Siem Reap is a small tourist town is where most visitors to Angkor Wat stay. There’s plenty of hotels, food for every taste and budget, markets and nightlife. In addition to exploring the temples and countryside by tuk tuk or moto, like the monkey above, here are some other things to do while in Siem Reap.
Watch an Apsara Dance Show
Catching an Apsara dance show is easy in Siem Reap. There will usually be a buffet included in a set price or you can watch a show at the Temple Club balcony, which offers an a la carte menu. I’ve done both types and saw very little difference in the dances or quality of food, so do whichever option fits your style. I think the food overall in Siem Reap is fantastic, as I discuss below, but at the dance shows, this doesn’t seem to be the case. My advise is to keep expectations low for the food and go for the dancing and the costumes.
Attend Phare, the Cambodian Circus
Another show to catch is Phare, the Cambodian circus. Shows start at 8 nightly and there are plenty of snacks, drinks and ice cream on sale. This company transforms the lives of Cambodian youth through the arts and has done so since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Phare is both worthy cause and an entertaining show.
Hang out on Pub Street
Pub Street is the best place to people watch while in Siem Reap. You’ll see all ages and all kinds and can wander through the markets, grab a drink, eat some pizza- or any other type of food you may be craving, including local fare, western standbys, BBQ seafood, such as stingray and prawn, Indian, French, Mexican and of course the deep-fried bugs and snakes that are laid out for sale on every corner. Whatever your idea of a fun night out in a crowd is- karaoke? dancing?- you can find here. We prefer to just wander around, grab a bite, and watch the crowds. Our favorite Pub Street eatery is Dakshin’s for South Indian cuisine. Speaking of food…
Eat the local food
Be sure to try the local food while in Siem Reap. Two of the most popular local dishes are amok, which is a yellow curry made with fish or chicken, and lok lak, a stir fried meat dish. You can try these two dishes just about any eatery in Siem Reap, but there a number of training restaurants set up in the Pub Street area that give back to the local area by training underprivileged young people in all areas of restaurant work. Haven and Genevieve’s are two training restaurants that serve delicious versions of the local dishes (as well as western dishes) and we recommend them both, but our favorite restaurant for local food is Touich Restaurant. It is a bit out of the way and the tuk tuk ride there is excessively bumpy, but it’s worth the ride. The salted red snapper is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Their lok lak is my favorite version of the dish and their Thai-influenced salads are to-die-for.
Haggle for souvenirs
There’s no shortage of places to pick up souvenirs in Siem Reap. You can do all your shopping at the temples if you want and, even if you’re not interested, expect a hard-sell in the markets and around the temples. Kids with baskets of trinkets will follow you, counting out postcards. That boy in the brown attempted to haggle with Jeremy and I in English, Spanish and Mandarin before giving up. Another girl offered me, “4 magnets for $1, 5 magnets for $1, 10 magnets”- you get the idea- as she followed me halfway out of Preah Khan. By the time she gave up, she was up to 40 magnets for $1. Your heart will ache as you walk away from a tiny salesperson, trilling, “Please tell me what you want! I can’t read your mind, ma-daaam!” You won’t have it any easier in the markets or at the stalls, but at least you’ll be buying from adults. When you’re tired of the elephant pants, water color paintings and etchings, and magnets found by the temples and in the markets, head on over to the next stop on this list.
Visit Artisans d’Angkor for locally-made handicrafts
Artisans d’Angkor is a special place, dedicated to preserving local handicraft tradition while employing locals, many of them deaf, and teaching them a trade. On your first visit you will be given a free tour of the workshop to see how they create the items they have for sale in the gift shop. Woodworking, silver and lacquerware work, limestone and soapstone carving, painting and gold leaf application are among the handicrafts you will observe. There’s a large array of gift and souvenir items in their store, with everything from men’s silk ties and women’s scarves to decorative boxes, candles, spices and cookies. Unlike most markets, haggling is not entertained here and prices are as marked.
Visit the Old Market
In the Southern end of town, the Old Market offers a blend of souvenir stalls, wet market and local food stalls. There’s a lot to see here and plenty of local atmosphere. I’ve included a few more photos below to show how the local wet market looks. My father was a nervous wreck in there so note that corridors are tight and butchers and fish mongers will be chopping close to you. If you’re squeamish, maybe just take a quick peek then move on to the clothing and trinkets.
And one sight I suggest skipping
It sounds really exciting and exotic to go visit a floating village, doesn’t it? Maybe you’ve seen floating markets in Thailand either in person or on the tv and were envisioning a vibrant, bustling village filled with activity. That’s what Jeremy and I thought too, but instead our boat tour of Chong Kneas was part of a scam, and we got off easy from what I’ve read since visiting. We paid US $20 per person for a private boat and guide. We weren’t offered any other options other than private boat and guide, which probably should have been our first clue that this was part of the set-up: captive audience, two young guys as driver and guide. Next we were told we were stopping at a store to buy rice for the school for orphans we’d be visiting. Wait. What? We didn’t want to visit an orphanage or school for orphans. (www.thinkchildsafe.org has resources on why visiting orphanages is bad for the children themselves.) We didn’t say anything in protest, but when we entered the tiny store in the middle of the water, we saw quickly how this was going to go. The storekeeper was a big guy and he had small, medium and large bags of rice on hand, plus some bottled water. He tried to sell us a large bag of rice for $50. We managed to get out of there with two 6-packs of water for $10. Apparently, we paid a light price and some people actually do pay that $50. I can see where the storekeep and boat staff could come across as intimidating if they wanted to. Luckily for us, they took our ten dollars and moved on with the tour. On balance, it was a nice, long boat ride. We were able to watch the sunset over the lake. And we were also better able to see the conditions Cambodians are living in, both in the floating village and on the ride there. Given what we saw, we aren’t surprised that these types of scams are going on, but the money generated from these scams is helping only a few individuals, and therein lies the problem. Give this a miss or join an organized tour group for an outing that spells out what you’ll see in advance.
This concludes my short series on Cambodia. I’m sure we’ll be back again and again as it’s one of our favorite places we’ve visited so far. Next week we’re headed to Vietnam.