Siem Reap – The Heart of an Ancient Kingdom
Enjoy our guide to exploring Cambodia’s rich historical center. Make the most of opportunities to meet the locals and learn the native crafts and art of an ancient land, or bask in the sunshine at a luxury boutique hotel in the shadow of towering Angkor Wat…
Siem Reap is the most popular of Cambodia’s tourist destinations and the heart of an ancient, once-powerful kingdom. From stunning sunrises over Angkor Wat, to strolls through the downtown night market, there is endless magic to be found in the heartland of the Kingdom of Wonder.
An Important History
Though the 12th century Khmer Empire once stretched over most of modern-day Thailand and Laos, oral history states that the area now called Siem Reap was later under the power of the Siamese (present-day Thais). The city’s name can be translated into ‘the Defeat of Siam’, referring to the legendary King Ang Chan’s defeat of the Thai King Maha Chakkraphat, in the 16th century.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Siem Reap and other North-Eastern provinces were under Siamese rule until they were ceded to French Indochina in the year 1907. The École française d’Extrême-Orient restored the Angkor site and Siem Reap soon became a tourist hotspot.
Despite suffering through the devastating Khmer Rouge Regime in the 1970s, Siem Reap has gradually been restored to some of its former glory and has become Cambodia’s biggest attraction, since the mid-90s.
How to Get There
Travelers coming from abroad can book flights to Siem Reap international airport. The airport is located about 11 kilometers from the town center, and tuk-tuks and taxis are available to transport you to your hotel. Cambodia Angkor Air offers direct flights from Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, which are usually an hour or less in duration.
You can also travel to Siem Reap by bus, from just about anywhere in Cambodia. Take into consideration the conditions of the road between your location and Siem Reap. The road from Battambang was greatly improved in 2014 and makes for a pleasant journey, around 3 hours long. However, the Phnom Penh-Siem Reap road is often in bad shape and can be a long and uncomfortable journey.
Most travellers favor the Giant Ibis overnight bus, which leaves from Phnom Penh’s night market, at the riverside, and arrives in downtown Siem Reap early the following morning.
Where to Stay
Accommodation in Siem Reap varies widely, from tiny guesthouses to tall, beautiful villa-style hotels. We’re sure you will find the place that’s right for you. Provided are a few suggestions of some of the best accommodation in Siem Reap to suit your budget and preferences.
Some backpacker favorites include:
- The Mad Monkey Hostel, which boasts a good-sized swimming pool, rooftop sand bar and very friendly staff
- Siem Reap Hostel, with a chilled pool and clean atmosphere compared to many hostels
- Same Same Backpacker, a simple place with helpful staff
Pleasant mid-range accommodation includes:
- Angkor Village Resort, with all rooms facing out over gorgeous lotus pools, cozy traditional Cambodian décor, and variety of facilities including the Apsara Theatre.
- Villa Medamrei, a delightful hotel which mixes colorful, traditional Khmer style with elegant simplicity
- Apsara Centrepole Hotel, ideally located in the center of town, with a relaxing and peaceful atmosphere.
If you’re looking for some higher-end accommodation, we recommend:
- Terrasse Des Elephants, which is situated in Old Town, just a five minute walk from Pub Street. Its rooftop pool and restaurant are its most popular features and its height provides guests with a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.
- The Privilege Floor at Borei Angkor, a top-class establishment. This hotel is renowned for its perfect customer care by the most wonderful staff members, and its fabulous facilities.
One of the great things about Siem Reap is that most places are within walking distance of each other. There’s nothing more pleasant than taking an evening stroll around Old Town and visiting the Night Market.
In the daytime, however, it might be too hot for travelling on foot. Shade-covered tuk-tuks are the most common mode of transportation and if there isn’t one waiting for customers outside your hotel, you can flag one down on the street with ease. For the most part, the tuk-tuk drivers in Siem Reap are fairly fluent in English and sometimes French; they are well-acquainted with Siem Reap’s hotspots and will charge anywhere between $1 and $5 for city trips. Don’t forget to agree on a price before hopping into the tuk-tuk.
Most hotels and guesthouses can help you to book a tuk-tuk driver for the day, for visits to Angkor Wat and other day-trip locations. These will cost around $15-$25 depending on how far you want to go from the city.
Another transportation option is taking a motorbike taxi, or ‘moto-dup’. You may want to avoid these for long trips in the hot season, but they are great for zipping around the town. A moto-dup should cost around $2-$4, or $10 for going around the Angkor Archeological Park.
Bicycle rentals are available from many hotels. E-Bike also offers electric bike rentals which serve as an environmentally friendly alternative to tuk-tuks and motorbikes, while not using up quite so much of your energy as a bicycle.
There are some great ways to spend your evening in the city, whether you’re heading out for dinner with the family, spending quality time with your other half or taking time out to just treat yourself.
Old Town is perfect for an evening stroll and there are multitudes of dining options available on Pub Street and in the surrounding area.
Angkor Palm restaurant is an absolute favorite for those wishing to sample traditional Khmer dishes, while Chanrey Tree offers Cambodian cuisine with a contemporary twist. Those in the mood for something different can enjoy some of Cambodia’s most mouthwatering Mexican food at the lively Viva Restaurant and Guesthouse, sample truly authentic Indian cuisine at the attractive Dakshin’s, or devour plates of Austrian/German delicacies at Schnitzel Wirtin.
