A Travel Guide to Cambodia’s Siem Reap

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Due to a snafu with Vietnam Airlines, we only had a few days to explore Siem Reap. There are many steps in majority of the temples and expansive spaces which beg to be explored. You will be tired, so give yourself that time to do them in peace.

Eating in Cambodia

If you try Khmer cuisine at all in Siem Reap, be sure to try Sugar Palm Restaurant, a mom and pop (mainly mom) run restaurant. It’s authentic food and pretty interiors will have you coming back for more. Its’ on many peoples’ favorite lists and rightfully so. They have a branch in Phnom Penh too.

Their menu is spot on with souffle curries (amok), seafood, stir fried veggie dishes and so much more. The cocktails also did not disappoint. You have to climb a set of stairs to get up to the restaurant which is beautifully lit up at night.

It was quite humid in Siem Reap- here’s me trying to cool off with a cocktail in hand @ Sugar Palm Restaurant.

Khmer Crispy Noodles

Khmer Curry or Amok, the national dish of Cambodia- the most unique dish of all. I’ve never seen a curry served souffle style. It’s a true combination of French and Asian cuisine and done so deliciously. It was one of my favorites on their menu!

Crispy Spring Rolls

Here’s some other food we had around Siem Reap, both in our hotel and outside in eateries around the temples or quick lunches around town.  We found that Khmer cuisine even though seemingly similar to Thai food, is really very different.

The flavors are neither sweet and savory like Thai cuisine, nor spicy like many other Asian cuisines. The staple ingredients (like the coconut base in the amok or the flat noodles) are similar to thai ones, however the spice blends and textures are very different. The curry for example is thicker and creamier. There is a ton of fresh water fish on all menus though pork and chicken are served also.

Many of the soups they serve are on either the sour or bitter side and they love grilling as well as crunchy critters like grasshoppers. Their spice blend is called kroeung and is also dry as opposed to the pastes ground in Thai cuisine.

From Cambodia’s days as a French Indochina colony, the country’s cuisine also has many similarities to Vietnam’s. They enjoy a good baguette with their soups, many places serve the yummiest crepes and yes, for an Asian country, they sure do love their coffee.

Cambodian Food at a Glance:

Fish Amok (souffle style fish curry)
Freshwater Fish
Kroeung Spice Blend
Kuy Teav Noodle Soup
Stir Fried Dishes (of all sorts…our favorite was the calamari pictured below)
Lap Khmer – Beef Salad (lime marinated)
Khmer Noodles
Bai Sach Chrouk – Pork & Rice
Khmer Red Curry

Temples Everywhere!

Ok, so here’s the low down on the temples. You will indefinitely visit at least two during your time in Siem Reap.  After all, the temples are the main signifying element of the city— much less why tourists get themselves to travel to Cambodia in itself.  Let’s just admit that they are worth all the hype they create, and you must lay foot on them to truly understand this.

Having said that, pace yourself and do research before hand as to the ones you absolutely must visit taking into account the amount of time you have at hand.  About 2,000 temples have been uncovered in the country and out of that only about 12 or so are most frequently visited.  Also know that ‘temple hopping’ is not for everyone. It is tiring and for many, may become monotonous really quickly.

I should be one to talk though, because we ended up in five temples on one day and this included the big Kahuna –Angkor Wat both at sunrise and later on in the day.

This is A LOT to do in one day and no doubt, we were beyond exhausted but we squeezed them in on that one day mainly because we had one day short in Cambodia than anticipated and we also wanted to use one day to just lounge plus did not want to pay our driver for an extra day of driving around. I would say though that if you’ve got three days, use two to do the temples.

So after much research and being picky with the limited time we had, which ones did we visit?

Temple Itinerary (by order)

  • Angkor Wat (Sunrise around 5:00 am; Duration: 1.5 hours to take stunning photos and then headed back to our hotel for our spectacular seven course breakfast. Later in the day we came back to tour the entire temple until it closed around 5:30pm; Duration: 3 hours)
  • Bayon (Duration: 1 hour)
  • Preah Khan (Duration: 1 hour)
  • Ta Phrom (Duration: 1 hour)
  • Banteay Srei (42 kilometers/1 hour away from Siem Reap; Duration: 1 hour )

Total Temple Viewing Duration for the Day: Approximately 9 hours. Note: This excludes driving times or stopping for breakfast and lunch (which if included would total approximately 12 hours)

Which ones did we wish we didn’t visit? NONE. Amongst these five, I would say, go to ALL of them. We did research others but narrowed down to these five due to articles, pictures, recommendations by friends and fellow travelers.

Our favorites amongst the five were none other than Angkor Wat and Banteay Sri primarily because they were both the most unique, grand and the most different in architecture, history and also managed to hold our fascination for the longest period of time.

