Siem Reap: More than Angkor Wat

We flew from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia on Air Asia. The flight and the trip to the airport were both pretty uneventful and the flight is only about an hour. From what I have heard from other travelers, we made the right choice in flying as it sounds like the border crossing can get a bit messy. We were able to get visas on arrival in Cambodia for $30 (bring a passport photo). We changed some money at the bureau de change at the airport but then realized that pretty much everywhere, at least in Siem Reap, not only took U.S. Dollars but actually preferred them to Cambodian Riels. At an exchange rate of approximately 4000:$1, this made things much easier. Interestingly enough, when I went to the ATM in Siem Reap I actually got Dollars instead of Riels.

Since it was already late afternoon, we decided to wait until the next day to start on temples. The Angkor National Museum is a great place to start a trip since it contains a lot of great information on the temples and the Khmer Empire that built them hundreds of years ago. This museum contains information and artifacts about great kings and builders, as well as information about the religious (Buddhist and Hindu) aspects of these temples. It was great to have this information so that we had a little bit of an idea what to look out at the temples, and some of the stories and meanings behind the symbolism and art.

While Angkor Wat is the biggest and most well-known there are dozens of other ancient temples just in the Siem Reap area, and still more throughout the country. These temples are all accessible with one pass, which you can buy for one day, three days, or seven days. It doesn’t matter how many temples you actually see, the price is the same. There is no ticket just for Angkor Wat or any other individual temple. Since we were only in Siem Reap for three days, we stayed with temples in the immediate area (within 15 kilometers of the city).

In addition to the nightlife on Pub Street, another fun place in Siem Reap is the night market. Here, the restaurants and spa services tend to be a little bit cheaper. This is also a great place for not only souvenirs but also clothing and other gift items.

Pub Street
Pub Street

Siem Reap reminded me a lot of Livingstone, Zambia. Both are towns where the major economic driver is tourism to a major destination (Angkor Wat and Victoria Falls, respectively). Around these keystone destinations, a huge support industry has sprung up: hotels, restaurants, tour companies, and transportation. Like Livingstone, Siem Reap has seen phenomenal growth in the past 10 years, especially in hotels and restaurants. Especially in hotels, there is a wide range of market positions: everything from high-end luxury hotels to low-cost hostels for backpackers. Siem Reap has one street aimed at these backpackers and other tourists, the “Pub Street,” which offers a variety of restaurants and bars, many of which serve Western food. While I did not get a chance to travel around the rest of Cambodia, my guess is like the rest of Zambia, it is very different from Siem Reap or Livingstone. Like Livingstone, there are a number of “tourist” markets hawking the usual items, along with a number of roving salespeople with a motley assortment of goods; though the vendors in Cambodia were more aggressive.

In fact, these pushy salespeople are one of the only things I could find to complain about in Cambodia. Beggars are also a problem, especially in areas where there are a lot of tourists like Pub Street. It is sad to see these people, often children, begging for food or money. It did seem like there were quite a few hospitality training programs in place for orphans and former street kids, including several restaurants that allow young people a chance to learn a skill that is in demand in Siem Reap. Siem Reap was a great town, and the Cambodian people we met along the way were unfailingly friendly and helpful. Cambodia is a country that has had more than its share of troubles, but the perseverance and spirit of the Cambodian people is unmatched.