Cambodia

Four Things To Do Your First Time in Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a gateway to the ancient world.

With history dating back to the year 802, it’s somewhat hard to believe Siem Reap was a sleepy town in the Cambodian countryside until the world found out about Angkor Wat.

I say ‘somewhat’ because you can’t ignore or overlook the Khmer Rouge’s reign. Tourism was nonexistent in Cambodia for a reason.

That all changed, of course, when Tomb Raider was released.

Guides offering tours of Angkor will regale you with tales of what filming the movie was like- not enough hotels in town for the cast and crew, barely restaurants or bars to go out to. It’s a very different scene from what Siem Reap has become today.

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If you’re visiting Siem Reap, chances are you’re there to see Angkor, and by extension, Angkor Wat.

And, while the ancient temples should be at the very top of your sightseeing list, there’s loads more to do in Siem Reap.

When planning my trip, I only gave myself three days in Siem Reap, which didn’t feel like anywhere near enough time to really experience Cambodia. If doing it again, I’d give myself at least five- 2-3 days to spend at Angkor, and then, more time to see other parts of Cambodia.

If you know me offline, you may have chuckled at the ‘see more of Cambodia’ part of that sentence.

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Cambodia was, and remains, my least favourite country in SE Asia.

I’ll be the first person to say I didn’t spend much time there, and admit, I’d like to see other parts of the country someday- Phnom Penh and Koh Rong, to start.

While I loved my time spent seeing Angkor, and found Siem Reap okay enough, it wasn’t a place that deeply moved me.

The biggest reason for this was likely the time of year I visited- April is known for being one of the worst months to visit Cambodia- unbelievably hot, sweltering sun, and the end of the dry season. I was prepared for hot weather, but I wasn’t prepared for power cuts that lasted 8-12+ hours a day, which are common at the end of the dry season.

Many businesses and hotels have back-up generators, but those generators aren’t meant to sustain for such long periods of time day in and day out. Inevitably, they’d start limiting WiFi or aircon access around hour six of the blackout.

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I understand Cambodia is a developing country, but the same can be said for a lot of other places in Asia (and the rest of the world).

I’d have less of an issue with this if Cambodian hotels and tour operators notified tourists about it. Instead, whenever I asked about what was happening, I was met with short responses. I’d been told hospitality in Cambodia was unlike anywhere else in Asia- friendly and accommodating- but I didn’t quite experience that during my stay.

The other reason Siem Reap didn’t quite resonate with me was the fact I felt taken advantage of at every exchange. More so than anywhere else in SE Asia.

In Siem Reap, you can pay with Cambodian currency, but most places auto convert to USD. The prices are insane for SE Asia, and not in a good way. In my experience, more than Bali (which is by far, the most Westernised of SE Asian places) and +2-4x what I’d see in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Laos.

I understand the country has a horrific history and is still reeling today. I’d be okay with paying more for food, drinks, purchases, etc. to put more back into the community if that was the case every time, but the skeptic in me has a hard time believing every business operates like that. Of note, for those places that did donate a percentage of proceeds to local charities or workers, I made sure to visit as many times as I could.

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These aren’t reasons not to go to Cambodia.

You may have a very different experience than I did, I have several close friends who love Cambodia.

But, I do think it’s important to acknowledge, and discuss when and where expectations fall short. As incredible as Angkor is, I don’t believe in romanticising the experience of visiting the temples and glossing over other details.

I’m also not the kind of person who has unrealistic expectations of what places or travel should be like. Vietnam is one of my favourite places in SE Asia, and it’s also where I was assaulted and robbed.

Things happen. That’s, in my purview, the beauty of travel. You get exposed to a spectrum of things, good and bad.

I don’t think the daily blackouts or extortionate pricing were the only reasons I didn’t fall in love with Siem Reap. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it just wasn’t my kind of place.

But, I’d still encourage you to go. And experience it for yourself to form your own opinions.

Need a bit of convincing?

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Four Reasons to Plan a Trip to Siem Reap

VISIT ANGKOR

If visiting Angkor isn’t on your travel bucket list, it should be.

The temples, not to be mistaken as one, were constructed in the 12th century by the Khmer people.

The area of Angkor is full of thousands of buildings and temples, it’s an impressive experience for even those less impressed by history, and truly spiritual for those who awed by the past.

