It a simple truth – tourists come for the temples of Angkor Wat, but many end up exploring the nearby town of Siem Reap as much as the ancient temple city itself. Siem Reap is a surprisingly charming town with excellent options for cultural experiences, shopping, dining and nightlife. A day, if not more, should definitely be set aside to explore the markets, experience the countryside or indulge in a pottery or cooking class.
Whatever you decided to do – do NOT visit an orphanage, be extremely careful how and where you spend or give money and research any volunteer work you plan to do well ahead of time. For more on common scams in Cambodia click here. Also, for more information on organizations, tours, restaurants, bars and shops, the best thing you can do is pick up a Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide when arrive in town. It’s a wonderful publications filled with more information than you would ever need about a visit to Siem Reap and its surrounds.
Bring plenty of US dollars, it’s what most Cambodian businesses use for cash; however, small change will be given in Cambodian Riel.
The Old Market is by far the largest, tourist-centered market in Siem Reap, but it retains a decently sized swath of local shops as well. Also known as Phsar Chas, the Old Market sits in the center of town along the river on is bound by Pokombor Av. from the front, Street 9 from the back and 2 Thnou Street and Street 11 on the sides. Most souvenir stalls are found clustered near the river-facing side (Pokombor Av.) of the market and boast everything from cheap t-shirts to jewelry, bags and “antiques”. Quality varies greatly so shop around before settling on anything in the market, even if it’s a silly tourist t-shirt. It’s also best to get a wide range of prices before you begin bartering, which is expected at all markets in Siem Reap. As a rule of thumb, you can aim for %60 percent of their original price unless it’s something small like t-shirts, silk scarfs or recycled cement bags. If you’re looking to compare, we purchased three t-shirts for 5 dollars US at one stall and subsequently purchased two more a couple days later for 5 dollars. Items in Cambodia are very cheap, but most tourists still end up significantly overpaying, which leads to higher prices for all foreign travelers who become viewed as walking ATMs. So, even if it’s cheap for you to pay $10.00 for a t-shirt, don’t. With that being said, NEVER bully a vendor or be rude in your negotiations. Cambodians can be very shy and are not accustomed to angry exchanges. Be kind, but smart when making all purchases.
In addition, be ware that many of the “antique” items found in the markets in Siem Reap are not all antiques, but rather they are reproductions. Still, vendors price them as if they are invaluable. If you like the look of a piece, buy it. But, just understand that it’s authenticity cannot be accounted for even if the vendor sells you on its purity.
If you’re looking for food around the Old Market area, you’ll be in luck as nearby Pub Street is crammed with restaurants. But, if you want a slightly more authentic experience without high tourist prices, try the small street stalls set up along the back side (Street 9) of the Old Market. Most staff speak English and are more than willing to help you find a taste of true Cambodian cuisine.
Angkor Night Market
This is Siem Reaps first official night market, and it’s worth a visit. While the market opens around noon, it’s best to go at night. The more than 200 stalls are open until around midnight hawking everything from souvenirs and clothes to art and food. Signs will point you in a thousand directions, each touting a night market, but the original Angkor Night Market is located out of the Old Market/Pub Street area past Sivutha Blvd. Neon signs will lead the lead the way. You’ll pass the Noon Night Market, which you may think is part of the Night Market, but technically it’s not. Directly across the street, however, begins the Angkor Night Market. You’ll know you’ve arrived by the thatched-roof shops and restaurants. In my opinion, the Angkor Night Market has slightly more “antique” and cultural souvenirs than some of the others, which focus mainly around cheaply, mass-manufactured goods.
Noon Night Market
Essentially an extension of the Angkor Night Market, you truly can’t go to one without the other. Go head, explore them both! Here you’ll find more than 100 stalls hawking the same old stuff.. silk scarfs and handicrafts. You can also pull up a massage chair and relax while watching the ladyboys put on a stage show! Yes, it’s a hoot and while bizarre, it’s worth a few minutes of your time. A bonus of the Noon Night Market is the free wifi offered!
BB Angkor Night Market
The BB Angkor Night Market is NOT the original night market, but a smaller market closer to the action of Pub Street. It’s the place to find really cheap souvenirs. It’s small than the others and can be perused in a matter of minutes.
