It would appear that south-east Asia’s largest freshwater lake doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going.
The town this lake is accessed from — Siem Reap — is essentially famous for being the gateway to the temples of Angkor. But with more than three million people living on or around the lake in floating villages, the Tonlé Sap is a stand-out attraction in its own right. The lake is home to many ethnic Vietnamese who have emigrated to Cambodia over the past 50 to 100 years. Despite some tensions between this minority group and the local Cambodians, it’s a popular tourist stop off.
Cruising along in an old wooden boat with an equally ageing motor, I observed the locals going about their daily lives in their simple shacks, constructed from bamboo and sitting on mostly submerged stilts. Women sat on the front veranda mending fish nets; men worked on their boats and children played happily nearby.
I found this sobering reality something of a contrast with the sprawling opulence of Angkor Wat, which I visited one morning. Around 6am I found myself sitting on a rock in front of this magnificent edifice, its silhouette etched against the inky blue sky. As the sun scaled the horizon the intricate designs of this temple, once the centre of the Khmer civilization, came into full view.
A Hindu temple, Angkor Wat is regarded as the supreme masterpiece of Khmer architecture, with its elaborate bas-relief carvings illustrating scenes such as heaven and hell and the creation of the earth.
When in Siem Reap, it’s pretty much a fait accomplish that you will get ‘templed out’, but the good news is there are lots to choose from. The temples of Angkor, which are spread out some 65km around Siem Reap, were constructed between the eighth and thirteenth centuries.
One of the most captivating is the small, pink-hued Banteay Srei, a 10th century sandstone Hindu temple. Another standout is Angkor Thom, the last and most enduring capital city of the Angkorian empire. Each of its grand gates features four giant smiling faces.
A great deal of restoration work has been done and continues to be done on many of the temples around Siem Reap, initially led by the French and later taken on by international agency UNESCO.
Siem Reap has evolved dramatically since the early 1900s, when the French rediscovered the city of Angkor after it had lain abandoned for centuries. Those planning a visit to this northern Cambodian town may be surprised to learn that it’s a pretty cosmopolitan place when it comes to wining and dining. The aptly named Bar Street is where many of these outfits are located. There are also a number of more socially conscious places to dine and shop, the profits from which are put back into local education and health.
When staying in Siem Reap, the night markets are a definite must-visit. Tourists spent a good few hours here, even opting for a fish massage, which involved dangling my feet in a spa while small fish nibbled away at my dead skin cells. It’s not for everyone, but every trip should include a few spontaneous experiences. Adventure travel, whether it’s extreme or soft, is in the end about having new and exciting experiences. For almost tourists, the town of Siem Reap provided that in spades.