about the city
The former (like reallyyyy long time ago) capitol of Cambodia, Siem Reap is best known for its fascinating temples, especially Angkor Wat, that are unlike any other architecture you've probably seen. These temples are a mesmerizing work of art, and the details will blow you away.
While tourism has brought a lot of money into the area, it is sadly mostly being pumped out of Cambodia and into Thailand and Vietnam. The majority of hotel and spa owners are foreigners and pay very little to local Cambodian staff. Even the temple check guards are from Vietnam! If you talk to locals, they speak of a very difficult life that they have in the Siem Reap province, where they struggle to get by on the small tips they might make from tourists. "You were born in the United States, and when you come here to Cambodia, it is very cheap. However, I can never leave Cambodia because everything is too expensive," said one man serving me rolled ice cream, the dessert of choice in Siem Reap. "It's unfair," he proclaimed humbly, in no way trying to make me feel bad but just pointing out the painful reality. I always try to tour responsibly, but in Siem Reap, I went above and beyond to make the conscious effort to ensure that they money I was spending was being poured into the local economy. It takes a lot of time and research to do this, so I hope that this guide makes it as easy as possible for you to enjoy yourself while knowing you are helping a community instead of doing more to keep Cambodians in poverty.
Get lost in the jungle oasis full of smells and incense and sounds of monk chants, and let yourself feel transported to another world (until you hear the *snap snaps* of all the tourists' cameras, that is!).
Before you go
Take time to learn more about the recent history of Cambodia and the U.S.'s role in bringing on one of the world's worst genocides. It is painful, yes, but incredibly important. Then, appreciate how generous and determined the Khmer people are despite, or maybe because of, how much they have gone through. Here are some resources:
where to stay
Normally I give you several options or at least several neighborhoods, but this was the. best. hotel. I have every stayed in, and I want you to stay here so badly that I am only giving you one option:
Green Corner Unique Residence- Seriously, plan your trip around the availability of this hotel. I learned from my Angkor Wat tour guide that most hotels are owned by Thai or Vietnamese, so almost no money goes back into the Cambodian economy. This place is owned by a Cambodian man with no architecture or interior design background, but I swear this guy will be famous someday because the hotel is an absolute work of art. He dreamed up what his version of a little paradise would be and somehow impeccably built it. I cannot begin to express the fine attention to detail. I found myself swooning at every colorful tile on the floor, jungle swing at the pool, fish beneath my feet on the walking path, or giant soaking tub. With only 7 guest rooms (they are hoping to expand in the next couple of years to 15 rooms), this place is very tiny, but it means that the Cambodian (!) staff know you well during your stay, and you quickly feel like family. The manager is so attentive to you during the entire stay and does everything he can to make sure you are enjoying yourself without ever being pushy or annoying. From the cold towel and lemongrass drink at arrival to his humblest of thank you and goodbye at departure, he was a delight to be around each day. If you can, ask for room 704, which is where I stayed with the giant soak tub and balcony. I could live in that room for the rest of my life! I will be back just to stay here again. Also, it's in the absolute perfect location, walking distance to all the restaurants and activities of Pub Street and the Night Market, while being set back so that it's quiet at night (except the early morning Muslim prayers. Bring earplugs for that.)
what to do
If you're going to Siem Reap, it's safe to say you're there for the temple tours. You will have to first get a temple ticket that lets you onto the properties. Any tuk-tuk driver can take you there. There are three options: 1, 3, or 7 days. This really just depends how much you like visiting temples. I found that a one day tour was plentyyyy. It's hot, and while so beautiful, I did not need to see every single temple or study the details for hours. I can definitely see how someone who is particularly interested in old buildings could spend 3 days visiting all of the temples or if you're slower and need long breaks during the day to rest up at the pool, you could space things out instead of cramming it all into one day. To be honest, I think 7 days is just ridiculous! I wouldn't do that. Pro tip: buy the pass right at 5pm and you can immediately head to Angkor Wat for an hour before it closes for free, and the light is beautiful. It does not count toward your pass. The next day, the best way to do things is to hire a tuk-tuk driver and a guide who can take you all around, tell you what you're looking at, know what times to go to which temples to avoid the massive crowds, and know all the hidden photo spots. I got the recommendation of an outstanding tuk-tuk driver who speaks English perfectly and was able to hire a guide. You can contact him via Facebook Messenger a couple days beforehand to book. I paid him $20 and the guide $40 for a one day private tour, which was cheaper than things I was finding on Tripadvisor, etc. They were both very professional and had been doing this for years. We started at 8:30am and finished up around 3, including a break for lunch. It was the perfect amount of time for me. I do not advise going without a guide, as you won't know where to go or what you're looking at. Here are the temples you should definitely make sure to visit (any good guide would take you to all of these):
Ankor Wat- The most famous of all the temples. If you go up to the top of the temple, you will have to wait in a very long line and have your shoulders and knees covered. My guide said it was beautiful but not all that great, and the line was about 40 minutes, so I didn't climb to the top. There's so much else to see in this HUGE temple that I don't think going to the top would really be worth it. Make sure to also explore the grounds to the right of the temple as you're facing it. There are lots of monkeys! Be careful- one stole my water!! They're sneaky little creatures.
