Find out how to spend a week in Siem Reap, discovering the unique culture of Cambodia
This guest post is written by Katie Campion from My Sweet Home Life. Her blog helps you create a joy filled life with a well-organised home, fulfilling relationships, and optimal physical health and mental well-being.
Having children young (I was 19 and 23 respectively) meant travel was not on my horizon for many years. I simply could not afford it. By the time I started travelling, the thought of backpacking, shared hostels, and street food had no appeal at all.
My theory is I like where I am travelling to be at least as nice as my own home (unless I’m camping – but that’s another experience altogether).
Added to this is a husband who likes to relax and enjoy his holidays. We both work super hard and so over the years, we have worked out that stuffing our breaks full of activities simply doesn’t work for us. A combination of doing things and having time to relax is king.
I was very much aware of this as I planned our recent vacation to Siem Reap in Cambodia.
Having visited Cambodia myself back in 2007, I knew I wanted to share the beauty and history of the Cambodian temples with my husband. However, I also knew that the weather would be hot and humid, and wondered if previous issues with beggars and the lack of toilet paper and hand-washing facilities would still be in existence some twelve years later.
I was determined to create a holiday experience that would incorporate culture AND comfort. This way our trip would be something we both would enjoy and treasure the memories of for years to come.
If you too prefer your travel to be more luxury than roughing it, then this guide of what to do and where to stay during a week in Siem Reap will tick all your boxes!
Choose 5 Star Accommodation
Unlike most of the rest of this guide, this was advice that I didn’t follow. Instead I opted for a four star option that when bundled with our flights essentially cost us nothing.
This seemed like a poor choice at the beginning.
There was a miscommunication with our hotel and no driver arrived to pick us up. We paced around the arrivals area for 45 minutes. Sensing our distress, one of the locals offered to ring the hotline on our itinerary.
The hotline said no such number.
At this point, over 24 hours since we had left our home, tired, dirty, and just a little overwhelmed, I was wondering if our hotel even existed. After waiting a further fifteen minutes, we paid $10 USD to get a taxi to said hotel. That taxi ended up costing us $20 as the man running the taxi booth at the airport “forgot” to give us our change.
The taxi turned off the main road on to a dirt track…. and then another.. and then another… Those fears that we had been scammed were on high alert!
When we pulled up in front of the out-of-the-way Angkor Elysium Suite, which very much did exist, I almost cried.
Our stay at the Angkor Elysium
The Angkor Elysium is some 20 minutes by tuk tuk from central Siem Reap.
Built only three years before our visit, to me the hotel epitomised the contradictions of Cambodia. It looked as though it could be much older with the pool base in desperate need of a repaint, wonky lines with poor finishing, and plugs that didn’t work.
But despite the aesthetics, the pool was one of the highlights of the holiday and we spent two to three hours in there most mornings after a leisurely buffet breakfast.
The slightly cheaper accommodation brought with it an interesting array of guests. These were often men on their own, men with large age gaps between them and their partners, or European men looking like their Asian woman friend was a recent find. People watching became an entertaining way to spend the morning.
Despite this interesting clientele, the people who worked at Angkor Elysium were incredibly helpful, friendly and genuine. Nothing was too much trouble. This was exemplified by reception manager Alex getting in the shuttle with us on our return to the airport, presenting us with scarves, and taking a few pics for posterity before we left.
We felt our choice of accommodation really gave us a more realistic view of the realities of Cambodia.
However if this isn’t your style, I would opt for the Sokkhak Boutique Resort, based on my quality experience with its sister restaurant and wellness centre. It’s still very reasonably priced, and comes with excellent reviews.
Other options for quality accommodation include The Golden Temple Residence, The Park Hyatt Siem Reap or The Privilege Floor by Borei Angkor.
Ultimately, while some people are just looking for a base for their holiday, I believe comfortable, quality accommodation is an essential part of travel. Quality sleep, environs and food make everything else so much better!
Take a one day sunrise temple tour
The temples are the prime draw card to Siem Reap, with over a million people visiting them every year, and rightly so.
