Jane Archer steps ashore at this gateway to ancient Asia – a heady blend of time-worn and contemporary.
Chances are no one outside Cambodia would ever have heard of the town of Siem Reap were it not for one thing: that it is the gateway to Angkor, the capital of the Khmer Empire some 1,200 years ago and home to a complex of iconic temples – some part-reclaimed by the jungle.
Some 2.5 million people a year visit the temples, making them the biggest visitor attraction in Cambodia and, by default, making Siem Reap the country’s largest tourist destination. As a result, it is well served by local flights feeding from international hubs such as Bangkok and Singapore and has a plentiful supply of hotels to suit all budgets.
Several thousand visitors each year are cruise passengers who are in town as part of a package pairing a few nights in Siem Reap with a voyage along the Mekong River through Cambodia and Vietnam. A handful will even have come from ocean ships, on overnight tours from port calls in Sihanoukville and Ho Chi Minh City with lines including Silversea and Holland America Line.
Siem Reap is in north-west Cambodia, at the western end of the Tonlé Sap Lake, a large body of water that is home to floating villages and which feeds into the Tonlé Sap River, which then flows into the Mekong near Phnom Penh, the country’s capital.
It means river ships sailing the Mekong could, in theory, cruise all the way to Siem Reap; in practice, CroisiEurope is one of very few companies to do so because, in the dry season, from November to May, the lake is so shallow that even local sightseeing boats can get stuck in the mud (CroisiEurope transfers passengers by either speedboat or coach when the water is too low).
Instead, most lines start and end cruises in Prek Kdam or Kampong Cham, where the lake meets the Tonlé Sap River. It’s a four-hour drive from Siem Reap, and a testing route for drivers, who have to weave around motorbikes, ox-carts, people and potholes. For passengers, however, it’s a fascinating glimpse of life in Cambodia.
There is generally at least one stop en route so folk can stretch their legs, and those feeling brave can try local delicacies such as KFC (Khmer fried cricket) and deep-fried tarantulas.
Most people visiting Siem Reap will make a beeline for the temple of Angkor Wat. Built for King Suryavarman II in the 12th century, it is said to be the biggest religious building in the world and took some 30 years to complete, which is easy to believe when you look at the sheer number and delicacy of the carvings covering all its walls.
Those in Siem Reap as part of their river cruise package will be treated to included tours of Angkor Wat (those travelling with Scenic and APT will be roused before dawn so they can join the throngs of tourists who get there early to watch the sun rise over the temple), as well as trips to several of the other temples in Angkor.
Bayon, built in the late 1100s by King Jayavarman VII, is a spectacular temple comprised of 54 towers decorated with giant smiling faces that many believe represent the King. The temple is in Angkor Thom, the last city of the Khmer Empire, about a mile north of Angkor Wat. Highlights include the Terrace of Elephants, a walkway lined with stone carvings said to depict a famous battle in Khmer history, and Terrace of the Leper King.
Ta Prohm, which also dates back to the 1100s, is unusual because it has been left largely untouched since it, and the other Angkor temples, were rediscovered. Large trees are both holding up and pulling down the walls, giving it a rather atmospheric feel.
Pretty Banteay Srei, meaning Citadel of Women, is a Hindu temple situated about 20 miles from Siem Reap and built from red sandstone with delicate carvings of the gods Shiva and Vishnu.
To avoid temple fatigue setting in, river cruise lines offer passengers plenty of other activities during their stay in Siem Reap. Viking takes passengers to an elementary school it sponsors, while Scenic has tours to local workshops and the Landmine Museum, as well as tuk-tuk rides to a market and a bird’s-eye view of the area from a tethered balloon. Emerald Waterways offers a culinary tour in Siem Reap.
Come evening, there are local Apsara dance shows or trips to the Phare, or Cambodian Circus, where there’s music, dance, acrobatics and juggling. APT additionally treats passengers to dinner in a choice of local restaurants.