In February of last year, in the middle of my parent’s visit in Hong Kong, they did a one week trip to Cambodia to see Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. I had never been to either so we booked a last minute trip to go with them, but could only join them for Phnom Penh.
Most people I know who have been to Cambodia say that of all the places they’ve been to in the world, Siem Reap is the favorite. Most of them, however, had not been to Phnom Penh, and for me, specifically from a historical perspective, Phnom Penh really made an impact. I felt like I had to go to Siem Reap ASAP to see for myself. So we booked our trip in December, 2019.
Khmer currency is called the Riel, but they take USD everywhere as well.
Travel around Cambodia is really affordable as a tourist. There is public transportation that you could take to get from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, however, we used a combination of vans/shuttles and tuk tuks.
- Getting to/from the airport: If you’re staying at a hotel, ask your hotel if they can get a shuttle for you, or you can use Grab (see below) and call a car. The round-trip cost from the airport into the city is ~$10 USD.
- Grab Taxis: Grab is the Uber/Lyft of SE Asia, but perhaps slightly better in that you can also pay with cash. It’s a nice option if you’re worried about international credit card fees.
- Shuttles/Vans: If you need to rent a van of some sort, ask your hotel, but I highly suggest booking tours instead of venturing out on your own. Your tour company will book the required van for you.
- Tuk Tuks: Aside from the vans we took for our tours, we also took tuk tuks (say that three times fast). Your hotel can grab one for you depending on where you need to go, and when you’re ready to return to your hotel, it’s easy to flag one down on the street. Siem Reap is super touristy so they’re not hard to find. But, they might try to take advantage of you so ask your hotel what to expect in terms of cost based on where you want to go.
Where we stayed:
If you’ve read my previous travel posts you’ll know that we tend to stick to Marriott properties due to points that K gets from work travel. So of the two Marriott options we had in Siem Reap, the Le Meridien Angkor and Courtyard, we chose to stay at the Le Meridien, only because K had stayed there before for a work trip and really liked it.
The hotel overall is great. It’s large and spacious with rooms decked out in all of the typical Marriott amenities. But, there is a downside and a major upside.
- The downside: The only room options available are two twin beds or one king bed per room. The twin beds are much wider than your typical US-sized twin bed, but it is still a squeeze for two adults. We managed just fine (we had 3 adults in our room + a baby), but if having bigger beds in the same room is a priority for you, check out the Courtyard or another hotel instead. All of the big hotels are in the same area.
- The major upside: The sous chef of the hotel is AMAZING (I hope he’s still there at the time you go). See below in “Where to eat” for why we loved him.
What we saw:
We arrived around noon on Friday which gave us close to 2.5 days to enjoy Siem Reap. Of everything we saw, aside from Angkor Wat which is by far the one of the most astounding set of structures I’ve ever seen, my favorites were the 1,000 Lingams and Ta Prohm.
That said, if you haven’t been to Phnom Penh and don’t think you’ll make it there before or after visiting Siem Reap, definitely go see the Wat Thmey Killing Field. It is not for the faint of heart, but I think it’s valuable to understand what the Cambodian people went through during the Khmer Rouge rule in the not so distant past.
Other places that I think are must sees in Siem Reap are:
- Bayon Temple – A day tour to Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm should include this as well
- Wat Preah Ang Thom – A large Reclining Buddha made out of a sandstone hill
- Kulen Mountain Waterfall – It gets crowded so go early
- Prasat Kravan Temple – A small red brick temple with no tourists. It’s not common to see a brick temple so it was worth the 10 minute stop, especially around sunset. The setting sun just amplifies the reddish hues of the temple; it’s just gorgeous to see.
We also popped into the Angkor National Museum, but I think this is only of value if you go at the start of your trip as it provides a decent introduction to the tours.
Where to eat:
Aside from a quick lunch at the hotel, the popular Sugar Palm restaurant was our first Cambodian dining experience in Siem Reap. Their take on spice was a bit mild for us, but even then, their food was some of the best Cambodian food we’d had, including the places we had tried in Phnom Penh.
We were prepared for more of the same throughout the weekend, but our dining plans were derailed by the sous chef of the Le Meridien, Zillur Rohoman (aka Russel) who we randomly met during the breakfast buffet. Instead of trying another Siem Reap hot spot, he encouraged us to dine at the hotel’s Italian restaurant that evening (I forgot the name, but there’s only one in the hotel). But we were skeptical. Why would we have Italian food in Cambodia?
Russel, however, blew us away with each of his Italian dishes; the eggplant melanzane specifically was the best we had ever had. He invited us again for another meal the following night and amazed us again, this time with delicious biryani, chicken curry, and other tasty Indian side dishes.
The Sugar Palm and a lunch we had near Angkor Wat was the extent of our Cambodian food this trip, but given the surprisingly good hotel dinners, we were completely OK with that.
One dish that is also a must try, which you can only get from roadside stalls is kralan, or sticky rice prepared in bamboo. It might sound iffy given that it’s super local, but it’s completely vegetarian, fully cooked, and super tasty. They’re an absolute must! You can ask your hotel or tour guide for more details on where to find them.
Where to go at night:
Before going, I was told that Pub Street was a fun place to swing by at night and a must see in Siem Reap if you are a night creature. We were pretty tired from our full day tour, but stopped by anyways to see what the fuss was all about.
Pub Street is basically two-ish streets of bars, restaurants and massage parlors all lined up and decorated in lights of all shapes and sizes. Each of the lively venues cater to tourists and locals who simply want to dine and / or drink while hopping from one place to the next. It’s generally a great place for people watching and taking an evening stroll. There were a few families with young kids walking about, but also a scene where I could very much see a bachelorette or bachelor party taking place. It’s worth popping by.
If you are, however, into more quiet activities, I highly suggest checking out one or more of the many Siem Reap spas. I personally recommend the Mudita Spa, but there are loads of other budget friendly options. Their foot massage was the perfect post tour-day treat.
- When to go: Definitely go to Cambodia during their winter months because it is HOT. During December it was ~90 degrees F/~32 degrees C so I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like during the summer!
- What to pack for travel to Cambodia in the winter months:
- Hats and sunnies
- Lightweight clothing. For women especially, clothes that cover your shoulders and legs as it’s required in the temples.
- The sun is so intense that lightweight long-sleeve tops and trousers are great because they provide another barrier. And if you’re worried about the sweat, trust me, you will sweat just as much in shorts so might as well use that added coverage.
- Important: Women cannot enter any of the temples unless their shoulders and legs are covered. Men, need to cover their shoulders as well, but are OK to enter with knee-length shorts. You can choose to bring a light shawl to cover your shoulders and a sarong to wrap around your legs, if you are specifically keen on wearing a shoulder and / or leg revealing outfit. But, wearing a maxi dress with sleeves or a short sleeve top and loose, light-weight trousers would be more comfortable. There are also small shops in front of the larger temples that sell cover-ups in case you forget.
- Sunblock and bug spray
- Shoes that you don’t mind getting dusty and have enough of a grip so that you can climb stone steps and stone-covered areas in the temples. Just note that it’s dry this time of year so you will kick up a lot of dust and may return with your shoes looking a bit more yellow then when you left. So, bring a pair that you don’t mind looking a little more traveled.
I often wonder if I would have had a different perspective of Siem Reap if I hadn’t gone to Phnom Penh first. I was definitely floored by all of the meticulously carved structures still living in Siem Reap, but I decided that I like both cities for different reasons. If you’re interested in the political history of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is a better place to learn more. However, if you want to see how wondrous human art and architecture was long before even the thought of technology, Siem Reap will blow you away.