The Charms of Siem Reap: An In-Depth City Guide

What travelers come to Siem Reap for. Sunlight filtered by trees and cast on the is truly a remarkable sight.
(as published in Vol. 1, No.1 issue of Experience Travel and Living magazine in 2014)

We all have a few cities we’ve visited that elicit a yearning to return to. Siem Reap is in my top five, so much so that my impulsiveness made me go twice in a span of four months. Not that I regret this in any way; I later realized that every trip one takes ultimately has its purpose. I only have a few criteria to keep coming back to a city: 1) That it offers great value for money 2) Has a thriving night market scene (similar to that in Taipei, Hong Kong and Bangkok’s Jatujak Weekend Market) and 3) Has a subway system or offers alternative convenient modes of transportation. Needless to say, Siem Reap (as well as the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh) ticks everything on the checklist and more.

Upon Arrival
Disembarking from the aircraft, immigration and exiting the airport can take as little as five minutes without waiting for any luggage at the baggage carousel. To integrate yourself with the local culture the moment you step out of the airport, do away with the traditional taxi (about USD 7) and opt for an authentic, cheap tuktuk ride instead. Prior to your arrival date, make arrangements with your hotel (via email or otherwise) to have one pick you up. This saves you time in having to pick one and negotiating the fare after a tiring flight, but it should be about USD 3 for one tuktuk. Getting from the airport to the city center takes 20 minutes, as there are minimal private cars and hence, practically no traffic.

The official currency may be the Cambodian riel (a handful of which is useful for small purchases), but to anyone who’s been to the country he or she would know that the US dollar is the de facto legal tender especially in tourist districts. Despite this reality, it’s still one of the least expensive destinations one can visit.

NOT A FESTIVAL. Every night is party night here at Pub Street!
Also a common sight: white people awkwardly dancing! (True story)

Save or Splurge on your Stay
Decent accommodations can astonishingly be priced below USD 20 per room per night, which is one of the phenomenal aspects of traveling in Cambodia. As long as you select a hotel near the party district of Pub Street or along Sivatha Road, you will have no problem reaching all the markets and attractions on foot. I would personally stay again at the New Bequest Angkor Hotel, an unassuming 3-star hotel that offers the best value for money with its free airport pickup, helpful staff, great location and impressive breakfast choices. But if you wish to splurge, consider the much-acclaimed Park Hyatt Siem Reap where travelers can get away from the noise from inside exquisite rooms nestled inside its compound. Normally the heat can be intense so you may want to consider booking a trip in January, when it’s particularly cold. This is probably worth the 20% higher peak season rates, which lasts from December to April.

Getting Around in the City and Getting to Angkor Wat
Knowing how to ride a bicycle around the city can save you lots in tuktuk fares. Rent one for just USD 1-2 per day (although taking one to explore Angkor Wat might be exhausting and bothersome). Instead, ask your hotel to book you a tuktuk for at least half a day to tour you around the vast Angkor Archeological Park complex, where the infamous Angkor Wat is just one of the many temples you can find here.

Take your next Facebook cover photo at the Angkor Wat

The famed Bayon Temple

Get your Tomb Raider on!

Literally so much history within these walls

Pay a little over USD 10 for one tuktuk to tour the inner main temples which include the Ta Prohm and Bayon Temples of Tomb Raider fame, and more for the farther temples. A one-day ticket costs USD 20 per person; discounted prices available for 3 or more days access. After the ticket counters, you’ll be taken to the main temple entrance where English-speaking tour guides are available for an hour or so of explaining the history behind the structures, in exchange for a few dollars. You can relish views of the Angkor Wat both against the iconic vermillion background at sunset or the equally stunning contrast with the indigo sky at dawn (if you can bring yourself to wake up before 5AM that is).

Restaurant dish? Nope! Served from the sidewalk!

Trying something for the first time is particularly memorable if it's done abroad.

