Downtown Siem Reap is dusty, hot, traffic-clogged and as ideally suited for a walk as a rubber-ducky is for lunch. It may look like there’s potential, but you’ll soon be sorry you ever started. Willing walkers often try the circuit on the south river, striking out from the bridge at Old Market up to the bridge on Route 6 and back down the other side again. It’s cool under the trees, the one-way system means you’re not much in the way of traffic, and it’s pretty. On the other hand, you could almost be anywhere on this route. There’s not a great deal that makes it stand out as distinctly Cambodia.
A more interesting suggestion is to start at the bridge where Route 6 crosses the Siem Reap River, and then head north. Here you’ll find local markets and businesses, pagodas, riverside houses on stilts, a quirky hotel quarter, the home of French archaeological study in Cambodia, and even a free Angkor-era temple. You don’t need anything except comfortable shoes, a few dollars for drinks/snacks and your camera.
Starting on the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor side of the Route 6 bridge (number one of five during this exploration), you’ll walk through the genteel Raffles Riverside Gardens before getting to the next bridge (number two). They sometimes hold exhibitions in the gardens here, so keep an eye out.
Passing the second bridge, the tree cover thickens overhead and the temperature drop is just delicious. On your left hand side is the back wall of The Amansara, one of the most exclusive hotels in Siem Reap and a former residence of the King Father, Sihanouk.
On the right, you’ll notice the reason why the Siem Reap River looks so wonderfully litter-free on the town-side. Things are not quite so sweet after you pass this barrier.
Difficult to reconcile with the steady abundance only a mile or two down the road, the first stilted, patchwork houses emerge. Incredibly, the section after narrow, metal bridge number three was burned to the ground only a few months ago in a late night fire. Fortunately, no-one was killed, and the new structures went back up in double-quick time (the residents may have been fearful of losing their right to stay there, or their right to be compensated when the authorities finally relocate them, as seems inevitable). The trees still bear scorch marks from that night.
Further along you’ll arrive at the lively local markets. Clothes, furnishings, housewares, food, repairs, laundry, lunch, almost all daily needs are met here by the streetside vendors and a small covered market. As you walk on, you’ll pass bridge number four, guarded at each end by two nagas. Nagas are thought to protect water sources, bringing rain and thus fertility, though it would seem they got rather carried away with their job last September. Looking up the river, you’ll see broken trees and pulverised banks, part of the legacy of the floods.
The next section is where you’ll find a group of three interesting hotels: The RiverGarden, a tropical, jungle hide-away, with great food; 1961, eccentric, creative, inspiring, always surprising, and; La Villa Loti, a peaceful garden hotel, whose chef is very proud of their Thai food.
On the right hand side, you’ll see a neat little children’s play area that might not be completely lethal, and shortly after that some “art” that might not be quite Turner Prize ready yet. But who knows, they might have a really quiet year sometime.
About 150 metres past here, you’ll get to bridge number five, the turn-around point. On the other side is Wat Preah Enkosei. Wandering into the pagoda grounds, behind the main building you’ll find the remains of a tenth century temple, Prasat Enkosei. There’s not a lot left, but what is there is remarkable for the carved reliefs on the lintels.
Going back out on to the road, you’ll wander past more riverside houses, another pagoda (at the naga bridge), and the Ecôle Français d’Extrême Orient. Over more than a century, the dedication and hard work of this organisation’s representatives account for so much of what we know about Angkor today, and are continuing to learn. There is a certain romance in imagining them striking out to jungled Angkorian temples, with little in the way of protection, roads, transport, medicine, insurance or any of the things we take for granted today. Not even a decent cappuccino!
You’ll have noticed by now that there are tons of dogs. As a general rule, they’ll leave you alone if you leave them alone. Don’t walk too close, don’t try to make friends. If one does start to get menacing, remember that it’s mostly for show — they don’t really want to fight; they’re just making a point. Simply walk calmly away without making eye contact and that is, in my experience, the end of it. There are lots of locals about, and they will likely step in to help if this isn’t working.
You’ll be coming back down now to the metal bridge, number three. I’ve no idea why, but there’s something incredibly romantic about metal bridges, even this one that looks more than ready for the scrapheap. Now the road opens up and the trees start to thin out along here as the riverside shanties give way to trimmed river banks. You can either continue down, and dive into a delicious, refreshing lime soda at Rosy Guesthouse, or take a detour to Dy Proung’s Miniature Angkor Wat (follow the sign).
The walk should take an hour to an hour and a half, depending upon your pace. The slower, the better. Early in the morning or after 17:00 are the best times, because of the cooler temperatures, and better light for photos. However, the road can get busy after 17:30, though never oppressively. This is Cambodia, after all.