I was unsure of what to expect when I decided to visit Siem Reap, a small laid-back town in Cambodia and gateway to the exquisite Angkor Wat temples. Although a naturally beautiful country blessed with a rich heritage, Cambodia’s extremely troubled past is well-documented. The death of the brutal dictator Pol Pot in 1998 and the fall of deadly Khmer Rouge Regime have now thankfully closed the chapter on Cambodia’s darkest days. In this new chapter, many curious tourists are drawn to this mystical and now peaceful country. This is my guide to the Angkor Wat and Siem Reap attractions: When researching Cambodia you may come across disturbing tales of muggers, sex-tourists and unexploded landmines. These things do exist and a degree of common sense is certainly recommended but I personally found the majority of Cambodians just want to live a peaceful life after suffering three decades of civil war. It’s also a charming and charismatic place where I guarantee you will see lots of smiles.
Siem Reap has a wide range guest-houses and hotels to suit many budgets. They range from basic at 10-20 US$, mid-range 30-50 US$ and high-end 70 US$ – 200 US$ or more. Places that offer good value that are close to Siem Reap attractions are Golden Mango Inn, Royal Crown Hotel and Casa Angkor Hotel. If you are unsure about independent and prefer a more structured trip then Exotissimo are tour operators who offer individually tailored Cambodia Tours and packages. They are the longest established & leading inbound tour agents in Asia and come highly recommended by travellers. For more information see their Cambodia Tours and Cambodia Tour Packages
Tuk Tuks are the best way to travel around Siem Reap. They are cheap, allow you to photograph on the go and they are also great fun! You can hail a Tuk Tuk from anywhere but make sure you negotiate the price before boarding, although please remember when bartering for anything (tuk tuks or otherwise) a small amount to you might make a big difference to a local and his/her family. I would recommend bringing sunglasses and a scarf because of the dust. Many hotels also have their own Tuk Tuk drivers, we used the same driver each day. This was great as he was very friendly and after he got to know us he would take us off the tourist trails if we desired. Tuk Tuk drivers can be hired for around $8-$10 for a full day, payable at the end of your day/journey.
Obviously the main attraction in Siem Reap are the temples at Angkor Wat. The temples are truly amazing and should not be missed when visiting Cambodia. You can buy a 1 day ticket $20, 3 day ticket $40 or a 7 day ticket $60. I bought a 3 day ticket but only spent a day and half at the temples, I was able to see many of the main temples before being templed out! Although one day is certainly not enough for hardcore temple enthusiasts. Visiting hours are 5am -5:30pm and the ticket booth is approx. 2 km from Angkor Wat. (you must keep your ticket with you at all times and in good condition!) Your ticket allows you to come and go freely during opening hours. Many visitors start early to catch the sunrise from the top of a temple and finish their long day heading back up the temples to view the sunset.
Aside from Angkor Wat, there are many more Siem Reap attractions, here are my favourites:
- Landmine Museum – Entry is $1. This is a fascinating place and they also educate people about the dangers of UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) that still exist in Cambodia. Most of the young guides here are orphans or victims of landmines and the money raised goes back into supporting and educating victims of UXO.
- The markets – I recommend a visit to at least one of the markets. The oldest and the biggest is the busy Phsar Chas but the newer markets are also worth a visit. The Angkor Night Market is also a great for a relaxing stroll in the evening.
- Floating Village – This was my favourite place! Visiting the village of unique stilt housing along the Tonle Sap Lake is a great opportunity to see daily Cambodian village life and one that shouldn’t be missed. Getting there is an adventure itself and if it’s anything like my experience it will involve a Tuk Tuk ride through villages, a dirt-track motorbike drive and then a peaceful and relaxing boat cruise. When walking through the village you will pass the local school, on our trip we received a warm welcome from smiling laughing children and teachers. Make sure you take gifts like pens/pencils/rice to donate to the villagers and their children.
My tips for a trouble-free stay
- Beggars here are hard to say no to, especially the children. Most charity organisations the world over ask that you don’t give money as it keeps people on the streets and rarely goes to good use. Everyone’s opinion is different on this, I personally give to amputees and recognised organisations.
- Beware of scammers! Here they mainly try to trick you into believing they are collecting money for the temple upkeep or various charities. Always be certain that your money is going where you want it to!
- Also beware of the mosquitoes-there are plenty! Make sure you bring repellent with lots of DEET and some kind of cream to treat the itching.
- Souvenirs are cheap. In Siem Reap you will only pay a few pounds for a T-shirt, Cambodian scarf or temple rubbing.
- Don’t go off the main trails on your own-unexploded mines are still a problem in Cambodia although they are not such a problem in and around tourist areas.
- There are Internet cafes in the centre of Siem Reap just don’t expect a fast connection!
- I recommend that you use transportation when out and about at night, tuk tuks are the best and cheapest method of travel.
- Taking photographs is not a problem here as long as you are respectful.
- And lastly when ordering a pizza, watch out for the ‘Happy Pizzas’ – they are laced with marijuana. The ‘happier’ the pizza the stronger the marijuana!
I have many unforgettable memories and stories from my visit to Cambodia and I was particularly struck by the optimism and welcoming kindness of people who are still recovering from years of suffering and brutality. Travelling through Cambodia is a journey of ever-changing emotions and I’m sure most will enjoy the traditional streets, beautiful temples, the endlessly friendly locals and the chance to recreate a scene from ‘Tomb Raider’ at the Angkor Wat. You could even try a tasty fried spider or two-if you’re feeling brave enough!