Angkor is a World Heritage Site and Angkor Wat in particular will take your breath. Its sheer scale will amaze you, along with the intricate bas-relief stretching along the lower gallery walls, and beauty of the countryside framed by the large windows.
Choosing which temples to visit can be an overwhelming exercise. And the reality is that once you have been looking at them for anything over six to eight hours, tiredness and heat exhaustion can start to detract from the experience.
To minimise this impact, my advice is to select one of the sunrise tours. This enables you to enjoy the temples a) before it gets too hot and b) while you’re still fresh.
Our day began at 4.40am, armed with a packed breakfast from the hotel. We were taken in an air conditioned van to purchase our temple pass.
If you are able, I recommend buying it the night before (after 5pm) so you can avoid the queues as getting from the centre to Angkor Wat itself does take some time. If you’re in a large group, you don’t want to be the one holding everyone up.
The temples are what to me exemplified the contradictions of Cambodia that I mentioned above.
As I stood high up in Angkor Wat, looking over to the entrance, everything in perfect alignment, I was struck by the precision involved. The mind boggles to think of how such a monument could have been constructed. Indeed it took some 20 years for Angkor Wat to be completed.
Our guide explained how the stone used was mined some 30 km away. Rivers were dammed up so that when the dam was released, the force of the water helped propel the barges carrying the stone downstream in a series of canals.
The four-metre deep, five kilometre moat that surrounds the temple would have displaced some 1.5 million cubic metres of sand. Our guide also told us that this was used to create “mountains” for the elephants to climb up to build the temple’s high reaches.
It is impossible not to compare the nature of the temples with the quality of the building work today and to ask exactly what has gone so wrong.
How could a country that constructed monuments that have lasted for centuries, now churn out poorly constructed, unsafe buildings?
How could a country displace people in order to lease land to the Chinese for development, and remove 90% of the vegetation in recent years? A move which, according to one of our guides, has influenced the increasingly unbearable temperatures in Siem Reap.
My suspicion is the genocide that occurred during the Khmer Rouge era is largely to blame.
If you’re not familiar with the recent history of Cambodia, it’s well worth learning about as it as a significance influence on the culture you will experience. But to put in summary – in the 1970s the leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, decided the best thing for the country would be to start a new agrarian socialist society.
To do so, he forced city dwellers to abandon their homes and march to the countryside to start collective farms. That is, those city dwellers who weren’t perceived as a threat. Being educated was a death warrant: 90% of the educated population were executed. Teachers, accountants and lawyers were hit particularly hard.
The reality is that if you choose to eliminate 90% of people with an education, you don’t just take away a huge proportion of the intellectual capital there and then. You also reduce the intellectual capital of the generation that follows, and the next and next.
Much more so on this visit than the previous one, I could see the implications of this legacy.
Bayon was the second temple we visited and perhaps my favourit. The stories of the people carved on the sides of the first level give it a more human element.
There were depictions of people going off to war, a woman cheekily using a turtle to bite the butt of the man in front of her, or the richness of the sea life. We felt as though we were getting a true insight into what life was like in 12th century Cambodia.
As well as these intricate carvings, Bayon has some 2000 faces carved into the 54 towers. These faces tower over you like protective guardians. Indeed the king who constructed this temple (the grandson of King Suryavarman II who built Angkor Wat) was believed to be much loved by his people. Not least due to the hospitals and other social support structures he created in the town of Angkor Thom.
Ta Prohm was the third temple we visited, and the temple where sections of the film Tomb Raider were shot.
Prior to their discovery, all these temples had been hidden by the jungle overgrowths. And Ta Prohm is the one which shows this the most, as the root structures of large trees intertwine with stone walls. This gives the temple its charm, with much of the intricacies of the carvings being hidden by moss. You can almost imagine being an explorer happening upon the temple buried in vines and branches.
There’s even a carving which looks suspiciously like a dinosaur which leads to all matter of speculation as to how this could be.
While there are many other temples you can visit during your Cambodian holiday, these three would be top of the list for me.
Sign up for a cooking class
One of the best ways to experience a culture is through its food. And one of the most fun ways to do this is through taking a cooking class.
