Last update: December 2019
Tourism in Cambodia is on the rise. The number of tourist arrivals is still nothing compared to neighbor Thailand. However, tourism in the Kingdom of Wonder is growing at a dazzling speed and there are no signs of a slow down.
Other than Angkor Wat, Cambodia highlights are not (yet) really on the travelers radar. This has everything to do with the country’s turbulent recent past, which is characterized by oppression and civil wars (plural). As a result, Cambodia was late in opening up to visitors and tourism.
That’s all in the past now and finally we can experience Cambodia as a true travelers destination. From historical treasures like Preah Vihaer in the North to the pristine white sand Islands in the South. From untouched nature and abundant wildlife in the Eastern Cardamom mountains and rural countryside along the Mekong in the West. Cambodia is diverse, interesting and ready to claim its seat at the South East Asia tourism table.
Cambodia has many highlights and without a doubt, the most famous of them all is Angkor Wat. In the wake of the notorious temple ground, the village of Siem Reap quickly developed into the undisputed jump off point for Angkor Wat.
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Man, this town has changed over the past few years! The tourist influx continues to grow under the influence of nearby Angkor Wat and Siem Reap is desperately trying to keep up with adequate infrastructure. It’s not all bad I admit, but it’s not all good all the same.
Of course the historical value of Angkor Wat makes it the most important attraction in the whole of Cambodia. Fortunately, over time local and expat tourism entrepreneurs managed to put Siem Reap on the map as an interesting and fun tourist destination in itself.
From the hustle and bustle of the infamous Pub Street to the quiet rural countryside and the Tonle Sap floating villages. Siem Reap caters to every kind of tourist need, whether it’s history, culture, nature or partying, you can have it all.
Best time to visit Siem Reap
Weather wise the best time to visit Siem Reap is in December and January, when it’s generally sunny and dry. Unfortunately this coincides with the peak tourist season, bringing crowds, I mean huge crowds and high prices. Perhaps February might be better when the temperature is still agreeable and the crowds subside (but only by a little).
From March the heat starts to build up and April/May are usually scorching hot. Come June, rainy season starts and from September to October it can rain a lot. Don’t think however, that the rain brings cooler temperatures. I mean, it does, but the humidity will make you feel like you’ve stepped into a sauna. With that in mind, it’s a good thing that Siem Reap is sometimes also dubbed the swimmingpool capital of Cambodia for a reason.
Actually, rainy season is not a bad time to visit, since the landscape is lush and green. The rain usually comes in brief showers and is alternated with sufficient sunlight for great photos of Angkor Wat. Just don’t forget to pack an umbrella. Note that there’s another notable spike in visitor numbers during July and August.
How to get to Siem Reap
Siem Reap has a small, but busy international airport with flights coming in from all over South East Asia and an incredible amount of flights from China. I recommend using the Skyscanner website to check the full schedule of incoming and outgoing flights.
Buses come to Siem Reap from all over Cambodia and even from as far as Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. Do not book your bus ticket on Khaosan Road or Pham Ngu Lao! Don’t be that guy that got scammed! Book your ticket online and secure your seat through a trustworthy specialist. For bus trips to/from and within Cambodia I always use BookmeBus.com. Skip the lines at the bus station!
Especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s). The Bookmebus.com tool is incredibly easy to use, just fill out your place of departure, your destination and travel date. It will show the complete schedule and ticket price of all related transport. Make your choice and book instantly.
From Siem Reap airport to the city center is pretty straightforward. Just outside the airport is a taxi booth that sells taxi tickets for a fixed price of $10. Tuk-tuks charge a fixed price of $9 or else you can venture beyond the airport parking to negotiate a $5-$6 deal.
Likewise, motorbike taxis charge a fixed price of $9, but at the exit of the airport parking you should be able to bargain down to as low as $3. Either transport options take approximately 20min to the city center.
In the city center everything is well within walking distance, even when it’s hot, just walk slow. However, you’re probably here to see the temples, and maybe you also want to roam around the countryside a bit. Outside of town activities require a tuk-tuk or a taxi.
