Blog Cambodia Reflections

Uncovering Siem Reap’s Secrets: A Cambodian Adventure

Last March, I took my 11, 12 and 14 year old children to Southeast Asia for 17 days. We went to Phuket, Chiang Mai and Bangkok in Thailand. Afterwards, we spent a few days in Siem Reap in Cambodia and took a three day cruise along the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Essentially, I planned this holiday to make sure that we hit as many “highlights” in this region as I could fit. For me, that meant spending time on the beaches in Phuket and with elephants in Chiang Mai. I wanted to experience the cosmopolitan life of Bangkok and witness the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. Finally, I hoped to witness jungle and authentic living of the Vietnamese along the Mekong Delta.

 

Siem Reap

A day with the elephants in Chiang Mai

 

Elephant owner for the day in Thailand

 

It is so interesting how wrong certain of my expectations were. The cruise along the Mekong Delta was disappointing. There was hardly any jungle or Vietnamese living a traditional lifestyle along its shores. Evidence of industry and modernization were visible most everywhere we looked. It was hard to lose oneself in a feeling of remoteness or timelessness. Even though I wanted to visit Bangkok, I was a little nervous going there with my children. I heard the traffic was crazy and dangerous, and the underworld of sexual depravity and child exploitation would be commonplace. But, I was wrong. Well, the traffic was a little crazy. However, it was an amazing, thriving, exciting city that was sophisticated in some places but still felt very traditional in others. When not in a tuk-tuk being driven by a maniac, I felt very safe there and would love to return one day.

However,  Siem Reap in Cambodia was my biggest surprise. I had very little expectations of the city as a whole. I was very excited to see Angkor Wat and enjoyed exploring its grounds. However, over four days, I fell in love with Siem Reap.

 

Ancient temples in Siem Reap

Ta Prohm in Siem Reap (Florian Hahn Photographer)

 

Why? 

This is the question. Why? Cambodia is a very poor country. Siem Reap is landlocked and it was brutally hot and dry when we were there. The roads were barely paved. Consequently, it was dusty and in many places, very stark. I think it is hard to grow things there without a lot of effort.

But, it was my favourite place on this holiday for many reasons. Here is a list of Siem Reap’s secrets for you to discover.

 

1. Siem Reap has it all

Siem Reap provided a microcosm into Cambodian life without sacrificing a strong tourism infrastructure. There were beautiful hotels, restaurants and shops scattered in the main tourist corridor that would make any type of traveller happy. However, a few blocks away, there were busy streets with Cambodians going about their day to day lives. Food stands, shops catering to locals’ needs, vegetable and fruit markets, and motorcycle repair shops lined the streets. I loved watching the ebb and flow of everyday life – the blend of traditional living with nods to modern life.

We headed a few more miles away, and we were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by farm land for as far as you could see.  Cars and motorcycles were replaced by horses and oxen pulling carts, or people stacked onto bikes precariously pedalling by. Cows and water buffalo casually existed side by side with locals. This transformation from sophisticated hotels and restaurants to rural life happened within a 15 minute drive from start to finish.

 

2. Angkor Rural Boutique Resort

We stayed at one of my favourite hotels of all time. Angkor Rural Boutique Resort was not in the tourist centre of Siem Reap. Instead, it was about a 15 minute drive away, nestled amongst farm land and rice paddy fields.

It was very small. There was a handful of bungalows scattered about the property, a small pool, and a little restaurant. Each bungalow was large, filled with beautiful traditional furniture, comfortable beds, and a luxurious modern bathroom. We also had a small deck and an outdoor jacuzzi.

 

The pool, lounge chairs, and a couple of the bungalows at the hotel in Siem Reap.

The pool, lounge chairs, and a couple of the bungalows at the hotel.

 

It felt authentic

There were many things that made this place special to me. I loved being surrounded by authentic rural living. As I said, the hotel was very small. I could walk from one end of the property to the other in around 3 minutes. However, beyond the walls of the property was a small village, a local store, and lots of farm land and rice paddy fields. I felt like I was part of the community. I was able to watch the traditional lives of the locals by sharing their space and yet, I didn’t feel like I was interfering with them.

