Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia is a cheerful city that embraces travellers like old friends. Old Market and Pub Street, generally acknowledged as its buzzing heart, has lively markets, classy French and Italian restaurants, and colourful al fresco cafés. Gaily painted tuk-tuks ply the roads, offering their “best fares.” The placid Siem Reap River cuts a north-south course through the city, and the riverside promenade is a popular spot for an evening stroll.
This region was the site of successive capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th centuries. The ruins, collectively known as the Angkor Archaeological Park, are located seven kilometres north of Siem Reap’s city centre. A tuk-tuk will get you there in 20 minutes. The 400-square-kilometre complex, which includes the famous Angkor Wat Temple, is Siem Reap’s biggest tourist draw. But in recent years this ancient yet dynamic city has been attracting travellers to stay longer and explore its other facets.
Cambodia has been to hell and back. Between 1967 and 1975, the country was wracked by civil war. Soon after, a genocide led by Pol Pot, leader of Cambodia’s ruling communist party, further ravaged the country until 1979. Now, the Khmers, Cambodia’s largest ethnic group, are putting the pieces of their lives back together. It is evident that Siem Reap takes pride in being close to one of Southeast Asia’s most spectacular archaeological sites. However, it is too enterprising to rest on its laurels and is finding newer ways to engage with the burgeoning numbers of visitors. It’s a tempting destination for Indian travellers, with its proximity and visa on arrival policy ($37/₹2,350 including processing fee; photo and return ticket required).
In Siem Reap, travellers are spoilt for choice with hotels and guesthouses ranging from the elegant to strictly functional, catering to all budgets. To live like the Khmer, check into Sala Lodges at Salakamreuk, a kilometre from the city centre. Its 11 wooden lodges on stilts are traditional two-storey Cambodian homes that were dismantled and transported from the countryside and restored luxuriously amid sugar palms (+855-95-838799; www.salalodges.com; doubles from $230/₹14,625, including breakfast). To keep the Angkor ruins close, opt for the mid-range Frangipani Villa Hotel at Wat Bo street, a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride away (+855-16-581045; www.frangipanihotel.com; doubles from $40/₹2,544).
One evening, I stumbled into Wat Bo’s Reflections Art Boutique Hotel, a treat for those with an interest in pop art. The interiors are eclectic—a couch in the lobby has more than a hundred soft toys sewn to its surface—and each room has a whimsical theme. Literary sorts can opt for 1984, based on George Orwell’s classic; Barbie fans will love the pink and kitschy Life is Plastic room (+855-63-969044; www.reflectionsartboutiquehotel.com; doubles from $40/₹2,544).
The Siem Reap Hostel at Makara Street, a ten-minute walk from the Old Market, promises “luxury on a backpack budget” and is a good option for those who want to be right in the centre of things (www.thesiemreaphostel.com; +855-63-964660; doubles in a private room $34/₹2,162, including breakfast).
There are no direct flights from India to Siem Reap. Most travellers opt to fly through Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. Taxis and tuk-tuks ply between the airport and the city centre ($7-10/₹445-650). Siem Reap is best experienced on bicycle(available for $5/₹318 per day) or easily available tuk-tuks. Private taxis can be hired for $30/₹1,908 per day.
Cambodia’s currency is the riel (₹1=KHR65), but the US dollar is widely accepted across Siem Reap. You may receive small change in riel.
There’s no better way to begin a trip to Siem Reap than to rise well before dawn to explore the Angkor Archaeological Park. Tuk-tuks are aplenty, but even better is to ride to the complex on a bicycle, down wide roads flanked by lush forest. Carry a packed breakfast, and give the UNESCO World Heritage Site at least 4-5 hours. Despite the daunting crowds outside, the temples look sublime silhouetted against the rising sun and fierce pink-orange skies.
Spread over a vast area, the site has jaw-dropping remains of sandstone temples, canals, and reservoirs built by the Khmers between the 9th and 14th centuries. Angkor Wat, the most popular temple, is the largest religious monument in the world, covering two square kilometres. It was built as a Hindu temple by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. In the 14th or 15th century it was converted into a Buddhist site and continues to be an important place for Theravada Buddhists. Inside, the walls come alive with gorgeous carvings of scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. To me, the demons and monkeys fighting the battle of Lanka looked more bloodthirsty, and the Kurukshetra war more brutal on Angkor Wat’s walls than anywhere else I’ve seen. On another wall, 88 carved asuras and 92 devas seem to grunt with effort in an illustration of the Hindu legend of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Nearby, carved apsaras smile mysteriously as they flaunt elaborate hairdos.
Near Angkor Wat is Angkor Thom, the sprawling nine-square-kilometre complex that was the last capital of the Khmer Empire. Its most splendid remaining structure is the Buddhist Bayon Temple, the towers of which are carved with 216 gigantic, beatifically smiling faces.