Tuk-tuks are literally anywhere and they are always up for daily hire. $15-$20 is the usual going rate for a day. Taxis are more expensive, from $25 per day or more depending on the type of car. Your guesthouse or any travel agent will be able to find you a driver.
Normally, I advocate renting a motorbike and self drive. Unfortunately, the local tuk-tuk
mafia lobby has been successful in banning motorbike rental to foreigners. This rule is not always enforced, but every once in a while there will be police crackdowns. If they confiscate the motorbike you’ll have to compensate the rental company. It’s a real pity, since the roads around Siem Reap are perfect for motorbiking. Alternatively, you can rent an expensive e-bike for $10 per day.
Things to see/do in Siem Reap
Of course we have to kick off the list of things to see/do with Angkor Wat. It might very well be the sole reason you came to Siem Reap in the first place. However, you will be pleasantly surprised by the many other interesting and fun activities that Siem Reap has to offer.
Angkor Wat (City of Temples) is the largest religious monument in the world. The total site measures a staggering 1,626,000 m2, that’s almost 230 soccer fields people! With over 2 million international visitors each year (and counting) it’s also one of the most visited UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world.
For the record, Angkor Wat might be the most significant temple, but the Angkor Archeological Park houses numerous other temples that are also worth visiting. Next to Angkor Wat the main highlights are Angkor Thom (Bayon), Ta Prohm, Phnom Bakheng and Baphuon.
It’s perfectly possible to visit all these highlights in one day, so a $37, 1-day ticket to the park should be sufficient for the average visitor. If you have a special interest in archeology/history or you just can’t get enough there are 3-day ($62) and weeklong ($72) tickets as well.
Grab a tuk-tuk for the day with some friends and for $15-$20 it will take you to the ticket center and to the highlights of the archeological park. If aircon transport is your thing you can also opt for a tour. Prices start at $18 p/p for a full day tour in an airconditioned minivan including lunch and a trustworthy English speaking guide. Book a recommended tour here.
The cheapest option is to rent a bicycle, but make sure that you’re ready for exercise, because it will be a full day of pedaling!
Read: Angkor Wat – Overrated!
Siem Reap has plenty of museums and although most of them are but small, some of them are unique and interesting. From the list, two are a must-see.
Angkor National Museum: Dedicated to the Khmer era from the 9th to the 14th century and displaying many Angkorian artifacts and sculptures. Most ideal would be to visit the museum before you go to see the temples. The context provided will truly add value to your temples visit. If you’re at peace with the rather high $12 entrance fee, I do recommend forking out an extra $5 for the excellent audio guided tour.
Landmine Museum: Impressive initiative by a former child soldier that had to plant landmines himself. After decades of conflict there are still numerous amounts of UXO in Cambodia claiming new victims on a regular basis. This museum tells the story of Cambodia’s recent violent past. Proceeds of the museum go towards to landmine clearing, the funding of a new school and a relief center for child victims. Even without the admirable cause this is a place worth visiting for the history lesson it provides.
Old Market: Wherever there’s a market, there are tourists, However, the Siem Reap Old Market is still very much a locals market. They shop here for fish, meat, vegetables and household items. There’s also a large section where they sell jewelry, clothes, shoes and trinkets. In the center are a few food stalls where locals come for breakfast and tourists come for snacks.
Night Market: There are several night markets in Siem Reap, which all seem to target tourists. Most notable is the night market near Pub street, with t-shirts, souvenirs and street food. Another market is the arts night market over the bridge at Makara street, offering local handicrafts and art objects.
This street deserves its own chapter. There’s nothing like it, or even close to it, anywhere else in Cambodia. The street is completely dedicated to drinking, dining and party. If you came looking for a peaceful retreat in one of Cambodians provincial towns, well….this ain’t it, and that’s an understatement if ever there was one.
Clearly Pub street is not for everyone, but it serves a purpose. The abundance of flashy neon lights and the cacophony of loud blaring stereos can certainly have a disorienting effect. But why not surrender yourself to a night (or two) of unrestrained party. For the record, I don’t advocate excessive alcohol consumption, but if ever you wanted to let your hair down, do it here since beers are as low as fifty cents during happy hour. Just saying.
