I recently traveled to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I am excited to share all my experiences and travel tips with you here so you can plan your trip better in advance. In this article, I will share details on things to do in Siem Reap, places to eat, the hotel where I stayed, and general Cambodia travel tips. I will also provide information for planning your trip to Angkor Wat, a city of temples, what the The Guinness World Records considers the largest religious structure in the world. You won’t want to miss this. UNESCO says, “Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia”. And I can tell you it is certainly worth the trip over there!
None of the places I mention were provided to me in order facilitate review and I only mention places I enjoyed and would recommend to others.
General Cambodia Travel Tips
At this point, you are probably thinking one of two things. 1. Why go to Cambodia? or 2. Is that where Tomb Raider was filmed? The answer is yes, it is where Tomb Raider was filmed. That amazing complex of temples that were built by the Khmer Empire between the 9th to the 15th century is reason enough to go to Cambodia. This country is located between Thailand and Vietnam and it has a lot to offer besides the Angkor Archaeological Park. Krong Siem Reap (Krong means city or town in Khmer) has a brand new airport for easy access, a beautiful countryside, and so much history to learn about. It also has plenty of cheap and good places to eat and drink. In fact, Pub Street in Siem Reap is famous for places to hang out, a lively night market, and lots of street food.
Is it safe to travel to Cambodia?
I felt extremely safe while in Cambodia. I would always recommend taking the normal safety precautions of staying to well lit areas and having a buddy. People will solicit you to come check out their shops or their food or to take a tuk-tuk ride (auto rickshaw). However, I was pleasantly surprised how safe I felt and I was never approached in a way that made me uncomfortable. There were always lots of people active out and about. They also had nice public parks where familes were always working out or hanging out.
How To Get A Cambodia Visa
The current cost for a single-entry tourist (T) visa for a stay in Cambodia of up to 30 days is USD $36. This fee covers the processing charge (USD $6) and once approved, is valid for use within 3 months. Go to evisa.gov.kh. This is the only official government e-visa portal for Cambodia. Be aware that there are other websites that falsely claim to provide this service. After your application has been processed and approved (usually within three business days), download your e-visa from the online portal. Print out your e-visa, and present it on arrival in Cambodia.
Here is something really cool. Almost all the shops, hotels, and restaurants accept US Dollars or the Cambodia Riel. If fact, in most places the total on the cash register will give both options! They are trying to move away from the US Dollars though and as part of that they will NOT accept slightly torn, ripped, or dirty dollars. So have new, crisp bills or they won’t take them. For real, no black ink along the edge, no wrinkled up old bills. I suggest you come prepared with new American cash in lots of small denominations. However, you can always use an ATM to withdraw cash (some will offer you the $ option and some will offer you the Riel option) and be aware that your bank and that bank will probably charge you a fee of up to $5 each for each ATM withdrawal.
When to Visit Cambodia?
The climate in Cambodia is hot and humid year-round. There are officially two seasons in Cambodia – wet and dry. November through May is the dry season so it is generally recommended as the best time of year to go. I went in late October and it was hot with only one afternoon shower while I was there.
I included the above shot so you can see some of the amazing trees in Cambodia. That particular tree was behind the Baphoun Temple and those are ancient sandstone blocks waiting to be restored to the temple.
Siem Reap Travel Tips
Visiting Asia is an unforgettable experience and each country has so much mystique and history. When visiting Cambodia, Siem Reap a must-see destination and serves as a base to delve into the fascinating history of the ancient Angkor Thom (Great City). From exploring top attractions, visiting modern temples, and indulging in local delicacies, you will find this to be a captivating little city (population of 250K) in southeast Asia.
How many days in Siem Reap?
Well, my trip included 4 nights in Siem Reap. I would say it was barely enough. However, for me it was the first stop in an itinerary that included 3 more stops in Vietnam so time was limited. I enjoyed it and we got see all the major things. But, I could easily have spent twice that much time there getting to enjoy all the great local hangouts.
Getting From Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport (SAI) To Hotel
In my younger more adventurous days, I would have just taken a taxi once I arrived. However, I have kids waiting on my to return home and being that I speak no Cambodian and had never been there before, I decided to play it safe. My friend and I booked a ride in advance to and from the airport through a travel agent that used VIDOTOUR as their local contact. It was a great experience with both a driver and a guide who told us all about the area on the way to the hotel.
Where To Stay In Siem Reap
We stayed at Hotel Tara Angkor in Siem Reap. It is a 4-Star Luxury HoteI and I absolutely loved it. The hotel rooms were spotless and pretty, the courtyard was lovely, and the pool (with a bar) was so nice! The included breakfast was something I looked forward to each morning. It was excellent quality and they had a Western section, a Cambodian section, and a Vegan section (which was largely Indian). They also had an on-site gift shop, spa, and restaurant. My bestie admitted that it was her favorite hotel of our trip but she did say she wished it had been a closer walk to the Siem Reap Pub Street area.
