TL;DR for our Siem Reap:
Siem Reap was an obvious stop for us in Cambodia– it’s the launching point for seeing Angkor Wat. Tony was still not feeling so hot, so I spent a lot more time walking around town than if we’d gone on tours everyday. It was hot (and occasional poured) but I found it to be quite walkable. It’s also very easy to catch one of the numerous tuktuks for just a dollar or two.
We took a tuktuk to the Royal Angkor International Hospital on our first day to see if we could figure out why Tony’s cough, sore throat and cold symptoms were hanging on for so long. Turns out, he had a bronchial infection (which later turned to pink eye) and required some antibiotics. Fortunately I never managed to get the least bit sick, but this did mean I had some hours to kill on my own in Siem Reap.
What to do in Siem Reap
While most people probably immediately think of Angkor Wat when Siem Reap comes up, it will likely be the second thing that will come to my mind. While Tony recovered I entertained myself at a couple of great spas. I even dragged Tony with me one day for a massage and we both agreed the massages we got in Cambodia were our favorites of the trip. Of course beyond massage there were pedicures, foot scrubs, facials and various other services. My favorite spots were Lotus Dream Spa and Pura Vida and both were laughably cheap by American standards.
I also spent time walking around the “Made in Cambodia” market and Pub street lined with shopping stalls, stores and restaurants. Tony and I visited the night market one evening together. It was filled with all the same tacky stuff, but more enjoyable to take in during the cool evening hours. The town has a river running through it and our hotel was on the opposite side from the main town area. I walked along the river frequently and enjoyed watching the locals taking a break in the shade by the river.
They would have their bicycle or motorbike pulled over near a bench and were often enjoying the common Southeast Asia “to-go” cup– a straw stuck in a quart sized plastic bag tied at the top and filled with a cold drink.
A local guide shared that he’d moved to the area 7 years ago for the job market, and that it had taken him all those years to save for his used motorbike. As Siem Reap continues to be a popular destination, the population has grown and rents have gotten to the point where most of a workers monthly wages are needed to cover rent.
And yes, we finally did make it to Angkor Wat Archeological Park! While Angkor Wat itself was certainly a highlight with it’s well-preserved ruins and 180 meter wide moat, we also really liked several other temples in the area. Our favorites included Angkor Thom (which was covered with giant stone faces) and Ta Prohm (where many trees are literally growing through the walls and buildings).
Historically, the complex was very important to the Khmer and Cham people. It’s particularly interesting to see how Hindu temples were converted to Buddhist temples and vice versa depending on who was in power at the time. You can literally see the new layers and additions made during these transformations.
In order to really understand what you are seeing we’d highly recommend using a guide ($25/day). You’ll also have to hire either a tuktuk or a/c taxi for the day ($12 or $25/day). I’m not sure what we would have done without our guide to help us find our driver after each temple– it required lots of mobile calls back and forth since there were 100’s of similar-looking tuktuks and cars. Our guide was also very knowledgeable about the Archeological park overall and we particularly enjoyed the details he shared on the well preserved bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat. They are amazingly detailed and with a little instruction you can easily see the stories that they tell. Tony noticed that there were dwarves illustrated in the 12th century gallery and asked our guide about this. He shared that dwarfs have “special powers” in the Khmer culture and even today in his village there is a dwarf who was a great warrior and another dwarf friend of his “gets all the ladies.”
If you ever end up visiting the ruins be prepared for a lot of walking and depending on the time of year you visit very hot weather so water and a hat are essential. Also note that some of the ruins like Angkor Wat itself are still active temples so modest dress is required for both men and women to visit certain areas.
Where to eat
There are lots of restaurants and bars in Siem Reap, catering to tired tourist returning from a long day of templing. Most have nearly identical menus with a local and international section serving up decent but not inspired food. There are a few standouts though and here are a few we would recommend. The Hive definitely seems to be an ex-pat hang out serving breakfast and lunch with great coffee, roti, caesar salad and decent eggs benedict. We also really enjoyed Haus Bremen a German restaurant with a friendly owner serving up some great curry wurst and a variety of schnitzels. And of course we did find an inspiring Cambodian restaurant, which we loved so much we ate there twice. The Khmer food at AnnAdyA was so flavorful and used a variety of fresh SE Asian spices. We particularly liked the banana flower salad, eggplant with pork dish and fish amok (steam cooked fish curry in a banana leaf).
Where to stay
Siem Reap is another destination which has accommodations to suit every budget and nearly every need a traveler might have. While there are hotels that meet western four-star standards, I’d challenge travelers wanting something more than a hostel or basic accommodation to give the smaller hotels a try both for good value and genuinely friendly service. We generally look for a location that is walkable to, but not directly in the main restaurant/bar scene and were pleased with our choice to stay at Motherhome Guesthouse. We were greeted with cold scented towels every time we returned to the hotel and the staff were absolutely charming.
Would we go back?
It’s unlikely that we’d return to Siem Reap for a couple of reasons. The town has everything you’d need and the locals are super friendly. But if we returned to Cambodia, I doubt we would specifically go out of our way to see Angkor Wat again– we just don’t love temples enough! And Siem Reap doesn’t offer much beyond the nearby temples. That said, we can absolutely see returning to Cambodia– it’s in the top three friendliest countries we’ve visited.