The gateway to the stunning, bucket list-worthy UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor is Siem Reap, an intimate and welcoming resort town bustling with tuk tuks and filled with the scents of traditional Khmer cuisine. And while Siem Reap often serves as merely a home base for many who come to explore the vast temple complex of Angkor, the town itself should not be overlooked. With fantastic restaurants, sophisticated stays, and a thriving nightlife (not to mention $1 foot massages at every turn), it is one of Southeast Asia’s most underrated destinations. Go for Angkor, but stay for Siem Reap.
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Angkor is most likely what brought you to Siem Reap in the first place, and we promise you won’t be disappointed. Ogle the ancient architecture, magnificent spires, and intricate carvings that have been preserved remarkably well. Do so at sunrise and at sunset. Although you will not have time to see every temple, the ones to prioritize are: Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm (also known as the filming location for Angelina Jolie’s "Tomb Raider"), and the most famous of all, Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is a photographer’s dream. The most popular time to visit Angkor Wat is at sunrise—the light is magical and the reflection of the temple on the lake is simply stunning. But prepare to brave the masses if you come early—you’ll be surprised by how many people are willing to wake up at 4:30 am for this. Arriving at sunset is a more relaxing experience, but just as magical. The day’s afterglow at Angkor Wat is an unforgettable sight.
Traveling in Cambodia is cheap, so you can live lavishly, even on a reasonable budget. The food, the transportation, and the accommodations are all extremely affordable, as are extras like massages, drinks, and activities. Lunch at an inexpensive restaurant won’t cost much more than $2 USD per person, and dinner at a mid-range restaurant will set you back about $10 USD per person. Taking a tuk tuk around for the day—they’ll wait for you at each stop in Angkor—will run you no more than $7-$10 for the day. If it’s a particularly hot and humid day, you can also hire a car and driver for $30/day. The air conditioning can be well worth the extra dough.
Cambodian cooking showcases Khmer culinary traditions, with plenty of French influences. For some reason, Cambodian cuisine is extremely underrated and does not get the publicity that its neighbors do. But rest assured, it’s fantastic. Be sure to try fish amok (a lightly spiced, yet flavorful curry), Khmer curry (a mild, red coconut curry), and lok lak, (a uniquely seasoned beef stir-fry). A few standout restaurants that serve great renditions of these dishes are Sugar Palm, Khmer Kitchen, and Viroth’s. And don’t overlook the food stalls outside the temple complex. They are quick, cheap, and delicious.
The People and Their History
No trip to Siem Reap is complete without learning more about the country’s tumultuous past. Hire a certified guide to educate you about the country’s history—licensed guides are all formally certified and are extremely knowledgeable. Just ask at your hotel or even at the Angkor complex when you buy your tickets. It goes well beyond just recounting dates and names, though; these guides are incredibly passionate about telling their story and inviting you to learn about their culture. Be sure to see the Landmine Museum, which was founded by a former child-soldier whose parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. It is a sobering but eye-opening experience. If you have time, visit the floating village on Tonle Sap Lake for a fascinating look into Cambodian fisherman culture.
After you’ve had your fill of touring Angkor’s temples, catch a glimpse of the stunning countryside on an ATV tour where you’ll see rice paddies, traditional stilted houses, and even some monkeys and water buffalo. While you’re on the outskirts of town, visit a shooting range where you can actually fire an AK-47. When you return to Siem Reap, browse the Angkor Night Market, get a fishy pedicure where tiny fish gnaw at your toes, take in a traditional Apsara dance performance (Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor is a popular venue), or just people-watch on Pub Street while you sip an Angkor beer.
Katie Goldstein is a freelance travel journalist based in New York City. In addition to Fodor’s, her writing and photographs have appeared on Forbes and CBS.com. Keep up with Katie’s adventures on her travel blog, Travelingpanties, Twitter, and Instagram.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Katie Goldstein and Jon Jackson; Viroth’s Hotel courtesy of Viroth’s Hotel