Our cooking class was small and intimate – basically there was only my husband and myself in the class!
Before our trip, I was not overly familiar with Cambodian style food. It bears some similarity to Thai food though overall much less spicy. Instead dishes are often sweet or sour, salty or bitter.
We made rice paper rolls for the starter, then fish ball and bitter melon soup. This was followed by fish amok (Cambodia’s signature dish), with dessert being bananas in tapioca and coconut.
Fish is super common in Cambodian cuisine. So if you are not a huge fish fan, it’s worth checking out the proposed menu for your cooking class to make sure you are happy with it!
Our meals were absolutely delicious. Afterwards we were presented with a recipe book, a small box of spice and a certificate. And as we awaited our transport back to our hotel, the receptionist also gave us a business card with 20% off the restaurant owned by the same outfit as the cooking school.
Experience pampering Cambodian style
As mentioned previously, my husband was especially keen on the comfort aspect of our holiday. We were both in need of some serious rest and relaxation.
Unlike in Thailand, we never saw any dodgy massage places or women on the streets peddling their wares. However we were still careful to research where we wanted to go for our pampering session.
And the winner was the Sokkhak Spa – River Side.
Our visit to the Sokkhak Spa River Side
We booked in for a three hour session, starting at 2pm. Upon entering the building, we were presented with a glass of cold tea and a flannel. After filling out a health questionnaire, we were escorted over to the side bench where our feet were washed down with a salt scrub.
Following this, we were led into the treatment room, where we enjoyed first a one hour massage, followed by a body brush, mango scrub and moisturise, and then a facial.
The massage was the best of my life. A heated wheat pack was placed just under my ribs, providing support. The pressure was firm, and she worked out all the tension and stiffness that had been caused by my hard bed back at the hotel.
Mean whe facial left both my husband and I with glowing skin. I’m not usually one to be sold on products, but the first question I asked when we were finished was if we could purchase the products that were used. Sadly this was not possible, as all treatments were made on site using fresh ingredients.
If you want to have a totally professional spa experience, then the Sokkhak Spa Retreat River Side is a must.
Dine in style
There are over 1000 restaurants in Siem Reap, so competition is fierce. The best meal we had was at the Chanrey Tree, which was one of the restaurants owned by the same organisation as our spa experience.
In fact, we booked our table as soon as our three hour pampering session was over and literally only had to walk next door to the air conditioned comfort of the elegant restaurant.
The Chanrey Tree is Khmer cuisine, and as such there were some things I didn’t risk trying on the menu. Frogs’ legs is one example of this!
Instead we had spring rolls and crispy calamari and prawns as a starter. And for our mains we stuck with vegetarian options, selecting a mushroom dish and a vegetarian curry.
The food was flavoursome and well-presented, and we enjoyed every bite.
If you would prefer more Western flavors then the sister restaurant, the Sokkhak River Restaurant, has a French fusion style menu.
Dining at quality restaurants such as the Chanrey Tree meant we never experienced any of the gastro upsets you may fear when visiting countries in South East Asia!
Travel by tuk tuk
My final tip for experiencing both culture and comfort in Cambodia would be to travel by tuk tuk.
Like most countries in South East Asia, the roads can be a little overwhelming. Tuk tuks and scooters weave across roads with seemingly reckless disregard for any form of road rules. We risked our lives several times attempting to cross National Road 6 by foot!
After some initial reservations at taking tuk tuks, we quickly fell in love with them. The speed at which you are travelling enables you to get a thorough look around as you drive, making the sights, sounds and smells of Cambodia much more intense than from an air conditioned vehicle.
My top tip for traveling by tuk tuk would be to ask the restaurant where you are to organise one for you. And taking your hotel’s card with you avoids issues over trying to explain the address.
When you have got a tuk tuk, be sure to ask for the price before you get in. We generally paid $3 to $5 per trip, as our hotel was quite far out of town. Also make sure you have small change to give them as you’ll be lucky to get any change!
In summary, Cambodia is a wonderful place with a rich history, full of kind, helpful people. It’s a place of great contradictions, that will leave you thinking about it long after you have departed its shores.