We were ready for a Cambodia adventure after two months in Vietnam, so we hopped on a plane and headed to the land of ghosts and magic. Read on to see what we did and what we ate.
Located in northwestern Cambodia, Siem Reap is a busy yet laid-back town just four miles from Angkor Wat. Hoards of tourists, many in rumbling tour buses, come to Siem Reap and stay at multi-national hotels as a gateway to the nearby UNESCO site and one of the world’s true wonders.
Not many come for the city itself, except perhaps for the party scene on Pub Street. And that’s a shame. Traveling to Siem Reap has much to offer tourists with its unique blend of Cambodian culture and quirky tourism.
Our Cambodia Adventure in Siem Reap
Though we are not typical adventure travelers, we are adventurous in our way.
From leaving our safe lives behind in Philadelphia to eating crazy food around the world, we choose adventures that challenge us and make us happy. For our Cambodia adventure in Siem Reap, we did exactly what we wanted.
We spent time exploring the temples in Angkor, eating great food and shopping. Plus, we passed on the big chain hotels and stayed at a Fancy Boutique Villa, a boutique hotel in the heart of Siem Reap.
When most people think of Angkor, they likely think of Angkor Wat, Bayon Temple or Ta Prohm, each iconic in its own way. In reality, though, Angkor has relics from over 100 temples, all in different states of repair and disrepair.
Dating back to the 9th century, Angor was a thriving city with a million inhabitants in its heyday until it all but disappeared after the fall of the Khmer empire in the 15th century.
French explorers and then tourists discovered the ruins in the early 1900s before the violent Khmer Rouge came to power. Fast forward to the 21st century and many of the temples have been rescued from abandonment and are open to the millions of tourists who visit each year.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Few things in life are worth leaving a comfy bed at four in the morning. Sunrise at Angkor Wat is one of those things.
Arriving at the temple complex in total darkness, we carefully made our way to the man-made moat surrounding the iconic temple and claimed our spot. Before long, the sky lit up in all shades of red and orange as the sun made its ascent for the day.
We didn’t know whether to look up at the sky or down toward the reflective moat. Somehow, though, we drank it all in with our eyes, took plenty of photos like the one above and stored the special memory for later enjoyment.
Though the sunset at Angkor Wat lives up to its hype, it pales in comparison to the site itself. Built in the 12th century, Angkor Wat sits on 494 acres and is an epic piece of spiritual construction.
You could rush through in an hour or you could spend an entire day without getting bored. The choice is yours. As for us, we explored Angkor Wat for a few hours before moving on to our next Angkor destination.
Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom
If you watch the American TV show Survivor, then you’ve seen some of the 200 impressive stone faces carved into Bayon Temple. Also constructed in the 12th century, this three-story temple is a revelation for its size and huge smiling faces.
Pictures provide a glimpse of what this temple looks like, but there’s nothing like the experience of being surrounded by these faces at every twist and turn.
Jungle Temple at Ta Prohn
This unique temple complex served as a setting for one movie and clearly inspired the other. Though a path has been cleared and some structures have been renovated, the jungle has taken control of the temples.
Stones are jumbled everywhere, and silk cotton and strangler fig trees are literally eating the buildings.
Advice on Visiting Angkor
Here are some quick tips to save you some time when you visit Angkor Wat.
Angkor is a photographer’s dream from sunrise to sunset and everything in-between. Each temple is unique with surprises at every turn and in every cranny.
We took our photos with a Canon 70D DSLR camera and a variety of lenses. We also used our iPhones for quick shots.
Bring all your camera gear including extra batteries and plenty of disk space.
Drawing influences from the cuisines of France, China, Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodian food maintains its own character and flavor profiles. Fish and rice are common ingredients in many dishes including the popular Amok which is made with fish, coconut and curry paste and served with a side of rice.
Siem Reap has its fair share of tourist eateries including the pizza shop where we satisfied our pizza craving one evening; however, there are a slew of restaurants serving Cambodian food at every price point. We tried several during our visit and liked these the best.
The rain started soon after we arrived in Siem Reap. We kept waiting for it to stop, but the velocity continued to increase. Finally, we abandoned the comfort of our hotel room to venture out for food.
We followed our noses a block or so from the hotel. Once seated, we communicated by pointing at the menu and smiling. Our smiles widened as we sipped on lemon smoothies and slurped down green curry with local flavors and morning glory.
There are numerous spots serving local food, and many don’t display English names. Be sure to try Fish Amok and Green Curry with Rice, two of our local favorites.
Cambodian food is available at shacks and stands throughout Siem Reap. Follow your nose and enjoy the meal. When you want something more, here are our favorite places to eat in Siem Reap:
As great as the local joints are in Siem Reap, it would be a shame to miss out on the city’s finer dining. That’s why we chose to leave our neighborhood and venture to Mie Cafe for a more upscale dining experience. We sat outside for our multi-course dinner that fused local ingredients with western cooking techniques.
Mie Cafe is located at Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Sister Srey Cafe
As a town that caters to tourists, Siem Reap has more than its fair share of coffee shops. We tried a few, and Sister Srey Café wins the award for being our favorite. In addition to serving tasty coffee, smoothies and food like potato hash, the cafe also serves a social enterprise that supports the local community and its students.
Sister Srey Café is located right near the Old Market, making it a great spot to visit before or after you satisfy your shopping fix.
Sister Srey Café is located at 200 Pokambor Avenue, Siem Reap, Cambodia.
The Sugar Palm
The Sugar Palm is the place to go in Siem Reap for top notch Khmer food. The food may be traditional and homey, but the classy cocktails and stylish atmosphere elevate the dining experience to a higher level. We enjoyed our first meal so much that we returned again and filmed a video.
The shopping scene is pretty insane in Siem Reap. The city caters to both the many tourists as well as the local residents. As full-time travelers, we didn’t buy much. However, we sure had fun checking out the goods.
Siem Reap’s Old Market, or Psah Chas in Cambodian, is unique in that it caters equally to tourists and locals. Stall after stall sells souvenirs like t-shirts and decorative chopsticks, with many more hawking “genuine” silk scarves.
Haggling is the norm with these items, and we partook in negotiating for our t-shirt and scarf. Were we successful in our haggling efforts? It’s hard to say for sure, but it’s all part of the Siem Reap experience.
Locals meanwhile come to this same central market to shop for housewares and food. We’re not exactly sure who’s buying the bugs though…
The streets of Siem Reap are filled with local shops selling a myriad of items from flip-flops to pickled vegetables. Whether you’re looking to buy or just window shop like us, the variety of Siem Reap stores offers a true feast for the eyes.
Hotel – Fancy Boutique Villa
We felt at home at Fancy Boutique Villa from the moment the hotel driver picked us up at the Siem Reap airport until the time the friendly staff waved goodbye to us four days later. Tucked away in a quiet alley within walking distance of all the action, the hotel’s location is ideal for travelers looking for a personal experience with comfort and style.
We especially loved our big, cozy bed and the tranquil pool. Catering to our needs, the staff even offered us a boxed breakfast to take with us to the Angkor Wat sunrise since we’d be missing the hotel’s hearty meal. You can’t ask for much more than service like that.
Fancy Boutique Villa is located at Preah Sangreach Tep Vong St, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia.
About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.
Original Publication Date: October 24, 2016