Temple Visit Do’s & Dont’s

  • Dress loosely and comfortably as it tends to get very hot and humid most times of the year. It can be misery evoking to make the mistake of choosing non-breathable or thick materials.
  • Be respectful of the monks and do not eat in front of them (they are not allowed to eat after noon) or talk loudly. This also includes refraining from asking them for a selfie (I’m being serious here…)
  • Dress respectfully: cover shoulders and knees. Starting August, 2016 the government has issued strict rules stating that tourists will be asked to leave if not wearing appropriate clothing. I wore a mid-level skirt with a T-shirt tied at the waist.
  • Wear proper footwear: This means comfortable and preferably covered walking shoes which you don’t mind getting dirty.  There is more walking and climbing involved than you may imagine and many of the temples also are dusty i.e. Banteay Srei has red sand everywhere. Please leave the stilettos and high heels at home (yes, people have worn these before). I wore a pair of black ballet flats with internal arch support. Some tips for planning purposes.
  • Drink ample water to avoid dehydration caused from walking long distances in extremely hot or humid weather.
  • Pace yourself! as mentioned, many of the temples have a vast amount of land, stairs and possibly, climbs. It is very tiring, so go slow, at your comfort level and take rest when needed.
  • Plan the temples you want to visit and transport ahead of time along with an idea of approximate times it will take you to cover each and get from one to another.

5 Unmissable Temples in Siem Reap

Angkor Wat

You can’t come to Siem Reap and miss this wonderous, grand and utterly jaw dropping 12th century architectural masterpiece. Angkor Wat is a metropolis made up of pillars, hallways, intricate walls, ceilings and rooftops amongst so much more.

The views from the top (after a bit of a climb) will have you swooning.  It literally feels like an out of the world experience and goes over the top with each and every dramatic corner you turn. I can’t rave enough about it and feel so lucky to have been able to be fit enough to have walked and climbed through this gem of a wonder.

You can easily spend the entire day here.  We did the sunrise walk through and were so fortunate to be able to catch a perfectly orange sky above the arches. Then later in the day, we came back after visiting the rest of the temples listed and were able to catch a slight bit of the sunset although weren’t facing it. My recommendation would be to highly do the sunrise tour. Get up early, stand in line and get your tickets and GO! It’s an absolute must.

Bayon


This is one of the first temples we visited.  I thought the entrance and face of the temple is the most interesting part of it all. Not that walking around wasn’t enlightening, but the tall, large Buddha faces etched with the most detailed expressions will hold your stares and you just can’t help but looking back (and up!) as you still continue to walk forward.

Stunning and thought provoking, Bayon is a must see. The insides of the temples have many little walkways and ruins and are also interesting in their own. I didn’t think Bayon was very big. We ended up walking through it in about an hour or so. Having said that, obviously you can spend longer.

Banteay Srei

Make sure when you hire a driver to take you to the temples, you ask if they will drive you to Bantaey Sri included in the price of your tour. I say this because it is located about an hour away from the other Siem Reap temples and in traffic, can take you a bit longer. Also, try going earlier on in the day if you’d like to come back to Siem Reap right after and do some more exploring.

This temple was one of our favorites because of the red sand and very familiar Hindu stories which are etched on the interiors of the temple. I also felt that the etchings and carvings were the most fine ones I’d seen amongst all the temples. The detailing is impeccable and the most amazing part nonetheless is that, even though there is so much of it, it’s clean and done so neatly. You notice every since line and arch very easily with a naked eye.

Preah Khan


This is a beeaaauuutiful 140 acre temple located in the middle Angkor archeological forest. The surroundings are lush.  Against the green is rough cut sandstone block; the contrast is nothing but gorgeous. That combined with the ‘hall of dancers’ —walls dedicated to the apsaras. Wow! What a visual delight this temple was.  The central enclosure is quite a walk away from the main entrance so be prepared for a bit of a trek.

Ta Phrom


Ever watch Tomb Raider? If not, while prepping for your trip to Siem Reap, watch it! The film (and Angelina Jolie’s character Lara Croft of course) made Ta Phrom truly more famous and sought out. THE TREE…yes, the one with more roots than stars in the sky, is simply unreal and in the movie is picturised with such utmost drama that you just can’t forget it while gazing.

Ta Phrom is actually known to some as the Tomb Raider temple and many of the restaurants around town actually make cocktails named after the flick, so give them a try after a hot day exploring the temple.  It’s got Cointreau, Lime and Soda as it is supposedly Jolie’s poison of choice.

So there it is, the five temples we were able to visit while in Siem Reap. We can’t say that our day of temple excursions wasn’t tiring. We definitely were lucky with a good driver who was just as determined to get the sites covered within one day. We were also well prepared with suitable clothing and footwear. We don’t regret a single temple but do wish that we had another day to maybe see a couple more!

Pub Street & Night Market 

Other than temple hopping, we did venture to the notorious Siem Reap block party called Pub Street. We went a couple of times and have to say that it was quite the feast for all our stimuli.

There was loud music blaring from the marketplaces which sold t shirts and other artwork, a bunch of crunchy critters sold for consumption (no pictures unless you buy and try).

There was also liquor. Undeniably a surplus of liquor which was being served out of trunk bars inside parked vans, on trolley carts and many other unimaginable places. Never a dull moment on Pub Street. We really enjoyed just gaping at all the wildness (and maybe partaking in some of it).

 

Siem Reap gave us a short but lasting impression of a modernish city with endless historical learning experiences. I’d recommend anyone who loves the Jungle Book (or not) to visit. Truth be told, it definitely held as inspiration for us Mowgli lovers.

Kinjal Nayar
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