Food is cheap as well with plenty of choice, although not of very high standard. It’s tasty though, so it will do the trick. Relax to digest your food in one of the lounge areas outside the bars or else, dance the night away in one of the many clubs.
Beware, beware, enjoying yourself while partying is nice, but do behave! The local authorities are cracking down on tourists that demonstrate misconduct. This includes a lack of respect towards locals and Buddhist religion.
If Angkor Wat has left you templed out, visiting one of the floating villages at the nearby Tonle lake is a nice way to see more of local Cambodia. The lake is the largest in South East Asia and harbors several floating and stilted fishing villages to observe daily rural life.
You can join a tour or you can venture on your own. Just note that at one point you will have to make use of a rented boat and it won’t be cheap. Also note that not all villages guarantee a satisfactory experience. Scammers are on the prowl! Read up on my article “Outrageous Cambodia Scam” to learn which villages to avoid.
Read: “11 things to do in Siem Reap – and 5 things to skip” – A comprehensive and detailed list of activities in Siem Reap.
No, no, no, I know you think travel insurance is boring, but don’t you dare to skip this chapter! What if you fall off a temple? You think I’m joking? Think again, it happens way more often than you think.
Anyway, just realize that healthcare in Cambodia is hopelessly underdeveloped. Any serious injuries or ailments probably require medical transport to Bangkok or Singapore. A costly event and without proper insurance you will have to pay upfront.
Whichever travel insurance you might choose, make sure to include medical care abroad, evacuation and repatriation. Read more about travel insurance here, or get a non-committal instant quote right now!
Where to stay in Siem Reap
There are so many accommodations in Siem Reap. Hostels, boutique hotels, guesthouses, airbnb, eco and luxurious resorts, you name it, it’s here. How to pick the right accommodation?
If you’re new to Siem Reap it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the incredible amount of accommodations. To choose the right one, start with determining three things: desired area, desired luxury level and price level. Agoda.com conveniently allows you to filter these three criteria in their search engine.
Don’t forget to check the reviews to see whether the accommodations actually live up to their offerings. Or, simply go with my recommendations below.
Find your accommodation in Siem Reap with Agoda.com
The best prices, regular discounts, off season and secret deals;
Price matching. Agoda will reimburse you the difference between what you pay and a lower price you find;
Email notification when your selected accommodation price drops;
Extensive search filters.
Recommended by Walkaboutmonkey.com
La Palmeraie D’angkor
Mid Range = from $30 to $75 – Double
Luxury = from $75 to $200 – Suite
High End = $200 and up – Villa
What a gem. Quiet location 10 tuk-tuk minutes from of the city, but all amenities are present on site. The staff and the owner are fantastic. The rooms and bungalows are clean, spacious and beautifully designed. The restaurant serves super tasty food. Pricey during high season, but great deals during low season.
Shadow Angkor Residence
Budget = from $10 to $30
Mid Range = from $30 to $75
As close to Pub street as you can get, while staying in good quality hotel for a reasonable price. A good breakfast is included with the large rooms in this colonial building. Biggest draw is that you are in the middle of all the hustle an bustle.
Where to eat in Siem Reap
I won’t go as far as saying that Siem Reap is a foodie heaven, but fact is that you can do some serious munching here. Sure, it’s a tourist town and usually that’s a recipe for badly executed, overpriced Western and toned down local food.
However, the large size expat community demands more than just mediocre tourist grub. Also, the many Cambodians, lured by jobs, from all over the country settled in Siem Reap bringing with them their local cuisine. All in all, Siem Reap has a pretty good and varied food scene.
Recommended by Walkaboutmonkey.com
Temple Coffee n Bakery Such a cool place to hang out for breakfast, lunch, dinner and after-dinner. Ok, so maybe I am a little biased as we stayed right next door so visiting here was oh so convenient. The atmosphere is great though, with high quality food, even if the menu is somewhat limited.
Urban Tree Hut Definitely one of the better restaurants in Siem Reap. Both Western and Asian options, executed to perfection by the competent kitchen staff. The restaurant has a wonderful garden setting with special swing chairs that makes one really relaxed. Prices are reasonable for a restaurant of this level.