake though this option is far from cheap (around $20).
Prices [in USD as of June 2018]
approx. $50 flight Bangkok Don Muang to Siem Reap
$14 cheapest buffet dinner with Apsara show (without drinks)
$12 entrance to the Museum of Angkor
$7 cheapest (used by locals) bus to Kampong Cham
$3 fancy, sourdough bread from an artisan bakery
$2.50 cheapest meal at the backpackers restaurant in the old Siem Reap
$1- $1.50 noodles or chive cake from a street stall or local eatery
$1 soup from the street (breakfast)
$1 coffee from a local place
$1 most of the tuk-tuk routes within Siem Reap (using Pass App)
$1 a T-shirt from the street stall
$0.75 large, fresh coconut from a local store
$0.50 sticky rice with banana, wrapped in a leaf
$0.50-0.75 1.5 litre water bottle
$0.25 local sweet from a street stall