On this episode of Talk Travel Asia Podcast, Scott and Trevor discuss how best to spend Three Nights in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Siem Reap is home to one of the world’s truly most magnificent sites, the temples of the Angkor era. Not just one temple, rather hundreds, you must see and experience them if you’re a true traveler of Asia. But in addition to the temples, the surrounding landscape is beautiful, the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia, the Tonle Sap is on its edge, there’s great hiking, mountain biking, fantastic hotels in all budgets, and an array of restaurants. So today we’re going to dive in and share how we like to spend 3 Nights in Siem Reap.
Trevor: This show was mentioned years ago then we forgot to do it. One of our listeners sent us a note asking us to do it, though I can’t recall whom. You know who you are and here it is!
Scott talks about how Siem Reap has changed over the years. First time we went it was mostly temples. Not a whole lot else. Some restaurants – Pub Street but not a ton else going on.
Trevor: Yeah I first went in 2001 and Siem Reap was preeeeety sleepy. That said, I’m good to explore temples for 3 or 4 days. Was then, still am now. But it is nice that there are scores of things to do now. It’s a real city now.
Scott: Yeah, now there is enough to spend at least a week and not see and do everything. And that’s the main point for me – is the name of the show is wrong, because I think the main mistake people make is rushing in and out. Give it another day or two so you’re not rushing around. Ideally 4-5 nights.
Trevor: Totally true Scott we should have done 5 nights in Siem Reap. But, actually, at the end of the 3-Nights portion we’ve listed a whole bunch of other things to do, so it should be pretty easy to put together a week’s worth of things to do from this episode.
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Trevor: Actually, to start, let’s quickly refresh ourselves on some of the episodes about Siem Reap and Cambodia we’ve done, which you can find links to all of on our show notes at TalkTravelAsia.com:
In addition to touching on Cambodia on Tantalizing Travel Tales I and II, Favorite Watering Holes, Cycling Southeast Asia With Adam Platt Hepworth, and Great Day Hikes in Asia, we had a bunch of Cambodia-specific podcasts including:
- EPISODE 2: ANGKOR 101 – HOW TO VISIT ANGKOR FOR FIRST TIME VISITORS
- EPISODE 27: ANGKOR 201
- EPISODE 12: PHARE, THE CAMBODIAN CIRCUS WITH CRAIG DODGE
- EPISODE 30: UP AND COMING CAMBODIA WITH NICK RAY
- EPISODE 33: THREE NIGHTS IN PHNOM PENH
- EPISODE 51: VOLUNTEERING WHILE TRAVELING WITH JAMES SUTHERLAND OF FRIENDS-INTERNATIONAL
- EPISODE 79: REUSABLE WATER BOTTLES WITH REFILL NOT LANDFILL’S DEAN MCLACHLAN & CHRISTIAN DE BOER
- EPISODE 82: CAMBODIA’S BEACHES AND ISLANDS
- EPISODE 95: CAMBODIA’S EVOLVING HOTEL SCENE WITH ALEXIS DE SUREMAIN
Scott: Typically the way we’ve done our “3-nights in…” episodes, we will each run through a suggested 3-night itinerary, give a little feedback in between and wrap up with some suggestions for tailoring the program to suit your particular preferences.
Trevor: For me this is very challenging. I live and work in Cambodia and I’m very familiar with all the things to see and do. I wouldn’t say that the following is “the best” 3 nights as it depends on who’s going. My sister and her husband came to Siem Reap a couple years ago and their three nights was a bit different from the one I’m about to share, but it was awesome. This is just one I currently prefer for the first time visitor. Again, we’ll discuss different options at the end of the show.
Day 1: Arrival Day
It depends where you are coming from and what time you arrive: jet lag is obviously a potential factor. I like to have an easy arrival day when I travel. If your hotel pool is nice (I can put a list of the top ten swimming pools in Siem Reap in the show notes!), you should have a dip in the pool and get a little sun: enjoy the weather. If your hotel has a nice spa, you should get a massage; if it doesn’t, go to Bodia Spa for a session (i’ll put a link to Bodia in the show notes and as always, we will have a great google map for this episode).
Then, in the late afternoon I like to stretch my legs and walk around the town a bit, checking out some of the sights. Siem Reap is great for this. I’ve designed an Introduction to Siem Reap walking tour that visits some attractions around the gardens in front of the Raffles Grand Angkor hotel. From spirit shrines to Angkor sculpture, royal gardens to historic temples, a walk around the park area gives you an interesting overview of Cambodian culture and history in around 1-hour. Its nice to start around 5pm when the bats are getting active in the tree south of the Raffles and people come out to do aerobics and kick a shuttlecock-kind-of hackeysack thing around in the park. Great fun to join in. Don’t get too sweaty though as I usually like to stroll down the riverside a block to the FCC Hotel Scribe Bar for a happy hour cocktail.
