Arriving at Siem Reap, the town at the foot of the Angkor temples made infamous by Tomb Raider, I expected a small, dusty town trampled by tourists as they did their token three days at Angkor Wat before they moved on to bigger and better things.
Siem Reap is a huge tourist destination (about 3 million visitors a year) but this means it’s actually quite expanded. On top of that, because of its history – Siem Reap means a “flat defeat” of the Thais for one thing – there is quite a lot of culture lurking beneath its touristic façade:
First, there’s the exquisite French Quarter which houses the fancy resorts, the National Museum, and a stunning park lined with tall imposing trees filled to the brim with bats.
Then there’s the lovely riverside for strolling along, dotted with colonial style houses and local restaurants, bars and coffee shops.
There’s an Old Market area where the locals shop for fruits, seafood and clothing, which is also filled with food stalls and souvenir stalls and almost any-trinket-you-can-imagine stalls.
There’s the Night Markets, where women weaving traditional Cambodian scarves blur with local entrepreneurs selling original printed teeshirts that blur with everyone in between hocking patterned dresses and souvenirs.
And for some nightlife, there’s Pub Street, which, yes, has a large red neon sign that points to it, but is actually not that horrible, and has decent restaurants and bars including the Temple Club which features free (and good quality!) Apsara dances every night.
But Siem Reap was an unexpected darling in Cambodia that offered not only temples fraught with history and religion, but also a steady dose of culture and nightlife that I just wanted to inhale.
I wish I stayed longer. And I definitely hope to come back.