Visit Siem Reap: What to Do and See
by Sara E Kuenzi
Cambodia is becoming one of the most popular tourist and expat locations in the world and it’s easy to see why: low cost, balmy weather, and friendly locals. Expats especially flock to the capital city of Phnom Penh, but Siem Reap is best for culture, beauty, and history!
The Tourist Must-Do
Angkor Archaeological Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains some of the most visited temple ruins in the world. In fact, the Angkor complex was the #1 landmark to see in 2018, according to TripAdvisor. I usually shun typical tourist activities and recommend that others do as well, but Angkor is a notable exception. Full with history, spiritualism, and nature, the park is absolutely amazing and definitely worth the visit.
Unfortunately, it also sees millions of visitors per year, meaning you’ll have to battle the crowds. Tourists bombard the temples from 4:30 AM to close, so even early birds don’t have the advantage! However, there are a few tricks to avoid the tourist hotspots and have an excellent day to yourself.
- If you must see the sunrise over Angkor Wat, all the more power to you. I’ve never been a morning person, so waking up at 4 AM to stand elbow-to-elbow with strangers sounds particularly heinous. However, I’ve heard the sunrise is a sight to behold, so you do you.
- After sunrise, leave Angkor Wat. There is still a whole lot to see in this temple, but the crowd that you just played sardines with will be herding themselves into the temple next. Instead, pick another area to explore for a few hours, then return to Angkor Wat on your way out.
- Plan your visit during the low season. From April-September, the park is still busy, but the hordes of people are less overwhelming. I would particularly recommend during the rainy season when the weather isn’t so hot that you might drown in your own sweat. It tends to rain for a maximum of two hours in the afternoon, so you’ll have plenty of time to explore.
- Take more than one day. The complex is HUGE. You can hit the highlights in one exhausting day, but it is worth it to buy the three-day pass and take your time. You have a week from the time of purchase to use your days, so you can spread out your visits and never get “templed-out.”
- If you have the time, visit the Angkor National Museum near the Royal Residence first. You will learn a ton about the construction and history of the temples, as well as the mythical stories and characters depicted in the ancient carvings. It will deepen your understanding and experience of the temples when you visit.
- Try cycling to the temples. It’s only a 4-mile (6 km) ride and it’s fun to get there of your own accord.
Off the Beaten Path: Cycling Siem Reap
Between Angkor days, I would highly recommend exploring the countryside. The great thing about Siem Reap is that you are always only minutes away from the country and it’s easy to get around on your own schedule! If you are athletically inclined (or even if you’re not) you can rent a bicycle from most accommodations for $1/day. You can cycle out towards Tonle Sap, stopping at the lotus farms for a chilled coconut and Phnom Krom. You can head straight north, veering west around the temples for a leisurely ride through rice fields and rivers. Honestly, you can point yourself in any direction and you will probably come across something beautiful or interesting. The best part is that Siem Reap and surroundings are flat as a pancake. You can go for miles (or kilometers) without getting worn out.
Just remember to be cautious. Cambodia is a relatively safe place, but there are deep poverty and desperate people. Carry as few belongings as possible, and nothing valuable. Take out your phone only for navigation and photo opportunities – there’s no need to advertise that you have an expensive electronic within reach of pickpockets or bag-snatchers!
Also, be aware of dogs. There are many, many dogs. Most of them couldn’t care less about you, but occasionally you encounter a territorial snarler. Usually a stern finger point and a loud “No!” do the trick, but on the rare chance you get bit, see a doctor. Rabies isn’t common, but it isn’t eradicated in Cambodia.
The Hungry Traveler: What to Eat
Southeast Asia is famous for unique and delicious food! Cambodia is no exception. Though not as popular as it’s neighbors, Khmer cuisine offers some amazing flavors. Fish Amok, a curry dish served in a banana leaf, is one of my favorites and it can easily be made with tofu instead of fish. Beef Lok Lak (slathered in a Kampot pepper sauce and served over salad) is delicious as well, but not as easy to “vegetarianize.” Both of these dishes can be found in every street-side restaurant for around $2. If you want something more upscale (though still incredibly cheap) you can try Genevieve’s Restaurant or Jomnan’s Kitchen.
For a quick bite, try the street food! One of my favorite snacks is banana sticky rice wrapped in palm leaves. You’ll see the little green packets alongside grilled bananas on carts all around the city and each wrap costs around 50 cents! There are countless other options for street food, but I would recommend looking beyond the stalls along the river as they tend towards the boring fried rice and noodles dishes that are very similar to those back home.
Visit a Traditional Khmer market
The city is littered with markets, each with its own unique atmosphere. Tourists flock to Psar Chas, near pub street, and Siem Reap Night Market, near the river. But these are only two of many and there are much better options. If you are into sustainable, locally made products, try the Made in Cambodia Market, behind Hard Rock Cafe. They are open daily from noon on and the stalls are full of beautiful products, all made locally. Some of my favorite shops carry jewelry made from recycled bullets, bags and rugs made from plastics bags, and textiles made by locals involved with social enterprises. The best part about this market is that you know that the items you buy are helping locals!
For a more authentic and traditional market, head to Psar Leu Thom Thmey, on Road 6. This is where locals go to buy. You won’t find another tourist anywhere in this market, but be prepared for some odd looks from the sellers. Make sure you respect local tradition and keep your knees and shoulders covered! This market is a prime locale for photographers. You’ll see stalls overflowing with flowers, vegetables, fruits, meat, clothing, knick-knacks, shoes, and anything else you can imagine. It’s quite a sight – and experience – to behold.
Siem Reap can get HOT. After a full day at the temples, cycling the countryside, or wandering through markets, it’s time to relax poolside. Chances are there is a pool at your accommodation, but if you find that pool lacking or you want to try something different, there are options. From rooftop to saltwater to party pools, you are sure to find something to fit your mood. Most hotels require the purchase of drinks or food for guests not staying at the hotel, but you probably wanted to order something anyway! Some of my favorites are Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel, the Golden Gecko, and Navutu Dreams Resort (though this is pricey and worth an entire day).
Whether you have a few days or a few months, there is plenty in Siem Reap to explore!