Things to do in Siem Reap

The small city of Siem Reap’s name means “Siam defeated” in Khmer, which, according to legend, refers to a time when a Khmer king successfully defended Cambodia from an invading army from Siam (Thailand). However the Wikipedia page on the town states that this legend is likely untrue. Either way, the name is pretty ironic given that Thailand did occupy Siem Reap and surrounding cities from the 18th century up until Cambodia came under French rule.

Siem Reap started out as a small village and now flourishes due to the tourism industry. In fact, it almost pretty much exists just as a gateway to Angkor. A lot of travelers criticize it for this reason, but in Siem Reap’s defense it really doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is: a tourist city with little to do except leave to see the temples.

As a tourist city goes, though, Siem Reap has pretty much everything. Hotels and hostels to suit all budgets, shopping markets, bars, pharmacies, laundries, and convenience stores. The city center is clustered with a diverse array of restaurants, serving food from Khmer to Mexican to Thai to Italian.

Siem Reap’s Pub Street.

Pub Street is the city’s main nightlife area and it’s bustling with people (mostly tourists) at night. Plenty of street foods and $1 fruit shakes are also sold here.

The Old Market, located near Pub Street has fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, and various spices for sale. It was established in the 1920’s so unlike the other markets in the area, it wasn’t created just for tourists to buy souvenirs.

Later at night, the Night Market has plenty of souvenirs and also offers up some cheap massages and pedicures and manicures.

A cheap tuk-tuk from the city center is the Angkor National Museum. The price is a bit steep, at $12. Hostels and travel agencies in the city sell tickets. If you don’t mind the price that much, it’s a well maintained museum with some good exhibits and information about the Angkor era.

A few restaurants in the city will offer a dinner combined with an Apsara dance show. Apsara is traditional Khmer dancing that features on much of the Angkor temple artwork.

The price depends on the venue, but most hotels and hostels can arrange it. There’s also a restaurant on Pub Street that has a free show starting around 7:30. It’s called Temple Club, and features a bar/dance club in the basement, a restaurant on the second floor (where the show is held) and live music and a lounge on top. To watch the show you are expected to order something obviously, but it’s fine to just get a drink.

After the show is over, they offer time to take pictures with the dancers.

Me with the dancers.

Another activity is Phare, the Cambodian circus. I didn’t make it to the show because I had planned to go my last night in Siem Reap and assumed I could just buy tickets the same day, but the circus was full so I couldn’t go. The show is every night at 8 pm. Tickets can be purchased at most accommodations for $18. Just be sure to buy early rather than later.

Artisans d’Angkor is a cool handicraft workshop located in Siem Reap city center, and it was right next door from my hostel so I visited before leaving the city. There are a few guides that lead a free tour through the workshops explaining how handicrafts, ranging from wood to stone to paintings are made. There is a gift shop at the end with some really nice high-quality silks and other gifts to buy. The workers are mostly rural locals who trained for a year. It’s a good cause worth supporting so probably the best place in Siem Reap to buy souvenirs and gifts.

Artisans d’Angkor.
One of the workshops.

Despite being the gateway to Cambodia’s main tourist attraction, prices in Siem Reap are generally cheap. Meals at the cheaper restaurants tend to be between $3-$7 USD. US dollars are the preferred currency in Siem Reap, so there’s really no need to convert to Cambodian riel. However Cambodia doesn’t use US coins so change such as $.50 will be given in riel.

I stayed in the Luxury Concept Hostel in Siem Reap, and it was a very good stay overall. The 10 bed female dorm costs about $7 per night. The beds are really big (the biggest I’ve ever seen in a hostel) and comfortable. They each come with a small fan, a light, a power socket, and some hooks. There’s an en suite toilet, shower, and sink, all separate from each other reducing waiting time. The bottom bunks also have curtains. The hostel has a bar on the roof, where they also serve breakfast for $2.50, and on the bottom floor there is a small convenience store. Plenty of restaurants and laundries are around, as well as a nice bakery across the street. It is located only a few minutes’ walk away from the Old Market and Pub Street.

I stayed for 6 nights in Siem Reap, which is more than enough to see the main temples, but offers extra time for other temples further from the main center. For my budget at the time though, it was about one night too long. I hadn’t yet received my final payments from my job in Korea yet (pension, return flight bonus) and while I knew I would probably receive it in my bank account while I was travelling I wasn’t 100% certain of that. So I was pretty frugal and wound up skipping some activities to save money. That being said 6 nights does offer a lot of relaxation time and I needed that in the Cambodian heat (I’m sensitive to hot temperatures) so the ideal amount of time in the city really depends on budget, what you are interested in, and how active you can be in the hot temperatures.

Although the temples are certainly the main attraction in the Siem Reap area, plenty of people also day trip to a nearby floating village if they have an extra day or two in the city. I decided to visit one, which I’ll detail in the next post.

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The Surrounding Temples in Angkor

A lot of travelers to South-east Asia use the terms “Angkor” and “Angkor Wat” interchangeably, but the two are not actually the same. “Angkor” is the Khmer word for “city,” so the term “Angkor” refers to the whole capital city of the Khmer Empire, which contains a large land mass and hundreds of different temples. As discussed in the previous post, Angkor Wat is the main temple, and Bayon and Ta Prohm are the next most visited.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t make an actual list of the temples I wanted to see when I visited Siem Reap, I just went along the trail my guide took me (with the exception of Banteay Srei and Banteay Samre). But if you want to make a list, these are my personal top five.