From Angkor Thom, venture east on the Little Circuit of stunning monastic complexes and smaller temples. Ta Prohm temple featured in the 2001 Hollywood movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie, and tourists love to pose beside it. The colossal banyan tree roots that hold the ruins in an embrace are the main draw. Big Circuit, which is a cluster of temples further northeast of Angkor Thom, has the Preah Khan and Pre Rup temples, each wonderful in its own way. (www.autoriteapsara.org/en/visitors.html; Angkor day pass $20/₹1,270, three-day pass $40/₹2,540; passes issued daily 5 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Head to Pub Street, Siem Reap’s centre of cool, for a hearty lunch at French bakery and café Blue Pumpkin, a large, sunny joint known for cakes, sorbets, and ice creams. Do try their Cambodian kuthiew, a traditional white noodle soup with pork or chicken, as you lounge on white, bed-sized couches on the upper floor. Blue Pumpkin also serves delicious steaks, burgers, and pastas (tbpumpkin.com; meal for two $15-20/₹954-1,270).
A few metres away is Happy Cambodia Gallery, an art gallery and boutique store where yellows, blues, and reds pop up from every nook and cranny. Smiling monks holding umbrellas look up from postcards, while a gaggle of children heading to school in tuk-tuks grin from large posters. It’s a fun place to acquire unusual souvenirs including paintings, T-shirts, and stationery displaying Cambodian life.
Hide among readers hunched over books and cups of coffee and people-watch from New Leaf Book Café’s al fresco section. This non-profit bookstore on Street 9, a five-minute-walk from Happy Cambodia Gallery, contains a vast collection of books in various languages. I found some gems here and learnt much about Cambodia’s past through powerful genocide memoirs such as First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung and When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge by Chanrithy Him (open 8 a.m-9.30 p.m).
If you still have the energy, join a three-hour Khmer cooking workshop at Le Tigre de Papier Restaurant. Class begins with a stop at Psa Cha market to source ingredients for the three-course meal. Busy vendors, mostly women, are happy to address tourists’ culinary curiosities. At the class, visitors can choose what to cook. Discover the core of Cambodia’s cuisine by learning to make amok, the traditional Khmer dish of curried fish, chicken, or beef steamed in banana leaves. Amok’s rich, unique flavour comes from thick coconut milk and kroeung, a paste of lemongrass, lime zest, galangal, garlic, dried chillies, and shallots. Also learn how to make prahok, the fermented fish paste behind almost every traditional Khmer dish. And the best part is, you get to eat what you cook (www.letigredepapier.com/en/cooking.php; $14/₹890 per person; between 5-8 p.m.).
Reward yourself with a massage at the end of a packed day. At the modest Seeing Hands Massage visually-challenged therapists offer excellent oil massages (324 Sivatha Street; +855-12-836487; massages from $7/₹445).
The ruins of Banteay Srei are 32 kilometres/1 hour northeast of Siem Reap’s city centre but worth the drive. Leave early, preferably just after sunrise, to explore this 10th-century red sandstone temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Bas-reliefs of fierce guardian monkeys and toothy mythical creatures seem to monitor temple activity. An elaborate carving depicts a story from the Mahabharata in which Lord Krishna and Arjun burn down the Khandava forest. The awe-inspiring detailing of the scene shows Lord Indra riding his three-headed elephant and valiantly trying to protect the forest by unleashing rainfall. Restaurants around the temple complex serve good Khmer or continental breakfast (meal for two $15-20/₹954-1,270).
On the way back, a 7-kilometre/15-minute drive from the temple, is The Cambodian Landmine Museum. Its founder Aki Ra was a child soldier during the Cambodian genocide. Exhibits show landmines he dismantled, a chilling reminder of the ones still strewn about the Cambodian countryside. Various disarmed rocket-propelled grenades and unexploded aerial bombs are stark evidence of Cambodia’s struggles. The museum also supports and provides education to children affected by landmines (www.cambodialandminemuseum.org; open daily 7.30 a.m.-5p.m.; entry $5/₹318).
Back in Siem Reap, head to Taphul Road, a 10-minute walk from the city centre, for a late, leisurely lunch at Sugar Palm. The restaurant has a pleasant bar where travellers can swap stories, and diners looking for quiet can claim tables overlooking sugar palms. My fervent search for the perfect amok ended here. Both their tofu and prawn amok are cooked to perfection. The dish takes 45 minutes to prepare, but is worth the wait (www.thesugarpalm.com; meal for two $40/₹2,544).
An important part of Siem Reap’s resurrection lies in its various youth intervention programmes. The Les Chantiers Écoles is a school set in a beautiful red building dedicated to teaching wood- and stone-carving techniques, traditional silk painting, and lacquerware to the city’s underprivileged youth. Its Artisans d’Angkor gift shop sells stone and wood reproductions of Angkor-era statues and furnishings (www.artisansdangkor.com; open 7.30 a.m.-6.30 p.m.; visitors can watch artisans work during daily free guided tours).
