Siem Reap: The Gateway to Angkor Wat

Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap has become a center of tourism in Cambodia because of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples just outside the city. These magnificent ruins are classified as a UNESCO world heritage site. Twelve centuries after they were first constructed, they’re still standing and much of the hand carved stone statues and decorations on the walls are still intact, if faded. These relics are why I came to Siem Reap; it felt disrespectful to visit Cambodia without seeing one of the most important archeological sites in Southeast Asia. However, I didn’t know what to expect from the city, itself.

I’ve spent the past couple days exploring Siem Reap and it’s easy to see that a large portion of the city is built on and for the tourism industry. I’m a short walk from Pub Street, a gritty, flashy let’s-get-crunk zone for travelers looking to grind on each other under black lights. I’m also near the Angkor Noon to Night Markets, an indoor maze of cheap goods to fulfill all your souvenir needs. Goods are stacked floor to ceiling and you can get anything from still-flopping fish to paintings and statues of Buddha to rip-off Nikes. The market’s vendors are almost as persistent as the tuk tuk drivers parked outside, whose constant chorus of “Tuk tuk?” greets me every morning on my way to breakfast. And only a few blocks away is what the guys have dubbed “Massage Street” and its intensely proactive, touchy-feely mob of spa saleswomen, whose $3, hour long massages are nearly impossible to pass up. 

The streets are clogged with traffic at night and in the daytime tourists mill about, munching on overpriced Western food and shopping for knick knacks. It’s not a bad spot to be for a few days between trips to Angkor Wat, Siem Reap’s main attraction. If you wander down side streets you can find tons of cheap street food and even cheaper drinks: a mountain of pineapple chicken stir fry and steamed rice for $1.50, a mango shake for $0.50, and $1 Mojitos are all on the same block. 

The thick, constant layer of dust that covers Siem Reap and the city’s overbearing heat disappear during the breezy nights. It also helps the scenery that in the darkness the smoking piles of trash aren’t visible and the persistent sound of hammering and sawing and welding from construction work stops around sundown. At night, the city streets brighten up with lights. Metal posts decorated with strings of bulbs twisted into diamond patterns glitter over the streets. They give the city a golden hue and highlight the wide, highway-like, lane-less streets packed to the edges with cars and motor bikes. Headlights gleam in the darkness, neon signs flash all colors of the rainbow, the tuk tuks honk and cars rev their engines and it all feels tantalizingly alive. That’s when the city is at its best, just past twilight when all the signs start glowing and the streets become a mass of bodies crisscrossing in all directions.