While Pub Street still serves at the center of action during the day, it truly comes to life in the evening as tourists return from the temples. As you could have guessed, it’s named after the various pubs and bars on the street, but it started back in 1998 when Angkor What? Bar opened on the street, which is now blocked to motor traffic so tourists can wander carefree from bar to bar. Street side seating abounds as dozens of restaurants spill out onto the sidewalks.
Off of Pub Street the alleys have filled with shops and restaurants as well, and in my opinion offer a little more tone-down, relaxing place to grab a bite and a beer. If it is a little bit of relaxing your looking for after a long day on your feet, a handful of street-side massage parlors have set up lounge chairs lining Street 11. They’ll often offer a free beer with your $1.00 US foot massage – it’s a deal that can’t be beat!
The small alleyways off of Pub Street boast nicknames like Alley West and The Passage, but you may not be able to tell exactly where you are. Running parallel to Pub Street is Alley West, a much quieter, artsy, boutique area. You won’t find the slammed-packed, loud restaurant and bars here rather great, quieter restaurants and shops. It’s THE place to find unique, stylish clothes and accessories. You can also find some different souvenirs including art and handicrafts that you won’t find at the tourist-slammed markets.
..on your own two feet is best! But, if you’re staying a bit outside the city centre or want to explore outside the tourist area, the best way to see Siem Reap is by bike. If your hotel doesn’t provide free bikes, there are numerous bike rental shops around town – just ask your hotel for the one located nearest you. Bike rentals cost anywhere from a single buck to about $5.00 per day depending on the quality and age of the bike. If you’re up for a lengthy ride, bikes are even the cheapest way to get out to the temples and around the Angkor complex.
There are hundreds of tuk tuks in Siem Reap, and the drivers are dying to drum up business. A tuk tuk ride around town or to and from your hotel should not cost more than one to two dollars. Anything over $3.00 US for a ride to or from somewhere is too much. If you choose to use a tuk tuk to take you to the temples for an entire day, keep the price at $10.00 US although many will request $15.00 US.
Using a private car to explore the Angkor complex has it’s benefits. It’s faster than a tuk tuk so if you’re time is limited you can cover more ground. In addition, the summers can be scorching and a private car offers the added bonus of AC! Don’t pay more than $35.00 US for a car for the entire day.
Siem Reap and its surrounds are quickly climbing the ladder in the world of eco-friendly tour destinations. From environmentally-friendly countryside bike tours to simple cooking and pottery classes – it’s available in Siem Reap.
In addition, a traditional Apsara dance performance comes highly recommended. These cultural dances are performed at a number of places around Siem Reap including the Apsara Theatre – an actual performance venue with dinner included.
If you’re afraid to branch out and try the street food on your own, there is a street food tour provided by RiverGarden Hotel. It departs at 5pm daily and costs $15.00 US per person, which is a little pricey but if joining the tour gives you the confidence you need to “eat outside the box”.. it may just be well worth it. Book online here.
Known as Cambodia’s Great Lake, Tonle Sap is a heaven for eco-tourists. From birdwatching to tours of water-bound villages, Tonle Sap is the perfect way to get out of the tourist crush of Siem Reap to see what life is like on the water in Cambodia’s countryside. Popular stops include Chong Khneas floating village, Kampong Phluk villages and the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary.
Where to Eat
We ate here several times during our time in Siem Reap and every dish we had was delicious. The Swiss owners not only care about the young orphans they are helping at this training restaurant, but they also care about the food they serve. They understand what it takes to run a top-notch, service-oriented restaurant with heart. You may need reservations during high season, but it’s well worth it! Go eat here! You’ll thank me.
Viva Mexican Cafe
Really? Yes, Really. If you’ve been craving Mexican food, you know your options in Southeast Asia are limited. However, Viva has great Mexican burritos, enchiladas, chips and salsa, margaritas, etc. And, it’s cheap!
The food isn’t fabulous – you can find much better in Siem Reap, but the shakes, coffee and ice cream are good and the atmosphere upstairs is nice, especially if you just want to lounge and relax a bit out of the heat.