Ruins attract us. They can take different forms, shapes, and sizes. A person. An abandoned home. Or a befallen empire. The triumph of Siem Reap, which means Siam “Defeated,” pun intended, as a destination, is its destruction brushed with mysticism. Tree roots crawled and claimed spaces that were originally theirs.
I could not blame tourists huddling in the archaeological park. It is a place warped, wrapped in its oldness, peopled by urbanites in their smartphones, selfie sticks, and digital cameras.
So visiting this place can be uncreative and unimaginative. Just follow the crowd, and you get what everyone gets. Everything is laid before one. Hop on a tuktuk. Drop off at Point A. Take some shots and selfies. Hop on the tuktuk again. Drop off at Point B. It is a cycle of hop on and hop off. Everyone, it seems like, knows the secret places for a sacred moment.
No magical experience in an otherwise naturally magical place.
I don’t want to be like everyone.
What I did do: I precisely ditched the usual outsider’s narrative of this place.
I rented an e-bike.
But the problem is I don’t know how to drive one. So this pursuit of something new and extraordinary (I’m pretty sure it is not extraordinary for many) actually caused some unnecessary troubles for me. I almost scraped my knee. I almost tripped over and exposed my undies to the passing crowd. For example. I almost crashed onto a tree. But I managed.
The e-bike was fully automatic—faster than a bicycle, slower than a scooter. The silent humming of the machine on a well-paved road eventually soothed my troubled nerves.
The pursuit of this calculated risk is my answer to visiting overly popular places like Siem Reap.
To see it from a different perspective. To bring a different layer. I let my lostness, naivety, and courage to lead me. I stopped whenever, wherever I wanted. To rush was not an option.
A tuktuk driver could not possibly understand why I wanted to drop off in the middle of the woods.
How could one explain to him that I lived in ephemeral moments—the light passing through the interstices of the dense forest. That such moment is ever-passing that there is a need to stop and bask in the simplicity of such moment. That this moment—a marriage of silence, light, and trees—is a temple in itself.
In love with my spacious and creative room in Urban Boutique Hotel and Resort, I only intended to have dinner in the nearby Night Market and head back to my room to finish reading the novel of the week. To assuage the temptation of buying anything quaint and quirky from the market, I did not bring anything except a camera and $10. No bags. No wallet. Eat dinner. Beer. People-watch. Another beer. And head back to the hotel. That was the plan.
Siem Reap’s night market is huge, peopled in some streets, quiet in some. Yet it must be serendipitous to meet the same petite girl from the coach ride from Battambang. She asked around for tissue; I gave a sheet from my bulky packet of wet tissue I just bought from the gas store.
Her name is Rafa, short for Rafaelle. She was looking for the particular store where she wanted to buy a vibrant floral tote and wrap-around pants.
In the middle of her energetic exchange with the vendor, she told me I sucked at haggling. And I thought I was good at it. I have to admit she championed haggling. She managed to get two wrap-around pants for the price of one.
She was a darling; and together, we crossed the bridge past Pub Street to have a good meal at Brothers’ Restaurant. A crowd of locals and foreigners bantered in the next table. They wanted to have a group photo, but someone had to take it. I volunteered. They invited us to join them, and we gladly moved our butts to the next table. The tuktuk drivers with young white girlfriends drove us to a small bar I misheard as Yellow Bar. Yolo Bar was indeed the places of the believers of you only live once.
And that’s how I got a first-hand experience of the mad party culture in Siem Reap.
Boring and old, I never considered myself a party animal. I sometimes dragged friends to Mango Avenue in Cebu for some beer and pizza so I could people-watch in peace without an old foreigner mistaking me for a babe of the night.
To dance while sipping beer from a bucket in a small alleyway was a new world to me. Locals and foreigners alike went mad on the dance floor or should I say, rough road. Two hours or so, two girls kissed, two guys kissed. A couple kissed. Some were desperate to find a hook up and used the same dab move to all girls in the disco.
