A Beginner's Guide to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap aptly named the 'Temple Town,' serves as the gateway to the majestic Angkor Wat. The Angkor Wat ruins are inarguably the largest religious monuments in the world. And Siem Reap is the closest city to it.

The resort town is the capital of Siem Reap province is the most favorite place favored by tourists in South East Asia. The city has a blend of Khmer as well as Chinese French architecture in the city. Museums, cultural villages, and other attractions are predominant as well as hotels and restaurants catering to the burgeoning tourists from all over the world.

In this article, we have compiled a comprehensive guide targeted to a first time visitor visiting this outstanding corner of Cambodia.

1. Prepare for the trip

Apart from your home country, it is necessary that you have some preparation before you embark on the journey to any foreign country. Following are the essentials that we have suggested for you to do before stepping foot in Siem Reap.

i. Visa

Along with your passport with six months before the expiration date, you will need a visa to enter the country. You can apply for the visa either by visiting the Cambodian embassy in your country or apply for it online. In case of an incident or you decide to extend your stay; you can apply for an extension in the immigration office or a travel agency.

ii. Currency

It is essential to know the currency of the country you are about to visit. Cambodian currency is Riel. Some places accept US dollars, but you will be using the Riel more often. However, we suggest that you exchange your dollars into Riel sparingly as getting them back to dollars can be seemingly impossible. A traveler’s check can be your friend and don’t expect your credit card to be accepted everywhere.

iii. Vaccination

There is no specific vaccination to be had for entering Cambodia, but it is best to have a shot of malaria vaccine. It is especially crucial if you are planning your trip during the rainy season; the countryside is riddled with malarial borne mosquitoes. It is also good to carry repellents if you are prone to getting attacked by bugs.

iv. Outfit for the travel

Lightweight clothing is best while visiting Siem Reap. During the rainy months, waterproof clothing can be very convenient. Comfortable walking shoes are a must, as you will be engaged in a good amount of walking.

v. Adapter/charger

Yes, you need one to charge your phones because you need to be in contact. Asian charger points tend to be different from European and American chargers, so it’s best to carry a universal adapter to be safe.

2. Where to stay in Siem Reap

Assuming that you have landed safely in Siem Reap, finding a place to lodge should not be a challenge. You could easily stay in one of the hostels or a small hotel if you are in a budget. However, if money is not an issue, there are plenty of luxury resorts and hotels to cater to you. These places are equipped with all modern amenities like gym, spa, entertainment centers, golf courses, private pools, and personal butlers. You can indulge in decadence and even take a ride in one the King Sihanouk's Mercedes Benz.

Some of the high-end hotels are surprisingly affordable so don’t despair about not coming to Siem Reap with a full wallet.

3. Transportation

Once you are rested and refreshed, you should be ready to explore the wonders of Siem Reap. If you have made prior arrangements for getting around the city, that is great if you haven’t yet, you could ask your hotel to book you a taxi. You could also call one of the many travel agencies and schedule a day trip.

4. Traveler’s etiquette in Cambodia

Traveling to a foreign country can be a whole new experience. You are not familiar with the local customs and tradition, and many visitors fear to offend their hosts especially in a conservative Buddhist country like Cambodia. But irrespective of the country you’re in, good manners and friendly respectful attitudes are always appreciated.

Here is our list of the things that you should pay attention to while in the country of Cambodia.

  • Remove your footwear while entering places of worship or other people’s homes.
  • A small gift while visiting someone is deeply appreciated.
  • Always use both hands while handing something to a person.
  • A greeting that is unreturned is considered rude.
  • Dress modestly without showing too much skin.
  • Cover your shoulders while entering a place of worship.
  • You cannot touch someone’s head, even a child’s.
  • Pointing with fingers or feet is unacceptable.
  • Do not talk or wear clothing that depicts war or violence. Cambodia has a bloody past, and almost everyone has lost a dear one to it.
  • Public display of affection is not appreciated. You can hold hands though.

5. Weather in Cambodia

The weather is marked by the amount of rainfall and can be either considered dry or wet. The dry season from November to March/April is also the time that tourists pour into the province. Most visitors prefer the cooler weather of the dry season in spite of the higher prices of accommodation during these months. Apart from the historical structures, visitors also get to witness the local festivals that take place during this dry season.

In the rainy season, the luxuriant growth of vegetation is a photographers' delight. The temples are also best viewed during this time of the year. The lightning in the background of the majestic ancient ruins is indeed an out of this world experience. Take a raincoat and other waterproof clothing and be prepared to have a marvelous experience.

