After traveling in Cambodia for more than two weeks, we were finally ready to head to Siem Reap. While many choose to make this their one and only stop in the Kingdom of Cambodia, you’re skipping out on so many great places and really selling the country short by doing so. Chill out for a couple of days in Kep, do some countryside exploring in Kampot, party hard in Sihanoukville, enjoy an island getaway on Koh Rong, take in both the beautiful and dark sides of the capital Phnom Penh, and spend a few days checking out caves, temples, and more in Battambang before Siem Reap. There’s much more to Siem Reap than just the temples of Angkor; so much in fact that we ended up spending an entire week there. Here are some highlights and tips from our time in the most famous place in Cambodia.
One Day at Angkor Isn’t Enough
For visiting the Angkor Archaeological Park, visitors have the option of buying one ($20), three ($40), or seven ($60) day passes. As there are many huge temples to visit, some of which you can spend a few hours exploring, one day simply is not enough here. Unless you absolutely don’t have enough time, do yourself a favor and at least buy the 3-day pass. You don’t need to use it on three consecutive days, as it is valid for an entire week. We spread out our visit by doing the Grand Tour one day and the Roluous Group another with a hired tuk-tuk, and then we cycled up for sunrise to do the Mini-Tour. We’ll have another post all about exploring Angkor in the near future.
Three Hotels in One Week
Originally, we only planned to spend five days in Siem Reap. Due to a necessary repair on my MacBook, though, we had to tack on a few extra days. At first the idea was to spend a few nights in a cheaper hostel while we explored the park by day, and then reward ourselves with a stay in a nicer place with a pool afterwards. First up was the Panda Guesthouse, a simple budget place with a central location in town. Our private room for $15/night was a great deal, the owners were super friendly, and it was a convenient spot to be based.
Next up, we moved to the Lotus Lodge. This place is a bit far out of town, and at about $30/night we were going over our usual budget. The peaceful location plus a swimming pool sold us, but it ended up being a very disappointing stay. We cut our stay short here in favor of heading back to town and moving back to a cheaper, more central hostel. The saving grace of this place was the watchtower, from where you can enjoy views of Angkor Wat in the distance.
Our final home in Siem Reap was the Ivy Guesthouse, where we got a simple double room for under $10/night. They had a great balcony for guests to chill out on, and an even better bar/restaurant that served an excellent tapas menu at night. It turns out that the cheapest, most basic guesthouse was probably our favorite.
There’s More to See Than Angkor
Of course visiting the temples is the highlight of any stay in Siem Reap, but there’s more to do if you’ve got the time. The Angkor National Museum is definitely worth a visit, and we’re glad that we did it before visiting the temples to learn more about the history of this incredible place.
Another popular thing to do here is visit a floating village. There are three such villages that you can easily visit from Siem Reap. We had been warned about Chong Kneas and we’ll pass that onto our readers – it’s apparently a massive tourist trap. In the end, we settled on Kompong Phluk, which falls in the middle of the three villages based on reviews. Lots of people complain about the $20 ticket for the boat ride and visit to the village, but we found it to be reasonable considering we had a boat all to ourselves. At least on our visit, the amount of tourists wasn’t overwhelming, and we had a great day drifting past the houses on stilts and taking a side trip through a mangrove forest.
After cruising through the mangroves, we sat down to eat lunch at a floating restaurant that also had a big cage of crocodiles.
Perhaps the other, more remote village of Kompong Khleang really is the best bet if you’ve got the extra time and cash that your tuk-tuk driver will surely demand for bringing you all the way out there, but we were satisfied with our visit. The best part was watching the village kids get around in their little saucers and boats – it’s hard to imagine growing up in such a place, but the kids are obviously used to it.
Before heading back, we got to check out the giant Tonle Sap lake for a few minutes. This is the largest freshwater lake in all of SE Asia, and it’s of great importance to Cambodia.
