A visit to Siem Reap will not disappoint any tomb raider or Indiana Jones wannabe. You’ll have plenty of chances to climb around and explore the ancient temples and cities surrounded by the jungle while visiting the Angkor Archeological Park. But, when the heat and humidity of tropical Southeast Asia becomes too much to bear, and the ruins all start to look the same, you can retreat into the laid back town for some major relaxation.
Ideally, you should spend at least 3 days in Siem Reap. However, if you just have one day, our itinerary will help you see and do a lot in those 24 hours. You will see some ancient sites including a visit to Angkor Wat, shop in the Old Market Quarter, take a tuk-tuk ride through the French Quarter, drink on Pub Street, and indulge on some tasty foods of Cambodia.
Breakfast at your hotel
Le Meridien Angkor
You’ll be getting a very early start, so I recommend grabbing breakfast at your hotel. If you are staying at our recommended hotel, the Le Meridien Angkor, then there is no need to even consider leaving the hotel for a delicious breakfast. The large breakfast buffet at the Le Meridien includes various food stations offering everything from omelettes to stir fry noodles. If the breakfast buffet does not come with your room rate or your preferred status with the hotel, it is definitely worth the extra charge.
Angkor Archeological Park
A UNESCO World Heritage Centre
You will be spending your morning at the mysterious and magnificent Angkor temple complex. Plan to depart the hotel by 8AM so you can stop to get your day pass at the ticket office and be at your first site by 8:45 AM. Your morning at this UNESCO World Heritage Centre will start with a visit to the Ta Phrom temple also known as the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider temple. It was made famous by the actress with her 2001 film, “Tomb Raider,” which was filmed on location. Next, you’ll head over to the large ancient city of Angkor Thom.
As you enter Angkor Thom, you’ll see the grand Elephant Terrace as you make your way over to the Bayon, famous for its massive stone faces on the many towers that jut out from the upper terrace. From here, you’ll go across the Angkor Thom Bridge on your way to Angkor Wat. This bridge is the south gate to Angkor Thom, and it is the best restored bridge in Angkor Thom complex. The bridge is lined on both sides with large restored deva and asura heads. Finally, you will wrap up your morning with a visit to Angkor Wat, the most famous temple of the Angkor temple complex.
Getting There: The temple complex is located on the outskirts of town, so you’ll have to arrange a driver either with a private guide or a tuk-tuk tour. A private guide and driver (air conditioned van) will be the most expensive option. You can definitely visit the temples on your own if you are armed with a guide book. I honestly did not get much from my private guide other than something I could have probably read in the introductory notes of a guide book. Most of the time (except for Angkor Wat), the guide simply walked us up to a temple, briefly talked about it, and then told us where to meet him when we were done exploring it.
The private guide with a driver for a ½ day tour was about $150 for 3 adults (booked via the Le Meridien). You can hire a tuk-tuk driver for a tour of the temples for about $15. I would recommend using a tuk-tuk driver and provide him with this recommended itinerary for visiting the temples. I would advise that you start with Ta Phrom, as it gets very crowded later in the day. Most tours will want to take you to Angkor Wat first and Ta Phrom last. Ta Phrom is narrow inside, and the more crowded it is, the less enjoyable it is. It’s definitely best to be seen first thing in the morning.
Temple hopping is a hot and sweaty affair. After your visit, you’ll want to stop by the hotel for a quick shower and a change of clothes before heading into the city center for the rest of the day.
It’s time to visit the charming town of Siem Reap. Hop in a tuk-tuk for a $2 ride into the center. A tuk-tuk ride is a must-do while in Siem Reap, and it’s really hard not to take one, as there are hundreds of tuk-tuk drivers around Siem Reap eager for your business. It’s truly the only way to get around, as it’s Siem Reap’s version of a local taxi. Some tuk-tuk’s are works of art on wheels or have a theme. Keep your eye out for the famous Bat-Man tuk-tuk around town as well as my favorite one, the Irish tuk-tuk.
Head to the Old Market Quarter for lunch, but ask your driver to take a ride through the French Quarter on your way to the Old Market Quarter (and tip him for doing so!). The French Quarter is a quieter area in town filled with tree-lined boulevards and colonial French architecture. Here is where you’ll find the Royal Residence along the river front.
[warning]Walking around the bustling Old Market Area, be prepared for the tuk-tuk hawkers. They are nice enough, but extremely annoying. For example, as we were relaxing at the Red Piano at a table right off the sidewalk, we had 2-3 tuk-tuk hawkers yelling from the street at us to try to get us to confirm business when we were finished. My friend made eye contact with one of them, which resulted in him hovering in front of us the entire evening watching us and waiting for us to finish our drinks. It was extremely annoying to be stalked for 2 hours by a tuk-tuk driver. I felt as if I was being rushed. At the end of your day in Siem Reap, you’ll understand why they sell t-shirts in the market that say “No tuk-tuk. Not today. Not tomorrow.” However, the drivers are really nice, trustworthy, and polite. They are so appreciative of your business whether you tip them or not (and you should tip them by the way).[/warning]
Khmer Kitchen Restaurant
Corner of Street 9 and Street 11
There are many restaurants to choose from in the city center to grab a quick lunch, but with just one day in Siem Reap, go for traditional Khmer food. Located just off of popular Pub Street, this small unassuming restaurant is a perfect lunch spot for a first time visitor to Siem Reap. It is centrally located, serves consistently good food at reasonable prices, and offers friendly service. The menu is in English with pictures making it easy to pick a meal that will best suit your tastes.