In the evening head to Pub Street, Siem Reap’s vivacious hub. Here locals and travellers alike relish meals at elegant French and Italian restaurants. Tapas bars overflow with full-bodied sangrias and great conversation. For a memorable gastronomic experience, try a traditional Cambodian barbeque at Khmer BBQ Restaurant in Old Market, just off Pub Street. The barbecue offers a choice of meats that includes pork, chicken, snake, kangaroo, ostrich, crocodile, and octopus. The meats are cooked on a flaming, metal grill at the table and are accompanied by a hotpot of delicately spiced noodles or rice with broth (Old Market, next to Amok Restaurant; call +855-63-966441 for booking; meal for two $12/₹760).
Pub Street’s Temple Bar and Angkor What? are the places to go for thumping music and boisterous parties. To experience a different side of Siem Reap’s nightlife, visit the Angkor Night Market (www.angkornightmarket.com; open 4 p.m.-midnight daily). About 250 brightly lit shops sell everything from Khmer art to jewellery, handicrafts, fierce traditional masks, delicate ceramic cutlery, silk apparel, carved knives, and lacquerware. For a break while you mull over your next bargain, sip a cocktail at the forest-themed Island Bar. Nearby, Brick House is set around a tropical garden and has decent live music performances by local bands and a great collection of beers (drinks approximately $3/₹200; meal for two $20-30/₹1,200-2,000 with alcohol at either).
Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake and a UNESCO biosphere reserve is near Siem Reap. The lake changes in size with each season and is at its largest during the monsoon (May-Oct). There are a number of floating villages on the lake and everything—homes, shops, restaurants, schools, hospitals—teeters just above the water on stilts. Chong Kneas, a popular access point to the lake, is 14 kilometres from Pub Street, but be warned that it is something of a tourist trap. Kampong Phluk, further away from the city (32 km), is a less crowded option with a flooded forest. A third option is Kampong Khleang (50 km away), great for birdwatchers since it is further from the city. Visitors who come here will see the spot-billed pelican and greater adjutant stork.
Regardless of the access point, visitors can enjoy the sight of vendors selling their wares from punts, narrow flat-bottomed boats. Crocodiles bask on the banks, in crocodile farms where they are bred for meat and leather. Tonle Sap is one of the most fertile inland fishing grounds in the world, so walk into one of the many floating restaurants for seafood (half-day trip to Tonle Sap costs approx. $35/₹2,225 per person depending on access point and inclusions).
After visiting Tonle Sap, I visited the forest around the Angkor Archaeological Park, and spent the late afternoon cycling among faraway ruins without map or agenda, stumbling upon smaller temples I hadn’t seen the day before. An alternative is to visit the Angkor National Museum in the city. Its exhibits provide a glimpse of the art and culture of the Khmer empire. One of its rare artefacts is the Sumedha Hermit, a late 12th-century statue of the Buddha lying prone. Ancient stone slabs with Khmer and Sanskrit inscriptions list the names of Khmer slaves, details of land disputes and settlements, and paeans to kings and gods. An audio guide tour, and videos and slide shows playing in different galleries provide more information. The museum shop stocks pretty silk stoles and miniature Khmer sculptures (www.angkornationalmuseum.com; +855-63-966601; open 8.30 a.m-6 p.m; entry adults $12/₹760, children $6/₹380).
If you are in Siem Reap on a Saturday, attend Swiss paediatrician Dr. Beat Richner’s free concert at the Jayavarman VII Hospital. He plays the cello and is fondly called “Beatocello”. Richner’s heart-warming performance is for a great cause: All donations go to the hospital’s children’s ward (www.beatocello.com; every Sat between 7.15-8.30 p.m.).
For dinner, skip Old Market and Pub Street and head to Wat Bo Road, which is coming into its own with an eclectic mix of restaurants and bars. For Khmer and other Asian specialties, eat at Viroth’s Restaurant which has lovely outdoor seating (+855-12-826346; www.viroth-restaurant.com; meal for two from $25/₹1,600).
A few days in this Cambodian city shows that Siem Reap straddles the best of both worlds—a glorious past and a vivid present. The best way to know it is to explore it slowly, one story at a time.
Appeared in the August 2015 issue as “Sanguine Sien Reap”.
This three-day itinerary to Siem Reap, Cambodia, includes cultural and culinary activities, and costs under ₹45,000 for a couple, excluding airfare. However, the holiday can be less expensive, if you pick reasonably priced accommodation and use tuk-tuks instead of the rented car we’ve included in our calculations. Bicycles are another way to get around and for those who want them, there are many backpacker-friendly tourist options.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.