Today, I want to sing the praises of Siem Reap, a small but unique city in Cambodia. It’s also home to Angkor Wat, the largest religious site on earth (but I’ll cover Angkor Wat in another review). As always, this content is exclusive to AllWorld.com.
Unlike Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines, where the vast majority of tourists fly in and out of the capital or main cities (Bangkok, Saigon, Manila), a good number of tourists fly right into Siem Reap – and for good reason. The airport is clean, modern, and efficient, with plenty of daily flights all over the region and Asia, but not so big that it’s overwhelming or the lines become out of control. I’ve found that flights in and out of Siem Reap are less expensive, too, if you do some research. For instance, a flight from Manila to Siem Reap is only about $80 USD, but from Manila to the capital, Phnom Penh, can be around $200.
All About Siem Reap
Once you arrive and get through customs (easy to get a visa at the airport), the relaxation begins. You can arrange for a taxi anywhere in Siem Reap, but the best way to go is on a tuk-tuk, which gives you an open-air street view of life around you. The hotels in Siem Reap offer some of the best value for the price, and there are so many nice ones with great swimming pools in the $25 – $40 range that I don’t even bother looking for 5-star hotels in higher price ranges.
In fact, some of the better hotels in Siem Reap aren’t the bigger resorts, but the smaller boutique bread and breakfast type establishments, which usually are really quaint, adorned with natural wood, cultural artwork, covered in well-kept gardens and flora, and, like I mentioned, have great swimming pools.
With so many hotels available (and just trying to judge them off of photos on the internet), a good way to narrow down is by 4-star hotels beneath $50 (or 3-star at or under $25 if that’s more of your preference) and then look by location.
Instead of searching by proximity to Angkor Wat, I recommend using the Pub Street area as an epicenter for your searches, because that’s probably where you’ll be spending a lot of time. Anything up to about 1.5 km away from the heart of Pub Street is optimal and an easy bike ride/$1 tuk-tuk ride/or healthy walk away.
But you also don’t want to get TOO close to Pub Street. I once made the mistake of staying in a hotel right over an Irish Bar on Pub Street and the BOOOOOOM BOOOOOOM bass from several clubs kept me up every night until 4 AM.
The same goes for meals: the restaurants in the higher traffic areas on Pub Street are more expensive and crowded. Still, $8 for a big breakfast and coffee is a fortune in Cambodia, but nothing to a tourist. But when you’re ready for a break from the masses of tourists (you will be within a couple days!), take a walk to the quieter streets on the other side of the river. Some of my favorite restaurants are just local Khmer joints, like the barbecue spot where you cook your own food right on the table, and you can eat, drink, and sweat it out with the locals.
But exploring Pub Street and then working your way out to find hidden treasures is half the fun. Strolling around Pub Street’s 8-block area that’s cordoned off for pedestrians at night is also one of the highlights of Siem Reap. You’ll find endless bars, cafes, and restos, a huge public market complex selling jewelry, spices, carvings, souvenirs, artwork, cheap sunglasses, and endless bad t-shirts. But the Pub Street area also has a lot of hidden bookstores, art galleries, socially conscious businesses, and a few watering hole gems, like my favorite, Madam Wongs.
You’ll even see an army of food carts out at night, where you can get fruit smoothies for $1 (just order them without sugar or sweet milk), hand rolled ice cream, Nutella crepes, all sorts of traditional Khmer food, and even one cart that serves cooked insects, snake, and spider!
Walk around, sight-see, and eat and drink to your heart’s content. But also be careful about pickpockets on Pub Street, as there are a lot of people out to take advantage of the tourists. The police and tourism officials do a good job keeping the area clean and regulated (as opposed to nearly-lawless Phnom Penh), but you’ll still see a lot of beggars and ladies of the evening trying to catch your attention.
Speaking of beggars, don’t ever give them money to child beggars in Siem Reap – most of them are dressed in dirty clothes and put out there by their parents or even gangs, and them money won’t go to them. If you buy them food, there are other scams they can run on you, and giving them anything just perpetuates the problem and creates more beggars.
You will, however, see a lot of men around with no arms or legs, victims of the million landmines that were buried beneath Cambodian soil during the Vietnam conflict. Some of these guys are selling books or maps, etc. and just want to work – not beg – and I’ll always support them.
But there are also some amazing charities, non-profits, and NGOs in Siem Reap that you can get involved with, buying a product from their store, patronizing their shop or restaurant, or even going to volunteer. One of my favorites is the Children’s Improvement Center orphanage on the outskirts of Siem Reap, who take care of 38 now happy, healthy, educated, smiling and polite orphans.
If you’ve done Angkor Wat and the temples to exhaustion, check out the floating village. HOWEVER there are three floating villages, and the first two are glorified tourist traps, where EVERYBODY is there to get in your pocket and even scam you. But the third floating village, Kompong Khleang, which is a good 1.5 hours outside of town in a taxi or car, is well worth it.
Another way to really see the authentic country and its people is to get a tuk-tuk driver and ask him just to tour you around the countryside and smaller, poor towns for a couple of hours. It will be totally safe, and you’ll be shocked and amazed.
What else can I tell you about Siem Reap?
- Canadia bank doesn’t charge high foreign ATM fees,
- You can walk around with an open beer without hassle (just always be respectful and well-behaved no matter where you go
- Siem Reap is safe and fun for children, too,
- When you’re ready to leave Siem Reap, you can either fly out, fly to Phnom Penh, or even Sihanoukville,
- There are a few gyms around town but they’re hot, crowded, and dirty – although great to mix with the smiling and welcoming locals. There is a boxing/MMA gym in town, too
- And you’ll have fun renting a bike to get around, but instead of getting one of those old school bikes just because they’ll look cute in photos, get a good mountain bike – especially if you’re going to pedal to Angkor Wat
- Be super careful on the roads, too, because traffic and driving is chaotic in Cambodia
- Speaking of Angkor Wat, I’ll cover that UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest religious monument in the world in my next review – including how to tour it by helicopter!