Cambodians are immensely proud of Angkor Wat – the temple even features on their national flag – and rightly so; it’s an awe-inspiring complex and the largest religious site in the world. The surrounding area (20USD for one day, 40USD for three days) features a series of incredible temples radiating out from Angkor Wat itself and many of these are just as fascinating as the central temple, with must-sees including the smiling stone faces of Prasat Bayon, the intricately carved Elephants Terrace and the overgrown site of Prasat Ta Prohm where tree roots and religious buildings are inextricably intertwined.
More remote temples, such as the red sandstone Banteay Srei and the lesser-visited Beng Melea are also incredible sites, but after a few days of touring around ancient temples in the mud (in wet season, from May-October) or dust (in dry season), you shouldn’t feel guilty if you want to take a break from crumbling religious structures and carvings. Fortunately, the adjacent city of Siem Reap, which has expanded rapidly in recent years to service the tourist crowd, has plenty on offer for when you need a break.
When you're tired of templing
For slightly less noble pleasures, the tiny Sombai distillery (176 Sombai Road, +855 95 810 890) is well worth a visit. They take traditional Cambodian rice wine and infuse it with all manner of teas, fruits and herbs to produce some very tasty liqueurs, presented in hand-painted bottles. Call in advance to book a small tour of the low-key workshop and an all important free tasting.
Tonle Sap Lake, located 15km south of the city, provides a good change of scenery with boat trips available out to floating villages and markets during wet season. In dry season, visitors get the spectacle of whole communities of houses teetering high above them on stilts. Either way, making your way out to the lake to watch the sunset with a few beers at a floating restaurant is worth the trip; just be aware that reports of tourists being over-charged by the boat drivers are common – take a tuk tuk driver you trust, or check with your hotel to see how much you should be paying before you leave (prices vary depending upon your exact destination and the season).
When you want some retail therapy
As with those in much of southeast Asia, in the mornings Cambodia’s markets are vibrant, bustling onslaughts on all of your senses at once and not to be missed. The Old Market in the city centre is touristy, but still sees plenty of local trade, while a little further out, the Phsar Leu Market (7 Makara St) is worth a trip if you’re looking for a rustic, ramshackle and wholly more authentic market experience. Here you’ll find stalls selling everything from snails and pigs’ heads to fresh coconut and pineapple, pharmaceuticals to blinging jewellery – all under one roof.
After dark, Siem Reap’s night markets take over. When you get sick of wandering past the same fake football tops and beer brand T-shirts, head to the central Angkor Night Market (Angkor Night Market St) where you’ll find, well, more fake football tops and beer brand T-shirts, but also a range of stalls with independent, hand-crafted goods for sale. Bargain hard.
For a more refined (and more expensive) take on local arts and crafts, there’s Artisans Angkor
(Chantiers-Ecoles, Stung Thmey Street, +855 63 963 330). Here, you can tour the workshops during the day, before inevitably being led to the large gift shop where items such as pure silk scarves will set you back 89USD. If you like, you can also pick up a giant totem for 3,500USD.
When you're hungry
Pub Street is at the heart of Siem Reap nightlife and while the name may conjure up visions of Yongkang Lu at its worst, it’s also home to a number of the city’s best restaurants and some surprisingly laidback bars.
The three branches of Khmer Kitchen (both on and adjacent to Pub Street, see www.khmerkitchens.com for details) are good places to sample the local cuisine, as the name suggests, with authentic flavours at reasonable prices. The same can equally be said of the nearby Genevieve’s
(Sok San Road, +855 16 984 892) and Amok (Between The Passage and Old Market, Street 9, +855 63
966 441); the former also offers some Western dishes while the latter’s menu features a tasting platter of its namesake dish, a creamy coconut-based curry, with four different varieties that is well worth sampling.
More adventurous eaters will find an assortment of insects, usually deep-fried, on sale from street vendors up and down Pub Street, but the best place to really experience these delicacies is Bugs Cafe(351 Thmey Village, Angkor Night Market Street, +855 17
764 560). Here, a French owner has joined forces with a Cambodian chef to put together a menu of ‘insect tapas’ – dishes such as ‘tarantula donuts’ (8USD for three) and stir-fried scorpions with a spicy papaya salad (7USD). The former tastes mostly of the deep-fried batter and the latter has a crunchy texture and an unusual, but likeable, flavour. Even if you’re unsure of their culinary merit, you get some good photos to freak out your friends back home.
Another place where you’ll find insects on the menu is Marum
(#8A,B Phum Slokram, +855 17
363 284), a training restaurant for disadvantaged locals, where a beef stir fry comes with red tree ants (6USD). There are plenty of non-buggy options however, and the food, served in a lovely courtyard space, is tasty. Similarly, Haven
(Chocolate Road, +855 78 342
404), another training restaurant, boasts a peaceful garden and excellent menu.
If you’re looking for something a little more upmarket, then pay a visit to Cuisine Wat Damnak
(Wat Damnak Market Street, www.cuisinewatdamnak.com), which made it onto the Asia’s 50 Best list last year (just – it was number 50). They serve two seasonal set menus (for 24 and 28USD) of dishes with a focus on local ingredients, such as Cambodian wild cinnamon churros.
Drinks-wise, look no further than Asana (Street 7, +855 92 987 801). The last traditional Cambodian wooden house in the Pub Street vicinity, its combination of being tucked away down a quiet alleyway and boasting a decor of large beds and hammocks is enough to make you want to stay until closing. The friendly staff and decent, reasonably priced drinks (cocktails from 4USD) seal the deal.
Where to stay
The area around Siem Reap – and, in
fact, large swathes of the city itself – is a near-constant dust bowl during the dry season, so after a day spent in the back of a tuk tuk and clambering around ancient temples you’re going to want to come back to a hotel with a nice pool. Fortunately, there are plenty of these, with even small guesthouses often augmented by pleasant swimming areas. Some of the best value examples of this are in the Wat Bo area of the city, with spots such as Suon Angkor Boutique (from 30USD per night; +855 17 571 852) and La Residence Wat Bo (from 55USD per night; +855 63 968
575) being both far enough from the main roads to be reasonably quiet but close enough to the centre to still be walkable from Pub Street.
To really unwind in style, the Heritage Suites Hotel (pictured above, from 145USD per night; www.heritagesuiteshotel.com), pictured above, offers recently refurbished suites with private patio areas and outdoor showers (in addition to indoor ones) and even your own hot tub with the higher end rooms. Tuesday nights sees them host traditional apsara dances and a barbecue beside their outdoor pool, while every Thursday their beautiful historic main building is home to a lively jazz night. Even better, the premises boast an excellent spa and their airport pick up and drop off service uses a gloriously restored vintage 1960s Mercedes-Benz.
Know before you go
A visa on arrival service is available at the country’s major entry points for 35USD, though be aware that asking for tips at passport control (both in and out of the country) is common. Stand your ground and refuse to pay and they’ll usually back down.
How to get there
China Eastern and Cambodia Angkor Air will fly you from Shanghai to Siem Reap direct for around 3,000RMB return on Ctrip. The flight takes four and a half hours. If you’re willing to go via a stopover en route, prices can be as low as 1,800RMB.