Cambodia made my bucket list because it offers an enigmatic history, fascinating archaeological sites, captivating landscapes and rich culture. Unfortunately, I only had a week to travel so I decided to visit Siem Reap, the gateway to the magnificent and breathtaking Temples of Angkor.
Over a two million tourists a year visit Siem Reap, making it one of the top tourist destinations in South East Asia. Despite its fame and the crowd it brings, it remains a charismatic and unaffected town.
Siem Reap is a special place, with endless things to add to your bucket list, from watching the sunrise over the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat temple to eating tarantulas in Old Market!
Before you go
First off, you will need a visa. You can apply for a visa when you land in Siem Reap however, in order to save time, I arranged to get one in Australia before I left. I got my Visa for US$36, within 24 hours from e.visa Kingdom of Cambodia, the official government website.
The Cambodian Riel is the currency of Cambodia however US dollars are widely available and accepted in Cambodia and most ATM’s throughout Siem Reap will dispense dollars instead of riel. In order to save time and get a good rate, I recommend exchanging your money before you leave the country.
When it comes to packing, less is more, especially when you are travelling in South East Asia. Read my blog on How to pack light for tips and tricks.
Khmer is the official language of Cambodia however most of the locals can speak and understand English (particularly in the tourist areas). If you want to push yourself out of your comfort zone, grab a Khmer phrasebook and start practicing!
When to go
Like most cities in Southeast Asia, Siem Reap has a tropical climate with a dry and a wet season.
The dry season runs from November until April. During this time, it is sunny, warm and humid. This is the best time to visit Siem Reap and the temples are particularly favoured in December and January. Just be aware that this is the peak tourist season, so you’ll find it more crowded everywhere and prices will be higher.
The wet season runs from May until October. I visited Siem Reap in September and whilst you can expect a lot of rain and frequent flash flooding, it is a great time to visit as the temples are less crowded and the surrounding landscape is at its fullest. Most of the hotels will provide an umbrella for you to use however the rainfall usually comes in brief showers with long periods of warm sunlight. Just because it is wet season doesn’t mean you won’t get sun burnt, so make sure you wear sun cream!
How long to go for
I stayed in Siem Reap for 7 nights. I am usually always rushing from one town to the next trying to cram in as much as I can whilst I am on holiday but this time I wanted to relax and truly immerse myself into the Cambodian culture.
Where to stay
Accommodation in Siem Reap varies greatly from basic guesthouses to luxury hotels, with something to suit all tastes and budgets. I stayed at Navutu Dreams Resort & Wellness Retreat, a boutique 4-star resort located on the outskirts of town. The resort features three outdoor pools surrounded by lush gardens full of palm trees, bougainvillea and frangipani flowers.
The resort has a day spa which offers the most beautiful and relaxing treatments. I spoilt myself with a treatment everyday – and at such an affordable rate, you’d be crazy not to!
The restaurant Niam Niam (translated to eat, eat!) offers a wide range of cuisine including Cambodian, Italian and contemporary international dishes.
The biggest draw card for me was the on-site yoga studio providing access to a wide range of community and private yoga or meditation classes.
Navutu Dreams Resort & Wellness Retreat also offers affordable yoga and wellness packages that can be uniquely tailored to guests.
Top things to do
Temples of Angkor
Situated between the Tonle Sap lake and the Kulen Mountains, the UNESCO World Heritage Site contains the magnificent remains of the Khmer Empire, which date as far back as the 9th century.
To visit the Angkor temples you have a choice of a one day (US$37), three day (US$62) or seven day (US$72) pass. I arrived at Angkor Wat before sunrise (a must-do) to capture some spectacular photographs before making my way to the popular Bayon, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. I found the one day pass was sufficient for me however, if you want to explore additional ruins or do not fancy arriving before sunrise then I suggest getting a 3 day pass.
Cycle around the country side
Tour a side few see, cycling through the picturesque Siem Reap countryside, where locals wave and smile as you pass. Navutu Dreams Resort offer guests complimentary bike hire, so we were able to take a bike out for half a day and explore the countryside.
A hot and sweaty day exploring the temples of Angkor is often followed by a night out on the town. Pub Street is filled with restaurants, backpacker-friendly bars and nightclubs playing loud dance music.
Great for bar-hopping, Pub Street is easily accessible on foot and often stay open until the early hours of the morning. Alcohol is also cheap in Pub Street – expect to pay as little as 50 cents for draught beers and US$2.50 for a cocktail during happy hours.
Old Market (Phsar Chas)
The Old Market is the oldest Khmer market in Siem Reap, where locals shop for fresh produce in the early morning. There is an overwhelming smell of raw fish and meat as you enter the market where you will find droves of women selling and buying fresh produce.
Go to the fruit section where you can get delicious, vibrant fruit at local prices, walk down the alleyways of the meat section where you will find freshly made sausages hanging, or walk through the seafood section where you can choose your catch straight out.
Once you have finished exploring the market, I recommend stopping by Asana Old Wooden House, a cute cocktail bar set in the last wooden house in old market district for a delicious cocktail or 4!
Kompong Phluk Fishing Village
Kampong Phluk is a fishing village built on stilts on the Tonle Sap lake. It costs US$25 to board a motor boat to reach Kompong Phluk. During the tour, the boat will stop at a floating restaurant where you can have something to eat or board an oar boat for another $5USD and get a tour of a flooded mangrove forest.
I also hear Kompong Khleang fishing village is a favourite however it’s a little further out than Kampong Phluk, taking over an hour to get there.
Blessing from a monk
Cambodia is a deeply Buddhist country and monk blessings are regular occurrence for the Cambodian people. The blessings are said to ward of the bad spirits and bring luck and prosperity and are often conducted on birthdays, weddings and Buddhist days.
You can receive a traditional blessing from a Buddhist monk at one of the many pagodas however I was fortunate to receive a blessing at my hotel. Two monks chant prayers in Pali, the language of the early Buddhist scriptures whilst sprinkling flower-infused water on to me. It was a beautiful and humbling experience that I strongly recommend!
Taste Cambodian cuisine
Cambodia is not only famous for the majestic Angkor temples, but also well-known for its delicious, authentic food culture. Siem Reap has an abundance of amazing restaurants offering traditional Cambodian or Khmer food. Khmer food takes influence from surrounding southeast Asian countries but it’s the seasonal herbs, fresh vegetables, tropical fruits and local fish that truly make the meals stand out.
Adventurous eaters can try an array of snakes, spiders, crickets and other insects that have been fried or seasoned with chilli everywhere from street carts to marketplaces and upscale restaurants.
Must-try dishes include Fish Amok, Beef Loc Lac, Khmer Curry, Nom Banh Chok and fried tarantula!
Find your inner yogi
Siem Reap provides an amazing setting to help you delve deeper into your yoga and meditation practice with a number of yoga centres available. I chose Samadhi Yogashala & Wellness Centre.
Based at Navutu Dreams Resort about 15 minutes out of the town centre, they offer daily yoga classes led by accredited yoga instructors. Most classes run for 75 minutes and Navutu Dreams Resort offer a number of yoga packages, tailored to guests.
See the countryside from the back of a tuk-tuk
It’s hard not to enjoy yourself in the backseat of a tuk tuk with the wind in your face and friendly locals waving hello. The easiest (and one of the cheapest) ways of getting around Siem Reap is via tuk tuk. There is no adventurous and more original way to discover Siem Reap.