The City That Serves Angkor Wat
Siem Reap never sleeps.
Foreigners fly down dark streets in the back of tuk tuks
to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat
or stumble home as light skims the rooftops
after pulling in the bar Angkor What?!
Locals line tables with floral plastic sheeting
devouring fried baguette and noodle soup
while expats sip lattes behind their laptops
backpackers mill in markets with dollar fruit shakes.
The maze of stalls provides a home
for gold necklaces twinkling under florescent light
cookie cutter paintings of temples
and the ubiquitous traveler’s “I found myself” pants.
Heat midday sends humans hiding
drivers rest in their hammocks
children swim in the river
tourists submerge in a swimming pool
or stay locked in an air conditioned room.
Brave souls tour the temples
under the unforgiving rays of sun.
At sunset life forms flock to the river
local families sit on benches
hippies laze in the grass
skillful men play hackie sac.
Come darkness the infamous Pub Street shines
with glamour and glittering lights
Italian antipasti, old world cocktails
Indian thalis, French patisserie
tank fish feed on curious barang feet.
Tuk tuks solicit
“Hello lady! Tuk tuk? Moto biiiii?”
selling temple tours and sex
yet happily lend directions
even if you don’t ride.
Siem Reap is a place of contrasts
meditation and vegan restaurants
among “get wasted” bars and BBQ meat
five star hotels with swimming pools
beside dilapidated huts made of metal sheeting
Tourists shop for designer clothes and trinkets
while barefoot starving kids collect plastic bottles on the street.
Despite flocks of tourists
this area remains quite poor
the masses may not see it
simply shuttling around the temples of Angkor.
Beyond the stunning temples, happening nightlife, and adorable cafes
is malnutrition, disease, poverty
and a rate of development the infrastructure may not sustain.
So when you stay in this new city
to tour the one that’s old
be sure to open your eyes
and do what you can
to keep it alive.
How to Get to Siem Reap
International flights connect with Siem Reap, including the low cost carrier Air Asia. The airport is about 5 miles from the city center. You can negotiate a tuk tuk for around $4 or a motorbike for $2.
A variety of bus companies run from Phnom Penh costing anywhere from $5-$10 and take 5-8 hours. From Battambang buses take just a few hours. Your best option is to simply ask at a tour office or your hotel and they will have plenty of options. Most buses are air-conditioned and the Grand Ibis even has wifi. Sleeper buses are offered but I hear they are quite uncomfortable and the ride is short enough it’s worth just looking out the window at the view.
Scenic boat trips set off along the Tonle Sap river between Siem Reap and Battambang and even all the way to Phnom Penh. I personally took the boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang, which despite the long journey was incredible. I paid $25 and the ride lasted about 9 hours through floating villages on a small boat full of locals. It may have been cramped and hot but I loved seeing a truly authentic way of life and the children who all scream hello has you pass were adorable. When water levels are high after the rainy season the journey can take as little as 5 hours.
Overland From Thailand
Be warned: this is the worst border crossing I’ve ever done in my life. In fact the border crossing from Bangkok via Poipet to Siem Reap is notoriously bad. It starts in Thailand where unofficial men pretending to be officials convince you to purchase a Cambodian visa for exorbitant rates. Ignore them and continue to the border. There you will wait in very long lines to stamp out of Thailand, purchase the visa, and stamp into Cambodia. When purchasing the visa officials may decide to charge you any rate that they want. The visa price is technically $20. Most travelers purchase minibus packages in Bangkok that promise door to door travel, however once on the Cambodian side there are plenty of scams to convince you to pay for a taxi or minibus. Read how to handle the border crossing the best way here.
Where to Sleep in Siem Reap
Siem Reap has more guesthouses than hostels. Most are quite nice with a/c and swimming pools for pennies. These are my top recommendations, but if they’re full fret not, there are plenty of places to choose from.
$6 dorm, $12 double, $20 with a/c
This place immediately felt like home. The hostel is small, personal, and the staff are so warm and friendly. The location is ideal directly across the street from the art market beside the river that leads into town. It’s away from the noise on pub street but just a five minute walk to the center. I stayed in both the dorm and in a private room, both clean with very comfortable beds, though the private room offers much better value in my opinion. All rooms have an ensuite bathroom, but private rooms have a balcony and a mini fridge which was especially nice for storing snacks and breakfast for early mornings before the temples. In the morning they offer free baguette with butter and jam, coffee, and tea. The only downside to this hostel is that it doesn’t have a swimming pool, but there are other hotels in the city you can swim at if you buy food or drink.
