This is a long overdue post about the last family trip we did in Asia. It was a privilege to visit the beautiful Siem Reap. We found the town still quite untouched (you know what I mean!) – nice not to see Burger King, McDonald’s or Starbucks in every corner. I felt like we were traveling back in time, maybe to the late 70’s. The atmosphere reminded me a bit of when I lived in Africa with the relaxed way of life and the surroundings that seemed familiar.
We were touched by the kindness of people there, absolutely everyone was a gem. I was also a bit moved by the country’s history. By no means am I an expert, but it made me question what I had read back in the history books at school, in my french upbringing… I am now reading ‘First they killed my father’ by Loung Ung. It is by no means a Christmas season read, but it is, sadly, still of actuality in its own right.
Where to stay in Siem Reap
We traveled to Siem Reap with Air Asia and were picked up by our boutique hotel, Maison 557. From start to finish, the hotel was flawless. I picked it because we are not big hotels type of people and prefer to travel responsibly. I sensed that we would not only enjoy our three nights there, but could also learn something of the life in Cambodia. I wasn’t wrong.
Maison 557 supports the local economy by shopping at the local market and sourcing produce from local suppliers. The garden is watered from a well within their premises and they refer clients to services that provide maximum economic impact to the local community. The friendly Scottish owner Jeff was very accommodating, and his love for the people and country of Cambodia is obvious. We really enjoyed chatting with him and finding out more about the place he had decided to call his home.
The breakfast at Maison 557 is out of this world. Everything is locally made (oh the pastries!) and absolutely delicious! There is plenty of fruits, and the coffee is excellent!
In our room we found books to help us with our stay – not the standard tourist leaflets, but an actual book, filled with photographs of the people who work at the hotel and a bit about them, which I thought was a lovely touch. There were handpicked recommendations of where to eat, what to do, where to see the sunrise from, where to buy souvenirs responsibly and beautiful photographs to go with it all. There were also history books about Cambodia’s recent -and to me unknown- history that I devoured. I was lucky to be offered one by Jeff upon my leaving with absolutely stunning and powerful photographs of Cambodian years of turmoil during the 70’s, by journalist and photographer Roland Neveu.
The generosity and friendliness of the staff was heartwarming and gave a true picture of the people of Cambodia. We felt welcomed everywhere we went! The hotel provided us with a tuk-tuk and its driver, Mr T, a friendly and proud grandfather who spoke French with me the entire time to practice. He took us everywhere we needed to, at whatever time we needed to.
On the first day, as we had just landed, we preferred to save the temples for our full days so we visited Les Artisans d’Angkor, an organisation providing education and jobs for the local communities. At the same time it has grown to be an expert centre for revival of Khmer art, with painting, carving, lacquering etc. This is where we bought our souvenirs from.
With two children under the age of 6 in tow, we stuck to three temples: Angkor Wat on one day and Bayon and Angkor Thom on another. All of them had their own magnificent particularities.
In Angkor Wat you have the opportunity to go inside one of the temples but you’ll need long trousers to get in (which we didn’t have) and you also may need to queue for quite a while. I am sure it is worth it but I’d recommend going there early if you wish to do this bit.
Maison 557 had a swimming pool that we enjoyed the rest of the time, or walking around town. It was very hot in June, so plan ahead with plenty of water to keep hydrated. If you haven’t been, you can’t imagine the temples, their imposing, striking features, the intricate details, the strength, the beauty of it all! It is absolutely breathtaking!
My husband took our 6-year old to Phare, the Cambodian Circus, which was wonderful. This is another opportunity to support a local enterprise that provides employment to Cambodian youth from difficult social and economic backgrounds. This social enterprise supports the Phare Ponleu Selpak NGO school, and contributes to the rebirth of Cambodian modern art. My little girl could not stop talking about it, it is an amazing experience!
One morning I got up at 5 to watch the sunrise from Baking mountain. I didn’t want to go to Angkor Wat for sunrise because I didn’t want to go where everyone was. Sure, the image of the temple with its reflection on the pond would be a “must have” shot but I fancied a quiet place, a good view and a true experience. I didn’t regret it. We were three people up there, and the couple who was there with me actually left before sunrise actually happened, maybe they got impatient and didn’t think it was worth the little walk up we had done. But to me, it was worth it, and I had it all to myself! The light was stunning and it was a long time since I had last seen the sun rising without also feeding a baby or fulfilling another motherly duty at the same time. Seeing the countryside around and below awakening was magnificent to witness.
These are the places we ate at (all in walking distance from Maison 557) and we really recommend:
- Book leaf café: a beautiful lunch spot. This was a favourite. A social enterprise where you drink comes with a bamboo straw, you take away your food in a cute newspaper and hand made bag, where you can buy books, handmade towels, bags etc… with your donations contributing to local organisations such as www.pepycambodia.org, www.thislifecambodia.org, and www.seebeyondborders.org.
- Chanrey Tree for dinner. Gorgeous people, gorgeous food, gorgeous service, gorgeous location, gorgeous wine. Enough said.
- The Hive: another fantastic and relaxed lunch spot.
We completely fell in love with Siem Reap, our stay at Maison 557 was a dream and we felt like we had one of the best holidays we’ve ever had. I hope to visit again, most probably the capital would be our next stop. This year, we will visit Hoi An in Viet Nam, so I’ll be back for a post!