What To Do In Siem Reap
Well, here is what we did in Siem Reap.
The first day we arrived and caught the transfer to our hotel in Siem Reap. We were jet-lagged and needed to refresh before we set off to explore Siem Reap. For this reason we decided to try the hotel restaurant Frangipani (named after a beautiful local flower). We had a set menu and it was a great chance to try authentic Khmer food. What a great meal- 5 stars out of 5 stars! You will find lost of curries as part of the Khmer cuisine as well as ginger and lemongrass.
Then we did a little relaxing by the pool. Finally, we headed out to Pub Street which was about a 30 minute walk. We could have taken a tuktuk but we wanted to see all the sights and get a feel for the area so we walked along Charles De Gaulle Street and got views of the Siem Reap river (photo at top of post) on our way.
Pub Street Siem Reap Cambodia
This is exactly what it sounds like, plus more. Little Pub St is full of pubs, bars, and restaurants. It is also full of street vendors, street food, and street music. There are shops of all kinds and massage parlors. There is quite a night life with lots to see and do. We picked a bar with a good view and enjoyed all the hub bub.
The next day was our first full day and it was dedicated to a tour of the Angkor Area.
As I mentioned before, Angkor Archaeological Park is a vast area that encompasses many temples. You must buy Agkor tickets (available as a 1 day pass, a 3 day pass, or a 7 day pass). You can purchase these online before hand or at designated sites in Siem Reap. The one pass covers all the temples in the park. In 802 AD, King Jayavarman II unified the Kingdom of Khmer and began construction of the capital. Further kings continued to add structures to the complex all the way into the 1400s when Thais invaded and it was mostly abandoned and hidden by the jungle. It was rediscovered to the world during the French colonial times in 1860.
Being that we only had one day to explore all of Angkor Thom, we got a tour guide (from VIDO TOURS). It was a very smart choice. There is so much to learn about each temple, not to mention knowing which ones to go to, in what order, and how to get there. Plus, we were spoiled to have a car on hand with AC to get us between certain temples. It was 100% worth it.
For our extraordinary journey that took us into the heart of Cambodia’s ancient wonders, we entered Southern Gate in the morning to explore the ancient city. It was the perfect way to enter and WOW.
There is a bridge that takes you over the moat and it is lined with 54 giant statues of gods (or Devas) on one side and demons (or Asuras) on the other. The struggle between good and evil is real. Looking up into the faces of the Asuras made be feel a bit unsettled.
They are all holding the body of a seven headed serpent (or Naga) that is at the front of each balustrade. It is something else to behold. All of the statues were made from sandstone and each one is individual.
Photos don’t do it justice. And also, there is no way I could include anywhere near the vast number of photos I took of so many amazing things to see while at Angkor.
Bayon and Ta Prohm Temple
Then we proceeded to visit the ruins of Bayon, which was built in the late 12th or early 13th century.
Bayon featured an amazing series of bas-reliefs that depicted everything from historical events to scenes from the everyday life. They were truly amazingly skilled at stone carving. It was also a bit like walking through a labyrinth and would look up and see Buddha faces looking back at you- the 200 faces of Lokesvara.
Next, we visited Baphoun which looked like a huge pyramid. You could climb to the top for a view or hang out with the sleeping buddha on the back side. It is a three-tiered temple mountain that was built 11th century with a long walkway.
Then we visited Phimeanakas, the Royal Palace, the Elephant Terrace, and the Leper King Terrace.
On the way back we swung by Ta Prohm Temple, which is the one enveloped by the jungle with huge trees growing over parts of the buildings. (Think Tomb Raider.)
Here is an Easter Egg for you: In Ta Prohm Temple is the only apsara (angel or spiritual being) in all of Angkor Thom that has only half a skirt or sampot. You can see her in the above photo on the right but can you find her when you visit?
After breaking for lunch we went back to see Angkor Wat, which is an enormous temple complex occupying about 400 acres. Our guide, Pip, was always pointing out the best angles for photos and telling us historical information. He was invaluable for explaining the meanings of the bas-relief carvings. The tour guide also did his best to fill us in on how the temples were both Hindu and Buddhist over the years depending on the rulers. He said many Khmer people to this day actually honor both gods.
NCpedia put it in the most easy to understand way that I could find: “Although the Angkor Wat site originally was dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu and most of its images are from Hindu scriptures, the temple later became used as a shrine for Theravada Buddhists. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the contemporary Khmer people of Cambodia (as well as majorities in Thailand and Burma) although it is influenced by earlier local ideas and practices, as well as the Hindu antecedents of Buddhism.”
Our guide also pointed out cool tid bits like the Hall of Echoes for good health and good luck. In all the bas-relief carvings at Angkor Wat, the apsaras are all smiling with teeth showing. Except for one, (her photo is below) so see if you can find her!
