Should Siem Reap in Cambodia be on your bucket list? Yes, absolutely! If you have the chance to travel to South East Asia, I highly recommend adding Cambodia to your travel itinerary to visit the renowned temples of Angkor Wat, which are the ultimate expression of the Khmer Empire. Aside from the World Heritage Site, Siem Reap is a lively city with a lot to offer to travellers and digital nomads.
Hello everyone, I hope you’re all doing ok and are safe wherever in the world you are right now. I am at home in Wroclaw, Poland where I will likely spend the next few months. I know it’s a weird time to be writing about faraway destinations, now that the majority of us are stuck at home, but for me this is a way to escape the physical lockdown and travel with my mind. I will continue to share my travel experiences and I hope you will enjoy reading them.
A year and a half ago my husband and I travelled to Cambodia. We were in Siem Reap for just four days, but this brief introduction to Cambodia was enough for me to fall in love with the country. One day, I hope to be back.
We were in Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat, the ancient city of the Khmer Empire and one of the most famous World Unesco Heritage Sites. Situated on the outskirts of the Cambodian city of Siem Reap, Angkor Wat has been on my bucket list for many years. I was in Bangkok for a press trip and from there I flew the short distance to Siem Reap. There are daily connections from Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok to Siem Reap and the plane journey takes just one hour.
Where to Stay in Siem Reap
For our short trip to Siem Reap, we decided to book two different hotels and we spent two nights at each one. The first was in the centre and was perfect to explore the city on foot; the second was just outside the city and was ideal to relax in the afternoons at the end of our tours.
Viroth’s Hotel is a boutique hotel in the centre of the city, furnished with impeccable style and elegance. The bedroom’s balconies or patios face a courtyard with a refreshing swimming pool and a restaurant where à la carte breakfast is served in the mornings. The staff at Viroth’s Hotel are incredibly friendly and helpful (we particularly appreciated their kind offer of a wet towel every single time we returned to the hotel). And it’s great to stay so close to the heart of Siem Reap’s commercial centre and bustling night life.
For the last two nights in Siem Reap we moved to Phum Baitang, a resort that is part of Zannier Hotels (read my review of their hotel in Ghent, Belgium: 1898 The Post). We stayed in one of the Pool Villas, which pay homage to the traditional Khmer wooden houses on stilts. The spacious villa featured a double bedroom with A/C, a desk and small lounge area with sofa and coffee table, a large bathroom with shower, oval bath tub and toilet.
Phum Baitang’s Pool Villa comes with a private plunge pool and a cabana overlooking the grounds. From our private terrace we could see the resort while at the same time also feeling secluded from everyone. The thick plants surrounding the villa and garden provide privacy to hotel guests.
The 50-metre freshwater infinity pool overlooks paddy fields and is open to all guests of Phum Baitang.
The natural setting of Phum Baitang (“the green village”) takes your breath away: set within 8 acres of lush gardens, lemongrass meadows, rice paddies, palm trees and wooden stilted villas. It’s a total dream! The landscape reminded me of the rice fields of Ubud, which made me very happy!
A 4-day Siem Reap Guide
Day 1: explore Siem Reap
We spent the first day in Siem Reap just walking around the city, stopping at coffee shops, grabbing lunch in one of the many cool eateries of Siem Reap, shopping at the market and then resting by the pool of our hotel. We were feeling tired after a full-on week in Thailand where both of us worked, so having a full day to explore Siem Reap without a set agenda was a great idea.
My impression of Siem Reap was of a welcoming city with friendly locals, a small digital nomad community, nice cafés and restaurants, and pretty shops selling handmade crafts. I loved the independent shops near Central Market Street and Hap Guan Street. Next to all of that, you’ll see big stores of fake designer brands, Pub Street heaving with people drinking outside, and the lively Angkor Night Market where haggling is the norm. If you have an extra day to spend in Siem Reap, consider take a Khmer cooking class to learn how to make Cambodia’s delicious curries.
Day 2-3-4: guided tours of Angkor Wat
Did you know that the ruins of the ancient capitals of the Khmer Empire stretch over 400 square kilometres? Aside from the main attraction, the temple complex of Angkor Wat, there are several other ruins of Hindu and Buddhist temples from the Khmer era.
It takes many days to visit everything and to give each temple the attention it deserves, but three days will allow at least to see the most beautiful and best preserved ones.
Angkor Wat Pass
You must buy an admission pass at the official ticket centre (about 4 km away from Siem Reap). You can use this pass also to visit other monuments in the area. There may be long queues at times (they take your photo and create a unique pass, so it’s not as quick as selling a ticket). Ask your hotel or tour guide for advice on the best time to go. You can choose between a 1-day pass ($37), a 3-day pass ($62) or a 7-day pass ($72). Angkor Wat opens at 5am for the sunrise and closes at 5:30pm.
