Just as Cusco is the Peruvian gateway city to Machu Picchu, Siem Reap is the Cambodian gateway to Angkor Wat. I’ll admit that when I visited Cambodia for the very first time this past March, Siem Reap was merely a means to an end for me. That end was Angkor Wat, a world wonder that I had dreamed about experiencing for quite some time. What I ended up discovering, as many of my great travel stories go, is that Siem Reap is a destination in and of itself that requires no other agenda to visit. Make sure to carve out time to simply explore this gateway city; don’t just jet in and out with Angkor Wat solely in mind.
A Few Notes
Before I dive into the good stuff, a few notes about traveling to Cambodia. One, you will require a visa to enter the country. While you can obtain this visa easily online or at the airport upon arrival, the queue at the airport will be mammoth, and not a productive use of your time. Go here to secure your visa in advance of traveling. Two, I flew Angkor Air from Vietnam to Cambodia, and there are some pretty restrictive baggage limitations for this small domestic airline. Read the fine print, and read it again when booking and before you leave for your trip.
Visiting Angkor Wat
Most folks don’t realize that Angkor Wat is actually the name of a single temple amidst a sprawling, 400+ acre complex of intricate temples that are fighting against nature to remain standing. The complex is the largest religious monument in the world, and visiting this sacred place is truly a once in a lifetime experience. That being said, because of its epic sprawl, it is a multi-day experience, and one best done in the tutelage of a tour guide.
I booked Adventure Travel for a two-day Angkor Wat tour, but could have easily done a third day, there’s that much to see. Not only are there a huge array of temples and sites, but they are not close to each other, and so you’ll want to book a tuktuk for the day along with the tour. I did 1-7pm one day, which included watching the sun set from the top of Pre Rup, and I wouldn’t recommend doing a longer block of time than that in the sweltering heat. For the second day, I had a very early wakeup for a 4am sunrise tour, which was one of the most magical collective experiences of my life. Note that you do need to purchase a park pass to enter the grounds, but the tour guide takes you do the ticket office your first day and shows you exactly which pass to buy and how to purchase it.
Where To Stay
Out of all of the places that I stayed in Asia, Shinta Mani Angkor takes the cake for my absolute favorite hotel experience. It felt like a mystical jungle oasis, complete with swinging lounges over koi-filled pools, fresh lotus blooms everywhere, and one of the most beautiful and scenic pools to relax by after a long day visiting Angkor Wat. The breakfast buffet filled with every thing one could ever want is included, and I ate dinner there one night after getting back from sunset at the temples, and it was fantastic as well (that comes from someone who never eats at hotels, too). It’s a little bit removed from town center, which provides some much needed peace and quiet.
If you’re looking for a hotel alternative, Treeline Hotel in the heart of Siem Reap is a more modern alternative, and is bursting with art, high design details, and luxurious minimalism.
Where To Eat
Little Red Fox Espresso – The place we went back to again and again for coffee and breakfast was Little Red Fox. It’s tucked away on a little side street, but has an upper level with an open air balcony that’s perfect for enjoying your tropical bircher muesli and coconut coffee in the fresh air.
The Christa – If you try one dish in Siem Reap, it’s got to be fish amok, and this is the place to do it. Amok is a traditional Khmer preparation that’s similar to a curry sauce, served in fresh banana leaves. We also sampled the samlor ma-chu krerng, a morning glory greens dish in a sour tamarind sauce that was fantastic. Ask for extra rice on the side to soak up all of the sauce.
Cuisine Wat Damnak – Far and away, this was the fanciest meal that we had in Asia. Wat Damnak is rated the best restaurant in Cambodia, and serves a five-course tasting menu for the equivalent of about thirty US dollars. They change the menu every two weeks so that it’s intensely seasonal and fresh. The food is delicious, although it wasn’t incredibly memorable. Make a reservation in advance.
Mie Cafe – I would go back to Mie Cafe just for the ambiance – it felt like a candlelit treehouse. Although the food was nothing to write home about, it was good, especially if you are craving an accompanying glass of wine after a long day at the temples.
Things To Do
First off, see the Angkor Wat section above. Between you Angkor Wat tours, and relaxing by the pool at Shinta Mani Angkor, you’ve got quite the itinerary right there. But if you’re looking for more activities, I can’t recommend exploring Siem Reap more. It sprawls across both banks of the Siem Reap River, and it’s fun to spend a morning exploring. Start off at Little Red Fox for breakfast, and wander through the Wat Preah Prom Rath, a beautiful and small Buddhist temple complex, visit Psar Chaa, the old market, and don’t miss the Made in Cambodia Market as well.