Siem Reap might just be my new favourite Asian city. This popular, Cambodian destination is so much more than just the super-convenient, jumping off point for the mighty, Angkor temple complex. Perhaps it’s the eye-pleasing mix of pretty French colonial and Chinese architecture that lends the city its exotic, romantic flavour. Maybe it’s the numerous, winding alleyways begging to be explored that create that heady air of mystery, impossible to ignore. It could be the chilled out atmosphere and friendliness of the people, so often missing from Asian cities or the copious amount of rooftop bars where you can sip a cocktail and stare out at those lights and think on what your next adventure might be… But there’s definitely something about Siem Reap that welcomes you in and invites you to stay a while.
What to see and do?
The temples of Angkor – The big momma of Cambodian tourist attractions has to come top of the list. The seat of the ancient Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat itself decorates the Cambodian flag and the temples are a huge source of national pride. I’d recommend a three day pass to really give yourself time to make the most of the scores of ruins around the archaeological park. Hire a tuk-tuk for $15 tops for the day and your driver will ferry you around the different sites, giving you time to explore at your leisure. If you fancy travelling in a little more style then maybe take a balloon trip over the park or do it Khmer old-school style by taking an elephant ride around the majestic beauty of the Bayon.
It’s definitely the best move to go early in the morning as the heat of the day can make trekking around a bit of a challenge but to avoid the congregating crowds waiting for the sun to peep out over Angkor Wat, start a little further afield and watch the dawn creep in at Ta Prohm. This temple of Tomb Raider fame truly showcases the power of the jungle with giant tree roots reclaiming the ancient stones. Visit Angkor Wat a little later once the hordes have had their breakfast and trooped off for pastures new and admire the delicate carvings, those iconic lotus bud towers and the steep stairways that ensure climbing monks would be prostrate as they made their ascent.
Try not to accidentally and absent-mindedly follow other tourists up these probably very dangerous stairs for a spectacular view and that ‘I’m the king of the world!’ feeling at the very top before realising someone had actually moved the barrier cordoning off this part of the temple and spraining every muscle in your legs as you hotfoot it back down the steps in an awkward, sideways, crab scuttle to avoid a very irate security guard collaring others up at the top. Just saying.
Get your culture on – There are a variety of ways to immerse yourself in the rich traditions of Cambodia. A traditional aspara dance is a must-see with the girls all decked out in glittering gold and fancy costumes. The Aspara Theatre showcases a renowned troupe in a wooden pavilion designed to resemble a Wat or pick one of the more upmarket hotels to combine a show with a tasty buffet dinner. For the more kinaesthetic, book yourself a tour of the workshops of Artisans d’Angkor to see stone and wood carving, silver plating and silk painting or check out the Artsians Heritage of Light or Khmer Ceramics Centre to come over all Demi Moore and try your hand at the potter wheel.
Shop o’clock – Looking to spend some sweet dollar? Siem Reap’s the place to be. The markets are great fun but bear in mind much of the fare may not be authentically Cambodian. Look out for subtle clues like, oh say, one those tell tale ‘Made in Taiwan’ stickers on the base of potential purchases. Alternatively, get into the independent shops to get your mitts on some Cambodian shizzle, thereby helping out the local people and the economy. A good place to start is alley west where a assortment of quirky shops mean you can pick up interesting souvenirs and clothing. Quality ceramics and fine silks are choice souvenir material and keep your eyes peeled for the slightly macabre arrangements of taxidermy crocodiles outside the handbag shops. Photo opps aplenty.
The old market, Psar Chaa, is a typically Asian, fun, trashy market experience with a lot of tourist tat and bizarre food offerings – pig snout anyone? Check out the Angkor Night Market for a more structured shopping experience with neat, little huts designed to offer a classier, market experience. The landmine survivor house band greets you on arrival and the place even has it’s own bar, the Island, to sort out those shoppers who’ve worked up a thirst. Massages and fish massages are also available and it’s a good place to pick up some street eats in the evening.
Give back – There is a strong drive for responsible tourism in Siem Reap. Check out the ConCERT website, a not-for-profit enterprise maximising the benefits from tourism for the more vulnerable people of Cambodia, for information and advice on how to make the most of your visit. There are ways to help outside of volunteering such as patronising one of their supporting businesses such as the Singing Tree café in alley west, donating blood to a local childrens’ hospital or eating at one of the fantastic cooking schools such as Haven Training Restaurant where underprivileged, young adults from poor rural areas are trained in hospitality and life skills and helped to find a permanent position in the future.
Where to eat?
Well, the short answer is: anywhere! Most restaurants offer meals including rice for $3.00 only a fraction pricier than street food. The options seem to be endless and especially tempting in the backstreets around and off Pub Street with places like Kmer Kitchen serving up authentic Cambodian cuisine. A delicious Khmer speciality is fish amok, a coconut curry gently steamed in banana leaves and vegetarian options based around pumpkin and sweet potato are just as good. Look out for the sizzling Cambodian favourite, the traditional phnom pleung (hill of fire), a DIY tabletop BBQ where you can sample meats as diverse as ostrich and crocodile. And maybe later, if you’re still feeling adventurous, you could stop by one of the roadside vendors to sample some of those classic, fried bugs as a salty, post-drink snack. Or maybe just stick to the noodles.
Where to drink?
If you like a drink, you’ll be in heaven in Siem Reap. There are countless, quirky bars to be discovered and many happy cocktail hours to be taken advantage of. Soup Dragon has a terrace made for cocktail hour and with 2 for 1 specials, it’s the perfect place to start the evening. Miss Wong is a high quality cocktail spot, inspired by the seductive, Shanghai of yore and mixing up those Asian flavours with a unique and delectable twist. The backpacker party favourite has to be Angkor What? – open til the wee hours, its walls are scribbled with the graffiti of countless travelling folk and it’s a great place to get chatting and dancing with backpackers and locals alike and Silk Garden is a shady spot for a bit of sweet reggae music. However, my favourite has to be X Bar, a rock bar with live music and a rooftop, half-pipe, health and safety nightmare. Just look up for the giant, neon ‘X’ which marks the spot.
Where to stay?
Siem Reap has a huge variety of guesthouses and hotels – enough to match any budget and at fantastic value for money. There are a high concentration off Sivatha street and we picked Mandalay Inn for its friendly and welcoming staff and gloriously comfy rooms – close enough to be a short walk from the dinner and drinking options of the centre but far enough that we weren’t disturbed by any late night raucousness. The afternoons tend to be hot and lazy so if you can find somewhere with a pool, you’ll be laughing.
So, next time you find yourself in South East Asia, make a date with Siem Reap and let us know if you fall for its charms too.
Pics by Alex except images 13&14 via Lechuaphotography.com
Alex Saint is a writer based in Bristol, England – a place she calls home due to its friendly, diverse atmosphere and never-ending list of fun things to do. She loves tattoos, quirky fashion, pugs and, of course, travelling.Tweet