SINGAPORE, June 15 — Taking a short break on a shoestring budget to a neighbouring country is popular among Singaporean travellers, especially with the numerous air routes and flight frequencies of budget airlines.
On top of the appeal of cheap food and shopping, some destinations, such Siem Reap in Cambodia, also offer deep cultural experiences. A recent trip to this ancient city left me with a newfound appreciation for the ancient Khmer empire that flourished there from the ninth to the 15th century, a civilisation once considered the most advanced of its time.
Forget the two-night weekend jaunt where you jostle with the crowds to climb the steep steps of the ruins, and then trawl the busy markets the rest of the time for cheap buys. Instead, book yourself a three-night trip departing on Thursday evening, and do not stint on a guided temple tour to get a good introduction to Siem Reap.
For a bit of pampering, I stayed at Anantara Angkor which offers a package for guests who want to take a temple trail. A guide, Im Thong Han, met me for a sunrise tour of Angkor Wat. We set off at 5am with a breakfast basket. An experienced temple guide knows how to bypass the queues, for example by entering through the right gate, and the route to take to avoid the crowds.
The ruins of the 100-plus temples in the whole Angkor Archaeological Park complex, which spans 400 sq km, are testament to Cambodia’s rich history. My guide, Han, tells of a time where the king and his consorts, army, and even the apsaras (Khmer dancers) lived in the kingdom, as depicted by the figures that line the walls of the temples.
At Ta Prohm, also known as the “Tomb Raider temple” where the Angelina Jolie movie was filmed, Han points out a face carving hidden by the tree roots. The sunrays streaming down through the foliage at midday cast a greenish glow over the temple, which was built in 1186AD and is now overrun by giant, centuries-old trees. With many of its bas-reliefs covered with moss and strangled by roots, it is a picture of raw beauty.
We also visited Bayon Temple, which has a total of 216 faces of Bodhisattva carved on the surfaces of all the stupas. “I don’t want to see my favourite temple overrun with people,” said Han, so we visited at lunchtime.
A relatively new attraction is the Panorama Museum (an additional US$20/S$28), which opened in 2015 and houses a panoramic mural that is 120m long and 13m high, and depicts the history of the Khmer empire. We also watched a video on the construction of Angkor Wat.
Upon returning to my hotel, I took a dip in the central courtyard swimming pool, which was inspired by ancient royal bathing pools in Angkor Wat and is partially sheltered by the hanging boughs of frangipani trees, before treating myself to a massage that lulled me to sleep in minutes.
Although some people might argue that the best way to experience the local food is at the markets, I was not confident that I could stomach street food, and since there are many restaurant options that still offer fare at a fraction of Singapore’s prices, I opted for the latter.
Using the free tuktuk service, I visited Cuisine Wat Damnak, a restaurant that serves Cambodian cuisine with a French twist (it is owned by a French couple). Incidentally, Cuisine Wat Damnak made it to last year’s Asia’s Best 50 Restaurants list. Here, I enjoyed a six-course dinner for US$31 (RM132), finishing every bit of the satisfying Sanday Fish sour curry, which is served with rice.
And Miss Wong, a few minutes’ walk away from crowded Pub Street, is the perfect watering hole. The owner, Dean Williams, is a fan of Hong Kong film-maker Wong Kar Wai, and has designed the bar to look like the movie set of In the Mood for Love with its red lanterns, scarlet walls, and portraits of Shanghainese songstresses. The vodka and gin infusions here are poured with a heavy hand, and go straight to the head.
If you wish to buy souvenirs, drop by Artisans Angkor, which stocks arguably the best-quality Cambodian handicrafts such as ceramics, silk clothing and art. To buy more practical stuff and enjoy a cuppa, head to Kandal Village, a nexus of boho chic.
Also known as Hap Guan Street, this brightly coloured, tree-lined block features merchants offering everything from cool clothes to hip homeware. Drop by Saarti for heavenly smelling organic toiletries made from ethically sourced ingredients.
Two shops away is the Little Red Fox Espresso, where you can enjoy a robust brew and have your fortune told by palmist Dennis Gillman, who has travelled around Asia plying his trade. Throughout my afternoon, tourists, expats and locals dropped by, chatting with strangers easily. The spirit was convivial and casual — the ingredients for a relaxing Saturday, and the perfect end to a getaway. — TODAY