Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, is located in the middle of the jungle in northern Cambodia, but it attracts tourists from around the world who flock to the remote region to see the monumental structure. While Angkor Wat is the most famous sight in the area, the region was once the capital of the Khmer Empire, which flourished between the ninth and fifteenth centuries, and it actually houses the remains of thousands of temples and other historic structures that were built by the Khmer kings.
The temple complexes of Angkor (as the former capital is called) house only a few restaurants and no accommodations, so visitors to the area must stay in nearby Siem Reap if they want to see the sights. While tourists have traveled to see the temples since they were rediscovered during the 19th century, the region was largely closed off to foreigners during the reign of the Khmer Rouge and the violent years that followed—the regime's soldiers threatened the area up until the mid-1990's.
Over the course of the past two decades, Siem Reap has transformed from a provincial town into a charming city with expertly designed hotels, world-renowned restaurants, and chic boutiques whose owners aim to create sustainable products and support the local community.
While visiting Siem Reap still feels like stepping back in time (you will have to dodge speeding tuk tuks on the dusty streets, and water buffaloes commonly stop traffic as they cross the wide boulevards that surround the city center), the gateway to Angkor now has much more to offer than temple tours. Here's how to conquer it all.
Where to Stay:
Belmond La Résidence d'Angkor
One of the city’s foremost luxury hotels, the Belmond has over 50 suites, each with a private balcony, that are decorated with locally crafted silks and bespoke works of art by contemporary Cambodian artists. The hotel’s restaurant serves Khmer-style food and features biweekly traditional Cambodian performances that guests can enjoy during their meals. The hotel also offers cooking classes, food tours, and carefully crafted excursions to magnificent temples and villages that are off the beaten path.
Treeline Urban Resort
This newly opened boutique hotel is a tranquil haven in the center of the bustling city. Complete with a courtyard garden and a rooftop infinity pool, it is the perfect place to escape to after a day of touring temples in the sun. The rooms feature a chic combination of modern, minimalist furniture and traditional Cambodian crafts made by local artisans, and the hotel is devoted to their mission of sustainability: they do not use any plastic, they recycle all glass products, and their water is heated with a solar energy system. And the spa, which offers hot stone massages and Khmer herbal scrubs made from local ingredients like yellow ginger, turmeric, and black sticky rice, is not to be missed.
Park Hyatt Siem Reap
Inspired by Art Deco design, the Park Hyatt is the most glamorous of the hotels in Siem Reap. It has a dining room that serves classic French dishes, a charming café for ice cream and pastries, and a beautifully appointed lounge where guests can enjoy cocktails and Afternoon Tea. With both an indoor and outdoor pool, a spa, and a hammam, there is no reason to leave.
What to Do:
While most tourists will already be familiar with Angkor Wat, there are over a thousand other temples in area, and it would take weeks to see them all. However, because most tourists only have a few days to spend in Siem Reap, the guides and drivers are well-versed in a select group of routes which visit the most popular temples that tourists can choose from. The main temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are located about 20 minutes from the center of Siem Reap by car (you can also rent bikes or hire a tuk tuk for the day to get to the temples, but the oppressive heat and risk of rain make it well worth it to book a driver), and you can also choose to hire an English-speaking guide to accompany you on your tour, which is informative if you do not know much about the history of the Khmer Empire. Your hotel can easily make all of these arrangements for you upon your arrival, but some of the best temple routes are:
The Small Circuit
If you only have one day to spend visiting the temples, this is the route you should choose. It will take you to all of the most famous temples, including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (which is actually a collection of temples that includes Bayon and the Elephant Terrace), Ta Prohm (also known as the Tomb Raider temple, because the movie was filmed there), and Banteay Kdei. It can take six to eight hours to complete the entire circuit, depending on how many of the temples you choose to visit.
The Grand Circuit (also called The Big Circuit)
This route visits a selection of temples that are outside of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, and they will certainly be less crowded than the large temples of the Small Circuit. On the Grand Circuit tour, you will visit Preah Khan, Ta Som, Pre Rup, and many others, and it will take about the same time to complete the route.
If you want to get away from the main temple complexes (and the hordes of selfie stick-wielding tourists who occupy them), there are a number of temples you can visit that are further away from Siem Reap. One of the most famous is Banteay Srei, which is an intricately carved red sandstone temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva that remains in incredible condition. It is about an hour away from Siem Reap via car, and on the way back you can also visit Banteay Samre, which is a beautiful but remote temple that is off the beaten path—if you are lucky, you will be the only tourist inside the entire complex.
This temple is about an hour and a half away from Siem Reap, and unlike Banteay Srei and Banteay Samre it was never fully restored. It was instead left as it was rediscovered, and it has been entirely overtaken by the jungle that surrounds it. Giant piles of fallen stones occupy the entrances, and trees and vines grow around the interior and exterior of the building. Make sure to wear sneakers, because you will need to climb over a lot of rubble.