Of course, if you are more in the mood for a “real-life” Khmer dinner, you can check out the many street vendors offering fried rice and noodles, glass noodle soup and some of Cambodia’s most interesting snacks, fertilized duck egg and crispy fried tarantula.
After dinner, you can cool off by indulging in a fish pedicure. It might sound a little obscure but once you get past the tickling sensation, you will find that having tiny fish nibbling at your feet results in delightfully smooth and rejuvenated skin.
While the Old Market area is host to numerous souvenir shops during the day, it doesn’t come close to the intrigue of the newly upgraded Angkor Night Market. A short walk from Pub Street, the Night Market offers a variety of hand-made and artisan products including real Cambodian silk from the Angkor Silk Farm, intricate folding paper lightshades, hand-carved bamboo vases and elegant jewelry.
Traditional Khmer dancing was originally a representation of the grace and power of the ancient Khmer Empire. Today it is more like a story depicting some of the unique aspects of Cambodia’s rich history and culture. Several of these dance routines can be enjoyed over an eclectic buffet dinner at the Apsara Theatre, with performers wearing eye-catching traditional dress.
Activities in Siem Reap
By far the most popular attraction in Siem Reap is the spectacular Angkor Wat temple—one of the man-made wonders of the world—and the temples dotted around the surrounding the 400 sq. ft. Angkor Archeological Park. As previously mentioned, most hotels are willing to arrange for a guided tour by tuk-tuk around either the short or long circuits. Ta Prohm is one of the park’s most visited temples, popularly known as the site of a scene in Angelina Jolie’s movie, ‘Tomb Raider’. The Bayon temple is famous for the 200 towering faces of Lokesvara and is a breathtaking place to visit. Also worth seeing is the Elephant Terrace, which remains covered in carvings that depict mythological battles between beasts, gods and kings.
Another of Siem Reap’s popular attractions is the beautiful Tonle Sap Lake. A few companies offer half-day and full-day boat tours to visit the floating villages, flooded forests and wild bird reserve located on this UNESCO designated biosphere reserve. Bus transportation from your hotel to the lake is included in the price of some boat tours; we recommend taking this option as a tuk-tuk ride may get very bumpy and bus drivers will often give some history and information about the lake itself.
Cambodia is a country well-known for its stunning silk products. A visit to Siem Reap’s silk farm is a fascinating experience. Silk worms are bred by the thousands and their fully-formed cocoons harvested for silk. Visitors can see the process from start to finish and are given the opportunity to purchase beautifully woven pure Cambodian silk.
If you don’t fancy venturing far out of the city, there are some great activities available around town. The Backstreet Academy provides opportunities to learn some unique Cambodian arts and crafts. Classes include knife making, Apsara dance (traditional Khmer dance), iron pencil sketching, soapstone carving and Cambodian boxing.
La Tigre de Papier provides visitors with fabulous cooking class. You can select your own appetizer and main dish from the menu, and then take a trip to the local market with your instructor before learning how to rustle up a delectable three-course meal, Cambodian style.
For the Family
An exciting alternative to the traditional Angkor park tuk-tuk tour can be found at the Happy Ranch which provides guided to trips through the countryside to local villages and ancient temples, all on horseback. The ranch has over 40 horses and ponies for riders of all experience levels. This makes for a wonderful way to keep the kids interested and small ponies, rope-led by Happy Ranch staff members, are available for the little ones.
Angkor Wat Putt is a fantastic miniature golf course set in a big, beautiful garden area complete with bar and swimming pool. The course comprises intricate replicas of nine of the most famous temples including Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm, and three sizes of golf clubs are available so even the littlest golfers can play. Kids will also thoroughly enjoy the slippery water slides while parents will get a chance to relax.
A great one for the teenagers, Quad Adventure Cambodia offers ATV trail rides through the countryside of Cambodia. Available tours include Sunset, Easy Ride and Discovery tours; half- and full-day tours; and an exclusive 5-day tour to multiple locations around Siem Reap.
From Cambodia’s only circus school, located in Battambang, the Phare Circus show has now come to Siem Reap. Performers carry out feats of incredible strength, balance and gracefulness, pairing traditional Khmer dance and arts with contemporary themes and acrobatics.
Flight of the Gibbon™ has come to Cambodia and is the only zip-line tour in the country, featuring 21 treetop stations, 10 zip-lines over thick jungle, professional “sky ranger” guides and a chance to see real gibbons swinging their way through the trees. Kids over 3’ 3” tall are welcome to participate and each person is fitted with top-quality safety gear by qualified staff members.
Enjoy Your Trip
Siem Reap may not be a large place or a hugely well-known destination, but there are plenty of exciting things to see and do. Your perfect stay will depend on picking the right itinerary for you, so we recommend that you do your research beforehand by reading more of our Cambodia travel guides, in order to make the best of your visit. Take advantage of the classes and attractions, learn to dance Apsara style or add some exotic recipes to your cook book; take a ride on an elephant or take your kids soaring through rain forest with long-armed gibbons. However you choose to spend your visit, we are sure you will truly enjoy the magnificent “Kingdom of Wonder”.