The journey to Siem Reap was 12 hours long from Sihanoukville. It started at 7am, after waiting for what felt like forever at our hostel, where we were unfortunately unable to get breakfast! Luckily, the mini van that picked us up felt fairly spacious, as we were going to be in it for the first five hour stretch to Phnom Penh. That’s right - all of that way, not in a sleeper bus, not even a regular bus, but in a mini van. Thankfully, I didn't sleep the night before, so I could sleep straight through the journey with the help of Harmony’s neck pillow and the van’s air conditioning.
When we arrived in Phnom Penh, we had two hours to either chill at the bus depot or get some lunch. We tried to find a restaurant, but the nearest, nice place on Tripadvisor wasn't worth the walk. So, we went without any food. That time went fairly quick and, when we got on our second and final bus, we were given cake and a bottle of water each! I slept through most of that journey to, right up until we made a 20 minute stop in a nice town called Stueng Saen. The street markets, dusty, dirt roads and golden statues and shrines looked amazing as the light from the setting sun hit them.
As we continued on the journey through Cambodia's fascinating, flat landscape, the sun continued to set. The sky turned burning tones of orange and red, and lasted for ages! Harmony was amazed and completely in awe, as was I. Two more hours went by and we were happy to arrive in Siem Reap. First of all, we had to get to our hostel (Hi Siem Reap) and get comfortable there. By the time that was done, we were starving again so it was definitely time to eat! Fortunately, there was an adequate and affordable restaurant next door (Meng Café)!
We knew we were going to love it in Siem Reap - the river that runs through the city, the festive lights that hung from one side of the road to the other and the relatively relaxed night market opposite our hostel. The only downsides were the loud dogs that howled throughout the night and the pushy tuk tuk drivers that don't take no for an answer. In the morning, we got free breakfast - eggs on toast for me, and a banana pancake with honey for Harmony. We had a big day of sightseeing and a lot of walking ahead of us, so we made ourselves a cup of free coffee to.
The first place we headed to was the "Made In Cambodia Market". It didn't open until 12, so we had to go back later in the day. It was great to see so many stalls selling organic produce and eco friendly products. Harmony and I wanted to do some volunteer work whilst in Asia, but we did some research and soon realised that we would probably do more bad than good if it wasn't long term work. So, I was happy to spend some money and support underprivileged children. Across the river, there is also the old market, which is just like any other Asian market, but without the craziness and chaos. Harmony bought some jewelry and we both bought some new t-shirts.
From the old market, we headed to Preah Prom Rath Temple, where we saw a monk standing a few meters from the gates, wearing a welcoming smile. There was no entrance fee and no pressure to cover up, but I did remove the hat from my head to show respect. Oriental buildings, intricately carved statues and other decorative items were painted in their usual colour scheme of red and gold, and the gardens looked lush and well maintained. There was so much to see! Harmony and I also walked to two more temples that day (Wat Bo and Wat Damnak), but they didn't look anywhere near as nice. Admittedly, we only saw them from outside of the grounds.
After looking at temples, we wanted to check out Pub Street. It was smaller than I was expecting, but it looked cool and, more importantly, the drinks looked cheap; with "buckets" on the menu at almost every bar. We were only looking for a smoothie though and we knew that we'd be better off at the street vendor at the end of the road. She used real fruit and let us mix-and-match whatever fruits we wanted. There were a lot of flies that, like us, were attracted to her stall, which was a concern but the fruit that they landed on was yet to be peeled and the smoothies were delicious!
That afternoon, we spent some time at Hi Siem Reap’s sister hostel because we wanted to go in their swimming pool. It was the perfect size and the water was the perfect temperature – nice and refreshing! There was also a bar and lots of deck chairs, so we could chill out and enjoy the sun. When it came to dinner time, we decided to go back to Meng Café as they give free drinks with every meal, the fried noodles are only $1.50 and their garlic bread is the best in Asia! Some other relatively close by restaurants that we liked were The Khmer Grill and The Christa. On the Pub Street side of the river, we also liked A Little Khmer Cafe and For Life.
Because we were spending two weeks in Siem Reap, there were a fair few days when there wasn't much to do. We still wanted to make the most of being there though, so we often found ourselves exploring the streets without an aim or objective. One day, we set out a plan to follow the Siem Reap River down, but as a bike ride! We got the bikes from the second hostel that we stayed at (Ivy Guesthouse), where the rooms were cheap but the food was expensive. The bikes were $2 for the day and each had a basket and working brakes.