Spent their energy on the dance floor, some moped in the corner, their elbow leaned against the table, looking forlorn and alone in the midst of the crowd.
Four bars, five buckets of beer and three glasses of mojito after, a European approached and asked me, “So tell me, are you a ladyboy?”
SIEM REAP TRAVEL GUIDE
Explore Angkor Wat Archeological Park
Well, there is one thing that most tourists do in Siem Reap. That is, visit the Angkor Wat Temple Complex.
WARNING: Angkor Way Temple Complex’s entrance fee has almost doubled. By March 2017, a one-day pass to Angkor Wat Archeological Park now costs $37. A three-day pass now costs $62 from $40. A seven-day pass $72 from $60.
If you buy your ticket past 5PM, you are allowed entry to Angkor Wat Temple Complex with your one-day pass for the following day. Sunset and sunrise lovers huddle at Angkor Wat. If you are into photography, find your spot before someone else grabs it.
IN BUYING YOUR PASS
You can’t get the pass anywhere else but the Angkor Conservation Area ticket booth on Charles de Gaulle road. It is about a twenty-minute ride from the center. It needs your presence because your pass bears your face. It functions as your ID in the archaeological park. Nobody else can buy your pass for you. The line in the morning can be very long. But the staff are very efficient. So the line moves up fast.
Again, as I said, buying your ticket around 4-5PM is a great option. The line won’t be long, plus you can enter the archaeological park on that day and the following day.
How to go around Angkor Wat Temple Complex?
By Ovelocity e-bike.
I was traveling solo, and I wanted to follow my own instinct in navigating around a massive place. So I traveled using an Ovelocity e-bike. I’m a passenger kind of traveler. I never had any experiences with e-bikes, which is a slower version of scooters really. Definitely did not feel like a bicycle. It was nerve-wrecking at first, but I eventually got the hang of it. I enjoyed it a lot, and I visited a lot of small temples along the way.
Renting a motorbike in Siem Reap can be a bit tricky. But there are still places you can rent. On my second visit to Siem Reap (now with my partner), we rented a motorbike for $15 a day. It was too expensive! But Siem Reap is the most expensive city of Cambodia, so we sucked it up.
This is the most popular option for a day tour around the ruins. It has some advantages. The drivers know the popular places where throngs of tourists visit, but you don’t really have the freedom to explore the place on your own.
Shop at Night Market. Or Simply Walk Around
Trinkets, souvenirs, clothes, paintings, bags, and anything tourists may find buyable are here. It is a big place, and it can drain your fund if you don’t watch your spending habits.
Party at Pub Street
Siem Reap, a popular tourist destination, has evolved into a party city. Befriend locals or other easygoing travelers, and I’m sure you’re going to have a blast.
Where to Stay at Siem Reap
Secrets Pavilion Urban Boutique Hotel
Address: 120, Angkor Night Market St, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Phone: +855 87 966 789
I got a deluxe double room. I got too kilig (like a good kind of giddy) with my room that I loved staying inside as much I loved exploring around. What to expect in the room? A spacious private bathroom equipped with a hot-and-cold rainforest shower. Mine had a divan (sofa bed) and a table with asymmetrical legs. This place also serves not only complimentary but also healthy breakfast. It is a secret sanctuary amidst the bustles of Siem Reap. Despite the nearness of the night market, the noise could not be heard at all. After a whole-day affair of going round and about, travelers like me love to have a sanctuary, some solitude away from cosmopolitan noise.
If you are looking for a more updated Cambodia Travel Guide, don’t forget to check out my travel guide.
ABOUT THE WRITER | Jona Branzuela Bering, Palanca awardee and author of the poetry collection, Alang sa Nasaag (For the Lost), blogs at Backpacking with a Book. She left her beautiful life in Cebu to pursue her goal of traveling long-term abroad. Follow her on Instagram: @backpackingwithabook