The bustling town of Siem Reap is a real shock to the senses when you arrive fresh out of rural Cambodia.
As you’d expect from the town closest to the famous Angkor Wat, there’s a guesthouse, tuk tuk driver and souvenir seller on just about every corner and plenty of bars waiting to sell you a cold brew. If that doesn’t take your fancy, how about a massage after a long day at the temples or dinner in an upmarket restaurant?
It won’t be hard to spend your cash here and actually it’s nice to splurge a bit. There’s no better place in Cambodia to kick back, relax and have a nice time before the more spartan journey ahead.
Sleeping: Guesthouses and hotels abound in Siem Reap, running the gauntlet from cheap backpacker factories all the way up to five-star class. Double rooms with a fan are easy to find under $10 U.S. but if you can go up to $15 U.S. you’ll get air conditioning and cable television. Try negotiating a bargain in the low season, when many hotels are desolate.
Our pick is the Two Dragons Guesthouse, in the Wat Bo Village area. The rooms run from $15 U.S. upwards and while the cheap ones are a bit small they’re all very clean with cable TV, a fan and air conditioning. The more expensive rooms have fridges. Wifi, coffee and tea are all free and the food in the restaurant is excellent. The owner runs the Tales of Asia website and is a good source of information on the area. We can highly recommend the tours to Tonle Sap lake.
Right next door to Two Dragons is the Home Sweet Home Guesthouse, also a good choice. The rooms and beds are huge and they’ve got a free internet cafe downstairs, with several computers hooked up for their clients and a few ethernet cables hanging around for laptop users. Upstairs there’s a big balcony where you could enjoy a cold beer at the end of the day.
A little further out on the N6 towards the airport, Earthwalkers isn’t exactly central but it gets good reviews and is one of the cheapest places where a swimming pool comes included. Run by Norwegians, we know first hand that they treat their staff very well. Quite by chance, before we got to Siem Reap, we met a young woman who’d been in a motorbike accident. She worked as a receptionist at Earthwalkers and they were paying all her medical bills. That’s a caring boss and we applaud the heartwarming attitude at Earthwalkers.
Self-catering: On the other side of the river from Wat Bo is the Old Market, where you’ll find fruit and vegetable sellers. If you go about one kilometer up highway 6 from Wat Bo towards Phnom Pehn you’ll also find a huge and untouristed market with a few basic bicycle shops scattered around the edges.
Eating out: You’re spoilt for choice really. Any cuisine you could want is here in Siem Reap so enjoy it before you’re back on the road and confined to Asian cooking again. The pub area around the Old Market is the best place to hunt for a different lunch. French. German. Mexican. Italian. It’s all on offer at a wide range of prices.
For cheapskates, dozens of street stalls open up in the evening between the Old Market area and the touristy Night Market. Most dishes are just $1 or $1.50 and you can get a tasty fruit shake for less than a dollar. During the day, you can find similar spots around the edges of the Old Market.
Back in the Wat Bo area, if you fancy a splurge then check out the Butterfly Garden. A meal for two will run $15-20 U.S. here but you could equally just come for a drink. Either way, it’s a beautiful setting and bring your camera to take pictures of the butterflies, which are captured by local children and brought to the garden every week. The restaurant supports several good causes in the area.
What to see: It’s obvious that Angkor Wat is the must-see attraction.
We also recommend you take a day out from the temples and visit the Tonle Sap lake area. Try and go to one of the further villages, which are much more tranquil than the ones closest to Siem Reap. It’s highly worth it to see the local people, their unique homes and way of life.
There are two art galleries by John McDermott around town, one in the Old Market and another just across the river from the Wat Bo Village area. Take a peek and be inspired by the photography before you head off to Angkor.
For a sobering picture of what the Cambodian people deal with on a daily basis, take an hour to see the Handicap International centre near the Central Market. They make and fit landmine victims and other disabled people with prosthetic limbs. They also do educational and social work. Very moving. You can read a bit about their work in Cambodia on their website.