My girlfriends and I decided to travel on a whim and so we agreed to work with a light budget. Although the usual destinations from Manila came first in mind, we wanted to go somewhere exotic. Siem Reap was definitely a fantastic choice as we accomplished and experienced so much within three days. Not to mention, we kept our spending within a $400 budget (including almost everything except for the discretionary gem shopping). It was a weekend of adventure and lots of happy memories and souvenirs.
Here are some pointers I would like to share with you. Tips to ponder on for a concise trip to this remarkable place.
Ideal Flight from Manila to Siem Reap via Cebu Pacific
We considered many airlines to Siem Reap. Despite our wariness with Cebu Pacific, we decided to take the chance – in exchange for a direct flight. The total travel time was approximately 2 hours and 45min.
- Depart Manila 7:45PM
- Arrive Siem Reap 930PM (-1hour REP Time)
- Depart Siem Reap 1030PM
- Arrive Manila 210AM (+1hour MNL Time)
We surmised that the schedule was ideal for a weekend getaway without missing any work. The cost was also the most economical.
Golden Temple Hotel – Great Amenities and Freebies
We chose to stay at the Golden Temple Hotel. Considering it was just a 3.5 star hotel, the ambiance was very homey in traditional Khmer décor blended with modern comforts. I would consider staying here each visit. The staff were very hospitable and helpful. Our stay was definitely more for our buck since the hotel adds in a lot of complimentary features – like free airport shuttle service, one Khmer lunch, dinner with Apsara Dance Show, a traditional massage at their Spa, a cooking class and souvenirs. It also features an outdoor pool, a restaurant and bar and free Wi-Fi access.
The hotel is ideally located with less than a 5-minute walk from the Old Market area and 10-minutes from Pub Street. It’s a 15-minute drive from Angkor Wat and Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport. We also discovered some interesting eat spots along the Wat Bo Road adjacent to the hotel’s location. Sister hotels you could also consider would be the Golden Temple Villas and Golden Temple Residences.
Chanelling our Inner Goddesses by the Temples
Visiting the temples is like walking through a time capsule. Here, you will appreciate how life was simple – in reverence to the forces of nature and in humble service to mystical doctrines. As we marveled through the various sites, we couldn’t help identifying ourselves as characters of Ancient Cambodian History – and we confidently referred to ourselves as Goddesses!
Angkor Wat is approximately six kilometers from the town center of Siem Reap and the Temple closest to Siem Reap. The temple park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site officially designated as the Angkor Archaeological Park.
There is nothing like Angkor Wat anywhere on this planet! The Angkor Temples are spread out over a vast 100sq km jungle site. At its core the 9sq Km Angkor Thom, or Great City, is contained with high square walls with huge faces carved in the spectacular gateways. Many of the fabulous sights within it, are a world class attractions in their own right.
But this is just the starting point. Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world is so big as to be hard to take in at once. The 200 metres wide moat and causeway with the 350 meters entrance portico is impressive enough, but the grandeur within its square mile of walls is truly stunning. Over 1 kilometer of spectacular carvings lie within its outer galleries and a vast labyrinth of passages, courtyards and the five lotus flower towers at its centre.
At the centre of the great city of Angkor lies the Bayon Temple. The Bayon Temple has 52 towers with the huge serene faces of the Jayarvaman VII. A personal favourite is the Ta Prohm Temple. This huge temple complex looks much the same as when it was first discovered. The high lichen covered walls are distorted by the movement of the earth beneath. 800 years of history lie twisted and broken with sinister root systems of huge trees enveloping doors and windows in a stranglehold. Ta Prohm must be one of the most atmospheric places on Earth.
Another noteworthy temple located just south of the East Baray, or easter reservoir, is a temple mountain of combined brick, laterite and sandstone construction. The Pre Rup temple was built as the state temple of King Rajendravarman and dedicated in 961 or 962.
Other temples in the outskirts of Siem Reap are worth the time out as well. We visited the Banteay Srei, or Sanctuary of the Women, known for its fine carvings – considered the best among all the Angkor Temples.
Ride an Elephant
An Elephant ride in Siem Reap is a great way to soak up the atmosphere under the shade of the huge trees and also offers a different view on the templesr. Each ride lasts between 15 – 20 minutes.
