A 15-minute stroll north from the Old Market, along the shady west bank of the Siem Reap River, with its ornate stone streetlamps and hotch-potch of animal and religious sculptures, leads you to The Royal Gardens, the Siem Reap city centre’s only open public green space. It is an area that provides visitors with a restful antidote to the dusty streets of downtown, and a handful of free attractions to help you while away a couple of lazy hours if you are lucky enough to be spending more than the requisite three days in Siem Reap.
The peaceful Royal Gardens consists of The River Garden and the rather grandiose-sounding Royal Crusade for Independence Gardens. On the southern side of the gardens lies the building often incorrectly referred to as the “Royal Palace” – it is simply a royal residence — an understated affair, more pied-a-terre than palace, which is not open to visitors. It does, however, hold a significant place in Cambodian history as the temporary home of King Sihanouk while he and General Lon Nol were planning The Royal Crusade for Independence from France– hence the gardens’ name — in the 1950s.
Heading anti-clockwise from The Royal Residence takes you to the eastern section of the garden which stretches down to the riverbank among neat palms and ancient trees, their huge trunks clad with epiphytes, their branches rich with birds and butterflies. The soft and springy Bermuda grass of the River Garden is a great place to sit in the shade and have a picnic or a cold drink as you watch the river gently flow by.
Opposite the Royal Residence on the northern side of the gardens is the impressive Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor which has been lodging and pampering the intrepid, the rich and the famous – including Charles de Gaulle, Princess Margaret and Jackie Kennedy — since 1932. If you are in need of a treat the high tea at Raffles is a wonderful indulgence which costs $16++ a head buffet style or $19++ a head served at your table –book in advance. One is probably enough for two people, just order an extra cup of tea or coffee. There is also a small indoor-outdoor gallery that houses exhibitions of sculpture and photography, entry is free.
Raffles’ gardeners have been maintaining the public formal gardens that spread out in front of the hotel since they opened in 1997. They are home to neatly trimmed hedges, fragrant frangipani trees, lollipop-shaped topiary, and deep beds filled with flaming scarlet and yellow irises. At the centre of the formal gardens is an ornamental pond guarded by four stone lions. The overall effect is pleasing rather than spectacular but there are plenty of photogenic scenes to satisfy the snap-happy traveller. There are also lots of benches to sit on and enjoy the relative silence, but they are mostly in full sun.
The avenue of towering trees that runs roughly north-south from The Raffles Hotel provides a pleasant thoroughfare for aimless promenading, but its real draw is the vast colony of giant fruit bats that lives there. Look up at any time of day and you will see them hanging pendulously from every bough, chirping like hungry nestlings. Time your visit with dusk and you cannot fail to be impressed by the spectacle of thousands of cat-sized bats encircling the treetops like a flock of giant starlings coming home to roost.
At the southerly end of the tree-lined avenue is the small, open-sided Temple of Phomchek Phomchom, and neighbouring shrine sitting precariously on a small island in the middle of National Route six. The temple structure may be small and the statuary unremarkable, but there is usually a lively atmosphere with clouds of incense swirling around worshippers, traditional musicians, shaven-headed widows seeking alms and saffron-robed monks offering blessings. Don’t worry if you can’t understand what the monks say; as long as you make a donation they won’t mind.
If you do want to make an offering you can buy incense inside the temple, or delicately woven lotus flowers from the stalls behind. You can even buy the freedom of a caged swallow, although it’s not a practise to be recommended.
By now you will be just steps from a helpful looking “Tourist information office” which sadly houses less information than the smallest of pocket guidebooks. You will also be just yards from where you started. Take a walk through the shops of Sivatha Boulevard back towards Pub Street and The Old Market area of town, or if it’s a Friday you could always pop into the the Victoria Angkor Resort and Spa on the west side of the gardens, and enjoy some live music, half price drinks and free canapes between 16:00 and 19:30 at their Explorateur Bar.
By Simon Hare.
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