Siem Reap (meaning ‘Victory over Siam’) in northwest Cambodia is primarily the gateway to the famous Temples of Angkor.
The town has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. Not too long ago a sleepy backwater, Siem Reap now has large five-star hotels and resorts, fine-dining options aplenty, and the kind of good services, shops, galleries, and spas, that make the little city a new oasis of luxury.
The town has grown exponentially, but Siem Reap retains some of its charm, especially around Phsar Chas (Old Market) and in the French Quarter.
How to see Angkor
Many tourists only visit Siem Reap to see the Angkor Temples. But there is more to do in and around this town (which by the way, we think is now Cambodia’s second biggest town, although officially that’s still Kompong Cham). First, you have different options to view the temples, apart from the standard ones (by bus, tuktuk, motodop or bycicle). Unfortunately, tourists are no longer allowed to rent motorcycles or cars in Siem Reap, but there are other options. You could do an elephant ride in early morning or late afternoon, you can fly over the temples by balloon or ultra-light trike and even hire a helicopter.
Horse Riding is an increasingly popular pastime for visitors to Siem Reap. No, not around the temples, but through the beautiful countryside. If you have time on your hands, Countryside Tours by bicycle, dirt bike, quad bike, ox cart, 4WD or just walking are a great way to experience Cambodian rural life amid the rice paddies surrounding Siem Reap. Near Siem Reap, on the Tonle Sap lake, are picturesque floating villages (of course, the further from town, the less touristy, see our recommendations).
Birds & Museums
Also on the lake are Bird Sanctuaries & Reserves. Reminders of Cambodia’s dark past are the landmines at the Landmine Museum, a project by former Khmer Rouge soldier turned deminer, Aki Ra. Other museums in Siem Reap include the Angkor National Museum, Cambodian Cultural Village and the War Museum.
The number of hotel rooms has mushroomed, especially along Airport Road. Many large hotels have been constructed there and in town an incredible number of smaller hotels, hostels and guesthouses have sprung up. All in expectation of ‘millions of tourists’ coming to see the prime wonder of the Kingdom of Wonders. Well, tourism numbers have gone up year after year, but the rise does not warrant the crazy number of new hotel rooms. There is definitely huge accommodation overcapacity in Siem Reap for years to come. Even more so, if you consider that there is no end in sight (yet) to the ‘hotel boom’, new projects are still planned, and constructed…
Further out, north of Siem Reap and near the Thai border, is the village of Anlong Veng, the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge where the house, bunker and grave of Brother Number One, Pol Pot, can be found. The town sits on the Dangrek Mountains escarpment. Nearby is Phnom Kulen National Park where Jayavarman II had himself declared King of Kings and founded the Khmer Empire.
Arts & Sports
The attractions of the town itself include Apsara dance and shadow puppet performances. Siem Reap also has a thriving art scene with many galleries to visit and once a year the town is host to the Angkor International Photo Festival. Around Christmas and New ear there are spectacular traditional dance shows at Angkor Wat. Want to do some sports while on holiday? Take part in the annual Angkor Half Marathon or play a game of golf at one of the golf courses around Siem Reap.
At night Siem Reap becomes a pulsating place, especially on and around ‘Bar Street’ in the centre of town, where after a tiring day of temples viewing tourists go for a chat, a drink and food. Many people think the nightlife of Siem Reap is on Bar Street only, but you should explore the streets and alleys surrounding it, where you often can find much better deals (in price and in quality).
And then there is the boat tour to Battambang, although we recommend doing it the other way around, down the river instead of up. Finally, we would like to stress that Cambodia is much, much more than just Angkor or even Siem Reap, as you hopefully will discover on this website.
As in other parts of Cambodia – and Asia! – Siem Reap has its share of tourist scams, especially guesthouses, hotels and shops paying commissions to moto and taxi drivers to deliver guests and potential buyers. As for accommodation, one way to avoid these scams is booking ahead via the internet, e.g. on this site (click on the ‘Hotels in Siem Reap’ button in the column to the right).
Travellers from Bangkok – especially when having bought a ticket from Khao San Road in the Thai capital – often fall prey to the tourist bus scam.
Once little more than a humble shack, Aki Ra’s Land Mine Museum has been reincarnated into the Cambodia Land Mine Museum & Relief Facility.
It is a registered Canadian-based organisation and opened in April 2007 with the aim of building and developing the original museum’s vision.
The new centre includes an expanded museum, a dormitory residence for up to 30 amputee children and a school.
The new museum has an admission fee of US$1.
A nice educational supplement to the history of Angkor if you visit the park without a tour guide, although don’t confuse this with the National Musuem in Phnom Penh.
The Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap is composed of eight separate galleries, all connected by a vaulted corridor with a series of fountains and lined with what seems like all the Angkorian limestone lion and demon heads missing from statues at the temples.
After an explanatory film screening called Story behind the legend, you’re pointed toward the galleries.
Nestling in the southern extension of the Dangrek Mountains in the Svay Leu District, 48 kilometres away from Siem Reap rests the Phnom Kulen National Park. One of the most scenic and historically significant locations in the area, the park falls along the journey to Prasat Banteay Srei, making a beautiful natural complement to the intricate manmade wonders of the ancient citadel.
Unfortunately, the waterfalls in the park are ‘owned’ by a businessman from Siem Reap with ‘high’ connections, who charges an outrageous $20 to see this natural resource.
But read on to discover how to avoid this scam.