“Happy” Eats and Drinks
For those of you who love street food, you surely won’t be disappointed in Cambodia. Sidewalk food stalls commonly offer fried rice and fried noodles with your choice of meat for USD 2. At restaurants such as the Khmer BBQ Restaurant or Cambodian BBQ Restaurant near Pub Street, order some Khmer Barbeque and traditional Cambodian amok, a curry dish usually made with fish. Fresh fruit shakes are available and you have the option of choosing more exotic ones like jackfruit and cashew nut. If you’re feeling a little adventurous (you’re on vacation after all), head to Happy Special Pizza or its neighbor Happy Angkor Pizza, where you can try (for the first time if you’re like most people) delicious pizza but with a twist courtesy of a leafy ingredient that is sure to keep you “highly” happy. For some drinks, you can’t go wrong with having USD 1.50 margaritas at the balcony of Viva Mexican restaurant while watching revelers enjoy themselves and the music. Keeping your network updated on social media is effortless with free wifi at most dining establishments.

One-dollar cupcake at The Glasshouse, Park Hyatt. A must, not just for cupcake lovers!

For dessert, go for more street food in the form of a banana chocolate pancake, a crepe-like pastry with a very chewy consistency cooked on oil and served in bond paper for USD 1. Watching the young men whip a ball of dough into a tasty treat is part of what makes it fascinating. You can find their food carts on every corner of Pub Street; you can’t miss it. But for some relaxation after a day of walking, make your way to The Glasshouse at the Park Hyatt. They have home-made ice cream for USD 2 and artisanal cupcakes for just USD 1 that normally cost twice as much anywhere else, all of which can be enjoyed in a cozy ambiance. While I don’t fully understand how the prices are the way they are for a 5-star hotel, I am certainly not complaining.

You will love the shopping at Cambodian night markets. But whether it's clothes, bags, scarves or food, bargain HARD!

Shopping the Night (Market) Away
If you prefer night markets over generic items sold at department stores any day, then you’re sure to regard Siem Reap as a haven. You can do your day shopping at the Old Market (while you’re there you can also get a haircut in any of the salons at a fraction of the amount your hairstylist charges) and then proceed to the many night markets in the vicinity. Support local crafts while honing your bargaining skills by buying a pair of sunglasses and a kroma, the scarf locals wear to protect you from the sun and dust. Another good purchase would be fisherman pants for both men and women made from fabric with intricate patterns. For those like me who collect paintings and artwork from each country, go to the Noon Night Market for extensive, affordable selections of various artists’ depictions of the Angkor Wat and Bayon Temple, among other icons. For a unique souvenir, buy inexpensive prescription glasses or frames at optical shops that line Sivatha Road. After a long day of shopping, you can indulge in a fish spa, foot massage or body massage at numerous spas scattered in the area.

Edible souvenirs aplenty at the Old Market!

Beyond Temples and Markets
It seems one can’t run out of activities to do in Siem Reap. Another way to help support the locals while being entertained by captivating stunts would be to watch the nightly Phare Circus. Held at an intimate venue, it exhibits the talents of passionate young performers which can only be described as a must-see by those who have seen the show. At USD 15 a ticket, a portion of the proceeds benefit the education of Cambodian children so you know it’s a worthwhile cause. And if you think you’ve exhausted all that you can possibly do in Siem Reap, consider a convenient day or overnight bus trip to Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville or even to the bordering countries of Thailand, Laos or Vietnam.

Falling in love with the Khmer People
I find the people of Cambodia sincerely warm and friendly. Although I’m a tourist in their eyes, it seems I get flashed a genuine smile each time from the tuktuk driver, sidewalk vendor or masseuse. I bought a pair of eyeglass frames and the shopkeeper voluntarily offered to clean the ones I had on and returned them to me squeaky clean. To think the minimum wage in Cambodia is a lot less than USD 100 a month; no wonder I’ve never seen locals patronize restaurants or clubs. That said, a few dollars in tips certainly go a long way and having USD 1 or 2 bills is handy.

It’s a given that tourists can affordably live like royalty in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Despite the fact that Siem Reap is a bustling city full of life and color with much art and culture to appreciate, ultimately what keeps you coming back is having endeared yourself to its people and having found beauty and inspiration in its simplicity. :) 

An unofficial version.


Popular Posts