From here you can jump in a remork (a Cambodian Tuk Tuk) and head down to the Wat Damnak area to the Bambu Stage for a show and some dinner. Bambu Stage is one of Cambodia’s most entertaining cultural events venues. Established to help revive traditional arts, Bambu Stage offers a variety of programs so, depending on the season and the day of the week of your visit, you can enjoy one of three different performances including traditional Shadow Puppets, a 150 Years history of Cambodia through Photography narrated multimedia show, and Angkor Temples Decoded which is perfect for first-time travelers to the temples of Cambodia, especially as you’re going to the temples tomorrow morning. This show uses multimedia, models and storytelling to give you an overview on the history of Hindu temples in Cambodia.
Then enjoy a shared meal of Khmer food in a little dining nook of which there are several amidst the gardens and stages of Bambu Stage. You’ll even get to listen to the 8pm drumming show from Cambodian Living Arts while you dine. The food is AMAZING. So good. And you get to listen to traditional drumming while you dine! This is a very leisurely first day that actually has a lot going on.
Scott: I really enjoy an afternoon / sundown experience, maybe not even really doing in a major temple. Then jump on a bike and ride counter-clockwise around the outside moat of Angkor Wat, then north to the southern gate of Angkor Thom and then up on top of the wall and make the 12km ride around it. Time permitting, ride past the Bayon, then quickly go to the western wall of Angkor Wat and buy some $1 beers and enjoy sunset. Perhaps dinner at Pou Restaurant.
Trevor: Day 2 is the big temple day for me – there are 500 years of temples and you’re not going to see them all in this short a visit. I like to build up the excitement and save the big temples: not stampede straight to the clitoris as John Cleese once so aptly stated, and I like to stay away from the other tourists. So there are a few different ways I take people to the temples in order to do this. One of my faves is a HD morning chronological tour that visits a number of temples in the order that they were built. This gives you a good impression of the development of styles that you might have learned a bit about at the Bambu Stage the night before if you saw the Angkor Temples Decoded show.
If you want to do the sunrise, I suggest Phnom Bakheng as your starting point as this is the only hill at Angkor and has the best view of the surrounding countryside including Angkor Wat, which is most crowded at sunrise and actually best to visit at the end of the day. Otherwise Bakheng was the original center of the city and was founded by king Yasovarman after whom the city was originally named.
After sunrise, I like to visit Baksei Chamkrong, which is a pyramid you can climb up to see some beautiful inscription carvings. This temple was originally built by Yasovarman’s son and is beautiful in the early morning light.
If you’re really fancy you can have a tuk tuk breakfast at the nearby Prasat Bei. You dine inside a Cambodian remork, which is a neat experience. And very charming here beside the moat of Angkor Thom where there are no tourists early in the morning.
Then you’ll do a tour of Angkor Thom beginning with the temples that predate the fortified city, walking through the forest of the Royal Palace enclosure before making your way around to Bayon Temple, which is one of the iconic temples of Angkor with its dozens of faces atop the temple spires.
Finishing up your morning tour, head north to Preah Khan, chronologically one of the last Khmer temples and, arguably, the most grand and labyrinthian complexes. Also perhaps my favorite. There is a wonderful old nun who can give you a blessing, which is a wonderful experience.
There are a bunch of places to have lunch around the park. I like to eat stir fried chicken with ginger and pineapple. You have to custom order this but it’s great. Otherwise, go back to town, get lunch somewhere around your hotel, perhaps Mahob, and take a dip in the pool, change out of your sweaty clothes. You have time. You don’t need to go back to visit Angkor Wat until the temperature comes down a few degrees.
I’d shoot for getting to Angkor Wat around 3pm to avoid the heat of midday and all the morning visitors. As the only west-facing temple, Angkor Wat is best to visit (and photograph) in the late afternoon. Make your way gradually up to the uppermost platform around 5pm and then start walking out as the guards begin corralling visitors out of the complex at 5:30. Make sure to exit the temple through the chamber that contains the massive image of Vishnu. This was discovered beneath the temple’s central sanctuary and is magical with the setting sun shining on it. A fitting end of your exploration of the temple built by King Suryavarman, whose name translates to “Protected by the Sun”.
Then tonight, I suggest a food tour. I designed one called Dining for a Cause: Social Enterprise Restaurants of Siem Reap. One distinctive feature of the culinary scene in Siem Reap is a selection of restaurants providing culinary arts training to disadvantaged Cambodian youth. Visit a variety of such culinary social enterprises to enjoy some of the finest Khmer cuisine while supporting the education of at-risk youth. Taste Siem Reap also offers some great food tours. As does Lost Plate, who was a recent guest on Talk Travel Asia!
If you’re too tired for a big night out maybe grab an early dinner at New Leaf Eatery. They have some really nice Khmer Food that you can share. And then if you want to grab a drink, Laundry Bar is right around the corner. It’s one of the only places with live music sometimes and $2 Fuzzy Logic craft beer!
