5 Things to Do in Siem Reap
“Go to Cambodia for a day or two to see Angkor Wat…you won’t need more time than that!” If you’ve received this travel advice, ignore it immediately. And never trust your sources again.
Siem Reap is misguidedly viewed as just the gateway to Angkor Wat, but there’s much more to it – hundreds of temples that date as far back as 900 AD still stand, and a gut-wrenching, yet fascinating more-recent history has left its mark. Plus, Siem Reap boasts a vibrant (borderline wild) nightlife, lively markets, fantastic Khmer cuisine, and the friendliest, most welcoming locals we’ve ever encountered abroad.
Do not treat this leg of your trip as an afterthought to fill the gaps in your itinerary; Siem Reap must be part of the plan! And, for multiple days – not including any time you choose to spend in Pnom Penh (we unfortunately didn’t visit).
Bottom line: Certainly go for Angkor Wat, but stay for Siem Reap. If we’ve managed to convince you, here are our top five things to do.
1) Catch Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Ok, so a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call isn’t ideal while vacationing, but let us assure you: Sunrise at Angkor Wat is pure magic. You won’t be able to see much when the gates open at 5 a.m. (it’s literally pitch black), but find a spot and patiently wait. As the sun slowly rises behind Angkor Wat, you’ll catch the silhouettes of five lotus-like towers – emerging like mountains in the horizon – against a watercolor sky. As the sun breaks over the horizon, the most incredible vision appears in the northern reflecting pool, perfectly mirroring the site ahead.
Now you’ve witnessed an awe-inspiring sunrise and unveil, but wait till you see the enchanting masterpiece in full daylight, closeup. Angkor Wat was constructed in the early 1100s by more than 50,000 workers, in dedication to the Hindu god, Vishnu. Built in the shape of an immense temple-mountain, the complex comprises three levels and approximately 500 acres.
Within, Angkor Wat features incredible detail, including iconic spires and bas-relief galleries lining the walls. The best vantage, by far, is from the top of the Central Angkor Wat Tower. Only 100 people are allowed up per day, so make sure to get in line well before it opens at 7:30 a.m. If you’re scared of heights, this won’t be an easy climb for you.
The breathtaking architectural feat of Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world today and to no surprise, is an UNESCO World Heritage site. Unless you’re extremely well-versed with the history, we recommend visiting with a great guide; there are many details and storylines that you’d like miss on your own. Check out Samreth Kao with Angkor Pura!
Additionally, you must have an Angkor Pass to visit temples and sites within the Angkor Archaeological Park – don’t show up at 4:30 a.m. without, or you’ll most certainly be turned away. Prices have increased since we’ve visited, at $37 for a one-day pass, $62 for three-day pass and $72 for seven-day pass (consecutively used).
2) Temple Hop
Aside from Angkor Wat, the two other highly visited temples you’ll likely hear about are Ta Prohm and Bayon. Most tourists visit each following Angkor Wat, as they’re within the same complex.
Ta Prohm, an otherworldly temple built in the late-1100s, is most known for its impressive trees, with strangulating root formations. Oh, and its starring role in Angelina Jolie’s “Tomb Raider” film.
Bayon, another mesmerizing, jungle-like ruin from the 12th century, features 54 Gothic towers and is decorated with 216 huge smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara made out of stone. One curious, smiling image, in particular, is thought to be a portrait of the King himself, and it’s been dubbed the “Mona Lisa of the Southeast.”
Don’t end your trip here, however. As I mentioned, there are hundreds of other temples, many tucked within jungles and hidden out of tourist view. We hired an incredible tour guide from About Angkor Cambodia (read his powerful story here) to take us to these concealed wonders (we were the only people in site at many), in addition to the fascinating Cambodian Landmine Museum.
We started early morning at the pink sandstone of Banteay Srei, considered the diamond in Cambodian art. It’s thought to have been built by women at the time, hence the name ‘srei,’ which translates to ‘woman.’ Next, Banteay Samre, a 12th century temple nearby, which is believed to have been used by the solders under King Suryavarman II’s reign; it’s actually displayed on the wall of Angkor Wat. And, Bakhong, located in Preah Ko, a temple built in the 9th century. It’s the only standstone tower in Rolous.
Other worthwhile temples off the beaten track include Phnom Kulen, Beng Mealea and Kravan; for many, we actually hiked through unkempt nature till we landed upon the ruins. I could go on and on with the rich history and stunning sights we were afforded with our extra day in Siem Reap!
3) Walk the Night Market & Pub Street
We were completely taken aback by the nightlife in Siem Reap. Pub Street is the city’s party hub, and it’s alive at night with drunk tourists, vibrant, neon lights, loud music, and several food and beverage carts circling the streets. One of the more interesting carts you’ll encounter is full of edible insects and reptiles; think crispy, fried tarantulas, scorpions, crickets and snakes. Hard pass for us. We did indulge in the less outlandish (read: less chances of food poisoning) stalls, like friend banana kebabs and banana-chocolate pancakes.
