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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrSiem Reap is a charming town of just 200,000, found in north-western Cambodia on the shores of the Tonle Sap River. This is the base town for visiting the Angkor Archaeological Park, home of world-famous ancient Khmer temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom, Ta Prohm, and countless others.
The town is quite wide-spread yet the tourist center, about 6kms south of the temple-rich forest, is actually quite small, compact and super easy to navigate on foot. What you’ll find here is about six blocks of markets, shops, restaurants, bars, clubs, beauty spas and everything else a tourist may fancy. The resort feel of the town fluctuates from chilled out by day to raucous party-hub at night.
Yes, Siem Reap is a convenient base from which to explore the temples of Cambodia, yet it’s also a great place to discover and offers more great food, shopping and entertainment than anywhere else in the country. There are cultural attractions, a handful of brilliant museums and plenty of side trips on offer as well.
Phnom Penh may be the capital of the country, yet as far as visitors are concerned, Siem Reap is its very best hub. Of course, this being a country still recovering from years of unrest and economic hardship means you’ll also notice streets in shocking state of disrepair, a most definite rubbish problem and the ubiquitous dustiness which seems synonymous with Cambodia. Nevertheless, the town is a hive of activity at any time of year and a fun place in which to chill out for a while. If you intend to spend three nights here to visit the temples, we suggest you add at least another three to make your trip both varied (by alternating temple and non-temple days) and relaxing.
Brief HistoryHistorians believe that Siem Reap was nothing more than an extensive field of wilderness up until the time the Angkor temple building projects took hold in the 13th century. During this time, it is believed that here sat a thriving settlement for temple builders and their families. The name of the town, which means ‘Siam defeated’ in local Khmer, hints at this having played a major role in the Khmer-Thailand conflicts of the 17th century, of which the former emerged victorious.
Siem Reap, much as the rest of Cambodia, ironically enjoyed its most prosperous era during foreign colonization. As the French moved in during the 1800s, they built infrastructure and modernized all of the country’s major hubs. Some stupendous mansions are still standing in Siem Reap today, many of which have now been turned into boutique hotels. It was at this time that the temples of Angkor Archaeological Park were rediscovered, and that Siem Reap gained popularity as a tourist destination.
As the country was left to its own devices after the French pulled out, during the 1950s, much of it fell into a rather sad state, which was only exacerbated by the coming to power of the devastating Khmer Rouge .
Normality, peace and tranquility have only been a constant in Cambodia, and Siem Reap, during the last two decades. With this town being the highlight of the country, it has received more funds than any other and boasts the best infrastructure in the country which, granted, is probably not saying very much. Still, new roads are being surfaced and improvements made constantly.
Best Highlight of Siem ReapAngkor Wat is undoubtedly the main highlight of a visit to Siem Reap, yet there are not only countless other temples to admire here, but also a truckload of other temple-unrelated stuff to see and do.
Here’s a list of our favorites:
Angkor Archaeological ParkHeading off for a couple of days of temple admiring is indeed the number one activity in Siem Reap, in the Angkor Archaeological Park. Generally speaking, the main temples to visit are Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom, Bayon, Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider Temple), and Banteay Srei, the furthest major temple complex about 30kms out of Siem Reap. To give you a rough idea of time needed, note that each of the above mentioned attractions necessitate a half-day tour. Two full days of temple sightseeing is the recommended amount of time, and planning a rest day in between them the absolute ideal way to do it.
Angkor National MuseumThis very extensive and comprehensive museum gives a fantastic insight into the rise and fall of the Khmer Empire, with particular emphasis placed on the building of the Angkor temples. You’ll find a massive display of priceless artifacts and relics dating back centuries and a wealth of English-language information boards as well. We highly recommend you head to the museum before visiting the temples, as this will make your trip a lot more interesting and rewarding. The museum is along the road to the temples, about 2km out of the tourist center. Get here by tuk-tuk ($2 from town) or enjoy a leisurely half-hour walk instead. Entry is $ 12 USD per person, audio guides are also available. Plan on spending about three hours here to take in all the halls with ease. This is a great ‘first day in Siem Reap’ activity.
Apsara Dance PerformanceEvery aspect of Khmer culture is both enticing and very colorful, and never is this truer than with their local dances. You’ll see Apsara dance shows advertised in every second restaurant around Siem Reap, and shows are offered either on their own or accompanied by a dinner. The best in town is held three times a week at the Sofitel Angkor Resort, which is just a few blocks further up the road from the National Museum. At $ 35 USD per person, it’s not cheap, but the dance show is mesmerizing and the traditional Khmer BBQ dinner absolutely delicious. Booking ahead is recommended.
Cambodian Landmine MuseumThe Cambodian Landmine Museum is arguably the most sobering activity in town, yet one which is considered unmissable by all those who partake in a visit. It showcases a very painful chapter in the country’s history and highlights a very present and still existing danger. The museum is found on the road to the Banteay Srei temple complex and, due to its small size, can seamlessly be added to your temple visit. Entry is just $ 5.00 USD per person.
Cooking CoursesSiem Reap is renowned for offering some of the best cooking courses in the whole country. Spending half a day learning to cook some of the most iconic local dishes (like amok trey and green papaya salad) is fun, delicious and makes for a lovely break from sightseeing. Classes are offered in all major restaurants and by all the tour agencies; however we suggest you enjoy one of the many classes held in nearby villages. Companies like ‘Backstreet Academy’ and ‘Beyond Unique Escapes’ offer classes which are held just out of town, in the middle of a characteristic Khmer village. Rather than spending hours in the pristine kitchen of a restaurant, you’ll be taken on a tour of a local village and introduced to the local way of life. Most cooking classes are held outdoors or in someone’s house and, although perfectly hygienic and up to optimum standards, they do grant a most unique experience. A class ought to set you back about $ 15 USD which will include transport and, of course, a feasting of your own making at the end.