Scott: For me, not temples all one day: super early morning in the east gate of Angkor – pay the man to get up to the top if you can. See Angkor, Tha Prhom, Pre Rup and some of the circuit. Try to stay out over lunch (bring a sandwich) while everyone goes back to their hotel. Countryside bike tour with Grasshopper Adventures in late afternoon. Dinner at Mie Cafe.
Day 3: Siem Reap
Trevor: Day 3 is tricky. It really depends on what you want to do. On my day 2 you didn’t go to Ta Prohm, the famous “Tomb Raider temple” so you can go do that this morning. It’s best as soon as it opens, which is around 7:20am. Enter from the east and you can spend about an hour cruising around there.
Then I like to spend a bit of time in the countryside. I love Cambodian people. They’re so friendly. From Ta Prohm you can drive to Banteay Samre temple, which is pretty cool. Along the way you are going to drive through a village that sells woven baskets and hats and BBQ on the side of the road. Just stop anywhere and get out and stroll around and mingle with people.
This afternoon you’re headed towards Kompong Khleang. Which is a stilted village. The houses are built on stilts along a stream that connects to the Tonle Sap Lake. The Tonle Sap expands more than fourfold every year with the flooding caused by the Himalayan snow melt thousands of kilometers away. So depending on when you go, people’s houses are either built up high on stilts or surrounded by water.
Tonight I say hit the town. Can do dinner at Pou as Scott mentioned. Cuisine Wat Damnak is great for a fancy date (just make sure to book well in advance as it’s very popular). Another one worth booking in advance is Embassy Restaurant. After that you can go to the Made in Cambodia market, the best place to pick up souvenirs. And then cruise the Pub Street area for drinks. Asana Wooden House is a favorite. Miss Wong is nearby and really cool. Cruising around pub street is great.
Scott: Perhaps a morning experience on the lake but it’s quite far. A few more temples, not to far away, smaller ones, Ta Nei, etc, some time alone, walk around the walls if you can. Visit Angkor Hospital for Children Visitor’s Center. Run along the river at sundown or around Sra Srang reservoir – or for that matter have a ramork take you out and then run 10-15km and have him trail you and bring you back. Bodia Spa or a massage somewhere else. Phare Circus at night, some drinks – even Pub Street, I always like Picasso Wine bar in The Alley, Mamma Shop Restaurant if you need Italian
Day 4 – Departure Siem Reap
Trevor: Enjoy the day at your leisure for some relaxation at your hotel or for some personal shopping. A great place for this is Artisans d’Angkor, which was established in 1992 in order to support Cambodian arts and crafts and to help young people find work in their local villages by continuing the practice of traditional arts. On a free tour you can learn how wood and stone carvings, lacquering, gilding, and silk paintings are created. And then pick up a great hand-crafted souvenir.
Otherwise, enjoy the pool, maybe go to Bodia Spa again. Lots of shops around the old market for Kampot Pepper, scarves, etc. Just stick to the boutiques that specialize in items. A lot of the shops are selling random crap from China, Vietnam, Thailand, etc.
Early morning bike ride around some temples or a jog or walk around a temple’s walls. Or walk along the river up one side and down the other. Then have an iced coffee at a Khmer lawn chair shop, baguette with Happy Cow Cheese, swim and head out!
Other Notable Mentions:
Trevor: Although I’ve never tried it, Angkor ZipLine could be fun for the whole family
I’ve also heard good things about The Happy Ranch horse farm. They ride out to Wat Atvea which is a cool Angkor era temple that no one else visits.
Cambodia Jeep is awesome for off-roading to remote temples surrounded by rice fields
And there are some great social enterprise experiences including Rehash Trash and Ammo in which you make handicrafts out of upcycled plastic and bullet shells
- Grasshopper Adventures
- Vespa countryside and temple tours
- Great spot to eat and drink and have fun
- Spa and massage too which we didn’t get into (i mentioned several times)
A few other restaurants of note:
- Lum Orng Farm to Table restaurant is amazing if a bit hard to find as it’s located out of town
- The Local has the best beer in town – home brewed craft beer that is. Great stuff
- For those looking for an Apsara dancing show, I like Kanell Dinner theater
Places to Stay:
Trevor: Too many to mention honestly. For boutique hotels I love Shinta Mani Shack, Jaya House River Park, Heritage Suites, Mulberry Boutique and Sakmut Boutique to name a few.
For luxury I like The Templation which has private pool villas on expansive grounds with tropical forest, the Sofitel which is a great resort that really gives you an “I’m on vacation” feeling, especially around the pool, and Bensley Collection – Shinta Mani Siem Reap, which also has private pool villas including connecting private pool villas which are great for your bday party – trust me.
For budget places to stay I love Lub D and Baby Elephant, both of which are fun pool party kinda places, though Lub D is party party and Baby Elephant is a bit more chilled out.
Scott: The main point is treat yourself and enjoy yourself. So much incredible stuff to see. Great food drinks, affordable, nice people, and one of the greatest sites on earth!!
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