Along the Siem Reap River were two incredible temples - Po Banteaychey and Aragn Sakor. They were surrounded by small shacks, a cute school and lots of houses standing on stilts. There are probably over 100 bridges that join both sides of the river, some beautiful and some just a few planks of wood. We occasionally crossed over from side to side, so that we could explore underdeveloped areas and experience the simple way of life that the locals live. Women were sitting in their shop entrances and men, young and old, paddled around waist deep in the river with nets full of fish.
The river eventually leads to Tonle Sap Lake and a floating village, but we didn't make it that far. There were other tourists heading that way by the busload, so I can only imagine that the crowds take away a lot of the charm anyway. In the end, we made it as far as Phnom Krom Mountain. We didn't actually go up it at the time, but we did return a few days later. To reach the temple at the top, you need an Angkor temples ticket and we didn't realise that. Nevertheless, we still got to experience the stellar scenery on the way up. The mountain is 140m high, so it offers fantastic views of the wetlands and the gorgeous, green paddy fields that surround it. Thankfully, there are steps to make the views a bit more accessible. The only downside to the area is the smell that, if I had to guess, was due to all of the agriculture.
Whilst staying at the Ivy Guesthouse, we saw a leaflet that was promoting pottery classes. So, when we coincidentally cycled past the building, we became interested. It wasn't an exciting and adventurous activity, but it did give us a look at a traditional and useful form of art. Admittedly, I wasn't very good at said form of art and needed a lot of help from Paruth, the teacher. It also got a little bit messy! After we made our three clay cups and pots, we got to decorate and carve them. We could’ve left it at that for $10 each, but we paid $20 each and both got to keep one of our cups. Paruth offered us a choice of colour for our cups, fired them in her kiln and delivered them to our hostel a couple of days later.
Whilst in Siem Reap, we were lucky enough to catch one day of the Angkor Photography Festival. It was surprisingly big, with lots of events at multiple locations and galleries. The day after the pottery class, we spent a good few hours at the main “Festival Zone”, where we saw many award-winning, World Press photographs. There was also a collection of images that told the story of everyday people and how the Khmer Rouge Regime affected their lives. It was touching to read the stories of people you could be walking past on the streets. The World Press photographs told lots of different stories from several, serious events from across the world. They were more inspiring than touching. The festival was running for a whole week, but Harmony and I always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time to attend any of the workshops unfortunately.
The following day, there simply wasn't a workshop running that we wanted to see, so we decided to go on another bike ride, this time following the Siem Reap River north. There were three temples along the way (Wat Polanka, Wat Preah Ankausaa and Wat Preah Enkosai), the first of which we rode right past and the others we actually got to see. We had a short walk around Wat Preah Ankausaa, where we felt out of place and not one bit welcome. So, we left the monks to their day and continued cycling. We headed further north on the east side of the river until we didn’t feel welcome in their community either.
After turning back and crossing on to the west side of the river, we continued heading north, towards the War Remnants Museum. This road was quite simply not a nice road to ride a bike on, with more bumps and a lot of litter. A better route was along the Charles De Gaulle Road that leads you to Angkor Wat, where we were actually stopped along the way and asked to show our tickets. They let us go through when we explained where we were going, as it was only at the next turn off. When we arrived, it looked like nothing more than a small collection of weaponry, and we weren’t going to waste $5 on something that didn’t interest us. So, after all of that, we headed back.
On the way back to the city, we stopped of at another temple (Wat Thmei), which had a nice atmosphere and a cool collection of stupas and shrines. This has to be the best part of the bike ride and I still wouldn’t recommend it. Then again, maybe I was just having a bad day - two weeks was way too long to spend in Siem Reap when we didn’t have much money. You see, there’s plenty to do, but we couldn’t exactly afford a helicopter ride, half an hour in a hot air balloon or a quad biking tour. I was starting to get bored and, in turn, missing home. It was time to get drunk!
We headed to a spot with some super cool bars down an alleyway, behind Wat Preah Prom Rath. First, we enjoyed some 50c beer at Yolo Bar and got free shots for checking in on Facebook. Then, we got sick of all the insects and moved to Up 2 U Bar for it's $5 buckets. Then, we went to check out the most famous bar in Siem Reap - X Bar. Here, we enjoyed live music, played some pool and drank some surprisingly inexpensive drinks. There was also beer pong, table football and even a skate ramp on the roof! However, there weren't many other people there so we didn't stay too long. On the way back to the reggae bar, we were dragged into Temple Bar on Pub Street. This was actually more of a club and we ended up dancing until the early hours of the morning!
A few days later, we moved to a louder, rowdier hostel called Downtown. It had a pool, a busy bar and activities in the evening (one night, we partook in a pub quiz). However, the room was extremely overpriced. Also, crickets littered the floor, the wifi barely worked and the bed was almost unbearable. We spent our last few days back at Hi Seam Reap, which was our favourite hostel by far!