It’s been nearly five years since I was last in Siem Reap, and while much remains the same, both time and COVID have wrought significant changes. Some of those changes appear to be for the better: the city has taken time to spruce itself up, and getting around is easier than ever. But COVID has exacerbated the poverty already so omnipresent in this beautiful country, and in a city driven by tourism, many continue to be without jobs. Still, there are hopes for a brighter future as global travel resumes — and I highly recommend a visit. Here are a few things you should not miss if you’re in town.
Cambodian food is excellent (it’s probably my favorite Asian cuisine) — think of it as a friendlier, warmer version of Thai food. Adding to the charm of the meals is the fact so many restaurants offer seating in dramatic outdoor gardens. Our favorite dinner spot of this trip was Peace Cafe (pictured above); we would also recommend Haven. Both have broader social enterprise missions in addition to great food (the pomelo salad at Peace Cafe will have you coming back for more). For a fantastic pumpkin curry at a very affordable price, try Tevy’s Place. And for a mid-day cool-down, I cannot possibly sing the praises of the ice mountains at Fresh Fruit Factory highly enough.
I stumbled on Sam by pure luck and could not have been more fortunate. Because Sam is not only a tuk-tuk driver; he seems to know everything about every temple. Trained as tour guide, he expertly provided information about history, mythology, and architecture as we drove around Siem Reap and the Angkor complex. He also offered detailed stories about Cambodian daily life and rituals. His tuk-tuk comfortably carries two. If you want to hire him, you can call him at +855 16 1440 840 or WhatsApp him at +855 12 440 849 (both numbers given with his permission). You won’t regret it.
It may seem a bit obvious to recommend temples as part of the Siem Reap experience, but I’m going to suggest a few options beyond the ordinary Small Circuit (Angkor Thom/Angkor Wat/Ta Prohm) experience. One of my very favorite temples — for size, construction, and elephants — is East Mabon. You might also want to explore tiny and secluded Ta Nei, out-of-the way Banteay Samre, and the spectacular carvings of Prasat Kravan.
For a combination of experience and value for money, I would give the nod to Sokkhak Spa Riverside. If you’re willing to pay a bit more, Frangipani Spa is also delightful (and we appreciated the sign out front):
Whatever you do, do not go to the Lemongrass Spa — our experience there was so terrible that it bordered on comical.
For both its social mission and its products, I would recommend the Made in Cambodia Market, a set of stalls were vendors sell locally-made products ranging from scarves to spoons to local rum. At a much higher price-points are the elegant Garden of Desire (jewelry) and Louise Loubatieres Gallery (clothing and home goods), both in the chic Kandal Village area.
I only stayed at one hotel, so I can’t speak to multiple options — but I can recommend the Jaya House River Park Hotel without hesitation. Great rooms, great service, great breakfast, great pools, great people.
A visit to Phare The Cambodian Circus was one of the highlights of our trip. The performers here do circus tricks, of course, but they also dance, tell stories, play music, and share Cambodian life through a series of vignettes. It’s a fantastic journey.
Not every tourist is likely to slow down and think about the streets beneath their tuk-tuk wheels, but if you spent any time in Siem Reap prior to COVID, you’ll notice a significant upgrade. Where you might remember miles and miles (or kilometers and kilometers) of dusty, bumpy roads, driving is now a breeze thanks to a construction overhaul. Another bonus: there are brand new WCs all around Angkor Wat, which vastly improves the temple-going experience.