While it is still the world-famous temples which bring most to Siem Reap, the town has evolved to offer an alluring mix of chic restaurants, bars, spas and boutique hotels. Here are ten things that you should not miss when visiting Siem Reap.
1. Sample Cambodian cuisine where Gordon Ramsay took cooking lessons!
Softer and more subtle than the cuisine of neighbouring Thailand, we left Siem Reap wondering why there isn’t a Cambodian restaurant on every second street corner. One of the best places to enjoy traditional Cambodian cuisine is Sugar Palm, just west of town. This gem of a restaurant was a definite culinary highlight for us. Our meal, Fish Amok, was one of the best Amok’s we enjoyed during our entire trip. The owner, Khetana, even taught Gordon Ramsay how to cook local cuisine! Click here to watch Gordon Ramsay’s video.
Most tuk-tuk drivers know where Sugar Palm is located.
2. Dine in one of Asia’s top 50 restaurants
Cuisine Wat Damnak is one you will want to book in advance as it has quickly gained a reputation as one of Cambodia’s best restaurants. The accolades just keep coming for this contemporary restaurant, with Chef Joannes Riviere serving Cambodian food with a touch of French flair. The degustation menu changes weekly with a focus on seasonal fruits, vegetables and fish. Set in a traditional Khmer house and garden, Cuisine Wat Damnak made the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants on The World’s 50 Best in 2015 and is the first Cambodian restaurant ever to feature! We only heard about this restaurant when we arrived in Siem Reap and sadly missed out on securing a seat, so take our advice and book before arriving.
3. Enjoy a deliciously potent cocktail in Siem Reap’s coolest cocktail bar
A favourite with Siem Reap expats, Miss Wong Cocktail Bar is like stepping into old-world Shanghai. The decor is influenced by the 1930s and definitely chic. It is sophisticated, classy, very cool and, while only minutes from the noise and brashness of Pub Street, a unique option for couples looking for an intimate venue where they can unwind and enjoy bespoke (but potent!) cocktails. Miss Wong Cocktail Bar has a certain romantic charm about it – a definite do not miss for travelling couples.
4. Learn to cook Cambodian cuisine
A class at Le Tigre de Papier Cooking School is one of the best value mornings or afternoons you can enjoy. Starting with a visit to the local market to stock up on produce, we returned to cook a three-course meal before sitting down to enjoy the fruits of our labour for only US$14!
5. Watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat
Spread over 400-square-kilometres, experiencing Angkor Archeological Park will be a significant part of your Siem Reap holiday or honeymoon. You could spend days visiting the various temples in the precinct so heed our advice and don’t rush it all in a day. Leave two or three days to do this vast site justice.
It helps to understand from the outset that Angkor was a huge city of more than one million people, the largest urban settlement in pre-industrial times and the Khmer Empire is one of the most powerful in the world. Within this Kingdom were many temples, but Angkor Wat is the main attraction for most visitors today.
Seeing the sun rise over Angkor Wat is a rite of passage, and you will need to leave your hotel by 4.30 am or 5 am to do this – but it’s a sunrise you’ll never forget. A tip the hotel gave us was to take breakfast with us when we first set out in the morning (they packed us delicious breakfast boxes). A lot of tourists return to their hotel after sunrise to eat and then go back to walk through the temples, leaving a window in-between for you to wander with fewer crowds.
6. Dedicate a morning to Angkor’s most romantic temple – Ta Prohm
Also located in the vast Angkor Archeological Park, Ta Prohm is one of the most beautiful temples with its 100-year-old fig trees adding an unruly but romantic twist to the atmosphere. Ta Prohm is perhaps most famously known as the temple from the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and deserves some extra time. The temple is particularly serene early in the mornings (most of the crowds are at Angkor Thom). We suggest dedicating one early morning and a decent chunk of the day to Angkor Thom and other nearby temples and returning to the Archeological Park early the next morning to truly enjoy Ta Prohm.
7. Kulen Waterfall
Just two hours from Siem Reap, this is a great day out and should be added to the itinerary if you have the time. Part of Phnom Kulen National Park, you can visit the Valley of a 1000 Lingas, a river with ancient carvings in the rocks of the riverbed, before moving up to see the eight metre reclining Buddha. Finishing with a small trek down to the waterfall is a highlight, particularly when local Monks come out to bathe, adding a surreal dimension to any tourist snaps. We combined this outing with some of the temples outside of town, making it a full day. We thoroughly recommend adding some of the remote temples, as fewer tourists bother to do this (meaning you have more space and fabulous photo opportunities).
8. Phare, The Cambodian Circus
For us, this was a unique experience in a holiday full of firsts. During the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975–79, nearly one-fifth of Cambodia’s population was brutally murdered, leaving a legacy that the country still struggles with and which is most apparent through the rampant poverty. Phare is first and foremost a social enterprise, with young performers who have come from some of the most difficult social and economic backgrounds imaginable. A mix of circus techniques, and an opportunity to share some of Cambodia’s sad history with guests through the arts, Phare is uniquely Cambodian and will leave you bursting with joy when you see the pride these young people have in what they are accomplishing and the oohs and aahs they can elicit from the crowds.
9. Enjoy a massage each day!
There are dozens upon dozens of massage shops in Siem Reap and massages are only a few dollars at most. However, for a great-value, if a slightly more expensive option, visit Body & Soul on Pub Street alley. Still ridiculously affordable (around US12 for an hour massage) Body & Soul also offer courses where you learn how to massage yourself. For an even more decadent experience, head to Bodia Spa. Expensive for Siem Reap standards (you will pay around USD32 for an hour massage), the spa is comparable to mid to high-end hotel’s resort spa so it’s quite good value if you are looking for something a little special.
10. Stay at Navutu Dreams Resort & Spa
If you are enjoying a honeymoon or romantic getaway in Siem Reap, you deserve to be able to relax knowing you have a haven to escape to when the mood strikes. After much research, we chose Navutu Dreams Resort & Spa as our Siem Reap base – their entry level Explorer Room was perfect for us, but for the ultimate honeymoon indulgence, book a Grand Tour Room and enjoy a tad more privacy and enormous corner baths.
The retreat is located on the outskirts of town, just 10 minutes from the hustle and bustle by tuk-tuk. Navutu Dreams’ location was a massive plus for us, due to their policy of supplying a free tuk-tuk driver to each room – serenity and convenience in one.
Offering just 28 guests rooms, Navutu Dreams Resort & Spa boasts three pools spread amongst lovely tropical gardens, so there are lots of little pockets of tranquility. This boutique hotel also has a conscience – they harness solar power for hot water, rely on seasonal food and use eco-friendly bulbs and air-conditioning.
There is twice daily (most days) yoga lessons and a green, super healthy menu. Ensuring they appeal to just about any style of traveller, they also offer a comprehensive ‘mainstream’ menu with local Khmer cuisine, fantastic Italian and international options, and fine wines and cocktails.
Lastly, while researching and planning your Siem Reap honeymoon or holiday, do try to look for a way to give back when you visit. Do your research and find a cause to contribute to. This country has been through so much and while the local people are starting to find their feet, the area has more than its fair share of disadvantaged communities.
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