Beyond the spiritual grounds of Angkor Wat, a rich experience awaits
Siem Reap, which literally means “Siam defeated,” is well known as the gateway to Angkor Wat. A visitor can tell how the former Khmer region and neighboring Thailand and Vietnam have influenced the culture and history of Cambodia, yet the “Kingdom of Wonder” certainly has its own charm and flavor.
With tourism comprising a large percentage of its economy — and investment in resorts and infrastructure in recent years, Siem Reap is a diverting choice for any adventurer interested in both ancient and not-so-long-past history. We recommend hiring a licensed guide and driver for a private tour; the team at Backyard Travel offers a seamless experience, including valuable advice like using Cambodia’s e-Visa process.
In full disclosure, the primary reason I visited Cambodia was to visit the world’s largest religious complex. Yet there is truly much to explore in “Temple Town” far beyond the famous temples.
One such site is Tonlé Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. This body of water flows in two directions, due to the Mekong River, and can swell to be four times its size in the wet season. Here you can journey on a river cruise to Kampong Phluk, a small village built entirely on stilts. Fishing is the main industry of the local economy, and visitors can delight in seeing families working together to bring in that morning’s catch. Imagine an entire existence based upon living on the water: schools, the police department and even a temple were raised high above the muddy waters as locals buzzed about in small boats.
The Angkor Wat complex is well worth its reputation; visit in the early morning or late afternoon for beautiful sunlight and smaller crowds. Visitors should observe temple dress code: covered shoulders and knees; pashminas or jackets are not allowed to cover up. We recommend light fabrics and mineral sunscreen powder — it helps soak up sweat and doesn’t have that sticky feeling some sunscreens have — to cope with the humidity. The more adventurous can climb up to the central tower, which rises nearly 700 feet from the ground.
Nearby Khmer sites to explore include the smaller temples of the Roluos Group. A great way to experience daily life in the smaller, rural areas outside of the bustling city, one can even arrange for a ride in an ox cart. The ancient city of Angkor Thom and its Ta Prohm — the “Jungle Temple” made famous in Tomb Raider — are also worth a visit, especially to view the larger-than-life Buddha faces carved in stone.
The city of Siem Reap itself is hustling and full of sights and sounds; crossing the street in hectic traffic is a heart-pounding adventure itself! Take time to explore local markets for beautiful textiles, or try a spa retreat at one of Siem Reap’s many five-star resorts. Khmer cuisine is delicious and unique, from spicy Thai curries, to savory Vietnamese pho — harvesting rice is another of Cambodia’s biggest industries. Lovely and resilient after the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, the Cambodian people are warm and friendly. Welcome to the Kingdom of Wonder.
Historic Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor is always a good bet. This luxurious five-star property, which sits across from the Royal Palace, is in the Old French Quarter. raffles.com/siem-reap/
For a boutique experience, consider Viroth’s Hotel. Centrally located near Pub Street, this chic hotel has delightful service and a refreshing pool. viroth-hotel.com
Rice is a staple of Khmer cuisine, which is often overshadowed by that of neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. For a modern spin on traditional food, we suggest Flow Food & Wine. It offers nightly specials, and the service is delightful. And, of course, the food speaks for itself. Don’t be surprised if the chef stops by for a personal greeting. @FLOWfoodandwine
Pub Street is teaming with bartering salespeople, typical souvenirs, bars hawking 50-cent beers, and moto drivers offering rides. There is a frenetic energy in this area, and while it’s not for the faint of heart, it’s certainly worthwhile to visit. Weave in and out of the smaller allies and find lovely local merchants like Garden of Desire’s jewelry atelier. gardenofdesire-asia.com
Take in an apsara performance, a classical dance established by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. If your time in the Kingdom of Wonder is limited, try an evening of traditional Khmer cuisine and elegant apsara dancers at Angkor Village Resort. angkorvillageresort.asia