The important thing to remember before visiting Angkor Wat is to book a guide (who usually doubles up as driver). Angkor Wat is simply too vast: it’s not just one temple, but multiple ones spread over a vast area. There is so much history to learn that you really need an experienced guide to take you around, otherwise it’s just waste of your time. The tours of Angkor Wat are full on, but definitely worth the time and money. Book a guided tour of Angkor Wat online or ask you hotel for advice (which we did for our first two days of tours).
The most famous temple is of course Angkor Wat itself, a Buddhist temple and the largest religious structure ever built. Built under Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat is the earthly representation of Mount Meru, the abode of gods in Hinduism. The majestic building combines the two basic plans of Khmer architecture: the temple mountain and the concentric galleries. Allow a few hours to visit this site.
The Angkor Archaeological Site is renowned for its intricately decorated bas-relief stone carvings. It is said that there are more than 3,000 apsaras (heavenly nymphs) carved into the walls.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
One experience I wasn’t going to miss was a visit of the archaeological site at sunrise. Watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat is considered one of the highlights of any visit to South East Asia!
Even though we shared that moment with thousands of other tourists, it remains one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.
Our sunrise tour was organised and guided by Vespa Adventures in a small group of just 4 people (plus our Vespa drivers). After sunrise, we had breakfast and coffee in a restaurant inside the temple complex. Then, we continued our visit to the walled city of Angkor Thom and Bayon, Ta Prohm, the Hindu temple of Baksei Chamkrong and some lesser known gems that are part of the “Small Circuit”.
We dodged the big buses full of tourists by driving on hidden trails through the jungle, villages and rice fields, before ending the tour just before lunch time.
Angkor Thom and Bayon Temple
Angkor Thom was a fortified city enclosing the Royal Palace, religious and military residences, and administrative buildings of the kingdom. It was the last capital of the Khmer Empire. The 12th-century Bayon Temple is located at the heart of Angkor Thom.
Ta Prohm is one of the most recognised temples of the Angkor temple complex, you know why? I’ll give you a hint: it is also known nowadays as the “Tomb Raider” temple. The site comprises of a series of towers, closed courtyards and narrow corridors in which plants and trees creep through, as if the temple was slowly being swallowed by the jungle.
If you have the 3-days Angkor Wat pass, it’s worth visiting temples of the “Grand Circuit”. Preah Khan is one of the large temple complex in the park and it remains mostly unrestored. Like Ta Prohm, it is partly covered with twisting tree roots.
Neak Pean is a small island temple that can only be reached via a wooden walkway over the water.
These are just a few highlights of my 3-day tour of Angkor site, but we visited many more temples and ruins, and learnt a great deal about the Khmer history, thanks to our local guides.
Where to Eat in Siem Reap
With just 4 days to explore the city and the archaeological site, looking for the best places to eat wasn’t a priority on this trip. But of course, I still tried my best to have authentic Cambodian food experiences and also to eat healthy and good quality dishes.
Haven is a training restaurant that trains hospitality and cooking school students whilst also creating secure jobs for them. We had a wonderful dinner at this restaurant; remember to book a table in advance.
Another nice place for dinner is Le Malraux in the lively Old Market area, a French brasserie serving Khmer specialities. The Source Cafe serves freshly made and tasty vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and raw dishes. Vibe is a vegan, plant-based cafe where I ate an excellent poke bowl. Footprint Café is an amazing spot to eat in Siem Reap; the café also helps the community by providing excellent employment conditions to their staff and investing in their future through trainings.
When To Visit
We travelled to Siem Reap in mid-October, the weather was mostly sunny and hot, although on the first morning a heavy rainfall flooded the streets. The dry and cooler season starts in November and lasts until around March.
Other Useful Tips
- For most visitors to Cambodia, a tourist visa is obtainable upon arrival at Siem Reap International Airport. I recommend getting an e-Visa online before travelling to skip the long queue at the airport.
- To get around in the city, get on a tuk-tuk. They are the cheapest and easiest way to explore the city and all the temples.
- Pack suncream and insect repellent; if you don’t have any, buy them from the nearest pharmacy to you in Siem Reap.
- US dollars are accepted everywhere
- The temples of Angkor are sacred religious site to the Khmer people, so visitors are asked to dress modestly: cover your shoulders and knees. Do not touch, sit or climb on the ancient ruins.
Disclaimer: I received 1 complimentary night with breakfast and 1 spa treatment at Phum Baitang resort. I paid for the 2nd night and meals. I was under no obligation to post this review and all opinions expressed here are my own.