Central Siem Reap has a treasure trove of French colonial heritage in architecture.
Angkor wow
CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren (The Philippine Star) - February 16, 2019 - 12:00am

Indochinese culture is as varied as any across the four countries that call themselves neighbors there. We would not mind getting more of Cambodian culture.

Siem Reap in Cambodia has always been on our bucket list, so my wife Twink, our boys and I took a break recently to visit the popular tourist destination. The city is the capital of the Cambodian province that hosts the famous Angkor Wat and other centuries-old temple complexes. What we found, thanks to my wife’s curating our visit, was more than just ruins made famous by Hollywood movies like Tomb Raider, but a destination that offered a fascinating glimpse into Cambodian culture.

Visiting Angkor Wat used to be an expensive affair two decades ago, when Cambodia was just recovering from a traumatic chapter in its history. There were few flights in and even fewer hotels available. Today, budget and regular airlines offer easy access and accommodation choices are many, running from five-star luxury to small, comfortable boutique hotels.

Angkor Wat draws close to three million visitors a year.

We took Cebu Pacific on an easy flight to Siem Reap. The city’s airport is relatively new, modern, and quite well maintained (a lesson for us here). The Cambodians have learned what we are just starting to absorb: that key infrastructure, like good airports, is essential to tourism.

The ride to Siem Reap, the jumping-off point for Angkor Archeological Park, went past a fairly tacky commercial highway strip development, much like what we have in many Philippine destinations. The city itself, however, has kept most of its charm and character.

We avoided staying in one of the large hotels along the road to the temples. Twink booked us in a wonderful small resort just outside the center of the city. Tourism has boomed in Siem Reap, and many of the tourism facilities are barely a few years old. The Metta Residence & Spa, on Sala Kamruek Road, was only 10 minutes by tuk-tuk from Pub Street, the center of tourist activity in Siem Reap.

Sites like the Tan Nei Temple at the periphery of the larger temples is great to visit because there are no crowds there.

We stayed five nights at one of Metta’s commodious villas, which has two rooms, a large living room, its own plunge pool, lanai and garden. The rest of the compact resort has over 40 rooms and a few other villas clustered around a simple rectangular pool. The architecture is tropical-modern with cubist two-story structures topped with green roofs.

From Metta we left every day for a series of jaunts all within half an hour, to just over an hour’s drive by van or tuk-tuk. The main items on our agenda were Angkor Wat and neighboring Angkor Thom. These tours took two and a half days, and although the temples started to look alike by the second day, they were all mesmerizing.

Of note during these visits is how well the government is managing the carrying capacities of each site. Over two and a half million visitors come to Angkor, but visits to temples are controlled by strict ticketing. The hefty fees of US$ 37 for a day’s pass, to $62 for a three-day pass ensure that the park’s administration have more than enough funds to maintain the heritage site.  We got the three-day pass for the temples but interspersed these temple tours with cultural side trips.

Miss Wong’s is a recommended nightspot in the Pub Street district.

We recommend the Siem Reap food tour, which we did on the third day. We started from breakfast at the Siem Reap old market, to lunch in a village just outside Angkor Wat. In between we had snacks of local treats along the road. On the third evening we went to Phare, the Cambodian Circus, a quirky collage of acrobatics mixed with historic and social messages. The next evening we went to a shadow-puppet show and dinner at a venue not far from popular Pub Street, which we frequented all throughout our trip.

The National Museum is also a must-visit, although its best to spend at least three hours there to get your money’s worth. The museum is near the old colonial section of Siem Reap and it’s not difficult to see the French influence in both the architecture of the buildings as well as the street patterns, landscape, and parks.

Siem Reap also has an emerging district, Kandal Village, which is like Makati’s Poblacion. Located in the old French Quarter, there are better choices here for world food, non-touristy souvenirs, and less commercial nightlife compared to Pub Street. Mamma Restaurant in the village was our favorite for the city’s best Italian pasta and pizza. Local fare was available everywhere and the street food is as phantasmagorical as ours.

The Metta resort is organized around an inviting pool with individual lounge pavilions.

All in all, our Siem Reap stay was just right in terms of duration and scope. I wish I had read up more on the architectural and social history before visiting. Indochinese culture is as varied as any across the four countries that call themselves neighbors there. We would not mind getting more of Cambodian culture. Maybe Phnom Penh is next.

* * *

Feedback is welcome. Please email the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.

Erratum: In my article last week “10-Month Challenge,” which featured the Philippine Yearbook 2019, the name of the founder of the iconic publication is not Go Bieng Un, but Go Puan Seng, the father of Betty Go Belmonte, founder of The Philippine STAR, and Grace Glory Go, who, with her son Vernon Go, are the driving force behind the Philippine Yearbook.

Pub Street at night is the place to be in Siem Reap.

CAMBODIA SIEM REAP
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