$6 standard dorm, $9 deluxe dorm
The Siem Reap Hostel has all of the amenities of a pricey hotel on a backpacker budget. Yoga classes, movie screenings, and a large swimming pool make it a relaxing haven away from the heat. Every morning they offer an all you can eat buffet breakfast with lots of tropical fruit, raw muesli, pancakes, toast, and yogurt for just $2. The location is a bit further from Pub Street, maybe 10 minutes walking, but still close and they offer free bicycle use. If you decide to stay here I highly recommend paying for the deluxe dorm, as the standard dorm packs way too many people into one room. The deluxe dorms on the other hand are spacious and even have their own bathroom.
$12 and up for private rooms
In a town that uses far more resources than the current infrastructure can support, it’s refreshing to find a place that aims to be environmentally conscious. I met the owner on the bus ride from the border to Siem Reap, a really nice guy from Switzerland. Tucked away in a tropical fruit garden with a swimming pool, it’s a tranquil place to rest and relax in between temple visits. The location is closer to Angkor Wat than the town, but they do offer bicycles for getting around.
$48 shared room, $80 private room
If you’re looking for a yoga and meditation retreat, Bodhi Tree is the place. The rate includes a healthy vegetarian breakfast and dinner as well as daily meditation and yoga classes. Unfortunately I did not make it over here, but a friend who stayed absolutely loved it and described it as an oasis in the city. They also offer yoga classes to the public, reiki, and massage.
$25-$60 for double includes breakfast
I stumbled upon the Golden Banana when I got lost one day in the alleys behind my hostel. Undoubtedly it’s the coolest boutique hotel in Siem Reap and I was shocked to discover how cheap it is. This place is gay friendly and not surprisingly the grounds are chic and luxurious. They have a Bed and Breakfast which is less expensive and a Superior Hotel. The swimming pool is saltwater, which I always prefer. If nothing else stop by for a drink and a dip.
Where to Eat in Siem Reap
Food in Siem Reap ain’t cheap, but it’s some of the best in all of Southeast Asia. It’s worth breaking a backpacker budget and eating in the incredible restaurants instead of the same fried rice on the street. The service is shockingly polite and attentive, it borders on fine dining, hard to believe when you’re paying about $5 for a meal. There is plenty to choose from, but here are some of my favorite spots:
$2-$4 for breakfast, lunch, dinner
Peace Cafe was my sanctuary during my time in Siem Reap. With daily yoga classes, healthy vegetarian food, and a relaxed garden setting it’s easy to see why. Like many businesses in Cambodia they support local nonprofits that aim to empower disadvantaged Khmers. The entire staff was so friendly and offered service closer to fine dining than simple cafe. I usually started my day with fresh carrot, ginger, beet juice. The pomelo salad, brown rice sushi, and traditional Khmer amok curry were some of my favorite dishes.
$4-$6 for lunch, dinner
This elegant vegetarian just off Pub Street reminds me of something I might find in Seattle. Khmer dishes modernized and made vegetarian are a nice change from standard South East Asian fare. The rice noodle salad with fresh herbs, vegetables, and coconut sauce is unreal delicious and all curries come with brown rice.
$3-$7 for breakfast, lunch
More than anywhere else in Siem Reap Sister Srey Cafe was a space I wanted to linger in. The atmosphere is like a neighborhood coffee shop and the food is so, so good. Comfort food is their specialty, but my favorite dish was actually the spinach salad with steamed pumpkin, crumbled feta, walnuts and balsamic dressing. They also have amazing treats like homemade chewy granola bars. Some of their profits go towards Hearts of Harmony, an organization that helps educate young locals.
$4-$7 for dishes and full thalis
There are many Indian restaurants in Siem Reap but I can tell you that Dakshin’s is the best. In fact it’s some of the best Indian food I’ve ever tasted. The vegetarian thali comes with curried vegetables, shredded salad with coconut, tangy raita, and homemade chapati with different sauces and curries. Yum yum yum!!
$3-7 for breakfast, lunch, dinner
New Leaf Book Cafe is part library, part cafe, part cocktail bar, and 100% nonprofit. They host book talks, movie screenings, and all sorts of community events and have some of the best food in Siem Reap. From Khmer favorites to elegant Italian they nail it all, even craft cocktails and latte art. I loved coming in and pulling a book off the shelf and devouring a bowl of curry and reading by candlelight at the bar.
$1-$6 for ice cream, baked good, breakfast, lunch
The Blue Pumpkin is a widespread chain in Cambodia and there seems to be one on every corner in Siem Reap. I never dined here but I did buy a brownie and let me tell you…. I think it’s the best brownie I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. In other words, go there, eat the brownie… oh better yet get the brownie with some of the coconut ice cream on top. Drool. I hear all of the food here is delish.
Where to Drink in Siem Reap
For a place that’s all about touring temples and waking before the sun comes up Siem Reap has a ridiculous night life scene. From fancy cocktail lounges to cheap booze in backpacker bars they’ve got it all.
