When we arrived in Siem Reap, I couldn’t decide whether to love it or hate it. The gateway to Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat area, Siem Reap is bursting with restaurants, bars, hotels, and countless other businesses thriving solely because of tourist dollars. Visitors roam the streets at all hours, all year long, always accompanied by the cries of tuk-tuk drivers and shopkeepers trying to earn their money. For some tourists, Siem Reap is the only place to go in Cambodia and while those people are sorely missing out on everything this country has to offer, I won’t deny it: I love Siem Reap. It was, without question, our favorite city in Cambodia.
Cambodia is full of NGOs and as a result, there are myriad restaurants catering to western palates. Given that there are only a handful of truly traditional Khmer dishes – none of which are suitable to vegetarians without significant modification – we ate more western food in Cambodia than we expected. Jen also fell in love with a Thai dish and we both consumed enough curry to enjoy a month away from it in Vietnam. We ate well everywhere in Cambodia but food in Siem Reap is on another level.
Guided by this helpful resource, we had a few places we knew we needed to try. Chamkar served the best salad I’ve eaten this entire trip; Little Italy gave us real Italian cheese and what tasted like homemade sauce. I know, one doesn’t come to Southeast Asia to eat pasta but we’ve been on the road for a long time and every now and then, tastes of home are truly welcome. As anyone who’s spent time in Asia knows, cheese is pretty hard to come by and good cheese is mostly seen in dreams. Also available in Siem Reap: Mexican food, French cuisine, sushi and other Japanese specialties, cupcakes (mediocre cake, amazing frosting), an excellent Indian place our friend Andrew led us to, German fare, Brazilian, Cajun, and far more. We didn’t try most of those as Jen’s obsession with street food ensured we ate like locals at least a handful of times.
In addition, coffee shops and places to escape the heat abound. We often wound up at Blue Pumpkin savoring the ice cream and sorbet. On our final day, we found Rohatt Cafe and wished we’d wandered in earlier. A nice breeze, local prices, good WiFi, and tasty treats: maybe it’s good we didn’t find it sooner.
The many things to do
The obvious draw of Siem Reap is proximity to Angkor Wat and we spent days exploring the temples. But this town that caters to tourists is also home to countless cooking classes; massage parlors; spas; art galleries; day tour providers for a floating village, zip-lining, kayaking, and excursions to see how various items are made; a landmine museum; traditional dance shows; horse riding; Phare the Cambodian Circus; and more activities than I can round up here. We took a cooking class but in all honesty, found it lacking and not worth writing about.
Phare, on the other hand, was amazing.During the Khmer Rouge era, artists and intellectuals were systematically killed as part of Pol Pot’s sickening attempt to revert all Cambodia’s people to uneducated, uncultured peasants. As a result, the Khmer are still rebuilding their arts scene and the education provided by Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) to “young people from the streets, orphanages and struggling families” helps to do so while teaching students a creative profession. Phare the Cambodian Circus employs performers educated by PPS in aerial arts, juggling, contortion, acrobatics, theatre, dance, and music. Each production tells a story; the one we saw addressed the universal theme of an outcast searching for his place but in a distinctly Cambodian way. The young men and women on stage were well trained and a joy to watch.
Their physical prowess was literally jaw dropping and the story was easy to follow with English, French, and Chinese subtitles projected above the stage. The camaraderie of the cast was palpable and their smiles infectious. We left the big top with shit eating grins and I’ve been recommending it to everyone we meet headed that way.
The ease of getting around
When it comes to getting around a city, we’re cheap. If at all possible, we walk. Failing that, we take the least expensive means of going somewhere that we feel safe taking. In some parts of Cambodia (e.g., Kampot), there aren’t enough lights or open businesses to make a walk home in the dark feel safe so taking a tuk-tuk even a short distance becomes a necessity. Not so in Siem Reap. On a night out with friends, the walk back to our hotel was well lit and populated even in the wee hours of the morning so we could decline the tuk-tuk offers and use our own feet. The city is easy to navigate and people are friendly so on the off-chance that you get lost, it takes only a moment to find a helpful soul to point you back on track.
Markets, restaurants, bars, innumerable hotels, cooking classes, yoga classes, pretty much everywhere one would want to go except the circus, airport, Angkor National Museum, and the temples is within walking distance if you choose your accommodation wisely.
Going to a nightclub packed with locals is an experience worth having – we did it in Phnom Penh – but it’s a quick reminder that women who don’t live out of backpacks wear high heels when they go out at night. When drunk people dance in high heels, they inevitably step on nearby feet. And if you live out of a backpack, going out almost certainly entails wearing sandals. Which means those high heels can leave pockmarks on the tops of your feet. Not only is partying with backpackers safer for those wearing open shoes, it’s a damn good time. Travellers don’t generally know – or care – what day of the week it is so every night in Siem Reap is Saturday night. Bars and clubs overflow with backpackers letting loose, taking advantage of happy hours and cheap drinks, dancing to music with lyrics we can recognize.
With the notable exception of our time on Utila, Jen and I don’t often participate in the backpacker party scene. Conversation usually ranks higher in our list of priorities than sweating with strangers in a smoke-filled bar so we’re more likely to have a few drinks with a small group somewhere quiet. But in a town with neon signs pointing people to Pub Street, it’s a shame to not let yourself be swept up in the party at least once.
We spent seven nights in Siem Reap and didn’t fit in everything we wanted to do. Yes, the city is overrun with tourists and people trying to sell anything and everything to them. It’s littered with shops and restaurants aimed at tourist dollars. But if you look around, you’ll find local markets and eateries plus plenty of people simply living their daily lives. With a smiling “no, thank you” in Khmer to most tuk-tuk drivers and shop personnel, we found that most back off quickly. Siem Reap is an easy place to pass the days and if I ever get the chance, I might find myself doing so once more.