If you’ve ever wanted to visit the Angkor Temples, made famous as the set of the original Tomb Raider movie, you’ll need to pass through (and most likely stay in) the town of Siem Reap. Countless travelers already climb out of bed at ridiculously early hours to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat and the breathtaking sight gives them good reason for it. With all the excitement around the Angkor Temples, many people miss out on the fact that the town of Siem Reap is also an attraction in itself, these temples draw countless tourists out of bed on a regular basis to witness breathtaking sunrises over the complex. In addition to the temples, the town of Siem Reap is an attraction in itself, with cheap food, hostels, and unique attractions that are sure to please everyone.
First Things First…
In Cambodia, Khmer is the official language and the Riel is an official currency. However, USD are also an official currency and Riel are really only used for corner store purchases. In Siem Reap, business owners receive most of their income from English speaking tourists and understand the value of speaking the language for themself. They also understand, however, that as a traveler who spent a significant amount just to get to the town, you’re going to be willing and able to spend a significant amount more than locals on knick-knacks and souvenirs.
To keep yourself from getting ripped off, feel free to haggle, especially with street vendors. Bargaining is completely acceptable and even expected in some cases, with vendors setting a high price, expecting you to ask for them to lower it.
*Safety Tip – pickpocketing is known to happen in the town and at the Angkor Temples. Consider keeping your money safe in a money purse or belt and bringing a dummy wallet with you.
Siem Reap has its own international airport, which is serviced by most Asian airlines. The airport is about 7km from downtown Siem Reap and TukTuks (small, doorless taxis) are readily available at the arrival gates.
Mekong Express is your safest bet in terms of bus service. It offers trips leaving throughout the day from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh (9USD) and Sihanouk Ville (10USD). If you’re coming from Vietnam, they also offer service from Ho Chi Minh City (13USD). The service also provides free water and a pastry snack, plays movies from a large screen in the front of the vehicle (anything from pirated Hollywood films that should still only be in theatres to Cambodian dramas, whatever the bus guides feel like watching) and offers Wi-Fi service (expect while in Vietnam).
*Visa info – when getting into Cambodia, know that you will have to pay for a tourist visa upon entry. The price is 25USD and is payable only in American currency. Try to have cash on hand before arriving at the border, as exchange rates here are tilted since workers know you can’t get in the country without their service.
*Transportation Tip – many hotels offer free pick-up services from the airport or bus terminal, so make sure you ask about this and let your accommodations know when you plan on arriving.
As a major stop along the Southeast Asia backpacking route, Siem Reap is full of cheap hostels and friendly and fun-loving travelers. If you’re looking for buddies to explore the temples and the town with, just go to any hostel’s bar or restaurant after sunset and mention how awesome attraction X is.
In terms of selection, the Mad Monkey Hostel has a super-fun vibe with a rooftop beach bar hat hosts BBQs, beer pong tournaments and lady-boy bingo on a regular basis. They also offer the best value for money with rooms ranging between 5USD for a budget dorm and 17USD for a premium triple, which would be split between 3 people. If you’re an artist, the deal gets better – you can get free accommodation if you sign up to design a wall mural for the building.
• Angkor Temples – definitely the number one must see attraction of Siem Reap. Arrange for a TukTuk to pick you up in time to make it to Angkor Wat before sunrise (around 5am), then, head around the main circuit to see the Bayon Temple, famous for its detailed face carvings, the Elephant Terrace and Ta Prohm (aka the Tomb Raider Temples). The cost to enter the main Angkor Temple complex is 20USD for 1 day, 40USD for 3 days and 60USD for 1 week. There are additional Angkor temples outside this complex, but can take hours to reach.
• Phare – once you’ve had your fill of temple touring, check out the daily shows at Phare, the Cambodian Circus, at 7:30pm. For 15USD, Phare features fire breathers and acrobatics performed with a highly artistic flare.
• Night Markets – for unique (and reasonably priced) souvenirs, check out some of the town’s many night markets, located along Pub Street in the downtown core. Here, you can find knock-offs of about every designer brand imaginable, canvas paintings of the Angkor temples and uniquely crafted purses out of recycled rice bags. Many of the markets open as early as 10am and don’t close until midnight.
Eating and Partying
If you want to turn a meal into a full Khmer experience, head to Le Tigre de Papier on Pub Street for an amazing cooking class. For only 13USD, you’ll eat and prepare a 3 course lunch or dinner of your choosing under the direction of their highly skilled chefs. You’ll also get a tour of the local food market, which will give you the opportunity to learn how to really shop like a local.
Pub Street has already received a few mentions in terms of its shopping and eating, but its real draw is the nightlife (with a name like Pub Street, I know that comes as a shocker). With no cover at any of the late-night venues, bar hopping is, if anything, too easy. To get the night started up, pre-game at a hostel (some even offer truck service down to Pub Street after their own bar closes). Once downtown, many of the party-goers are also tourists, but the local scene is still quite strong across the strip.
Have you been to Siem Reap before and have any tips to add? Do you plan on going and have any questions? Leave it in the comments!