However obvious it may seem that a visit to the Angkor temples is on every visitors list of Siem Reap attractions, no travel guide for Siem Reap is complete without mentioning it. Go visit the temples and dedicate at least a full day to visit the temples as there are quite a few you have to see. If you don’t want to be paying for a professional tour guide, then plan a visit to the Angkor National Museum to get some context before you venture out on your own. If you have no prior knowledge about the temples and have no guide to accompany you during your temple run, the experience can seem a bit empty. So take a guide if you are willing to invest in a rich one of a kind experience, they will set you back around $40-$60. If that’s not an option, a few hours at the Angkor National Museum should prep you well to have a fuller experience visiting the Siem Reap’s biggest attraction.
There are so many temples to visit and choose from. Unless you are visiting all of them, in which case there are no hard choices, the list of must see temples in your list should include the Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm and if you want to venture a bit further, around 45 minutes one way, to Banteay Srei. The rest of the temples are still worth visiting, but won’t leave you regretting if you don’t visit.
To best enjoy your visit, wear comfortable shoes as there will be a lot of walking and standing. Sunscreen, seriously. An umbrella if you are the brolly type, a hat if you aren’t. There will be plenty of food and water around the temple complex so you don’t have to worry too much about preparing edibles beforehand. If you’re looking for an alternative way to seeing the temples than seeing Angkor on a Vespa scooter is something you could opt for too.
Tonle Sap is a freshwater lake that gets seasonally inundated. What’s most fascinating about the lake is that the communities that live in an around the lake have adapted their way of life to the inundation cycles. In other words, the locals go about their daily lives even when the lake floods for several months every year as if it were the most normal thing to do. So a daily commute for school children could involve a swim from home to school or on a long boat. If you want to visit when the lake has been inundated to its peak then November is the best time or else the months around the rainy season of June to October is also a good time to visit.
Just as you will step into the temples upon arriving into Siem Reap, Siem Reap’s popular Pub Street will just as easily draw you in too. There are tonnes of activities, restaurants, pubs, cafes around the pub street area. If you’re in town for a couple of days, it is likely that you will spend most of your evenings at Pub Street, and we recommend two things that are a must at Siem Reap’s main attraction after dark. One, you shouldn’t miss the Khmer cocktail experience. Hosted by Pari, owner of Asana Wooden House bar, this activity will set you back just $15 and for it, you learn how to make 4 different cocktails using fresh Cambodian spices (which is actually cheaper than if you bought 4 drinks at the bar itself!). And you would never in the world think that putting lemon grass in a drink would taste any good, but trust me, you will be in for a treat! Pari’s ingenious creations will leave you pleasantly surprised and raving about the experience long after you have left the Angkor town. Second, visit the small backstreets, there are plenty where you will find lots of boutique shops, galleries, exhibitions and restaurants. Just walking along these alleyways introduces a different personality to the city.
Handicraft Shopping Markets
Shopping options are plenty in Siem Reap. A handicraft paradise, Siem Reap has both the variety and the quality. But with the option of 3 night markets, 1 old market and numerous stores selling pretty much the same crafts, it’s easy to get inundated with choice. Sure, you can enter any shop and pick what you like, but if you are particular about the quality and origin of the product you buy, then its best you are informed about, 1) the word on the street is that many or some (its debatable) of the products you see in the old market are imported from Thailand or Vietnam and sold off as ‘Cambodian made’ and 2) there is no way to determine the origins of the raw materials which again are said to be imported.
Two good options for a safe and guaranteed handicraft shopping experience is the famed Artisans D’Angkor, a organization who has their heart in local products made by local craftsmen. Their products are high end and so are their prices, but the craftsmanship and quality will easily justify the high prices of their products. Alternately, at the other end, is Angkor Handicraft Association, a handicraft market formed together by some 40 craftsmen who focus on using at least 70% of the raw materials that are locally sourced and products that are made by themselves. Its a bit off from the main town, but worth visiting as the choices there are varied and you might also be able to meet some of the craftsmen. Backstreet Academy works with numerous artisans from Angkor Handicraft Association and we can proudly endorse this organization as a must go to place for all your shopping needs. In addition to shopping you can also get a hands on experience on how to make some of these handicraft products like pottery, palm leaf box, copper wire bracelets and even iron pencil sketching.
Picnic at Kulen Mountain
If you dare to diverge from the typical itineraries (or have seen all the top Siem Reap attractions), and have a day to spare, we’d recommend a visit to Phnom Kulen which is among the best places to visit in Siem Reap outside of the Angkor Temples. Its a popular retreat for local residents of Siem Reap. The hills of Phnom Kulen offer a cool oasis with lots of nature, waterfalls, great views which makes it a great spot for what might be a favourite national pastime of drinking beer and eating. You can arrange a trip to Phnom Kulen from through Backstreet Academy. Its a refreshing interaction with the local culture and a relaxing way to spend a day in Siem Reap.
If you are the type that comes to life after sun down and also want to get away from pub street, because you have spent one too many nights there and looking for a different experience, head down to one of the local beer gardens. Of course, its best if you have a group of friends or better yet a local to take you there. This is where the locals go to ‘merry’. Dont expect anything spectacular, there’s usually a live band playing local numbers, the lights are dim and the beer cans are never in short supply. A night out with locals at a beer garden will leave you feeling warm about Cambodian hospitality.