Most visitors to Siem Reap are there to visit the famed Temples of Angkor and who can blame them? These spectacular ruins from the 9-14th centuries are an adventurer's dream. Located just 7km from the entrance gate, Siem Reap has become a popular stop on the tourist trail of Asia. Once a sleepy town full of farms and small shops, the increase in tourists over the past 15 years has brought an international feel to the town. Modern hotels, internet cafes, and international restaurants are a welcome treat after a day spent exploring the temples in the Cambodian heat. Yet, Siem Reap retains its small town charm and visitors who take the time to explore the town and its surroundings are rewarded with a deeper insight into Cambodian culture and lifestyle.
Of course, no visit to Siem Reap would be complete without a visit to the Temples of Angkor. Over 100 temples lie within the Siem Reap province dating from the 9th-14th century. Passes are sold for 1 day, 3 days or 1 week and whilst you could spend a lifetime exploring, we recommend at least 2 full days for temple exploration. This will allow you to see all of the main temples, plus a few outlying ruins without racing around. Any itinerary should include Angkor Wat, the magnificent legendary temple. Bayon is another favorite with its mysterious faces smiling down on visitors, while the jungle covered Ta Phrom is an evocative blend of nature and architecture. If you have more time, trips further afield lead to less crowded temples and spectacular photo opportunities. Just 12 km from Siem Reap are the Rolous Group of temples, some of the earliest ruins in the region. The petite Banteay Srey features intricate carvings in pink sandstone and nearby Banteay Kdei is a hidden gem tucked away in the jungle.
Beng Melea sprawls across one square kilometer and remains covered in trees, roots, and vines. Constructed in a similar style to Angkor Wat yet overrun by nature, Beng Melea is a truly adventurous place to visit. Koh Ker, situated to the northeast of Siem Reap, is the remnants of the Khmer capital in the late 9th century and features a circular loop of about a dozen ruins.
Need a break from temple touring? Siem Reap has several other activities and opportunities for travelers. A boat trip on the Tonle SapLake should also not be overlooked. Each year during the rainy season, the lake swells to five times larger and the plethora of fish provide the livelihood for the lake’s residents. A boat trip departing from Kampong Phluck takes you through the floating villages and ancient mangrove forests of the lake, a great way to see the unique lifestyle of the lake’s residents.
Artisan’s D’Angkor is a unique organization working to preserve traditional Khmer arts and crafts. They have established two centers in Siem Reap. The location in town features a stone carving workshop where locals produce magnificent sculptures, while the silk centre is a bit further afield. Here you can see the entire process of silk creation: from the breeding of the silk worms, to the dyeing and weaving of the material.
Siem Reap’s small downtown turns into a hive of activity as the sun begins to set. The small ‘Old Market’ closes down and tourists flood into town to enjoy cocktails on ‘Pub Street’ and dinner in one of the many restaurants. Vendors have capitalized on this area’s popularity by establishing a night market at the south end of Pub Street. Cambodian crafts such as artwork, silks, carvings, and t-shirts are for sale in an open air market off a tranquil side street making it the perfect place to pick up souvenirs. A traditional Apsara Dance performance is a great evening activity as the elegant dancers, elaborate costumes, and live music create an enchanting atmosphere. Another treat is a traditional massage at our favorite shop, Bodia Spa. Here you will be treated to a relaxing spa or massage treatment, using top quality natural products and traditional techniques.
Although overshadowed by the popularity of Siem Reap, Cambodia’s capital is slowly seeing an increase in tourist numbers. Often dusty and chaotic, the city might not showcase the charm of Siem Reap but those who scratch the surface are often surprised at what they find in Phnom Penh. With a host of new dining options, boutique shops, and trendy cafes, the city is undergoing a modern renaissance. Spending a few days in the capital city, visitors will not only uncover the historic side of the country but also experience the true vibe of an emerging capital.
Cambodia’s Royal Palace stands majestically in the city centre just off the riverfront area. Several buildings are open to visitors including the ‘Silver Pagoda’ whose floor is lined with solid silver tiles. Nearby, the National Museum is a fabulous old building filled with art and artifacts dating back to the pre-Angkorian era. For a look into the country’s tragic recent history, a tour of Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) and the Killing Fields is a sobering reminder of the evils of the Khmer Rouge regime. Although not a joyful tour, visiting these monuments unlocks keys to understanding the development of this still developing country.
An hour or two spent touring the city in a cyclo is one of our favourite tours. These three wheeled rickshaws allow you to sit in comfort with the wind blowing in your face as your driver pedals you through the streets. Along the way, stop at Wat Phnom, travel past the art-deco Central Market, and cruise the riverfront for a glimpse of the colonial buildings and local lifestyle of the people. For those interested in architecture, walking tours give you a different view of Phnom Penh. Follow a detailed map or go with a guide and explore the contemporary and ancient buildings of the city.
Phnom Penh is a shoppers’ paradise with everything from fake Louis Vuitton handbags to fine silk household items. The crowded Russian Market is the place to test out your bargaining skills, while the art-deco Central Market features more local products mixed in with the souvenirs. For fine home wares and clothes, the shops on Street 240 are filled with luxurious goods and Street 178 is filled with art galleries selling traditional and modern pieces created by Khmer artists. Several shops are affiliated with charities and by spending your money there, you will help alleviate poverty in the country. Shops such as Smateria, Rehab Craft, and ART Café sell high quality arts and crafts and the proceeds benefit local residents.