You’re in Siem Reap, so there’s no doubt you’ve already planned on touring the nearby ancient temples. But what else is there to do in this inspiring city? The short answer is plenty.
After booking a river cruise through the Mekong Delta, I decided to plan a few extra days in our departure port, Siem Reap. Short on vacation time, I allotted only two full days here. Aside from the obvious—a one-day visit to the majestic Angkor Wat—I didn’t know how we would spend the rest of our time.
I began surfing the net and planning the perfect jam-packed itinerary for our extra day. And packed it was. Here’s how to spend a day so crammed with fun you won’t want it to end.
Before You Go
One of the best things about traveling to Southeast Asia is that your money stretches a lot further than it does in North America or Europe. You can get five-star accommodations for under $100 a night. And they often come with a few added-value extras, like free dinners, cultural shows, and massages. The biggest challenge will be choosing one—so many sound amazing.
My recommendation for luxury accommodations is the Golden Temple Residence. I took a chance and booked this brand-new hotel while it was still in construction. And boy did I luck out. Within its first year of operations, it was one of TripAdvisor’s top two hotels in Siem Reap. Not only is it beautiful, it’s located only a few steps from main the attractions, such as the night markets and Pub Street. And the staff are eager to help make your visit the best you’ve had at any hotel.
In fact, a few months before our vacation, I emailed the hotel with some questions about area activities. Before I knew it, they requested a list of the things I wanted to do while I was in Siem Reap so they could put together an appropriate itinerary for me. Aside from researching the activities, I didn’t have to lift a finger. Upon arrival, they handed us a schedule of events. It was that simple.
Our day started bright and early at around 7:30 a.m. We had a wonderful breakfast right at our hotel, which was included at no extra charge. While there was a buffet-style selection of pastries, meats, and every fruit you could imagine—and many others that were new to me—you could also choose from a made-to-order menu.
After breakfast, we met with the sous chef, who took us on a private tour of the local market. We’d signed up for a Cambodian cooking class later in the day, and this was part of the deal. The idea being that you shop for all of the fresh ingredients needed to make your meal.
By 8:30 a.m. we’d boarded a tuk tuk for the quick ride to the Phsar Chas, or the Old Market. Whipping through the side streets, we arrived about five minutes later. And just when we thought our morning couldn’t get more chaotic than the ride over, we entered the hustle and bustle of the active marketplace.
Though there are many stalls geared toward tourists, much of the market caters to locals. They come here to buy fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and breads for their meals. It’s not quite like anything you’ll find in North America—not by a long shot. Women sit barefoot on the floor, gutting fish or preparing meals. Poultry and beef are exposed to the elements, no refrigeration to be found. Love it or hate it, the sights, sounds, and aromas are spectacular scene.
Be prepared. It’s dark, crowded, and stinking hot inside the market. But it’s something everyone should experience, especially at this early hour. As we made our way through the narrow aisles, our chef guide pointed out local delicacies and gave us samples of exotic foods to taste.
Pro tip: It’s extremely easy to get turned around once you’ve walked down a few of the market aisles. Pay careful attention to the route you take and where you enter the market so you can find your way back.
After about an hour, we returned to the hotel, where the reception staff greeted us with cool cloths and a glass of water. You’ll sweat buckets in Siem Reap. It’s important to hydrate often, and since it’s not reasonable to shower every time you return to the hotel, the cloths are a nice way to freshen up.
Since there’s no rest for the weary, we turned right back around and started walking toward the market area. We decided to skip the tuk tuk to get a closer look at the local life. Our hotel was only about a 15-minute stroll to the central area, and while it was hotter than Hades, it was worth the trip.
In the area surrounding the Old Market, you’ll find plenty to do. There are shops of every kind. Whether you’re looking for standard souvenirs, like shot glasses, magnets, and key chains, or high-end fashions, including hand-woven silk scarves, you’ll find lots of ways to spend your money. We picked up a few cheap trinkets for friends, and I bartered for a pair of harem pants and two tanks. The grand total was $7.
Pro tip: Pack light if you’re traveling to Siem Reap. Everything is so cheap you can buy just about anything you’ll need upon arrival. And if you don’t want it at the end of your trip, you can donate it to the locals.
There are so many side streets and back lanes that it’s hard to keep them all straight, especially since they expand randomly in various directions. One you don’t want to miss is Alley West. It’s at the end of Sivutha Boulevard, and whether you’re looking for it or not, you’ll likely stumble upon it if you wander around enough. You’ll know it immediately by its upscale boutiques that have a less touristy feel. There are also cute street cafés, jewelry shops, art galleries, and more. Some favorite boutiques to check out include Wanderlust, Wild Poppy, and Poetry.
One of my favorite shops in Siem Reap was Old Forest. It’s filled with hand-sewn treasures and whimsical costume jewelry. I picked up a beautiful blouse made from a hand-stamped fabric. Unlike other parts of Siem Reap, it will cost you a pretty penny to shop at the higher-end boutiques. I paid about $70 for my one-of-a-kind find.
After an hour or two of walking around the Old Market area, we ventured a little farther off the beaten path toward the water. If you cross one of the bridges over the Siem Reap River, you can check out the market on the other side. It won’t have anything different to offer than Phsar Chas, but it’s worth checking out anyway.
