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.

This site is inspired by our trip to Cambodia in December of 2008 and particularly by Ara, our Siem Reap Guide.  She spent a couple days as our local guide and arranged for our tuk-tuk, for a licensed temple guide and showed us around her city. Ara has now started her own Siem Reap Travel Agency. If you are planning to visit Siem Reap, let Ara make all the arrangements for you.

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.

Flying In

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 arrive by air or come for a few days via cruse 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.

Getting Around

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.

Lodging

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.

Dining

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.

Other Things To Do

Siem Reap welcomes approximately one million tourists per year from the U.S., England, Europe, China, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, just to list a few.Beyond the draw of Angkor, Cambodia is one of the poorest…and cheapest destinations in Asia and boasts tropical rain forests and unspoiled jungle that draws its share of ecotourism.    While some families visit, the majority of the American and British tourist we saw were adults in their twenties and thirties.

The official language was until recently still French and you can get buy almost anywhere in town with English, but when you walk down the center of the old town, you can hear a barrage of languages the offers instant confirmation that visitors come from all over the world to experience the historical treasures of Cambodia.  This wave of vacationers has led to the growth of a vibrant shopping, nightlife and entertainment scene. Whether you’re looking for a theater or a dance club, you’ll find lots on like minded people and lots of cheap beer in this trekker’s Mecca.

The Angkor National Museum, home to a breathtaking gallery of 1000 Buddhas, is one of Asia’s premier attractions. This modern facility is devoted to the preservation of Khmer traditions and the history of Angkor Wat. Visitors learn about Cambodia’s temple heritage through a series of video screens and cutting edge displays.

A variety of shopping centers, spas, cafés, parks, and other activities can be found throughout the the old market area.  Don’t expect duty free mall stuffed with high-end boutique shops or even basic necessities.  The local merchants offer a variety of hand made item, local silk goods, world famous Cambodian puppets and an assortment of disturbingly similar goods that could be found at a flee market anywhere in the world.

My favorite Siem Reap temples include Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, but they are all amazing. The sunrise reflecting on the lake is magical, or so we are told.  We arrived at 5:45 am just in time for the rain to let loose.  Lots of people also rave about poolside bar and Palm garden cafe at Aspara Siem Reaps, but we stayed at the Sokha Angkor Hotel, which has an amazing salt water pool and a very friendly staff.  We found it the perfect place to unwind after a day of trekking through temples.

Put Siem Reap Cambodia on your do list for vacations and remember that the recommended dates are from October to March when the weather is most comfortable, the temperature is moderate and the sun shines most of the day.  April through August is the rainy season and offers a relentless mix of high temperatures and high humidity– a combination to be missed.  Its these little details that make the difference!

Be Sociable, Share!