So anyway, the idea was to be able to experience sunset over Angkor Wat. We were fortunate enough to see wild macaque monkeys. Check out my Camboida highlight stories to see a monkey drinking milk out of a bottle! There was even a rainbow just as we were leaving Angkor Wat. It was gorgeous. We had just seen a swarm of dragonflies while in the temple courtyard and our guide said that means a rainbow is coming. We were too exhausted by the heat to wait for the sunset. It was a big day!
That evening we ate again at the Frangipani, it was so good. Then we enjoyed a leisurely night at the pool.
In the morning, we walked down to the Royal Independence Gardens and to Artisans Angkor.
Royal Independence Gardens
The Royal Independence garden was easy to get to but, once we got there we thought it was closed. Low and behold, we found a small side gate open on the east side. We went in for a walk through the small but pretty gardens and enjoyed looking at the cool architecture and statues on the grounds.
Historical tid bit: “It was here that King Sihanouk and General Lon Nol plotted Cambodia’s independence from their French colonial overlords in the 1950s.” -source: justsiemreap.com
There is also a visitor center just outside the royal garden gates and they had information pamphlets on cool things to do like go like the Cambodian circus, a dinner and Khmer dance show, and tours of the floating villages on Tonle Sap lake. I would have liked to fit all of those into my itinerary but no time!
The Artisans d’Angkor was 100% worth the trip. When you arrive you can opt to look at the gift shop or get the tour first. The tour is amazing. You can watch real artisans working and the tour guide shows you a bit about each process from stone working to metal working to weaving and lacquer work. It was super cool to watch the artists at work and learn about their process. It is a government program meant to train Cambodians in the arts and crafts so that these talented folks don’t disappear. The Artisans d’Angkor are so talented that UNESCO uses them to help recreate some of the missing or damaged sculptures for Angkor Thom.
Next, we had lunch at Chanrey Tree. It was delicious and the atmosphere was beautiful and they had AC. It was suggested to us by our tour guide. He also suggested a few other places we didn’t get to try but I will mention since Chanrey Tree was so good: Cafe Indochine, Khmer Deurm Restaurant, Mahob Restaurant.
Wat Bo Pagoda
This 18th century pagoda was very current compared to the ancient temples we had seen the day before. Obviously, it was a whole different experience but it was also super cool. The Wat Bo architecture was so interesting. I could have just stared at that for quite some time. Wat Bo is a Buddhist temple and features a large collection of Buddha statues. However, much of the imagery is Hindu. It has several different buildings to see and you may happen to see monks worshipping on walking across the fairly large grounds if you drop by at the right time or arrange a tour.
Then we went back to our hotel for a quick nap as that jet lag was still getting to us. For dinner, we tried a cheaper authentic Khmer option- Madame Moch. Open air and simple but good.
Then we went back to Pub Street and checked out more shops and a pub with a balcony.
We started off our day walking up to Angkor Botanical Garden. It was about a 20 minute walk from the Hotel Tara Angkor and it was well worth it.
Angkor Botanical Garden
The Angkor Botanical Garden in Siem Reap Cambodia is currently free but they do accept donations. It was quite lovely with several different themed plant areas, and even some cool animal exhibits such as ostriches and turtles. They also had a large coy pond where you could feed the fish. There were so many cool tropical flowers to enjoy. It rained off and of while we were there but we just used umbrellas and enjoyed it anyway.
Go To A Spa
Next, we walked over to get pedicures at C-Nails Studio. The lady was super sweet, spoke fairly good English, and it was only $10 each! No credit card accepted and crisp, clean bills only. The rates for spa services are so low in Cambodia compared to the USA, that I could have spent a whole week getting discounted massages, facials, and manicures, if I had time.
Then off we went for a delicious lunch at the Peace Cafe. Prices were great, ambiance was great, and food was great. They have fresh juices, healthy vegetarian food, a bakery, and a fair trade gift shop.
Wat Preah Prom Rath
This is quite an eye-catching Buddhist temple complex with colorful pagodas, lots of statues, a huge wall around the complex. This historical temple is different from all the others on my list so make sure you stop by. It is a functioning monastery so you will likely see monks walk by or worshipping.
For dinner we headed over to Sambo Khmer & Thai Restaurant. It was cheap and pretty good. The Noon Night Market is right nearby so we explored that a little before heading off to bed for an early pickup the next morning. The Noon Night Market was very similar and pretty close to Little Pub Street but on the other side of the Siem Reap River. Just take the Old Market Bridge.
The truth is there is still so much more we could have explored in Siem Reap if we had stayed longer- from the Angkor National Museum to the Made in Cambodia Market and more.
Siem Reap Cambodia should definitely be on your travel destinations bucket list. From fun things to around the small, welcoming city itself to the absolutely amazing Angkor Wat, a city of ancient temples, you will have a great time!