In the morning, rides are available at two stations:
- 8:00am-10:00am: At South Gate of Angkor Thom ride to Bayon temple
- 8:00am 11:00am: In front of Bayon temple and elephant ride go around Bayon temple.
In the afternoon, rides are available at two stations
- 3:30pm-4:30pm: At South Gate of Angkor Thom ride into forest in front of South gate between Phnom Bakheng and South gate of Angkor Thom.
- 3:30pm- till sunset: Near the base of Phnom Bakheng for transport up or down the hill for sunset view.
***This tour is fun especially for families with children who will love the experience.
If there is any way of squeezing it into your itinerary, it is well worth it!
Cambodia is know for its happy pizza places, all which serve pizzas containing just an extra bit of seasoning for you to enjoy your pizza on another level. In turns out that in Siem Reap — which is located just a few miles from the temple of Angkor Wat — there is a whole block with nothing but happy pizza places. The street just so happens to be named Hospital Street (also called 2 Thnou Street).
Apsaras are beautiful, supernatural female beings. They are youthful and elegant, and superb in the art of dancing.
It is a novelty to watch this elaborate form of expression. Apsara dancing, a classical style dating back to the Angkorean era, nearly vanished in the 1970s when the Khmer Rouge regime decimated much of the country’s infrastructure, culture and traditions. Almost 90 percent of Cambodia’s artists and intellectuals were systematically eliminated by the Khmer Rouge, devastating what had been a flourishing artistic community.
In recent years, however, the dance has been making a comeback in Cambodia and is now a common feature of public ceremonies and in hotel lobbies across Cambodia’s most tourist-friendly cities. A more extraordinary experience would be to watch these incredible dancers perform in what was once their home: the Angkor temples. In these temples – where performances are held for private and exclusive dinners or for important meetings – their ancestral movements match perfectly with the mystical atmosphere that envelopes the Cambodian nights.
Pub Street is an amazing contrast to Angkor Wat and the quieter parts of Siem Reap. Bustling, loud and brash but do not be put off. It has many nice bars and great eating places down side alleys and along the main road. At its loudest at night but also full of fun and passing interest in the day.
Start your evening at Red Piano, on the corner. The French cuisine is good, but it’s best known as Angelina Jolie’s haunt while filming “Tomb Raider.” Try her favorite cocktail — Cointreau, lime and tonic — now named for the movie, and if you’re the lucky 10th buyer, it’s on the house.
Have some coffee and desserts in Blue Pumpkin. They are also known for serving Siem Reap’s best ice cream.
Continue down the road to find a spot for dinner. All the restaurants offer reasonably priced Western and local food, but Soup Dragon’s eponymous fare always brings a crowd, and just two doors down is “Angkor What?” bar. Inscriptions on the walls and tables attest to this old favorite’s popularity, and it’s always one of the last to close.
If you’re not quite digging the backpacker vibe, duck down a small side street in search of Miss Wong, a classy cocktail bar that will transport you back to 1930s Shanghai and a good refuge from the madness one street over.
Sight Seeing by Tuktuk
The quintessential Cambodian ride, tuk-tuks are the local taxis, and the easiest way to get around Siem Reap. You can get anywhere in the main city for $2, while good negotiators should be able to talk drivers down to a dollar. Tip the driver well and you’ll have a friend for life, plus an eager tour guide who will show you the best of Siem Reap.
Our driver was happy to take us around and even volunteer as our photographer the whole morning. We ventured the Royal Gardens, explored the plush Raffles Grand Hotel D Angkor, graced Pub street until we were finally dropped off at the Psar Cha supposedly our only destination.
Psar Chaa – Old Market
As the name indicates, it is a very old market built around the year 1920. Everything under one roof. Wet market on one side and dry market on the other side. Operating from early morning till 10pm. It is the place where local people and tourists meet. A good place to see their local products and experience their everyday activities. It sells everything clothing, spices, housewares, jewelry, fabrics, paintings, souvenirs and food – famous for its spices, dried fish and sausages. It caters to absolutely everyone. A place not to be missed.
Note: Haggling is welcome here. You will be surprised how low the prices can get depending on how good you are at bluffing. Vendors are quite friendly so you can definitely charm your way through them.
Cambodian food, the most overlooked of all Asian cuisines, is largely unknown elsewhere in the world. Yet Cambodia’s savory noodle dishes, fresh seafood, and tempting sweets, its street food and classic dishes, reflect the rich history and culture of this beautiful country.
