With so many destinations in the WHL Group’s ever-expanding network, we have an incredible wealth of local travel information at our fingertips. Through the Inside Word, our local partners – all travel experts – share their top tips on what to do, what to eat, where to party and where to shop in their neck of the woods. This month, we find our way to the heart of Siem Reap, Cambodia, at the threshold of Angkor Wat.
Stretched along the Siem Reap River just north of Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s Great Lake, is the town of Siem Reap, gateway to the world-famous and ever-popular ancient temples of Angkor. In the early 1920s, French writer Pierre Jeannerat de Beerski famously wrote “Go to Angkor, my friend, to its ruins and its dreams.” Even today, a visit to Angkor is sure to inspire a sense of magic and awe.
Angkor Wat in Cambodia is the world’s largest religious building and considered by many to be one of the greatest manmade structures ever created. However, the surrounding area is full of smaller and less visited temples all waiting to be explored. The ancient great city of Angkor Thom, with its central Bayon temple known for large and enigmatic sculpted smiling faces, and Ta Phrom, which is often referred to as the ‘Jungle Temple’ because of the many roots and trees growing in and through the temple ruins, usually come high up on most travellers’ itineraries.
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Angkor consists of hundreds of temples of various shapes and sizes. Even though it’s possible to see the main Angkor temples in one day, we strongly recommend not rushing it. Instead, take time to soak in the atmosphere at a leisurely pace.
Just off the main road to the temples is a very informative and interesting permanent exhibition entitled ‘Tonle Sap, Sources of Lives’, where the Cambodian foundation Krousar Thmey showcases the ecological and cultural richness of the great lake of Tonle Sap. All information is in English, French and Khmer and, as such, the exhibition serves as a tool for raising environmental awareness for both locals and visitors.
Tonle Sap itself holds the promise of many popular boat trips. From Siem Reap, the closest and most accessible point of departure is the village of Chong Khneas. Visiting the village used to be a very different experience; with vibrant communities of floating houses, markets, schools and even a floating police station, it has been changed by recent development and in response to the influx of tourists. Chong Khneas is not as ‘unspoiled’ as some of the more remote villages, like Kampong Phluk and Kampong Klieng.
A great way to explore the temples and visit some of the area’s highlights is to cruise around Siem Reap by bicycle, a mode of transport that lets travellers get off the beaten track, pedal through local villages and get a feel for the real Cambodia. Guided Siem Reap cycle tours are available, but bikes can also be hired independently on a daily basis. One local charitable organisation, The White Bicycles rents bikes for US$2 per day from selected hotels and reserves some of the profits to support local community projects.
Over the last few years, Siem Reap shopping opportunities have increased and many of the stores have taken a proactive stance with regard to giving back to the local communities.
Centrally located in Siem Reap is the Old Market (Psar Chas), a great starting point for any shopping excursion. Together with the Angkor Night Market, the Old Market presents visitors with a range of Fair Trade businesses, shops and market stalls selling traditional handicrafts, Khmer silks, silverware, jewellery and local carvings.
A relatively new addition to the vibrant Siem Reap shopping scene is Alley West, which only a few years back was a dusty, dark and rundown back alley. Now after some serious renovations and refurbishments, the street boasts cute little boutique shops and funky outlets selling locally designed and made clothes and accessories.
Visitors to Siem Reap will find that, despite its relatively small size, the town offers an impressive range of restaurants and eating options. There’s everything from local, budget-friendly street stalls to French-accented top-end restaurants with prices to match.
The ‘rice corner’ at the end of Pub Street sees many backpackers enjoying fried rice, noodles and cold beers. Local delicacies of smoked snake and crispy fried crickets with lime and chillies are also up for grabs for those eager to delve into Siem Reap street fare.
At Sala Bai, which literally means ‘school of rice’, you can eat safely and with a good conscience as the school each year trains 100 young disadvantaged Cambodians in key hospitality skills. Similarly, the US$1 nights at Soria Moria Boutique Hotel on Wat Bo Road started off as a staff training initiative, but now draw a steady crowd of locals and travellers alike.
Khmer Kitchen is a popular and well-priced place for good Cambodian food in a lively location.
Whilst eating out can be a real treat, we believe it is worth digging a little deeper and exploring some of the secrets of traditional Khmer cuisine. Learning how to catch and prepare crispy fried tarantulas might best be reserved for the truly adventurous, but signing up for a local Cambodian cooking class is a great way to get a feel for the local ingredients.
After a long day of shopping or exploring the Angkor temples, many travellers appreciate resting weary feet and revitalising aching muscles at one of Siem Reap’s spas and massage parlours. Many of the midrange and top-end hotels have their own in-house spas. Amongst the independent local spas, Frangipani comes highly recommended.
Exploring Siem Reap’s art scene can be a true adventure and the Arts Lounge at Hotel de la Paix features exhibits from international and contemporary Cambodian artists. The McDermott Gallery at the FCC is a long-term favourite and the Friends Centre at the Angkor Hospital for Children hosts a rotating exhibition with a range of artists, everything from the legendary Steve McCurry to selected pieces from the Angkor Photo Festival, as well as work by kids from Anjali House, a local centre for underprivileged children.
The name Siem Reap probably does not conjure up images of a party town, but, in fact, it is fast earning a reputation for cool coffee hangouts, urban bars, pumping dance floors and live music acts. In fact, what once was a bumpy dirt road with a single bar and snooker hall has developed into a hugely popular area with a diverse selection of pubs, bars and restaurants. Aptly referred to as ‘Pub Street’, a name that has even made it on to the street signs, the official designation is still Street No. 8.
Looking for some specific recommendation? How about Angkor What?, the first and probably most famous bar on the block; it continues to draw crowds of travellers. Just off Pub Street, opposite the Old Market, is the Warehouse with occasional live bands and comedy nights. Miss Wong is the place to go for classy cocktails. For late night owls, ‘X’ marks the spot.