I picked up some wooden mala beads for $7 from one of the vendors, and since fewer people hit up this area, I think it made the woman’s day to have a sale. I think I way overpaid by local standards, but the prices are so low to start with, I felt like a thief going any lower. I would have paid at least five times as much back home.
By now, you’ll be a hot, sweaty mess. You’ll likely also be a little bit hungry and a whole lot thirsty. Since we had scheduled a cooking class later that afternoon, we decided to head back to the hotel for a dip in the pool, but you could also head toward the main market area for a bite to eat. You may want to try Khmer Kitchen. It’s got a great selection of local delicacies, is easy to find, and is highly recommended by both tourists and locals alike.
By the time 2 p.m. rolled around, I was so hungry I could eat a horse (which is saying a lot since I haven’t eaten red meat in more than 20 years). That’s when our cooking class commenced. I wasn’t really sure what to expect since the hotel was so new that it didn’t have any detailed information on the website. In fact, in retrospect, I think we may have been the first people to take the class.
The class took place in dining room at the Golden Temple Residence, and we were the only two people in it. We arrived to find a table set with knives, bowls, aprons, and all of the ingredients we’d purchased at the market earlier that day. And the entire restaurant staff was there to greet us. They gave us hats to wear and took our pictures as the chef showed us exactly what to do. The hotel had given us the choice of two appetizers, three entrés, and two desserts to choose from a few weeks before we arrived, so we knew exactly what we would be making.
Pro tip: If you have special dietary needs, they are more than willing to accommodate. Since all of the meal choices included red meat, they were happy to offer a poultry selection when I let them know my situation. As well, I’m allergic to coconut, so they modified the dessert menu especially for me.
After about two hours of chopping, rolling, dicing, and frying, our meal was complete. I’m the worst cook in the world, but even I managed to prepare a gourmet meal that was to die for. While everything was wonderful, the class itself was a little long. If I thought I was hungry when we started, I was about ready to pass out by the time we got to eat. Still, I would do it again in a heartbeat. The meal was the most delicious I’ve ever had, and we were stuffed full for the rest of the evening.
After eating a huge meal, anyone would be ready for a nap, but when you only have one day to experience Siem Reap, there’s no time for rest. We wolfed down our meals and ran upstairs to change for our next activity. A tuk tuk was arriving at 4:30 p.m. to take us to a sunset ATV tour.
My husband loves off roading, but I’m not super adventurous. Still, I decided to surprise him with an ATV trek through the rice paddies. Our hotel made all of the arrangements with a company called Quad Adventure Cambodia. I’d read all about them online and knew they were both safe and reliable. They also catered to beginner drivers, like me.
Since it was just the two of us on the tour with a local guide, we could go as fast or slow as we wanted. But once I got the hang of things, I knew the faster I went, the more we’d get to see. The terrain was easy to manage since Siem Reap is pretty flat. We sped through rice fields and past small villages. We got to see a side of the area we wouldn’t have been able to see any other way.
After a half hour or so, we stopped at a Buddhist temple. It’s peaceful serenity was one of my favorite experiences. We watched young monks play and wandered around the site for a few minutes. The pace of the entire tour was at our leisure, and while we didn’t want to dally and miss out on other stops, we also wanted to enjoy the moment. We spent about 15 minutes here before carrying on with our adventure.
For the next hour and a half, we trekked through the countryside along gravel roads and grassy fields. We saw locals fishing, herding cattle, and tending to their homes. The tour culminated in a roadside stop to watch the sunset. It was a highlight of our entire Southeast Asia adventure. But our day was still far from over.
Bellies still bursting from our self-made meal, we decided to skip dinner and instead take the time to rest for an hour before our scheduled massages. The hotel provided one free massage per person with our stay, and we thought a great time to take them would be after we’d beat up our bodies on the ATV tour. We’d opted for the couples Thai massage, and we were thoroughly relaxed afterward. I felt like I was walking on clouds.
When we arrived back at the room, we found the hotel staff had been busy putting together a special surprise. I was celebrating a milestone birthday during our time in Cambodia, and they had decorated the room in honor of my special day. They even made me a cake.
We enjoyed a slice of cake and decided our night still wasn’t over. We opted to go for one last stroll along Pub Street. The night markets are a must-see when you’re in Siem Reap, and seeing as though they were right outside our door, we simply couldn’t resist.
By this time, we’d been on the go for more than 14 hours, so we weren’t out long. We grabbed a quick snack from Blue Pumpkin and looked at a few different vendors. It was all of the same kitschy stuff we’d seen earlier in the day, but now we were seeing it in a new light—literally, it was quite dark outside. The streets come alive when the lights go down. Music pumps through the speakers of local pubs, and tuk tuk drivers stand on every corner waiting to whisk you off to the next party.
But there woud be no partying for us. After an hour or so, the night was wearing on us. We finally decided to call it a day. We needed to be up before sunrise the next morning to explore the temples of Angkor Wat, so we headed back to the hotel and crawled into bed. It had been the ultimate day in Siem Reap.
How would you spend the perfect day in Siem Reap? Join the discussion at the Wanderlust Wayfarer Facebook group.