Once, Angkor served as the country’s capital and largest city. Temples are a mix of both Buddhist and Hindu monuments.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of walking through what used to be the heart of the Khmer empire, a place that is still the spiritual heart of Cambodia today.

Dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, restoration has been ongoing at Angkor Wat- really, only beginning to ramp up in 2004.

Imagining the creation of the temples you’ll see in Angkor is enough to leave anyone awestruck.

Each temple is truly a masterpiece.

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GET A KHMER MASSAGE 

The best massage I’ve had in all of SE Asia was at the Lemongrass Garden Spa in Siem Reap.

My only regret?

Waiting until my last day to go- I would have had many more treatments if I knew how good they were.

Here, I had an aromatherapy massage. Upon entering, I was given a cooling welcome drink, and asked to pick my own oil. Then, I was led to a curtioned section of an air conditioned room, and asked to change and lock my belongings away.

Therapists at Lemongrass Garden Spa use the Khmer technique, which feels like little fingers pressing on all the right acupressure points. You walk away feeling like you’re floating.

It’s seriously dreamy.

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RELAX AT THE CITY’S CAFES 

I found no shortage of great cafes in Siem Reap- many of which are local owned or employ and donate a percentage of their funds to the Khmer people.

My two favourite cafes: New Leaf Cafe & Little Red Fox.

New Leaf Cafe: If you only visit one cafe on this list, make it this one. Their food is excellent, I’d actually recommend visiting for lunch or dinner. And, their teas and smoothies are great as well.

The Khmer curry and Khmer noodle soup were especially- flavourful and affordable.

The biggest reason I loved this airy, calm cafe? They donate 30% of profits to Cambodian education programs, and 20% of profits to their locally hired employees (on top of their working wages).

Little Red Fox Cafe: My favourite spot for working, with two stories, strong wifi and aircon. The menu boasts an interesting combination of Western-inspired dishes with Khmer flair. Little Red Fox was my go-to for breakfast/early lunches.

Big fan of their vegetable-packed omelets, beautiful salads and smoothie bowls with local fruits- the mango coconut one was perfection. Also enjoyed sipping on their lemongrass teas and lattes. I wasn’t drinking coffee while in Siem Reap, but Little Red Fox is regarded as the best coffee shop in Siem Reap by many visitors.

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WANDER SIEM REAP’S MARKETS

Like any major city in Asia, there’s no shortage of markets in Siem Reap. Three that I stopped by and enjoyed-

Made in Cambodia: Opens at 12 pm daily, serving as a showcase for Cambodia design and craftsmanship. Over 40 stalls sell scares, wallets, and beautiful handmade homewares.

Phsar Chas: Also known as the old market, Phsar Chas opens early at 7 am. Here, you can get a real feel for a Cambodian market- lots of colorful spices, fresh produce and interesting meats (read: chicken feet).

Angkor Night Market: Opening daily at 5 pm, come here for a delicious and cheap dinner. Options are more plentiful for meat eaters, but even as a vegetarian, I found enough to keep me happy. Don’t miss the fruit shakes! As with Thailand, ask for ‘no sugar’ if you don’t want them to be saccharine.

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EXTRA KNOW BEFORE YOU GO INFO

  • Language: Khmer. Transactional English is common in Siem Reap
  • Currency: Officially, the Cambodian Riel but USD is preferred. Bring cash or withdraw from an ATM- every one I used offered USD as an option
  • Getting There: I arrived via Siem Reap’s airport, but there are also buses from other parts of Cambodia and Asia. If you’re flying in, Bangkok and Phuket are popular places to arrive from/depart too (read: cheaper flights)
  • Getting Around: Walk or hail a tuk tuk if it’s too hot. The downtown is fairly small, and definitely walkable. Tuk Tuks are plentiful- you’ll have no problem finding one
  • When to Visit: Go at the beginning of the dry season or beginning/end of the wet season. I went at the end of the dry season, when it hadn’t rained in months, and it was brutal
  • Wifi Access: Wifi was easy to find (when the city wasn’t under a blackout)
  • Negotiating: As with elsewhere in SE Asia, the rule is: If you don’t see a posted price, it’s open to barter. I negotiated hardest for tuk tuk rides after checking with my hotel staff for what average rates should be for a few distances across the city. Don’t be afraid to walk away- there are loads of tuk tuks, and I promise you’ll find someone that’s willing to work within your budget

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Have you ever been to Siem Reap? What did you think of it? Would you recommend others visit? 

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