Cambodia is known for its affordable options — a beer for half a dollar, anyone? — that makes it perfect for big adventures on a small budget. Here’s a three-day guide for making the most out of your visit in the country’s resort town, Siem Reap.
*US$; hotels, airfare and spontaneous brunching not included
Day 1: Traditional Siem Reap
No trip to Siem Reap is complete without a visit to Angkor Wat. A day pass costing US$37 may seem like a splurge, but there’s plenty to see and do at Angkor Archaeological Park that will easily take up a day. To go super-budget, hire a bicycle (versus a tuk-tuk, or auto rickshaw; US$5) and navigate your way via GPS.
Begin with sunrise at the ancient complex — watching the sun peek from behind the iconic 12th-century temple spires is magical and #instaworthy. Do note, though, that the sunrise views attract a huge turnout — cut through the crowds and head for the lotus lake to capture your postcard shots. The usual tourist trail sees visitors spending a couple more hours exploring Angkor before moving on to Bayon and Ta Prohm temples — another tip: Angkor Wat opens at 5.30am, while the latter two structures start welcoming visitors from 7.30am. A great way to beat the crowds is to shake up your itinerary. At about 7am, head to Ta Prohm and stand in awe of the atmospheric, tree-riddled temple that featured in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie, without the masses.
After working up an appetite, head to one of the many restaurants that dot the park for a local lunch (US$3). Next up is Bayon and the 216 impressive, gigantic smiling faces that have been carved into the temple’s looming towers. Sitting at the center of King Jayavarman VII’s capital city Angkor Thom, Bayon is surrounded by ancient sites, such as the ornately etched Terrace of Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King. The perfect place to round out the day is by the Srah Srang — a sprawling 900-year-old lake that once served as a bathing spot for royalty — admiring reflections of a sunset-soaked sky on the still waters.
Then, enjoy cheap eats at Lilypop Restaurant, a charming family-run eatery that specializes in Asian fusion cuisine that’s simple but packed full of flavor. A must-try is one of Cambodia’s national dishes, fish amok (US$3.50), a creamy fish curry. After that, make a beeline for Pub Street, the beating heart of Siem Reap’s nightlife. Arrive early and take advantage of the happy hour offers (US$3), which include US$0.50 beers. Angkor What? and Temple Club are stalwarts — buckets flow and music pounds until the early hours.
- Day 1 costs: Day pass US$37; Bicycle hire US$5; Lunch US$3; Dinner US$5; Beers US$3; Total: US$53
Day 2: Dive into the local history markets, pagodas and contemporary Cambodia
Start the morning with a leisurely stroll through the elegant Royal Gardens, which sit between the Royal Residence and colonial-era Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. The tranquil park is home to a new esplanade, shaded paths, well-manicured gardens, small temples and trees whose branches hang heavy with bats. Watch families picnic in the dappled shade, elders gossip on benches and locals take part in exercise classes at dawn and dusk.
From here, cross the bridge over the Siem Reap River and take a gentle 10-minute walk along the waterway to Wat Bo. Wearing the crown of the town’s oldest Buddhist temple, dating back more than 400 years, Wat Bo is home to a pagoda adorned with murals that paint pictures of Buddha’s journey and ancient Khmer life; religious statues and stupas; a school; and accommodation for monks. Visitors are welcome to explore the sprawling grounds, but they must behave respectfully and keep their shoulders and knees covered. A small donation (US$2) will also be well-received.
Refuel with lunch at Footprint Café, a cute spot away from the crowds and a short walk from Wat Bo. The minimal yet stylish space boasts a book-lined interior and intimate outdoor tropical gardens. Try the Cambodian vegetarian curry (US$4.75), a rich coconut curry with carrots, long beans, sweet potatoes and onions.