I recommend the Khmer Curry, Lok Lak Beef, and Pumpkin Soup. You might be tempted to try the classic Cambodian dish, amok, here. I suggest you wait and have it for dinner at our other recommended restaurant. Although the amok at this restaurant is very tasty, it is not served steamed in banana leaves. Typically, only upscale restaurants will serve it this traditional way.
Shopping the Markets
The Old Market
Between Street 9, Street 11,Thmou Street and Pokombor Avenue along the river
The Old Market (Phsar Chas) is located in the Old Market Quarter along the river front, just about a block from the Khmer Kitchen Restaurant. It stretches over a few blocks from Street 9 to Hospital Street. Most of the items you’ll find here are low quality typical souvenir items. You’ll find everything from cheap t-shirts to really bad replica handbags.There are a lot of booths in the complex, and it is very hot walking around the market. But the good news is that most of the booths are selling the same items so there is no need to spend a lot of time shopping in this market (or to go too far in).
If you do find something you like, definitely negotiate. You can typically negotiate easily for ½ the asking price if not more. Just be friendly with your negotiations. The Cambodian people in the market are very friendly, and it was probably one of the friendliest and easiest negotiations I’ve ever done in a market in Asia.
There are a few gems to be found in this market. Some of the booths will offer “Made in Cambodia” products like handmade soaps, nicely packaged spices from the Kampot area (e.g., Kampot pepper), and rattan made products like a wine holder. The booths selling the higher and nicer quality products are to be found on the outer edges of the market along the river.
If you aren’t interested in cheap souvenirs, you can at least find some interesting snacks at the Old Market. Here is where you’ll find insects like crickets, worms, and spiders for sale in bulk or a vendor will fry up a quick snack for you. C’mon, you know you’ve always wanted to try a crispy cricket! I, personally, would prefer to get my protein at the Cambodian BBQ instead. After several trips to Southeast Asia and China, I still don’t have a taste for the fried insect, but I am still drawn to the markets selling them for some odd reason!
[important]Just across the river (use one of the foot bridges) from the Old Market, you’ll find the Art Market. The shops here sell pretty much the same exact items that you’d find in the Old Market. However, it’s less congested and a little bit cooler inside. This market is also open in the evening, but it’s not to be confused with the Angkor Night Market (the “real” Night Market) located in another part of the Old Market Quarter.[/important]
Stung Thmey Street
If you are looking for a better quality souvenir that is guaranteed to be made in Cambodia, then spend less time at the Old Market and walk over to the Artisans d’Angkor (Artisans Market). This place is all about local crafts being made by local people. You’ll have the opportunity to see artisans making the products that you can then buy at the onsite gift shop.
Pick up a classic Cambodian checkered scarf here. It goes without saying that the prices are more expensive here than what you would pay for mass-produced trinkets that you’ll find in the Old Market, but you are getting a higher quality item. This is a good stop on your itinerary while walking around the Old Market Quarter even if you are not interested in buying anything.
Another option for high quality goods is to shop the boutiques on Alley West. You can find Alley West running parallel to Pub Street (Street 8) from Sivutha Road to Hospital Street. Some consider Alley West to be one of the most beautiful streets in Siem Reap. Dotted with a lot of boutiques, you’ll find a nice selection of eclectic clothing and jewelry shops here as well as few pubs and restaurants in between.
Street 11 at West Alley
Located just a block from the Old Market and right off of Pub Street is Charlie’s, a laid back, low-key pub with reasonably priced drinks. Although it’s not a big bar, it has a good vibe and cool décor. It’s also in a good location with a lots of foot traffic. Grab a seat on the sidewalk and order a beer to cool down while you make new friends with an expat or fellow tourist.
This place is great for both solo travelers and groups, and unlike some other places along Pub Street, the crowd is mixed and not just 20 year olds. When I visited, the age of the crowd appeared to be anywhere from 30 to 70 years old. During our visit, we met an older gentleman who was an expat from Australia. We invited him to sit with us for a few beers as we enjoyed his colorful stories. Charlie’s provides a great atmosphere to enjoy a beer and to make new friends.
Le Malraux Café & Restaurant
Street 7 at Sivatha
There are plenty of great places (and unique ones at that) in Siem Reap to enjoy a traditional Cambodian meal or French cuisine. We opted for Le Malraux based on a recommendation from our fabulous concierge at Le Meridien; it did not disappoint. The décor is rather unique with vines and plants hanging throughout creating an exotic atmosphere.The restaurant, located close to Pub Street and across from the Night Market, was bustling during our visit.