Bayon Temple- This was actually my favorite temple. This is where all of the huge carved heads are, and it's so fun! It can get pretty cramped on top of the temple with lots of tourists as an FYI, but there are some nooks and crannies where you can get away.
Angkor Thum- From what I best understood, this is a collection of a lot of different temples and ancient palaces that made up the old capitol and royal residences. There are lots of different structures here to explore, which is why having a guide is so essential to know where to go and what you're seeing!
Ta Prohm (a.k.a. "Tomb Raider Temple")- My guide took me here between 1-2 pm because that's when all the giant Chinese tour groups are back at their hotels sleeping ;). It was still a bit crowded but way less so than it would have been at other times. This is the temple known for the crazy trees that wrap around the building. I liked this one because they've left a lot of the crumbling stones around, which makes it interesting and different from the other temples. This is where the Tomb Raider movie was filmed. ;)
Make sure to explore Siem Reap outside the temples and hotel! There's so much character and really a lot of fun energy:
Phare Cambodian Circus- A complete highlight of my time in Siem Reap, the Phare Cambodia Circus is put on by the the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak, which offers a school and professional arts training center for marginalized and at-risk youth. The performers are TALENTED. This is more of a Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatic/drama performance than what you think of an American-style circus, which is a good thing. The plot-line of the performance tells a story of life during the Khmer Rouge regime while combining incredible stunts and live paintings. You will be energized, educated, and amazed at the talent of the youth in this show. Do not miss this!!!! You can get there early for a prix fixe meal for an additional cost if you'd like to include dinner in this night-time activity.
Lemongrass Garden Spa- One of the main things to do in Siem Reap is treat yourself to a massage and/or mani/pedi. There are plenty of superrrrr cheap places. I'm talking $6 massages here. But these are pretty sketch. Splurge a bit more (like $20/massage) and get better service and cleanliness for what is still next to nothing. This place is owned by and hires Cambodians and will treat you to delicious pre- and post- teas. There are several locations, including one right by Pub St.
Pub Street/Night Market- Now this is fun! The bustling epicenter of the tourist part of town, you'll find lots of open air restaurants, bars, and street food vendors. There are also tons of shops for souvenir shopping and browsing. People can be a bit pushy, so don't ask how much unless you really are somewhat interested. Even just walking around, you'll be enchanted by the strung lights over the streets and the bustling life that goes on once the sun goes down. This area is totally deserted during the day though!
where to eat
Food in Siem Reap is CHEAP! You can easily find a great Cambodian-style meal for $2.50 USD. That said, you can spend a little bit more and have some better ambience and still get away with spending under $10. There are lots of Cambodian and international joints to try, and you kind of can't go too wrong with any of them. That being said, I've put down a few places that I tried and enjoyed. Also make sure to get some sour sop fruit from a fruit stand and rolled ice cream from a street vendor. You'll see stands all over the Pub Street/Night Market area. The fruit might make your tummy a little rumbly, but nothing you can't stomach. That's what Immodium is for. ;)
Marum- If you've read my Phnom Penh city guide, this is the sister restaurant to Friends. This restaurant serves as a job training program for marginalized and disadvantaged youth. Professional "teachers" teach the "students" cooking and serving skills so that they are prepared to take on jobs after the program. With such high unemployment rates, especially amongst the uneducated, this organization is doing big things to help those who previously never had a chance at living a life outside of poverty. You definitely will not sacrifice quality. The service is outstanding and the tapas-style food is creative and delicious. Some of the best food I had in Cambodia was at this restaurant.
AnnAdyA- Ambiance is top notch at this open-air restaurant with delicious Cambodian food. You'll find plenty of options to choose from - soups, noodles, rice plates, etc.and the waiters are all incredibly nice. Good for large groups as well.
Night Market Street Food- Located right at the beginning of the Night Market by Pub Street is a place with red chairs that's always busy. Come here for delicious, authentic Cambodian food. It's cheap, and they have tons of different options of street food.
The Sun- I'm assuming you're like most people and visiting Siem Reap as part of a larger trip to Southeast Asia. In that case, believe it or not, you're going to get tired of Asian food! You can only eat so many rice and noodle dishes. :P The Sun is touristy, yes, but it has an excellent patio right on Pub Street, which puts you right in the middle of the action and is great for people watching. I got a swoon-worthy passion fruit cocktail and a salami pizza that was so satisfying. They do have some Asian dishes on the menu too if you're with a crew that can't decide between Western (they also have lots of other Western dishes) or Asian food.
Tuk Tuk Tacos- As mentioned above, you might want a break from Asian food! If you know me at all, you know my deep love for tacos. Thus, when I saw this place, I couldn't resist giving it a shot. I got a carne asada, al pastor, and baja fish taco. I'd pass on the al pastor (my Mexico City addiction has me spoiled here), but the carne asada and baja fish tacos, served on fresh handmade tortillas, were delicious! They also have margs. I found lots of expats who actually lived in Siem Reap eating here. I guess they too had gotten a little tired of Asian food after so long. ;)