Top Tips For Planning Your First Visit To Siem Reap

Siem Reap is arguably the most popular destination in Cambodia. It is the gateway to the Temples of Angkor, located only a short drive away from the iconic temples and landmarks hidden in the jungle. If you’re planning your first trip to Siem Reap and one of the most significant regions in Cambodia, here’s a complete guide to everything you need to know to help plan your trip.

Money 

The official currency of Cambodia is the Riel, however it’s easier and more widely accepted to carry US dollars. Most prices you will find around the main town of Siem Reap will be listed in US dollars, unless the transaction is under $1. Riel is often used to cover smaller amounts, or to give change in the place of coins. You will only find notes in Siem Reap, whether they are US dollars or Cambodia Riel, with 500 and 1,000 Riel notes being the most common.

You can find ATMs across the town, offering cash withdrawals from your credit or debit card, however depending on your bank and the fees associated with taking out cash, you might find that local money-changing shops offer better exchange rates.

Weather 

The most popular time of year to travel to Siem Reap and the Angkor ruins is between the months of November to February, which is considered the dry season. This time of year is also a little cooler, allowing you to avoid the extreme heat you would experience at other times of the year. It is still very warm during the day though, so don’t ever worry about being cold.

It is believed however, that the temples are the most beautiful during the rainy season, when the grass and jungle growing over the buildings are green and luscious, the air is clearer and the crowds are smaller, between the months of July and September.

Where To Stay 

Whether it’s your first or fifth visit to Siem Reap, you will know that there is really only one main area to stay in Siem Reap. The town is quite small, which makes it easy to get everywhere on foot or by tuk tuk, and the hotels, hostels and resorts are all relatively close to each other. As long as you’re within walking distance of Pub Street, you’re probably in a great spot, but there are a few different parts of Siem Reap that you might want to consider.

Angkor Night Market 

Close to Pub Street, staying in accommodation within the Angkor Night Market is as central as you can get in Siem Reap and perfect for people who are looking for a busy nightlife scene and to be in the thick of the action. Here you will be surrounded by heaps of different restaurants and shops for all budgets.

Riverside 

Offering a good mix of budget and mid-range boutique hotels, villas and guesthouses, the east side of the Siem Reap River is perfect for travellers looking for a more relaxing stay but still close enough to the action. From Riverside, it’s an easy walk into the main heart of Siem Reap, without being close enough to be disturbed by the music and partying into the night.

Charles de Gaulle Boulevard 

Also known as the main road to Angkor Wat, Charles de Gaulle Boulevard connects Siem Reap with the Angkor Archaeological Park. This is where you can find many of Siem Reaps high-end resorts and boutique hotels, and is most popular for people who are looking for calm and peaceful evenings when they return to their hotel.

Where To Eat 

Siem Reap offers almost every dining option you could ask for, from budget street food to high end dining, with cuisines from all around the world. No matter what you’re in the mood for – Mexican, Italian, French, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Western or local Khmer food, you can find it on or around Pub Street – the main street for, you guessed it, pubs and restaurants. You can also find something on Pub Street to fit every budget, with $1.50 margaritas being my personal favourite find!

Where To Shop

Siem Reap is definitely not somewhere you would choose to go if you’re after a shopping holiday, but it does have an extraordinary number of markets and cute local shops. The Old Market (known locally as Psar Chas) might just be the best, combining a souvenir market, fresh produce market and dry goods market all in the one building. The winding corridors of the market is a unique experience all of its own – full of remarkable sights, sounds and smells.

The Angkor Night Market, Made in Cambodia Market and Khmer Ceramic Centre are also top highlights if you’re looking for shopping destinations in Siem Reap.

What To Do

The Temples of Angkor are definitely Siem Reap’s biggest attraction, with millions of people visiting from all over the world every year. The temples are just as beautiful as they were when they were built in the 12th century, as part of the Khmer Empire. Angkor is now considered a UNESCO World Heritage site and is absolutely the jaw-dropping kingdom that you’re expecting to find.

In addition to the most famous temple of all, Angkor Wat, there are more than 50 other Hindi and Buddhist temple sites constructed between the 9th and 12th centuries for you to explore. Some of the most popular and stunning sites include Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Som, Ta Phrom and the Terrace of Elephants.