The fish amok, Cambodia’s national dish, is a must try, as are the green mango salad and fresh spring rolls — plus a sticky rice dessert. You can also be adventurous with the Khmer Hot Pot – similar to Shabu Shabu but with a wider range of exotic meats available. We only stuck to the common three choices but others try crocodile, snake and “what have you” meats. Depending on the meat used, the broth’s flavor combined with the condiments and vegetables cooked varies.
Yes. Cambodian food is good and flavorful. But there will be times during your vacation when you’ll need to break from the local mode. While a bit out of the way, the Frenchy Gecko offers a wonderful menu and warm service that makes it worth the distance.
The small menu means that they pay attention to the quality and taste of the dishes served. If you’re looking for the rustic taste of France, then this is the place. Even if you’re not familiar with French food, the owner patiently describes each main course without hesitation. The dishes are simple and delicious without a trace of fancified Frenchness. We liked: The Hachis Parmentier – a kind of Gallic shepherd’s pie, The Poulet Basquaise, a chicken stew made with tomatoes and peppers, and the Pork Chops with Champagne Cream sauce and garlic mashed potatoes.
For at least a three-night stay the at Golden Temple Hotel, you can participate in their cooking class. We scheduled our cooking class in the morning in time for early lunch. Nary, our very strict but patient chef / teacher gave us a briefing of all the ingredients and the detailed preparation for their simple khmer favorites – fish amok, spring rolls and vegetable curry . The tedious slicing, mincing and mashing of ingredients became more appetizing to us as Nary explained that by doing so, the flavors are maximized. Once all the ingredients were ready, the simple recipes were brought into play. We were savoring the aromas as we sauteed, wrapped and stirred. We enjoyed all our Khmer choices in Siem Reap, but this was hands down — the best khmer meal we’ve tasted. No biases.
Another pleasurable experience courtesy of Golden Temple Hotel. Conveniently located at the ground floor of the premises, we were treated to an hour of traditional Khmer therapy. The interiors of the Spa is warm and elegant. Service was very professional and we really enjoyed trying their in-house spa products.
Finding Love in Siem Reap
This is pertaining to the single ladies in the group. Siem Reap was a fun place to meet people because the vibe around was very hospitable and friendly. The casual ambiance makes it easy for tourists and locals to easily connect. No one is a stranger but of course. just go with discretion. My friends made quite an impression there – as new friends wanted to entertain them as if they were long lost friends.
Get your driver to take you to the Foreign Correspondents Club Angkor (FCC), which, while famous for its bar, a lovely spot for sundowners, is also home to half a dozen gorgeous stores. Starting out front, there’s Wanderlust, owned by New Yorker Elizabeth Kiester, which had racks of summery shirt dresses and retro-inspired smock, as well as clutch purses made from recycled rice bags. Adjacent to it is Jasmine, an elegant boutique owned by Australian Cassandra McMillan and New Zealander Kellianne Karatau where the specialty is dressy frocks and accessories in Cambodian silks.
Around the corner, you won’t be able to miss Wa Gallery, the place to pick up kooky gifts and kitschy souvenirs, such as bright-coloured statues of Buddha and Ghanesh in glass and plastic, colourful Perspex salad servers, and zany jewellery. They also have handwoven karmas, the traditional checked Khmer scarf, which, while more expensive than those at the market are better quality. There is also an interesting gallery – McDermott Gallery – showcasing black & white portraits of Angkor sites. We were pleasantly surprised to find this treasure trove conveniently tucked in the privacy of a more exclusive neighborhood.
Girl’s Best Gems
Cambodia is known for its rubies, sapphires and emeralds. But due to strong tourist demand with exhausted supply for such commodities, the jewelers have learned to capitalize on the interest via a cheaper cost alternative. There are only a few “reputable” stores to go to – one is City Gems, but don’t be fooled by their gadgets and sales talk. I have to admit though, the gems and settings on display are beautiful – you will certainly be tempted to take home a piece. Anyway, assume the stones are Swarovski quality. Set your mind to haggling the price down to an acceptable knock off set. Don’t buy thinking its genuine – despite their useless certifications. Just buy an “accessory” not an investment that you really fancy.