Siem Reap in a Glimpse
The town of Siem Reap (web) in northern Cambodia is the primary gateway for the Angkor Archaeological Park.
The name Siem Reap literally means "Siam Defeated". These days, however, the only rampaging hordes are the tourists heading to the Angkor Archaeological Park. This once quaint village has become the largest boom town and construction site in Cambodia. It's quite laid-back and a pleasant place to stay while touring the temples and a nice compromise between observing Cambodian life and enjoying the amenities of modern services and entertainment, thanks to a large expatriate community.
Since Siem Reap is a major tourist destination, prices in many instances are higher than elsewhere in Cambodia. Expect to receive almost constant offers for motodop and tuk-tuk rides, along with everything else which drivers may be able to offer to you.
Be sure to pick up your free Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide and the equally free and useful Siem Reap Pocket Guide from your hotel/guesthouse. It contains lots of info on Siem Reap and the Angkor Archaeological Park, including hotel/bar/restaurant/shop info, travel info, and maps. For the eco-sensitive tourist, check out "Stay Another Day: Cambodia," a detailed guide with local spots that support the environment and community. Another address is the ConCERT tourist office, a local NGO committed to raising the standards of responsible tourism and ecotourism activities and providing information on the causes and effects of poverty in Cambodia, volunteering opportunities and ecotours.
APSARA (the acronym is based on the French for the "Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap" and also the Sanskrit for a female spirit of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist mythology) has a very informative website detailing the history and architecture (in 6 languages) and endorsed by the recently deceased King of Cambodia.
Where to Eat
Eating options span the full spectrum of tastes and budgets from the rudimentary Asian staples and pizza to authentic Khmer and sophisticated fine-dining featuring exotic local ingredients. The largest assortment of restaurants are a few blocks north of the Old Market but there are numerous appetizing alternatives along Wat Bo Road and hidden among the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Old Market area
Though Pub St is better known for its bars a handful of places are known for great food, many with seating upstairs so you can escape above the partying milieu on the street below:
Madam Butterfly Restaurant, offers fine Khmer cuisine. Located in a beautiful 2 floor house, you can enjoy the delicacies in the menu within a beautiful quite and green surrounding.
Champey Restaurant, Champey welcomes you in front of the old market, in a particularly comfortable frame. The restaurant is located in a french historical building, protected by World Heritage. The Khmer specialities of Champey are inspired from the Royal recipes. An up-market gastronomy to discover the authentic flavors of South East Asia and inescapable desserts « maison ».
KHMER BBQ, offers everyday shows of traditional dances, in the heart of the Historical Buildings area between Old Market and the recent Pub Street. A traditional Khmer gastronomy will allow you to discover the quality of the culinary preparations of this country, with fresh selected goods, and awesome service. The food is exquisite.
What about some Drinks?
A vibrant drinking scene concentrated along Street 8, aptly dubbed Pub St, is where serious drinkers head for cheap beer, loud music and the sweaty party hubbub scene akin to Bangkok's Khao San Road.
In general, Khmers are not what could be described as casual drinkers: the main objective is to get hammered as quickly as possible. Know your limits if invited to join in!
The two most popular domestic Cambodian beers are Anchor — pronounced "an-CHOR" with a ch sound! — and Angkor. Beer Lao andTiger are popular beers with foreigners. A plethora of other beers include ABC Stout, which is dark and not so bad, in addition to the standard Heineken and Carlsberg. Cheaper beers include Crown and Leo, whilst Kingdom Beer aims for the premium market with a pilsener and a dark lager.
Palm wine and rice wine are available in villages and can be OK at 500-1000 riel for 1 litre bottle. However, some safety concerns have been raised with regard to sanitation, so the local wines may be best avoided. The rice wine is also not actually a wine but a distilled liquor with varied potency so when drinking it pace yourself until you're sure of its strength. As a home distilled beverage there is also always the risk of improper distillation leading to methanol poisoning.
For a truly Khmer experience, hunt down a bottle of Golden Muscle Wine. Advertised on tuk-tuks everywhere, this pitch-black concoction made from deer antlers and assorted herbs packs a 35% punch and tastes vile when drunk straight, but can be made reasonably palatable (if not exactly tasty) by the addition of tonic water or cola. At US$2 for a 350 ml flask of the original and a budget-busting US$3 for the "X.O." version, it's the cheapest legitimate tipple available.
The International departure tax of US$25 fee is included in the ticket price. The $12 Domestic departure tax is still paid at the airport. Try to pay in cash as the credit card facilities are unreliable.
Siem Reap International Airport (IATA: REP, ICAO: VDSR) is the second largest airport in Cambodia. Its modern architecture is based on the traditional Khmer style. Its facilities are limited. There are separate terminals for international and domestic flights.