$3-$5 for a cocktail
Modeled after old Shanghai, Miss Wong is the coolest place to cool off in the evening for a cocktail. With dim lighting and red lanterns it’s the sexiest place in town for a date.
$1-$3 for drinks
This bar and tapas lounge feels like a neighborhood pub. They even have live music events and a pool table. If I lived in Siem Reap this is most definitely the bar I’d frequent most often.
$.5-$3 for drinks
It’s loud, it’s trashy, it’s full of backpackers, it’s a Siem Reap institution. You’re sure to meet someone here. Go early when things are still laid back or come late and get crazy with buckets.
$1-$3 for drinks, $4-7 for food
Open until the wee hours with thin crust wood fired pizzas and imported wines. A great place to sit and sip while watching the mayhem unfold on Pub Street.
What to Do in Siem Reap
Siem Reap became a tourist destination for one reason: the temples at Angkor Wat. However today there are tons of things you can do aside from the temples, and it’s easy to spend weeks here taking cooking classes, visiting museums, checking out artisan factories, and hanging out in cafes. Many tourists come and stay for months… some never leave! These are a few of my favorite things I did while there.
The Temples at Angkor Wat
Obviously you’re planning to visit Angkor Wat, right? Stay tuned for a dedicated post all about these incredible temples, but my main advice is this: avoid the crowds, get a bicycle, and go at least 3 days.
$15-$25 for a performance
This nonprofit started in Battambang in an attempt to reinvigorate the arts in Cambodia, a country where most artists and teachers were killed under the Khmer Rouge. They’ve done a phenomenal job training young Khmers in theater arts and visual arts. In Siem Reap it’s possible to watch their Cirque de Soleil style performance for a fraction of the cost of a Vegas show. These performers have serious talent.
There are plenty of inexpensive places to get your yoga on from full on retreats at Hariharilaya with food, accommodation, and full days scheduled with yoga, meditation, and healing sessions to drop in classes at Peace Cafe, Bodhi Tree, and on the roof at The Siem Reap Hostel. Even if you’re not on retreat you can easily take a class a day for as little as $5. I took a restorative class with David at Peace Cafe which I loved, and he also does private classes at the temples.
Seeing Hands Massage
On the alley directly beside Tell Steakhouse you will find a woman giving the best massage I’ve had in my entire life… and it cost $5 for an hour. When I walked down the back alley I felt a bit apprehensive, even more so when I saw the crumbling walls in the massage room. But let me tell you when that woman laid her hands on me… WOW! All of the Seeing Hands Blind Massage in Cambodia is Japanese Shiatsu, so it’s strong, but trust me it’s therapy. The first time I felt sore and in pain all over my entire body, yet less than a minute afterwards the pain completely dissipated. The second time I went to her I literally started sobbing while she cleared what must have been a major emotional block in my leg. This woman may have ruined me for all future massage. Go to her. Now.
$3 ticket fee, $5 extra on tuk tuk tour
The Landmine Museum is pretty far outside the center but it’s definitely worth a visit. I recommend going with a tuk tuk on a day you go to further temples like Beng Malea and Banteay Srey for an extra $5. This museum educates visitors on the devastation of landmines in Cambodia, a major issue today left over from the war.
See Khmer artisan work done by a Khmer Rouge survivor who trained in Interior Design in France. His atelier features lacquer work, gilding, paintings, and sculpture and is in a beautiful setting. The house trains other Khmers in this artisan style.
This organization strives to reinvigorate the arts in Cambodia from stone carving to silk weaving. Come tour and learn about all different traditional styles of crafting and buy some incredible souvenirs.
Khmer Cooking Class
Khmer cuisine is delicate and refined while flavorful and well balanced. Learn the art of cooking dishes like green mango salad and amok. Le Tigre de Papier offers reputable courses using fresh, local ingredients from the local market. Vegetarians will love the cooking class at Peace Cafe.
Perhaps it’s just because I’m here in March, but it is HOT, HOT, HOT in Siem Reap in the day. Seek some refuge in a swimming pool. If your hotel doesn’t have one you can typically eat in the restaurant or drink in the bar of one that does and use their pool. Check out this post featuring the options for swimming pools in Siem Reap.
In the coming weeks I plan to publish a full guide on how you can travel responsibly in Cambodia and what you can do to give back. Begging is quite common in Siem Reap but by giving a child a dollar you do not help him or her with a sustainable future. Consider donating to one of the many worthy nonprofits instead. Declining prostitution offers should go without saying, especially considering many are underage and were put into the trade by their struggling families. Here, like anywhere, do your best to conserve water when showering and using the sink and try to reuse your plastic bottle as often as possible.