Tonle Sap Lake
The largest lake in Asia, Tonle Sap covers thousands of square miles and is home to over a million people, many of whom reside in floating villages and make a living by fishing in the surrounding waters. If you have had your fill of the temples, you can book a boat tour of the lake for a chance to see the villages, pagodas, and farms that populate the water.
Phnom Kulen is a mountainous area that lies deep inside the jungle about 25 miles outside of Siem Reap and contains a number of sights to see, including the River of a Thousand Lingas (whose sandstone bed is decorated with carvings from the ninth century), a beautiful waterfall with a swimming hole, and a massive statue of a reclining Buddha. Beyond the main attractions, there are also a number of temple ruins and villages to visit.
Where to Shop
Made in Cambodia Market
This charming market only allows vendors to sell items that have been produced in Cambodia, and most of the products are made by local cooperatives that train women and provide them with job opportunities. Not only are you supporting local communities when you purchase the beautifully woven scarves and hand-carved sculptures that are available for sale, but you will also know that you are purchasing souvenirs that were made locally and not imported from China.
The Old Market
Siem Reap’s main market is a maze of stalls selling everything from carved Buddha statues to dried fish and counterfeit handbags. In the mornings, the center of the market fills up with food vendors who line up their wares on the cement floors of the sprawling complex, so that the ground is covered with piles of local fruits and vegetables, freshly caught fish, and skinned frogs, and it is worth a visit just to see them in action. While many of the stalls inside the market sell imported clothing and household items, you can still find beautifully woven straw bags, beaded necklaces, and other artifacts in the stalls that line the exterior of the market on Pokambor Avenue, which runs along the river.
A newly renovated street in central Siem Reap, Kandal Village (otherwise known as Hap Guan Street) is lined with interesting shops, boutiques, and cafes. Don’t miss the concept shops Maison Siriva and Trunkh, the skincare store Saarti, or Little Red Fox Espresso.
This small shop in the Old Market specializes in organic skincare products that are created with natural Khmer herbs from Cambodia and based on recipes gleaned from traditional healers and herbalists. They sell everything from essential oils and lotions to natural insect repellent, and many of their products are packaged in beautiful reusable ceramic and engraved metal containers.
A social enterprise founded in 1992 to create job opportunities in rural areas and revive traditional Khmer crafts, Artisans d’Angkor has a crafts workshop in the center of Siem Reap which specializes in wood and stone carvings, and a silk workshop just outside of the city, both of which are open to the public and also have showrooms where you can buy the handmade products.
Where to Eat:
Cuisine Wat Damnak
The first Cambodian restaurant to be included in the annual list of the 50 Best Restaurants in Asia, Cuisine Wat Damnak is run by the chef Joannes Riviere and his wife Carole Salmon. The restaurant is located in a traditional wooden house, and the chef offers two six course tasting menu each evening, which change every two weeks. The food combines locally sourced ingredients like Tonle Sap croacker fish, Battambang asparagus, and Mekong langoustines with intoxicating spices (think fresh green pepper corn, young ginger leaves, lotus roots, and local thyme) and French cooking techniques.
Housed in a charming house with a gorgeous garden, Mie Café is led by Chef Pola, who combines Khmer dishes and ingredients with his Swiss culinary training. Alongside tasting menus of classic Cambodian dishes, you can also order all kinds of meals a la carte, from traditional Khmer fish amok to tuna tartare and risotto made with local fish. While the restaurant is located outside the center of Siem Reap, it is well worth the trip.
Hok Noodle Bar
A casual restaurant inside the Treeline Resort, Hok Noodle Bar features a menu of modern takes on Asian street food, including pork buns, Cambodian beef skewers, and an array of rice and noodle bowls.
With locations in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Sugar Palm is the perfect place to get acquainted with the classic dishes of Cambodia cuisine, from spring rolls and beef skewers marinated in lemongrass to Khmer curry and wok-fried noodles.
If you need a break from Asian food, Il Forno is the perfect place to eat. The restaurant and wine bar offers pasta, pizza, ossobuco, and plenty of bottles of rose.
Where to Drink:
Perhaps the chicest bar in the city, the décor of Miss Wong was inspired by 1930’s Shanghai and it is filled with velvet couches, vintage portraits, and Chinese lanterns. The cocktail menu, which includes Singapore Slings and Rose & Lemongrass martinis, does not disappoint.
If you want to experience Siem Reap’s infamous Pub Street, this dive bar where drinks are served by the bucket is the place to do it.
Asana Old Wooden House
This bar is located in a traditional Cambodian house, and it is actually the only wooden house that still exists in Siem Reap's Old Market district. Decorated with hammocks and arm chairs and surrounded by Palm trees, it is the perfect spot to relax with a cocktail.
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