Next, put on your haggling hat and bag some bargain souvenirs at the Old Market. Soak up the sounds, smells and hustle and bustle of the busy market, which sells everything from clothes and accessories to art, electrical items, food and household goods. After that, head to APOPO Visitor Center (US$5) to meet the heroic master detector (aka power sniffer) African giant pouched rats that have been employed to help clear Cambodia — one of the world’s most land-mined countries — of the remaining unexploded devices that litter parts of the country. The Belgian nonprofit organization trains the clever and lightweight rodents to recognize and indicate the chemical compounds of TNT.
After dusk, head to the outskirts, to a stretch of Road 60 that locals flock to each evening, to feast at the food stalls that line the street (US$3). There, small stands are stocked with rattan baskets full of deep-fried crickets, tarantulas, grubs and scorpions — for those who dare try. Other stalls specialize in noodle and rice dishes, or offer rainbow displays of fruit.
- Day 2 costs: Donation US$2: Lunch US$4.75; Entry fee US$5; Dinner US$3; Total: US$14.75
Day 3: Creative Siem Reap
Siem Reap province is dotted with traditional artisan communities, and one of them, Artisans Angkor, works to keep their age-old techniques alive, while helping create jobs for young disadvantaged Cambodians. At its center in town, guests can take a free guided tour around the workshops to see the intricate work involved in a range of traditional Khmer arts that spans silk weaving, stone and wood carving, lacquer painting and more. Have lunch at the center (US$4) before boarding the organization’s free bus out of town to its silk farm. Nestled in the heart of the pristine Cambodian countryside, visitors can take a tour of the farm to learn about the process (from silk worm to scarf).
Back in town, get your art fix at One Eleven Gallery. As a relatively new addition to Siem Reap’s burgeoning contemporary art scene, the intimate gallery showcases work from a range of international and local artists.
It also has a bar with an enticing happy hour on weekdays from 4pm to 7pm — beers start from US$1, spirits from US$2 and wine from US$3. Another must-see Siem Reap attraction is Phare, the Cambodian Circus (US$18). With daily 8pm shows, the talented troupe’s energetic performances fuse theater, music, dance and modern circus to deliver energetic Cirque du Soleil-style spectaculars that tell traditional and modern Khmer folktales.
With a few bucks left of your budget, head to hip Kandal Village. The cluster of stylish streets boasts a range of quirky boutiques, coffee shops and eateries, with Maybe Later serving up delicious Mexican food. Go for the quesadilla with gringo beef (US$5.50). And if you didn’t get enough of the tipple on the first day, you can have another go in the alleys that surround Pub Street. A cool collection of bars, including cocktail lounge Miss Wong, make great spots for grabbing a drink. Miss Wong, modeled upon ’30s Shanghai, is an ambient-music bar that serves a range of concoctions created from its selection of home infusions. The spiced Bloody Mary (US$4.50) is a hot blend of Kampot-pepper- and chili-infused vodka, Tabasco, tomato juice and fresh celery.
- Day 3 costs: Lunch US$4; Circus US$18; Dinner US$5.50; Cocktail US$4.50; Total: US$32
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Where to stay
- Lub d Siem Reap has quickly become popular with the backpacking crowd since opening its doors in 2017. It features a spacious swimming pool, co-working space, game area and tour desk. lubd.com/siemreap
- Mad Monkey is a popular option in the local backpacker scene — after some R&R, mingle with your fellow travelers at a rooftop bar and sundeck lounge. madmonkeyhostels.com/siem-reap
- Funky Flashpacker dubs itself a party hostel. Take the excitement of the streets back to your temporary home, where a swimming pool, chillout area and spa and 24-hour sky bar help elevate the experience. funkyflashpacker.com
- The tuk-tuk is the most popular mode of transport, but it’s also the most expensive after private cars. Recent years have seen transport apps launch in Siem Reap, with PassApp and Grab being the main options. Download the apps and order private cars, tuk-tuks or the smaller rickshaws for affordable metered rides. Alternatively, rent a bicycle or motorbike (from one of the many rental shops in town) for free-and-easy explorations of the city.
This article first appeared in the February 2019 issue of Smile magazine.