Although specializing in Asian Fusion and French cuisine, you’ll be able to enjoy a traditional amok dinner here cooked and served in banana leaves. It was delicious! My friend had the duck, and again, it did not disappoint. The meal, the wine, and the environment made for a memorable and enjoyable evening. Reservations are taken, but not required.
The Night Markets
Sivutha Blvd, Steng Thmey Village and
If you are still looking for that perfect souvenir and prefer to shop the market when it has cooled down a bit, you can visit two Night Markets conveniently located in the Old Market Quarter. Both are easily accessible from Street 11. The first one, the Art Center Night Market, is conveniently located right across the river from the Old Market. Just follow Street 11 towards the river from Pub Street past Alley West, and you’ll come to a foot bridge that will take you right across the narrow river to the market. You’ll find the same goods that are for sale in the Old Market as well as a few Cambodian made items like soaps and spices.
If you walk in the opposite direction down Street 11 away from the river, you’ll come across the Night Market Street on the left (about 1 block past Pub Street) that will take you a block down to the Angkor Night Market (just another block away). Although you’ll find the same souvenirs here, you’ll notice that this market is a bit more bustling with food vendors, some live music,and more shoppers. One noticeable difference between the day and night market is the willingness by the vendors to negotiate. I found it a bit more difficult to negotiate at night. They eventually came down to my price, but it just took longer to get there.
Red Piano on Pub Street
341 Street 8 (Pub Street) at Street 11
Siem Reap is not a big town, so most tourists will head to the popular Pub Street (Street 8) in the Old Market Quarter when it is time to seek out some adult fun. Pub Street caters to all types and all ages. Whether you are looking for a quiet lounge to sip on a martini, a laid back pub to kick back some beers, or a raging nightclub to do some shots, you’ll find it all within a few blocks along Pub Street. Most of the venues are outdoors, so it’s also a great place for people watching while you enjoy your drinks, as there is never a shortage of foot traffic going up and down Pub Street.
Our recommendation for some after dinner cocktails is the Red Piano. Perched on one of the best corners in the Old Market Quarter, this popular bar and restaurant is located right on Pub Street. It’s definitely more of an upscale place compared to other establishments in the area, and it was Angelina Jolie’s haunt while filming “Tomb Raider.” You can lounge in a large comfortable rattan patio chair at this open air bar and restaurant while enjoying a nicely chilled bottle of wine or a large cold bottle of Angkor beer. You’ll be entertained by the crowds of people cruising up and down Pub Street while you reflect on your fabulous day in Siem Reap.
[important]No need to get dressed up for dinner and drinks around the Old French Quarter. Siem Reap is a very laid back town, and shorts, capris, and t-shirts or a sundress are all perfectly acceptable. It’s so hot and steamy, you’ll want to dress casual as most establishments are outdoors with no air conditioning. It is so refreshing to not have to worry about hair and make-up![/important]
Swap It! Consider a Cultural Show with Dinner.
Traditional Aspara Dance at the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor
1 Vithei Charles De Gaulle Khum Svay Dang Kum
Skip dinner at Le Malraux, and instead, opt for a dinner and cultural show. Several restaurants and hotels in Siem Reap offer dinner shows at different price points. The shows typically include small bits of the four genre of traditional Khmer Dance. One highly recommended show is the Aspara Dance at the Raffles Grand Hotel D ‘Angkor in the French Quarter. The performance is done on a stage in the gardens that is surrounded by traditional Cambodian boundary stones. What a wonderful setting to experience traditional Khmer dance! The dinner includes a buffet and pan-Asian barbecue. It appears that the dinner show is offered every day at 7:00 PM but call ahead to confirm times and availability.
Le Meridien Angkor
We recommend this hotel because of its affordable luxury. The hotel offers beautiful common areas and grounds as well as very comfortable rooms all at very reasonable prices ($100/night). Full service restaurants and bars are onsite as well as an ultra relaxing pool. During the day, you’ll have complimentary treats delivered to your room ranging from exotic fruits to Cambodian sweets. Conveniently located just minutes from the temple complex and just a $2-3 tuk-tuk ride into the city center, this hotel is our pick for a luxurious stay at an affordable price.
Siem Reap was a pleasant surprise for me. I was not quite sure what to expect. I thought the highlight of my trip would simply be a photograph in front of Angkor Wat. However, what I found was a charming town with some chic bars and restaurants and some of the friendliest people in the world. I absolutely fell in love with Siem Reap, and I hope to have an opportunity to return again soon – even if to just sit in a café and watch the world pass by. There aren’t many places left in the world where you can feel as if you are stepping back in time to a by-gone era and where people are genuinely nice. Heck, you won’t even see people on their smartphones, but rather they are engaged with the people around them and their surroundings. Siem Reap is truly a special place, and you should visit it now!
Have you been to Siem Reap? What did you think? Share in the comments below!
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