In the midst of a huge tourism boom to Southeast Asia, the quaint resort town of Siem Reap maintains its status as the Gateway to Angkor and one of the most captivating in the region with its very own boutique flavor. From Apsara motifs carved into the stone along its hotels’ walls and gardens, to quirky Batman and Superman-themed tuk tuks tottering down its streets, Cambodia continues to proudly wield the town of Siem Reap – whose name literally means ‘Defeat of Siam’ – as one of its most prosperous. Amidst open air markets, temple compounds and artistic undertones, there are many layers to explore for the curious traveller. Here are a few ways to navigate Siem Reap’s charms on your next trip to the capital of Khmer heritage.
Enjoy the sunrise at Angkor Wat
Yes, the sunrise at Angkor Wat is worth losing some sleep over – because it’s likely to be one of the best you’ve ever seen. Book a tuk tuk through your hotel’s concierge the night before, and your driver will be waiting for you bright and early around 5.00 am the next day. You should aim to make it to the edge of the moat before 6.00 am, when the sun’s rays reflect on the river and Angkor’s spires slowly emerge in black silhouettes against the sky’s swirling colours. Have your phone or camera ready in hand and charged up – you might be able to steal one of the best sunrise shots of your life right at this moment! After getting your fill of the view, join other visitors on an early morning stroll through the multiple gateways and towers of the mystical temple grounds.
Get a bird’s eye view of Pub Street while sipping a “Tomb Raider” cocktail
One of the most charming elements of this tourist town is the tiny Pub Street which, despite its size, kicks things up just as energetically as Khao San Road in neighboring Bangkok. Try to arrive before the clock strikes twelve, when all of the revellers and pubs clear out like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight. Before then, this is a great place to enjoy a USD 1 foot massage on the street, let your hair down in various open air pubs, and perch yourself on the 2nd floor of the Red Piano restaurant while sipping a refreshing ‘Tomb Raider’ cocktail –specially created by owner Geert Caboor for the crew of the film starring Angelina Jolie. Read more about the history of the Red Piano and its role in popularizing Pub Street here.
Visit a temple nestled deep in the jungle
Here’s your chance to head off the beaten path and witness local life by braving a long (albeit comfortable) two-hour tuk tuk ride out of the city to the Beng Mealea temple, whose ruins are still nestled in jungle overgrowth. Evoke your inner Indiana Jones as you trek over fallen stones in the recently de-mined temple grounds, which have not yet been cleaned up in the same way as temples in the main Angkor Wat area. You will most likely be approached by a local guide, who can expertly lead you through dark tunnels while recounting the temple’s history and identifying landmarks among its remains. A small tip goes a long way for these guides, and it’s recommended to give them between USD 1 and USD 3 to show your appreciation for their knowledge. Tuk tuks to Beng Mealea typically cost about USD 30 round-trip and can be booked through your hotel. For a similar option that allow you to escape the crowds, check out Banteay Chhmar temple – one of Siem Reap’s best-kept archeological secrets.
Escape Siem Reap for the day
On the outskirts of Siem Reap lie a variety of charming attractions for those who enjoy immersing themselves in local life or rubbing shoulders with authentic artisans. Rent a bike and cycle through Siem Reap’s countryside to marvel at the scenic rice paddies, or take a 15 minute tuk tuk ride out of the city to the Artisans Angkor traditional silk farm – which supports skilled craftsmen in post-war Cambodia and offers free guided tours to visitors. Alternatively, book a day tour with a local provider to visit of one the most impressive floating villages in Cambodia, Kompong Khleang, where you can lunch in the stilt houses on the river, explore traditional Khmer fish trading and see floating village homes on the Tonlé Sap.
Siem Reap charms visitors with a rural feel and the special mélange of colonial and Chinese-style architecture in its Old French Quarter. When visiting, be sure to converse with the friendly young hotel staff – one of the first generations to emerge in the workforce after the Khmer Rouge era. Many of them speak fantastic English, have interesting stories to tell and are intent on building up a better life for their families. In the end, you might find your new Cambodian friends to be one of the most charming and memorable elements of your stay.