Located between rice paddies and flanking the Siem Reap River, the small provincial capital of Siem Reap serves as the gateway to the millennium-old temple ruins of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat. Being a tourist destination for over 100 years, Siem Reap has plentiful accommodation, ranging from simpler guesthouses around the old market to five-star resorts nearer the airport.
The town is actually the result of a conglomeration of several small villages built around several pagodas and subsequently united under the French, and Siem Reap's architecture reflects this influence. Despite its rural location, the town has a healthy nightlife and good restaurants are not hard to find.
GATEWAY TO ANGKOR WAT
Siem Reap, which literally means the “Defeat of Siam”, is the most prosperous region of contemporary Cambodia. Its close proximity to the Angkor Wat temple complex has turned the city into one of the world’s premier travel destinations. More than one million travelers visit Siem Reap every year to explore over a thousand years of Khmer heritage built near Tonle Sap Lake, the foundation of the economic power of the ancient Cambodian empire.
The heart of Siem Reap’s tourist district is known as Old Market, or Psah Chas. This part of town is home to a large concentration of restaurants and shops geared towards an ever-increasing number of American, British and European tourists. The influx of tourism has transformed a quiet little city into a bustling downtown area with an eclectic array of restaurants, bars and nightclubs that rivals any college town along with a night market that keep going well past midnight.
ANGKOR WAT AND THE TEMPLE REGION
The primary attraction for visitors to Siem Reap is the Angkor Wat and the Angkor Temple Region, which blankets more than 300km of northwestern Cambodia. The Angkor Temple Complex has been designated a UN Heritage Site and consists of hundreds of structures from the 9th to the 14th century that tell the story of the rise and fall of the Khmer empire.
This vast collection of historical structures are decorated with intricately carved, priceless Khmer artwork and that provide an archaeological and a pictorial history of an empire that ruled much of southeast Asia for five centuries. Structure range from partially renovated temples, pagoda and imperial residences to recently discovered ruins which are virtual untouched for the last 500 years.
No photo can do justice to the Khmer temples of the Angkor complex. Lists of adjectives can’t either: Stunning, humbling, awe inspiring, spiritual or magical, all of these words are inadequate to describe the succession of unforgettable experiences awaiting you, so plan to take up residence for at least a week in one of the best holiday destinations cities in Asia.
A global wave of tourism focused on the exploration of the Angkor Temples has been the driving force behind Siem Reap’s recent growth. The Cambodian people have responded to this influx in tourism by creating an academic program and licensed tour guides to teach travelers about the Angkor temples history, architecture, and culture.
You can spend a week reading a guidebook for recommended places to visit and study the maps to get around with a local driver, but the best way to capture the essence of the temple region is to hire an expert. Even if you don’t hire an approved guide for touring the temples, a local guide will make your temple journey more informative and authentic.
The Angkor International Airport (REP/VDSR) is less than 15 minutes from Siem Reap’s town center. Most flights arriving at Angkor International Airport are Vietnam Airlines, which offers services from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Bangkok, Thailand or Ho Chi Minh City. Transportation into the city by car or tuk tuk is easy to find and will cost you US$4-7. Be aware that you will have to pay a $20 visa fee upon entering the country and another $25 exit fee when you leave. If you are coming from the United States, there is no need to change currency when you arrive; almost all business in Cambodia is conducted in U.S Dollars, including ATMs.
OTHER WAYS TO GET TO SIEM REAP
Natives to the region mostly travel by bicycle, motorcycle, tuk-tuk and occasionally by bus and rarely go on trips further than their native villages. The streets of Siem Reap have their fair share of cars, but mostly they are taxis, VIP, police and commercial vehicles and you will rarely see anything resembling the traffic that is so familiar in cities across the world.
Tourist generally arrives by air or come for a few days via cruise ship. Some especially masochistic tourists, and those who book group packages, arrive by bus from Laos, Vietnam or Thailand. It takes an entire day to get from the border of Vietnam to Siem Reap, so only the traveler who has nowhere to go in a hurry should consider taking the bus.
If you started in the capital Phnom Penh, the road is paved and smooth and there are several regularly scheduled daily buses in both directions, taking only 5 or 6 hours. It is about the same distance from much less touristed Battambanq and Sihanoukville, which is Cambodia’s destination for beach vacations.
Siem Reap’s city center is best explored on foot or on “tuk tuk” (a rickshaw with the front-end of a motorcycle). Tuk tuks, although not luxurious, are easy to find and inexpensive, not to mention these quirky vehicles have views in all directions and will add a little adventure to your daily commutes.
Most of the city’s large hotels are located outside the central part of the city, along Airport Road, (technically) walking distance from the town center and the dining / entertainment districts. On the other hand, the price of a tuk tuk ride to the market is about 1 USD per person and you will do plenty of walking while exploring the Angkor complex, so you might want to save your feet.
Unlike many popular tourist destinations around the world, Siem Reap reports very low crime rates, even at night. So feel free to take a moonlit stroll down Pub Street or along the Siem Reap River.
Travelers exploring Cambodia’s temple region make Siem Reap their home base. Accommodations throughout the city expose tourists to a charming junction of traditional Khmer and the New Cambodia. Whether you want to select one of the youth hostels and guesthouses, a little privacy with a room in a pleasant thatch-roofed getaway for a couple of nights, a private residence, a reasonably price western style hotel with air conditioning or royal treatment in a luxurious five star resort with beautiful facilities, this list of Siem Reap Hotels has properties that can satisfy the budgets of backpackers and luxury travelers alike.
Siem Reap Restaurants are the gemstones of Cambodia’s dining culture. Showcasing the culinary traditions of the Khmer people mixed with hundreds of years of French colonialism, the city’s restaurant and bar scene offers gourmet food and a lively atmosphere with a very European feel and deals that can’t be beat.
Enjoy local dishes served in a wooden bodega, or experience the flavor explosion of Khmer-Asian-Western fusion cuisine. If you’re feeling adventurous, make your reservations at Meric, Hotel de la Paix’s award-winning restaurant and enjoy the world’s best dried snake salad… it’s fantastic.
The city is a prime place to experience traditional Cambodian arts, including shadow puppetry and apsara dancing, while the stomach-churning acrobatics performed at the intimate Phare circus are also well worth a look.
The restaurant scene in Siem Reap is not developing as fast as the hotels are being built, but there are still some very good restaurants around.
Next door to Mom's Guesthouse, just off National Hightway 6, Siem Reap. The Bayon has a pleasant garden setting and consistently excellent food. Try the popular curry chicken in coconut.
130 Wat Bo Road, Siem Reap. This is the best restaurant in town for Thai food. The setting is delightfully traditional with raised eating platforms and the extensive menu offers all the favourites.
CUISINE WAT DAMNAK
Near Psa Dey Hoy market, Wat Damnak Village
Arguably the best Khmer cuisine in town, often with a modern twist.
Pokambor Avenue. The former Foreign Correspondents' Club is a hotspot for cocktails, pastas and pizzas, and Khmer meals.
Sivutha Street, Siem Reap. Le Malraux celebrates Cambodia's French past in the best way possible: by serving fusion gourmet food in a beautiful Art Deco building. The menu includes comfit of duck legs, beef larpaccia and salmon capriccio.
THE ASPARA TERRACE
Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor . The best place for classical Khmer dance; the Pan-Asian buffet includes excellent Khmer dishes (the kitchen was given the royal cookbook by the former king). US$45 per person for buffet and performance (Mon, Weds, Fri).