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.
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.
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.
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.