Siem Reap Beyond the Temples
The only reason Siem Reap exists is because of Angkor, but there's so much more to do besides wandering through ruins (like admiring my '80s movie inspired headings!)
For the only reason that it’ll be fun, I have decided to make all subheadings the names of famous 1980s movies. Check them off as you go, then go and check them out online!
Okay, this 1986 classic starring Matthew Broderick as a high-school senior who skips class for a day has little do with fairgrounds, but the word ‘ferris’ alone makes it a good enough lead in for the Angkor Eye, the 85-meter high Ferris wheel that dominates the skyline a few kilometers northwest of Siem Reap. The only one of its type in Cambodia (Phnom Penh is missing out here, imagine a huge wheel at the junction of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers), a full twirl of the Japanese-built attraction takes more than 15 minutes in one of their 48 aircon-cooled cabins. This gives you plenty of time to get your bearings and search out the distant towers of Angkor Wat, though sadly you’re not able to spy the ancient temple even from the uppermost elevation. What you can usually see, however, is the Angkor Balloon, rising slowly over the distant jungle.
If you had to pick one out of the two movies, I’d recommend watching ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’, but in terms of a way to get above it all in Siem Reap, there’s no question that the Angkor Balloon is the superior attraction to the Angkor Eye (though by all means try both if you have time). Located just 800 meters from Angkor Wat, this tethered hot air ballon rises 120 meters into the air, with the circular gantry providing 360 degree views of the ruins, city, and even the airport (though you’d be lucky to see many flights arriving currently). A friendly uniform-wearing ‘captain’ helms a control panel full of brightly colored buttons (I’m obviously easily impressed), and takes you up in a slow controlled ascent. He then gives visitors 10 minutes (we had slightly longer, due to the lack of other tourists) to take in the amazing views and snap as many selfies as you can.
Sure you could hit the links at one of the immaculately manicured 18 hole golf courses that surround Siem Reap, but for sheer high jinks and comedy value, you need to get in a round at Angkor Wat Putt. This 14 hole mini golf course (it is uncertain why it’s 14 holes, but that just adds to its quirky nature) is on the outskirts of town - so far out in fact, that it faces onto rice fields. At first impression it doesn’t seem like much, though through the red brick temple theme you take on a mixture of tricky tunnel, bridge, wall bounce and elevated shots, while one Angkor Wat-inspired hole even puts a moat in the way. While there’s not a windmill or clown in sight, the course is surprisingly difficult, and might even keep Chevy Chase challenged for the hour it takes to finish a round. Of note - if you manage to score a hole in one, the owner gives you a free beer.
More than 30 years ago, Wayne Szalinski (Rick Moranis) invented a shrinking ray and reduced his offspring to the size of peanuts. At some point or other, all parents have probably wished they had this tool at their disposal, but also appreciated the amazing moments that come from being a dad or mum. Which is all a very long-winded way of introducing the Angkor Zipline, a fantastic attraction located within the Angkor Park itself, where the trials and tribulations of parenthood are put into perspective (there’s the obtuse link, geddit?). If you’re coming this far, you may as well sign up for the Gold tour, which takes more than 2 hours, and includes eight single ziplines, a double one where you get to soar through the treetops at the same time, walk along skybridges, and finish with an abseil. Safety, as you’d hope with children involved, is excellent.
In 1986, a massively bewigged David Bowie stepped forward as the Goblin King in the Labyrinth, a $25 million film that was a massive flop at the time. Putting aside critical considerations, the name and central theme of the movie (finding the way through a treacherous maze in order to rescue a life) also provides a fitting lead in to the worthy work of Apopo. A global organization with current operations across Asia, Africa and South America, they use trained rats to safely smell out landmines (they’re too light to set them off), in previously war torn countries. In Cambodia, the border zones are the worst afflicted - the Khmer Rouge alone laid millions, to keep people out and in - and people still lose their lives on a regular basis. At this visitor centre in Siem Reap, you get the chance to see these remarkable animals in action, and support a great cause.
Despite being possibly one of the greatest of all ‘80s movies, this tale of troubled teens who spend the morning at school in detention actually has little to do with eating, but I’ll nevertheless use it to introduce one of Siem Reap’s best places to grab a morning bite, Little Red Fox Espresso. Owned by Australian couple David and Adam, this fantastic little cafe sits in the heart of Kandal Village (in itself a great destination for boutique shops and other great restaurants), serving up health-orientated bagels and salads, alongside local noodles, delicious brownies, and a full range of smoothies. Oh, and there’s coffee too (of course there is, it’s amazing! I’m a big fan of the oversized flat white). That said, I have one gripe - the cafe has an amazing selection of vintage vinyl LPs but rarely seems to play them. Perhaps fire up the turntable once in a while guys?
Okay, so the more eagle-eyed among you will realize that this romantic blockbuster was released in 1990, but it’s fair to say it was made in the ‘80s (at least, that’s what I’m sticking with). So if you’ve seen it, what’s the most memorable moment? Yes, that’s right, when a shirtless Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore work a pottery wheel together to the sound of ‘Unchained Melody’ by the Righteous Brothers. Now, you’re not going to get all hot and heavy at the Khmer Ceramics pottery workshop in Siem Reap (well, hot maybe - Cambodia is a humid country), but you will get the chance to try your hand at this ancient art form, which is not nearly as easy as it looks. Classes are led by talented local artisans, many of whom are deaf. Your finished pieces will be glazed and mailed to you later, but you can always buy a souvenir on the day from the onsite shop.
Based on a story by Steven Spielberg, The Goonies tells the tale of a group of kids who go searching for lost treasure in order to save their homes from foreclosure. At times both scary and thrilling, the hunt for the hidden loot of legendary 17th century pirate One-Eyed Willy is possibly one of the best adventure movies of the ‘80s. Now, while I can’t promise quite the same escapades at Antique Cambodia, this warehouse made of shipping containers contains a wealth of amazing period pieces, mostly sourced from villages in the northwest of the country. The owner, San Kimhong, fell in love with ghetto blasters as a youngster, and continued to collect them as he grew up. He now possesses possibly the kingdom’s largest collection, as well as thousands of records, assorted turntables, clocks and a few period Land Rovers - some in working order.
Have I missed out any cool attractions in Siem Reap? Leave a comment below.