While planning our trip to Cambodia, we struggled to find the “right” number of days to spend in Siem Reap. Of course, there’s the world-renowned temples of Angkor Wat, but would 3 days be sufficient to see the rest of the temple-city? Is there anything to do besides temples? (did someone say jet-lag?) Too many questions…
Turns out, 3 days were indeed sufficient without being rushed! Here, we share our list of top things to do in a short time; a bit of everything in a relaxed manner 🙂
Located in northwest Cambodia, Siem Reap (See-em Ree-ep) was once the gateway to the celestial city of Angkor Wat – the holy land of temples, and the capital of the Khmer empire! Today, this city is a popular tourist destination and includes several high-end hotels and a bustling nightlife (pub street) working hard to compete with its raucous neighbor, Thailand with its large tourist towns such as Phuket, and Bangkok. It may not be close to the same scale as these other cities in terms of infrastructure, commercial development, or even area; but Siem Reap still has plenty of options for a (restless) tourist in addition to its incredible temples.
We flew from NYC –>Hong Kong –> Siem Reap. A direct flight usually from one of the Asian hubs (Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, etc.) can get you there efficiently. All tourists need a visa that can be applied for, and purchased at the airport (Cambodia visa on arrival).
While the local currency is Cambodian Riel, it is not as widely used within the city, and Euros and USD are definitely the preferred, if not the only acceptable currency at most places (including tuk-tuks and souvenir shops). Do bring small bills ($1 – $5) as you will be using these frequently for most expenses including transportation.
1) Check into one of the gorgeous hotels: (Angkor Village)
We selected the Angkor village hotel for its beautiful traditional architecture and convenient location to the temple sites.
Walking through the main lobby after an exhausting and long flight, we were pleasantly surprised with the sight that greeted us! The hotel is even prettier in person; the pictures can’t describe the peace and tranquility of the resort…
At night, the hotel turns a deep orange (lighting up the wooden architecture), and you can hear the sounds of the cicadas and frogs croaking in the distance. We felt like we were transported into the old days of the Khmer empire…
2) Tour the temples of Angkor Wat with a three Day Pass
Of course, THIS is why you’re really here! Buy a three-day pass to Angkor Wat and explore the beautiful temples based on our recommendations (read post here)
Price: 1 day ($20), 2 or 3 days ($40) and 1 week ($60), however you can get the 3-day pass to be used any number of times within one week. Keep the pass handy as you will need to show it every time you enter the site.
As you walk to the main gates, notice the general moat surrounding the temple area that has clusters of lotus flowers. You may even witness a Cambodian wedding shoot – so look out for the pretty colors!
3) Check out the bustling Night Scene on pub street
You explored the old temples in the daytime, and now it’s time to explore the new Siem Reap at night! Witness the struggle of the rapid development against the traditions and religious part of the city, and be a part of the sporadic (and a bit crazy) night-scene of tourists and locals as it gets dark…
The bridge is lit up in a myriad of colors, separating the bustling night scene of Pub Street from the cultural art center for souvenir shopping and clothes [Note: Sadly most of these souvenirs are “Made in China” items that you can find in the (tourist) night markets across Thailand and China]. There are several bars along this side, and if you’re looking to grab a drink – hop into one of the restaurants to grab a bite with some loud blaring music! 😉
If this simply isn’t your thing…consider just taking a walk by the market one night for some excellent people watching experience – this may prove to be quite entertaining! 🙂
4) Feast on the delicious Khmer cuisine
Squished between its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodian cuisine is often overlooked in the food category and is quite frequently generalized as “Thai food”. But once you have tasted the Khmer flavors, you’re hooked to its distinctive aroma and perfect combination of flavors (spicy, sour and a hint of sweet). The Khmer red curry (pictured below) was our personal favorite! (The other popular choices are Fish Amok, Khmer dumplings and of course, papaya salad)
Marum is a superb restaurant for a good cause! They serve excellent traditional Khmer food and drinks (try the fresh lemon-ginger soda). For the more adventurous, try the “Red tree ants with Beef”. We ordered it for the table, and while the beef was well-seasoned and stir fried with lemongrass and basil, the ants (not very visible) added a touch of “sour” to the dish 😉
And if you seek even more creepy-crawlies, then grab a skewer (or two) of these grilled bugs!
5) Attend a graceful Apsara Dance performance
The Apsara theater is the only air-conditioned theater in town, and was very conveniently located across our hotel! Tickets include dinner followed by multiple short performances of both classical and folk dances.
The Apsara dance is a Khmer classical dance created during the Cambodian mid-20th century. The Apsara is played by women in beautiful draped dresses and elaborate head-dress and gold jewelry, whose graceful gestures narrate the classical myths and religious epics such as the Ramayana.
The performance also includes a traditional meal right before the dance.
6) Get a massage to help with the jetlag
Well…you’ve traveled half-way across the world, and all this walking across the temple city has your body screaming at you for attention! And those poor feet 😦
Getting a good massage is amazingly affordable (read cheap) in Siem Reap. This also means that you should be wary of all those loud screechy calls for the “$1 massaaaaaaaagge” that follow you all around the central market…
We tried two main places during our visit (based on tourist recommendations)- they were both very clean with a tranquil setting and several good masseuse!
7) Go shopping for a souvenir
While we tried shopping for traditional arts and design, it was very hard finding anything other the standard and very typical “Made in China” and “Made in India” touristy items…
Our tour guide also took us to some of those high-end stores with beautiful sculptures and an even better price-tag (exorbitant)!
Thoroughly dejected, we finally found a “whole sale” market place for souvenirs that’s also willing to sell individual and fewer pieces at reasonable prices (remember: always bargain!) We picked up a few small bronze sculptures and a marble sculpture based on the Bayou Buddha faces!
8) Read a book to learn more about the Khmer empire
The best way to learn more about the history and culture of a place is by reading books based on (or in) the country. There’s always the guide-books but nothing like being immersed in a beautiful story that is steeped in tradition and culture of the region…
I read two very different books on Cambodian history. One based on the glorious past and the peak of the royal empire, and the other based on the dark history and unspeakable horrors of the Khmer Rouge. Highly recommend both!
Temple of a Thousand Faces
by John Shors
Based within a historical setting during the reign of king Jayavarman during the Khmer empire, he brings to life the glory and beauty of the legendary temple of Angkor Wat. A great description and a good read before you visit the temple ruins as you can imagine what it may have looked like when it was first built.
In the Shadow of the Banyan
by Vaddey Ratner
A PEN Hemingway Award finalist and written by Ratner, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia and also a descendant of King Sisowath, who ruled in the early part of the twentieth century; this book is a beautiful heart wrenching story filled with history, mythology and emotion. It also describes the unspeakable horrors of the regime and a dark period of Cambodian history.
And THAT pretty much sums up our three days! 🙂
Hope you enjoyed reading!
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