You’ll also see bars on wheels, with mixed cocktails for only a dollar or two (hence the drunk tourists everywhere). If you’d rather be indoors, check out one of the bars lining the streets. Angkor What? always has a crowd, and Red Piano is known for its “Tomb Raider” cocktail – Cointreau, lime and tonic (Angelina Jolie’s favorite cocktail while filming). If you’re the lucky 10th buyer, the cocktail is on the house.
And of course, don’t miss the market, full of clothes, trinkets, spices and packaged food items. It’s also open during the day, beginning at 5 a.m., but if you want some people watching on the side, visit at night (open till 12 a.m.).
4) Experience Khmer Cuisine
Khmer cuisine is similar to Thai food, but it achieves full flavor without the consistent use of chilis. A typical Cambodian meal consists of three or four separate dishes, and includes a sweet, sour, salty and bitter combination. Rice is an absolute staple.
The traditional Cambodian dish is Fish Amok. Typically made with fresh river catfish or snakehead, fish amok gets its signature flavor from kroeung, an aromatic curry paste made with lemongrass, galangal, fresh turmeric, shallots and garlic. Once mixed with coconut milk, the sauce turns a beautiful shade of gold. Seafood is part of daily eating in Cambodia, as the giant Tonle Sap lake is in the north; the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers run through the center; and the Gulf of Thailand is at the southern coast.
For breakfast, don’t expect eggs and cereal. One of the most popular morning dishes is bai sach chrouk, featuring pork marinated in garlic, soy and coconut milk, grilled over charcoal and served with rice and pickled cucumber. Another local favorite is kuy teav, a flavorful noodle soup mixed with pork, beef, meatballs or poached chicken, dependent on the restaurant. My husband woke up in a good mood each morning knowing his favorite foods were socially acceptable (and readily available) at 7 a.m.
The most exciting part of my mornings, however, was Khmer Iced Coffee. This is similar to Vietnamese Iced Coffee (strong-brewed coffee over a glass of ice with sweetened condensed milk), but Cambodian coffee beans are roasted with a little fat to deepen the flavor. The iced coffee in Cambodia legit tastes like melted chocolate…
One of the most memorable meals of our entire honeymoon adventure was at a restaurant called HAVEN in the Wat Damnak area – fantastic food, stunning setting and wonderful mission. So, we must share with you, too.
Created by a Swiss couple volunteering abroad, HAVEN is a training restaurant for vulnerable young adults from shelters and orphanages, as well as underprivileged young adults from very poor rural areas. The training program consists of 12-months at HAVEN, concluding with a three-month externship within the hospitality sector. HAVEN takes financial responsibility for individuals during the 15 months and actively assists with gainful employment thereafter. How cool?
Most importantly, how is the food, you ask? Absolutely delicious. HAVEN supports local organizations that offer high-quality products, and are committed to the healthy and safe development of Cambodia (e.g., Ibis Rice, eggscellent, Bosco Bakery School, Three Corner Coffee and Senteurs d’Angkor). You can honestly taste the love and passion in every prepared dish, and the setting is extremely serene. Make a reservation in advance if this sounds interesting to you.
5) Treat Yourself
Siem Reap is extremely affordable, especially coming from other countries in Southeast Asia. If you can swing it, opt for a “luxury” hotel, which will cost you $80 – $100 a night. We selected The Golden Temple based on its five-star reviews, and this may have been one of our favorite hotel experiences ever.
Hotel staff picked us up from the airport at no extra charge, providing local beer, sodas and water within. Welcome cocktails and snacks were provided while we checked in, and we were ultimately introduced to the unexpected add-ons that came with our stay, all complimentary: a 60-minute massage couple’s massage, traditional Khmer four-course dinner, daily breakfast, prepared lunch boxes for our early mornings out, daily happy hour at the pool and a ride back to the airport. Plus, the staff provided an extra room post-check out so we could shower before our late-night flight to Vietnam.
Oh, and our bed looked like this upon arrival, alongside a bottle of wine! We’d go back to Siem Reap solely to see our friends at Golden Temple.
If you’d rather stay at a hostel, you can likely still afford to relax. Massages and fish pedicures (still not our thing) will cost you just a few dollars!
Keep in mind that you’ll have to pay a $30 visa fee upon entering the country and will need a passport-sized photo. We handled our visa online before our honeymoon through a third-party service to avoid on-site lines and maximize our time in Siem Reap. And, sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam on our honeymoon itinerary, we were pleasantly surprised that Cambodia accepts U.S. dollars! What a luxury to not have to mentally convert Thai Baht and Vietnamese Dongs on the spot while bartering…
Speaking of Dongs, our next and final stop: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.