The airport is served by:
Major companies include Phnom Penh Sorya Transport web Capitol Tours, and GST Express. Mekong Express comes highly recommended for its safety record and because the staff checks your ticket before giving you your luggage back (preventing theft).
Try to book at least the day before travel. Travel agents and guest houses will do this for a US$1-2 fee. Buses tend to leave in the morning or early afternoon. There are also night buses on some routes.
Many buses terminate at an out of town bus station to the east of Siem Reap, from where tuk-tuks are needed to get into the town. This should cost no more than US$2, or maybe US$3 if you're not keen to drive a hard bargain. Anything more will have your driver thinking you are a weak-willed idiot, rather than the generous, naive optimist you perhaps consider yourself to be.
If arriving from the west, consider getting off the bus as it passes through town on National Highway 6, say as it crosses the bridge over the river, before it reaches the bus station.If arriving from the east you have little choice but to face the touts.
Capitol Tours buses, however, terminate at the company's office in the centre of town, near the old market, making them the most sensible choice. Update April 2013: My Capitol bus terminated at the bus park the same as all others, and I was told by the office that this is standard practice now. They also won't advertise their prices anymore.
A more expensive and more time consuming option from Phnom Penh ($35, 6 hr) or Battambang (US$20-25, 5 hr) is to take a Soviet style Hydrofoil across the Tonle Sap lake. These can be fantastic trips giving you the opportunity to view life on the lake, floating houses, working fishermen, and to get a sun-tan if you choose to sit on the roof of the boat. However, the trip can be ruined due to bad weather. Remember to use sunscreen and take a waterproof jacket. You will not be always able to access your luggage during the journey (sometimes the baggage is available, sometimes it is not). If you have the time, it is better to visit the floating villages as day trips from Siem Reap than to see them from the boat.
By shared taxi
The quickest method of getting from the Poipet border to Siem Reap is a shared car. A four seater car costs US$25-45, depending on your bargaining prowess, and takes 2-3 hr. Even if you're travelling solo, it shouldn't be too hard to find others to share the expense.
Helicopters can be chartered to go nearly anywhere in the country. They seat 5-6 people. Prices start at US$1,000 for trips to some of the temples north of Angkor Wat. The most trustable company is Helicopters Cambodia.
Siem Reap has long since been thoroughly de-mined.
Most local are decent people just trying to make an honest living but a few shady characters try every trick to take advantage of visitors. Be alert to deception, but don't let suspicion ruin your visit.
Convenience stores have been known to give incorrect change and pocket the rest. Check your change before you walk out of the store and point out any short changing. Most likely they will admit to their "mistake" and give you the right change.
Street vendors and beggars in competition for generous visitors' handouts have developed cunning, if underhanded, techniques to get your attention and money. The "beggar army" of young children will come up to you in the crowd and grab your hands, leading you to a store where they will then try and have you buy food/baby milk/water for them: baby milk seems the most popular. It might sound like a more humanitarian way to help than simply giving them money, but once you leave the shop the goods you bought for them are sold back to the owners, or to other locals and the cash goes to an adult. Young women with babies cradled in a krama perform a similar trick.
Donation-collectors for orphanages may approach you in the street claiming to be volunteer workers, showing you convincing photos of themselves in the orphanage and a clip board listing the generous donations made by foreign visitors. Though these young adults may be well groomed and speak excellent English it's possible that your donation will go directly into their pockets. A donation of money or your time to a recognised charity might be a better way to help.
Baby-milk scams may be encountered in the centre of town, outside supermarkets. A very poor looking woman will beg for some milk powder, pointing to her baby. If one cracks and buys the milk, she later returns it to the shop, and the money is split 50:50.
VIP sleeper night bus scam encountered Jan 2013. Travel agencies sell expensive tickets to Phnom Pehn ($10 against $6) in VIP sleeper beds buses operated by transport companies “Golden VIP Transport Service” and “Virak-Buntham Express Tour&Travel”. Buses leave at midnight. When Pick-up brings you to the bus, it can so happen, that you find instead of sleeper bus the regular bus with seats instead beds and if you are not lucky you become the seats in the back that no lean back and have to sit upright all the night.
Tuk Tuks off the airport When getting off the airport, you may be offered to get a ride from a Tuk Tuk driver to your hotel. Later when dropping you off, he may offer to be your local guide for the duration of your stay, and the price he may offer may seem too good to be true. It usually is and when you find out at the end that he's not sticking to his side of the deal, things do get awkward. Consider the fact that if you buy into the scam, you maybe helping him and his family out, especially during the desperate low season, this can turn into a personal choice. Just keep this in mind, and be more open to the drivers/guides options available at your hotel or hostel, who are normally not as disingenuous.