Read more: Exploring the Temples of Angkor

Unique Experiences Away From Angkor 

While the Temples of Angkor are the obvious highlight and drawcard for people travelling to Siem Reap, this quaint little town also offers many under-the-radar attractions, such as beautiful Buddhist temples, colonial buildings, unique museums, cultural theme parks, and beautiful natural landmarks. Some of the top highlights away from the Angkor include:

Siem Reap Old Market – one of the most popular markets in Siem Reap, you can find absolutely everything at the Old Market from souvenirs and gifts, to fresh produce, seafood, meat and spices.

Tonle Sap Lake – the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia which is home to 300 species of freshwater fish, snakes, crocodiles, tortoises, otters, water birds and even a few floating villages. You can also find the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary here.

Wat Damnak Pagoda – found on Wat Bo Road, this was originally a royal palace during the reign of King Sisowath, but today it is home to a school, two charities and a sewing academy for local young women.

Phnom Kulen National Park – found about 45km north of Siem Reap, this is believed to be the nation’s most sacred mountain. Kulem Mountain has over 55 ancient temple ruins, as well as two  stunning waterfalls.

Angkor National Museum – home to over 1,000 artifacts from the ancient Khmer Empire, this huge museum is divided into eight galleries that are themed by era, religion and royalty.

Kampong Phluk – experience an authentic fishing village, constructed on stilts in the swaps around Tonle Sap Lake. This is where you should go if you want to see daily Khmer life away from the influence of heavy tourism.

Customs & Etiquette 

Despite being one of the most popular tourist destinations in Southeast Asia, with millions visiting the small town each year, Siem Reap is still part of quite a conservative society, which is deep-rooted in Buddhism and holds strong values.

Theravada Buddhism is practiced by 95% of the population in Cambodia. They believe in three primary concepts which guide them in their daily transactions –

Collectivism – the idea that the family, neighbourhood or society is more important than the wishes of the individual.

Karma – the belief that you get what you give.

Saving Face  – the concept of retaining your honor and reputation in front of others. The idea is that to loose your cool in public is completely unacceptable, no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable a situation is.

Some other etiquette tips that the local people of Cambodia believe in and live by:

  • When seated on the ground, tuck your feet beneath you so that they do not point at someone else.
  • Always remove your shoes before entering a home or business.
  • Do not use your left hand to eat, touch  or hand someone something.
  • Pointing with your index finger is considered rude, you should gesture with your right hand palm-up.
  • Cambodians are conservative and strongly frown upon public displays of affection.

While the traditional Cambodian greeting is made by putting your two hands together and giving a slight bow of your head, many locals choose to shake hands with visitors. The best practice is to simply return whatever greeting is offered to you.

Some Things To Keep In Mind

Orphanage Tourism

Unfortunately, the kingdom of Angkor and the region around Siem Reap is one of Southeast Asia’s least developed and most poverty-stricken countries, where disease, malnutrition and death often occur at higher rates than the rest of the country.

While it is extremely popular, visiting orphanages around Siem Reap is not a good idea and should not be encouraged. While it might look like a safe happy place for homeless children, many orphanages are actually for-profit businesses that carelessly split families apart and emphasize the poor living conditions to attract tourists money.

About 44% of kids living in orphanages were actually put there by their own families or extended family, with 75% still having one living parent. The incorrect thinking is that by submitting their children over to orphanages, they will have a better opportunity for education and a better way of life. Many of these children are actually ‘rented’ or even ‘bought’ from their families, to attract tourist donations.

For more information on visa requirements, getting there are getting around, and boarder control rules, make sure you read and download our Essential Guide to Siem Reap so you can have easy access to all the important information you might need to know.

Read more about our adventures through Cambodia here. For more travel tips and to keep up to date with our adventures make sure you subscribe to our newsletter today!

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Emma Shaw

Emma is a travel photographer and blogger, living in Melbourne, Australia with her husband Thom in between adventures. She started A Make Believe World to share her experiences, travel tips and destination advice, and to inspire others to travel the world and their own backyard whenever they can.

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