6. Things to do

It is very probable that the reason you set foot on Siem Reap was to visit Angkor Wat. So we will add it to the list. However, there are other excellent things you can do there as well. You do not have to be clueless after having visited the magnificent ruins. Consider the following activities you could do.

i. Visit the Angkor

Of course, we couldn’t exclude this from the to-do list. This 12th-century marvel that represents the pinnacle of Khmer architecture is a UNESCO world heritage site. The grandeur of the ancient temple ruins is indeed a sight to behold and is a must visit in Siem Reap. The temple ruins are best admired at sunrise and sunset, which is also the most crowded time as people rush to see the glorious view.

But if you want to appreciate the Angkor Wat in all its majesty, it is best viewed overhead in a helicopter. Your guide will tell you when the best time to explore this option is.

ii. Visit other temples

Overshadowed by the massive Angkor Wat, other temples pale in comparison; both in size and grandeur. However, there are other temples in the vicinity of the Angkor Wat that are worth visiting. The Bayon temple with its imposing face stone towers is one of them. Ta Prohm is another, which is entirely made of sandstone and is the oldest temple. It was the site of the movie, Tomb Raider that gave it more exposure to the general public. Other temples that are great for visiting are Banteay Kdei, Ta Som, Banteay Srei and Prasant Kravan.

iii. Take a ride in a hot air balloon

Easily one of the best things to do is going up in a hot air balloon. The sights from above are unparalleled. As opposed to a helicopter that can be rather fast and noisy, a hot air balloon is slower and offers more peace and calm. It allows you to take in the sights. It can be especially magical during sunrise and sunset

iv. Visit Pub Street

A drastic change from the hot air balloon but yes, Pub Street is where all the partying takes place. Backpackers and travelers from all around congregate here to relax and party after a hard day of walking and other activities. You can drink and dance and eat to your heart’s content. The restaurants serve all types of dishes at very affordable prices.

v. Check out the Angkor Night Market

This market place comes to life around 5 pm and is filled with stalls selling everything from small trinkets to clothes to food and household items. The market was opened in 2007 to promote Khmer style arts and handicrafts. It is a great place to visit to experience authentic Cambodian food and their general lifestyle. It is a great place to pick up souvenirs and gifts, which are made from organic and recycled materials.

vi. Visit the Old Market

As the name suggests, it is the oldest market in the province and is also known as Psah Chas. It is a must visit if you are keen to see the lives of the average Cambodian outside of the malls and other popular tourist destinations. The assortment of wares can range from simple and cute to exotic and bizarre. The vast array of food items and fruits along with pig’s head and fried tarantulas is as eclectic as it can get. You have always wanted to experience exotic Asia so why not push the limit and eat a friend bug too? If that is too much for your stomach to handle, try out the exotic fruits like the dragon fruit and jackfruit to name a few.

vii. Check out the fish spas

Yes, that is correct. Visitors can get their feet nibbled on by fishes that chew on the dead skin cells on the feet. It sounds dreadful, but it can be incredibly relaxing after walking for long hours. Price ranges from $5 to $10 and visitors also are treated to a can of beer for free. After all the walking you’ve been doing, giving your feet some love is essential.

viii. Visit the Floating Villages

Right next to the Angkor Wat, another quintessential feature about Cambodia is the floating villages. Take a boat ride to Tonle Sap, home to the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. People live in stilt houses, made of bamboo poles and it is an incredible sight to see as entire villages live floating on the water. Explore the village and the crocodile farms. Take a ride in the gondolas with your partner, if you are feeling romantic. Maybe you will get lucky and get invited by a family to join in their fresh caught dinner.

ix. Take a cooking class

In Siem Reap, one of the best culinary things you can do is take a Khmer cooking class. You will get to learn and cook local cuisine. Many of the visitors agree that the best food they have had in the province is from cooking. Amateur cooks, or even someone who has no basic skills in cooking can quickly whip up a delicious dish with the help of the Khmer cook.

x. Visit the Land Mine Museum

Cambodia has a war-torn history, and it is evident until today. Any random adult that you meet has lost a dear one to the bloody past. The land mine museum is located in the Angkor National Park and was started by a former soldier who used to plant landmines but later went back and diffused them. Other memorabilia from the Vietnamese occupation during the 70s are also on display. If you decide to visit and donate to the museum, the money goes in funding the school for children amputated by landmines and diffusing more mines.

xi. Get a massage

No visit to South East Asia is complete with getting a massage. After all the places you’ve visited, and activities are completed, there is no better way to relax than to get a relaxing massage. In Siem Reap, these massage parlors are available everywhere, and they are quite cheap too. A solo massage session can cost $1 to $9, but the service is just as great. After your massage session is over, don’t forget to pick up a couple of the little soaps that can make an excellent gift when you return home.