HorseridingJoining a horse riding tour through some of Siem Reap’s most beautiful countryside is a fantastic chance to get out of town, and away from the crowds, for a few hours. The ‘Happy Ranch Horse Farm’ is the most popular option in town, with the 3-hour sunset rides through countryside fields, villages and temple ruins being the crowd favorite. Trail rides range in duration and prices, the latter between $ 28 USD and $ 69 USD per person.
Tonle Sap Lake TourProbably the most hit-and-miss attraction in Siem Reap, the ubiquitous boat trips offered to nearby Tonle Sap can be lovely and relaxing, yet the place and floating villages closest to Siem Reap have become a bit of a tourist trap (think a miniature version of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam). If you want more than a simple relaxing boat ride (like an actual culture fix!) you may come back quite disappointed. Leave high expectations at the door and hop on the Tara Riverboat for a lovely ride past floating villages, a stop at some touristy shops and a mediocre dinner of local specialties. The superb sunset over the lake will be your great consolation prize. At $ 36 USD per person, at least it’s not bank-balance breaking.
Quad BikingA recent addition to the active tour scene of Cambodia, quad bikes have been taking the country by storm and for good reason. Getting out and about and exploring the countryside, farming fields and villages is infinitely rewarding, yet doing so by either bicycle or tuk-tuk is not ideal; the former too tiring and the latter far too uncomfortable. Well-esteemed Cambodia Quad Bike can take you on a one, two or three hour quad bike tour of Siem Reap’s countryside, which is a fantastic way of seeing the real side of town and an incredibly fun activity to boot. This particular company is well-established and safety conscious, two things which can’t be said for most other agencies in town.
ShoppingSiem Reap is a shopper’s haven and brimming with funky boutiques, huge bazaars and dedicated markets. Old Market is the largest of all and found right in the heart of the city. Although you’ll find a wide range of souvenirs here, many people find the sellers to be a little too aggressive and the market grubby and uninviting. Just across the river (over the stone bridge in the center of town) is where you’ll find the Arts and Craft Market, which is smaller than Old Market but infinitely more appealing. Cleaner, brighter and boasting much nicer traders (for some obscure reason) this is arguably the best, cheapest and most enjoyable place in which to shop. Eateries line the rear of the market and you’ll fund a large selection of fantastic jewelry and antique shops as well.
Dining & DrinkingThese are two Siem Reap activities for which a guide is utterly superfluous. If you’re on a short break, you’ll find the plethora of cheap and cheerful local food stalls to be ideal, as they offer delicious meals of seafood specialties at incredibly low prices. If, however, you’ve been touring around southeast Asia for a while, then you may be happy to know that Siem Reap hosts the best western food restaurants in the whole country! Despite the overwhelming collection of restaurants, cafés, and bars around the tourist center (especially Pub Street), there are a few gems which stand out from the rest.
Head to the Crocodile Farm Bistro (formerly Schnitzel Wirtin) for the largest and best schnitzels outside of Germany, bee-line it for a 2-for-1 pizza deal at La Trattoria and take your sweet-tooth along for a delectable treat at the Blue Pumpkin Café. For a great local meal with a cultural touch, head to Haven Training Café, a fab eatery where local street kids are trained in cooking and all things restaurant-related. The food is good, prices reasonable and mission exemplary, so if you want to support a great cause, satisfy your hunger here at least once during your Siem Reap stay.
How to Get ThereThere are various ways to get in and out of Siem Reap using public transport.
By PlaneSiem Reap boasts an international airport most cities would be proud of having. Or at least it will, just as soon as extension and restoration works are completed. At time of writing, the airport is a bit of a mess, even though thousands of tourists are pouring in and out on a daily basis. Daily direct flights from Bangkok, Phnom Penh; Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong; Singapore, Luang Prabang; Vientiane, and Kuala Lumpur make up the majority of tourist flow and make Siem Reap a very easy place to reach from anywhere in Asia. This allows tourists to bypass the capital city and, more importantly, remove the need for the excruciating eight-hour bus ride over the atrocious Phnom Penh-Siem Reap ‘highway’.
Most guest-houses will offer free pick up from the airport. Alternatively, the cheapest option is to get a taxi from the airport without prior booking. As you exit the airport doors, you'll see a taxi stand on the left hand side: taxis to town are just USD7. The ride takes about 10 minutes.
By BusSpeaking of bus trips: The Nattakan Bus Company now offers Siem Reap to Bangkok rides with an impressive door to door service which costs only $ 28 USD and, obviously, includes waiting time at the border for visa and stamp collections by passengers. The ride should take about eight hours all up.
For that atrocious Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, you’ll be looking at spending $ 15 USD with Giant Ibis (new coaches with Wi-Fi, English films and air-con) and only about $ 6.00 USD by mini-van (cramped, hot and slower).
By BoatThis option is only available if travelling to Siem Reap just after the rain season, between July and January. The ride can take anywhere between four and ten hours, depending on water levels along the river, and although the ride is certainly pleasant enough, do note that boats do not meet international safety standards and are often overbooked. Tickets are usually $ 35 USD per person.
How to Get Around Siem ReapOn foot or by tuk-tuk are the two most popular ways of getting around town, with short-distance on the latter rides costing only about $ 1.00 USD or $ 2.00 USD at most. For detailed info on how to organize tours or transport to Angkor, please refer to our Angkor Archaeological Park page.
AccommodationSiem Reap is home to a mind-boggling variety of accommodation choices, from $ 5.00 USD dorm beds right up to $ 300 USD a night suites in magnificent resort hotels. The world, in this regard, is very much your oyster.
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Author: Laura Pattara. Last updated: Mar 27, 2015