Little more than a village at the beginning of the 20th Century, Siem Reap is the second largest city in Cambodia and exists solely for the tourists visiting Angkor. Despite being essentially a tourist town, Siem Reap could be much less charming than it is, for it has a very fine balance of Colonial heritage, tourist entertainment and a decent amount of Cambodian charm and grunge. Everyone who visits Cambodia will pass through Siem Reap.
In 1901 the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (French School of the Far East) funded an expedition to ‘re-discover’ the temples of Angkor, known to be located a few kilometres outside the outpost of Siem Reap. Within 3 months of the confirmation of their ‘discovery’, 200 tourists trekked to Cambodia to see Angkor. Now millions of people flock to see the Temples every year, and every one of them stays in Siem Reap.
After coming the long way around through Sen Monorom, Kratie and Kompong Cham, it was a pleasant change to be somewhere that had bars, restaurants and shops. We arrived in Siem Reap two nights earlier than we had intended, giving us a full 7 nights. Sounds like too much but it allowed us to have a few relaxing days sleeping in and having long lunches that drifted into afternoon beers and cocktails as well as three full days exploring the Temples.
In 1907, the French acquired Cambodia including the Temples of Angkor as part of the Siamese-Franco treaty. Their time in Cambodia gave the country its incongruous but pretty colonial architecture, including some of the many grand hotels in Siem Reap, built to deal with the influx of tourists from all over the world. The centre of Siem Reap around the central market and ‘Pub Street’ – the Cambodian equivalent of Temple Bar – was wall to wall restaurants, bars and souvenier shops, selling every knick-knack you could think to buy at twice the price of the rest of the country. Siem Reap is also the best place in Cambodia to get unwell as there was a well-stocked pharmacy on one of the main streets with staff who speak perfect English, even euphemisms for diarrhea.
After our limited food choices for the previous week, we were excited to get a bit of variety in our diet. We enjoyed Cambodian BBQ with eight types of meat including crocodile and ostrich, plenty of amok (a traditional Cambodian fish curry served everywhere and delicious) and on a couple of nights we treated ourselves and visited AHA and Sugar Palm for some Cambodian fine dining.
One of my favourite nights of the holiday was our second in Siem Reap, when we met up with a Belgian couple we had met on the Elephant Valley Project. Meeting at the fore-mentioned Pharmacy, we had dinner of Amok and cocktails on Pub Street, followed by cocktails at Miss Wong.
Siem Reap is a fun town to chill out. It’s packed to the rafters with tourists, there are bad-decision clubs and yobbos and you can’t walk for more than three minutes without getting pestered by a tuk tuk driver or masseuse. It is also a pretty town with alleyways and tasty food, you can meet some great people and chat with a lot of locals. You can buy some very cool Cambodian gifts for your friends and family and just generally relax and enjoy a bit of pampering.
Other things you can do around Siem Reap
Les Chantiers Ecoles – With the tourists near the centre of Siem Reap, this is a school for local artisans to learn and practise traditional handicrafts in stone and wood. When you walk onto the grounds a guide will conduct you on a free tour around the site. It’s really interesting to see and learn how the items are made and of course, a pleasure to see traditional crafts being kept alive. There is a beautiful shop on site Artisans d’Angkor where you can buy the fruits of their labour.
Tonle Sap or ‘Great Lake’ is 30kms out of Siem Reap. Here you can take traditional boat rides, seeing floating villages and visit crocodile farms. We did not make it to Tonle Sap but talking to a few fellow tourists who did, they did not have great experiences. I am sure it is nevertheless worth a visit but just be particularly careful of who you go with and perhaps pay more for someone more reputable.
Where we stayed
For the first two nights – Siem Reap Rooms– a perfectly good hostel, with a nice large clean room. On the other side of the river it is a lazy 15 minutes into the central market, but strangely hard to persuade a tuk tuk driver to go to after dark.
Rest of our visit – Golden Temple Villa – one of the top-rated but least expensive hostels in Siem Reap, we booked this hostel almost before we booked the flights. It was not the best hostel I have ever stayed in but it is in the top 5. The rooms was smallish but nicely decorated, cleaned every day and the bathrooms came with soap and small luxuries. You get one free massage during your stay, you can book more. Every time you sat down in the lounge or at the computers (free) a glass of cold iced tea and a dish of sugar salted peanuts would appear and of course, the staff were helpful and happy to help in any way they could. I would stay there again.
Places we ate and drank
Siem Reap is stuffed with bars, restaurants and cafes. Many of them serve the same menu as their neighbours for the same price, particularly on or around Pub Street. It’s worth taking the time to stroll around to decide where to eat, as there are some great places and a lot of average joints to choose from.
This is not an exhaustive list. I am afraid I did not make notes of all the bars and cafes we enjoyed during our stay. These are a few we enjoyed.
- The Sugar Palm – a delicious restaurant in a large wooden house. Either arrive early or book a table, this is a popular place. One of our favourites from the holiday.
- Butterflies Garden Restaurant – typical Cambodian/tourist menu but tasty, fresh and filling.
- Khmer BBQ – not sophisticated, but you make your noodles and BBQ at the table and you can sit out on the street and watch the world go past. Lots of fun.
- Picasso Bar – run by Australians, you can buy a half-decent wine by the glass and have some bar nibbles as well.
- AHA – we enjoyed several tasting plates or French and Cambodian cuisine and some lovely glasses of wine. A special night out on our honeymoon.
- Joe-to-go – another not for profit, does delicious breakfasts that are very satisfying for an Australian who appreciates a fresh and tasty start to the day.
Places we shopped
When travelling in a country such as Cambodia, many people like to bargain as hard as they can to get the best deal they can. I am terrible at bargaining. But more than that, I don’t like to argue about a couple of dollars that mean nothing to me but a lot to the person selling me the scarf / teapot / bag I am buying. I prefer to spend more and shop at places that support local charities, encouraging local artisans and the development of small industry. We did also shop at the central markets a bit, of course.
- Mekong Quilts – we spent the first of our wedding-gift money here and bought ourselves a beautiful blue quilt that we hope will be on our bed for decades.
- Khmer Ceramics and Fine Arts Centre – you can go to the large workshop and take a pottery class. I shopped at the hole-in-the-wall shop in Alley West. My whole family have a weakness for pottery when on holidays, of all inconvenient items to ship home.
- Senteurs d’Angkor – the website look like they only sell candles, soaps and other scented items, but the shop in the centre of Siem Reap sells everything – beautiful silk scarves, pottery, jewellery. A bit more expensive but you get what you pay for. Plus this is a registered charity workshop supporting locals.
- Smateria – bags of all shapes and sizes from travel wallet to backpack made of recycled and brightly coloured fishing-line. I could have gone a bit shopping-crazy in this shop. it was all so fun and good for travelling.
If you’re travelling to Cambodia, check out the other places we visited: Phnom Penh, Kratie, the Elephant Valley Project, Kompong Cham and the Temples of Angkor (also some tips for visiting the Temples). We also bookended our trip with visits to Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.