1. Banteay Srei

This was the most far-out temple that I visited (it’s about a 30 minute drive from Siem Reap) but totally worth it. This small temple is made with red sandstone so it really stands out from the rest. The carvings are very intricate and absolutely beautiful. Despite it’s remoteness, it’s actually very popular, so it might be better to get there early. There were busloads of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese tourists when I was there, and given the small size of the temple it seemed even more crowded than Angkor Wat.

Aside from the temple itself, the tuk-tuk ride here was also pleasant, through some very pretty villages and countryside. The Landmine museum is also on the way here and it’s worth a visit. Many Cambodians have been injured or killed by the thousands of landmines in the country planted during the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge. It was established by a former child soldier turned de-miner. Just ask the tuk-tuk driver to stop there. From my memory the tuk-tuk ride costs about $25.

Water buffalo at Banteay Srei.

2. Preah Khan

Preah Khan is like a less crowded and quieter Ta Prohm, but equally impressive.

Kind of looks like Roman columns.

3. Phnom Bakheng

This temple takes the third spot for me because of the views of Angkor Wat from the top. The climb up to the mountain temple isn’t terribly difficult but it was quite strenuous for me in the heat.

4. Neak Pean

This isn’t anything close to the biggest or grandest of Angkor’s surrounding temples, but I really liked this one because of it’s setting within a pond. To reach it, cross a thin wooden bridge.

5. East Mebon

Built in the same style as the Pre Rup temple, the two are pretty much interchangeable, but I’m mentioning East Mebon because it’s the one I visited. It’s set on a mountain with nice views, and while fairly small it’s very symmetrical.

There are plenty of other temples in the complex alongside these five, and other temples even farther from the main area (such as Beng Mealea). These were just the favorites out of the ones I saw. A lot of people tend to get “templed out” after having seen so many temples in Angkor, and I would agree that they do get somewhat repetitive after awhile, but at the same time the reliefs and styles are often pretty unique and worth taking time to explore.

In the next post, I’ll discuss activities to do in Siem Reap city, aside from the temples.

Angkor: The Three Main Temples

So I’m now back in the U.S., just caught up on sleep after recovering for a sleepless 24 hours. It feels really strange to be back. I still have mixed feelings at the moment. I think coming back was probably the right thing for me as of now (for a few reasons) but I did have a pretty good life in Korea. I think coming back is really more of an adjustment for me than moving to Korea was, since now I have to actually start driving, get my own apartment (at some point) and work harder to find a job (or at least a decent job).

Anyway, I finally made it to the Angkor temples in Cambodia en route back to the States, and they really are spectacular to behold. It’s definitely a must-see while travelling through South-east Asia and perhaps even the continent of Asia in general.

The main temple, Angkor Wat, was built in the 12th century, during the height of the Khmer Empire, which stretched into much of mainland South-east Asia. It’s only one of many, many temples built during the Empire, but it’s the largest and considered the most impressive of all, and one of the world’s largest religious buildings. It was originally built as a Hindu temple, dedicated to Vishnu. Later in the 14th century, it was converted to a Buddhist temple.

The Bayon is another on the “must-see” list, and it’s almost nearly as spectacular as Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th or 13th century, the face of King Jayavarman VII is carved into several of the temple towers.

The temple also contains many impressive reliefs.

Bayon is located in Angkor Thom, which was a walled city and the Khmer Empire’s last capital. The Terrace of the Elephants was a part of Angkor Thom, and used by Jayavarman VII to see his victorious army return.

A restored lion on the Terrace.

The Terrace of the Leper King nearby is equally impressive.

Ta Prohm temple was made famous by the movie “Tomb Raider” and it’s generally on every visitor’s list.

The effects of the jungle can be clearly seen here.

Most of the Angkor temples were abandoned after the Khmer Empire fell (with the exception of Angkor Wat itself, which remained in use as a Buddhist house of worship). Therefore most are currently being restored.

All of these temples are on virtually every tourist’s circuit, so be prepared for crowds, particularly at Angkor Wat. The temples’ tourist numbers have substantially grown over the years. Angkor Wat gets very crowded during sunrise, but the other two may have less people early in the morning. Cambodia is also very very hot, even when I was there (in February) so bring water and wear sunscreen. However, although it is hot, in South-east Asia it is generally considered inappropriate to visit temples if wearing very short shorts or tank tops. I doubt many visitors get turned away because of this, but I do think it is important to be respectful of a country’s customs, and wear pants or at least cover the knee and shoulders.

Also, there are plenty of vendors at every entrance pushing tourists to buy their wares, from souvenirs to drinks to food so that can be annoying to deal with as well, but there aren’t many vendors actually inside the temples.

While it’s generally recommended to stay at least 3 days to see Angkor, some tourists come for only one or two nights to take in the major temples. With so little time in the area, these are the three temples that should be at the top of the list.

In the small city of Siem Reap, the gateway point to Angkor, there are several tuk-tuk drivers that will happily call out and ask you to use their service. Scams probably happen however, so it might be safest to use a driver recommended by your hotel or hostel. I arranged a pick-up at the airport with my hostel and used the driver that picked me up.

The tuk-tuk drivers will generally take you to the temples you ask (or do a pre-set circuit tour of a few temples) and wait near the gate. Obviously there are tons of drivers at the gate so make sure you remember what the rickshaw on your tuk-tuk looks like. Many drivers will have their names painted on the rickshaw.

To get into the temples, there are a few options for passes. The one-day pass costs $20, the three-day pass $40, and the seven-day pass $60. They are supposed to be used on consecutive days.

In the next post, I’ll go into detail on some of the smaller Angkor temples.