Tons of Great Dining Options
You certainly will not go hungry in Siem Reap, as you can find just about any kind of cuisine imaginable. There are plenty of local joints serving up cheap classics like fish amok, but you can also find Indian, Chinese, American, and everything in between. One of the hardest choices every day in Siem Reap is figuring out where to dine!
Evening Entertainment Abounds
Although you may be exhausted from cycling and climbing around temples all day in the hot Cambodian sun, you’d better get a second wind and go out for at least a few nights out on the town. During our trip, we attended two evening shows. The first was Phare, the Cambodian circus that empowers disadvantaged youth by training them in acrobatics, dance, acting, and more. They do different shows every night, and although we only attended one, we can say without question that it would be worth it to go on multiple nights. It was a fantastic show put on by an incredible organization, and the performers were very impressive.
Thanks to a nice Christmas gift from Rachel’s grandparents, we also decided to see the epic Smile of Angkor performance. This grand production was funded by the Chinese, and we could tell right away thanks to the cheese factor throughout the show. There’s a huge, mediocre dinner buffet before the performance that comes with your ticket. During high season, there are two shows every night. Make sure you go to the second one, as the first seems to be solely reserved for Chinese and Korean tour groups. It was a very entertaining show, but given the chance, we’d probably skip it in favor of attending another couple of Phare performances.
If shopping is your thing, there’s also a nice night market here where you can pick up the usual assortment of kitschy souvenirs, get a massage, or just crack a beer and people watch.
Rage the Pub Street
After you conquer Angkor Wat, head to the Pub Street and pay a visit to the infamous Angkor What? bar. The city of Siem Reap smartly decided to pack all of the bucket-schwilling backpackers onto one street and let them go at it every night. As such, while most of the town is rather quiet, there is one corner that absolutely rages on a nightly basis. We enjoyed dropping by a few times to have a drink and watch the madness unfold, especially seeing the occasional Chinese or Korean tourist run up to snap a cell phone picture and then hurriedly scamper away.
If the deafening noise of Pub Street is too much for you as it was for us, you can head to X Bar, a rooftop joint with live music most nights of the week. This place was more up our alley, and we enjoyed heading there at night to grab a beer and catch some live tunes.
Siem Reap Summary
Transportation: As this is the most popular tourist destination in Cambodia, there’s no shortage of ways to get to Siem Reap. The largest airport in the country is here, serving plenty of international destinations. Another popular way of getting here is the train-bus combo from Bangkok but beware of scammers, especially on Khao San Road. Here’s a handy guide on taking the bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok. From other destinations in Cambodia, it’s a cheap bus ride.
Accommodation: There are so many places to stay here that you can find something for every budget. We stayed at Panda Guesthouse ($15/night for a double), Lotus Lodge ($30/night for a double) and Ivy ($10/night for a double). Lotus was disappointing given the price, but the others were great.
Getting Around: Many people join group tours here, but we hate that sort of thing. You can easily hire a tuk-tuk driver to take you out to the temples for the day, or you can also rent bicycles in town for a few bucks a day. We did a combination of the two plus the occasional bus/taxi ride.
Activities: See the above blog post! There’s a museum, floating villages, evening shows, and lots more to occupy your time here outside of the obvious Angkor visit.
Food/Drink: You name it and you can find it here. There’s plenty of Chinese and Korean food to satisfy the tourists from those countries who apparently can’t eat anything else, and there are also lots of local restaurants as well as plenty of Western options.
Recommended Time: Exploring Angkor is tiring, so it’s best to stay here 5-6 days and get a 3-day pass for the temples. That way you don’t get temple fatigue so easily, and you’ve got a few extra days to chill and do other things.
Total Cost: We spent $632 for our 7-night stay in Siem Reap. This went over our budget, but that was due to the fact that we had recently gotten some Christmas money and decided to treat ourselves to some things we otherwise wouldn’t have, such as a $30/night hotel and the Smile of Angkor show ($30 each). Basically, you can survive on any budget in Siem Reap. The city caters to dirt-cheap backpackers as well as rich retirees, so you can find something no matter what your financial situation.