Competitors preparing for the race down the river

Siem Reap: Angkor What?

Dec 6, 2014 - Carlos

Siem Reap is the gateway city to the world-famous Angkor Archaeological Park. From Kampot (southern Cambodia), we first bused back to Phnom Penh (central Cambodia), before transferring to another bus to Siem Reap (northwest Cambodia). The entire trip was a grueling 12 hours on the bus, with an hour for lunch. Not particularly recommended, but it was a necessary evil.

Even though we spent most of our time in the Angkor Archaeological Park itself, we also made sure to explore Siem Reap, which was a fun city in and of itself.

Pub Street

If you were expecting a post on Angkor Wat from the title, you couldn’t be more wrong. Angkor What? was actually a bar and club in the infamous Pub Street in Siem Reap. This street was by far the best place to go at night for its contagious fun atmosphere. From people getting wasted with cocktail buckets to dance-offs on the street involving both locals and foreigners, Pub Street was a fun place for both partygoers and people-watchers.

Pub Street
Pub Street

The deafening loud music from the multiple clubs on Pub Street start in the early evening and continue all the way until sunrise. This street is responsible for creating many drunk stories for a lot of travelers. It was a great place to party! If you are in Siem Reap, definitely hit up Pub Street at some point to take a break from all the temples in the area.

Water Festival

The Water Festival is a national celebration in Cambodia that commemorates the end of the rainy season and the Tonle Sap River reversing its flow. After a 3-year hiatus due to an incident that led to the death of more than 300 people, the most magnificent festival in Cambodia is back and we were here for it! The Water Festival was a tradition started in the 12th century, during the reign of King Jayavarman VII in the Angkor period, to train the army for naval battles.

Siem Reap River during the water festival
Siem Reap River during the water festival

This tradition is eternally engraved on the walls of Angkor temples, showing many battles between the Khmer people and the Chams. It is impressive that they could keep this tradition for almost a thousand years! The festival consisted of three intense days of dragon boat races, where people from all over the country, even the more remote provinces, come to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap to compete. Winning such a competition is a great honor.

Stalls at the water festival in Siem Reap
Stalls at the water festival in Siem Reap

The streets were closed for cars and motorbikes. The sides of the river were packed with countless people. The introductory announcements were made. Soon after the dragon boats started rowing up the river and lined up to race in pairs. As each pair of boats made its way down the river to where we stood near the finish line, the crowd cheered loudly. It was very exciting and fun to watch.

Competitors preparing for the race down the river
Competitors preparing for the race down the river

The funniest part was when one of the boats, already pretty close to the finish line, suddenly sunk while still moving, with all of its 30 people inside. Both Julie and I, as well as the rest of the crowd, burst into laughter. It looked like one of the scenes where the Black Pearl from Pirates of the Caribbean goes back into water. Except a smaller and crowded version of that

Sunken boat with crew
Sunken boat with crew

We were pleasantly surprised that we could experience Cambodia’s biggest festival as we had not expected this to overlap with our stay. Siem Reap was a great stay for us, not only as a base for Angkor, but an enjoyable city in its own right.

For more pictures of Siem Reap, please visit the gallery!