 

Our hotel in Siem Reap

One side of the hotel property with a view to farmland and local houses.

 

As a tourist, I often feel like my presence in a traditional community is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that I am spending money on food, housing, or tours and therefore, helping the community prosper. The curse is that my mere presence changes the focus of the community. They give up their normal schedule or traditional way of doing things to cater to me, the tourist. But here, I didn’t feel like anyone was taking any notice of us and I liked that.

 

The Food and Service

The food was unbelievable. Everything was exceptionally fresh and the flavours were unlike anything that I have ever eaten in North America. They grew a lot of their own food or purchased the ingredients mere hours before a meal was prepared.

The staff was small, but they were very kind and helpful. One night, they surprised us with dinner in the garden. They hung lights around us and we had our own disc jockey who played music while we danced. On another night, we had a cooking lesson with the owner and the chef. We were taught family recipes that I wish we had written down.

 

Juliet waiting for our cooking lesson in Siem Reap.

Juliet waiting for our cooking lesson.

 

Included in the cost of our stay was airport pick up and drop off, massages, and our own car and driver in the late afternoon/evening so that we could spend time in downtown Siem Reap. We loved having the car and driver. We never felt like we were giving up access to the trendy bars, restaurants and shops in town by staying in a remote part of Siem Reap.

All of this was offered for a little more than 100 USD per night per bungalow. It was amazing.

 

3.  The Temples

Most people come to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat which is a temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world. We had a tour of it and it was extraordinary. However, what I wasn’t prepared for was how many other temples exist in and around Siem Reap and how remarkable they were. We only saw a few others, which included Bayon and Ta Prohm, but I understand there are dozens of temples to explore. The ones we saw were well preserved and showed phenomenal craftsmanship.

 

Siem Reap

Angkor Wat – Cristian Moscoso Photographer

 

 

Ancient Temples in Siem Reap

Having a little fun at Bayon in Siem Reap

 

Ancient Temples in Siem Reap

 

We had a fantastic full day tour of these temples which included a large air conditioned van, a driver, guide, and cold bottled water as needed for only a couple hundred dollars. I don’t remember the name of the company that we used (this was before I started my blog and I wasn’t keeping track of this information), but there were a number of companies offering similar tours for the same cost. I found ours on TripAdvisor.

 

4.  Cambodia Quad Bike

A highlight of our stay in Siem Reap was a three hour ATV tour of the countryside offered by Cambodia Quad Bike. Even though my children were only 11, 12 and 14 years old, they were each given their own ATV to drive. I was a little apprehensive about my youngest driving alone, so another guide sat with her and helped her out.

This tour was one of the funnest we have ever taken. We drove along country roads and dirt paths that barely had any cars. Several times, we ended up in wide open fields where we sped around without worrying about pedestrians, motorcycles or stray animals. We visited small modern temples and corner stores, and were able to fully take in the dry, stark nature of the countryside. By the end, we were covered in sweat and dirt, and wanted to do it all again.

 

ATV tour outside Siem Reap

Exploring local temples on our ATV tour

 

ATV tour in Siem Reap

Taking a break from the hot sun and dust on our ATV tour.

 

After ATVs in Siem Reap

I’m a little dirty after our ATV tour of the countryside!

 

5.  Shopping

There isn’t a shortage of shopping in Southeast Asia. On the contrary, you could probably spend all day every day shopping in certain towns and cities. However, I felt that in Thailand, the same products were offered again and again no matter what city, town or market we were in.

Siem Reap was different. There were a lot of shops offering unique sophisticated crafts and original art. It was refreshing exploring the different stores and their goods, and witnessing some extraordinary craftsmanship.

 

Conclusion

Siem Reap is a city that I would definitely recommend adding to your itinerary on a visit to Southeast Asia. It offers you an opportunity to see traditional living, without sacrificing modern and luxury conveniences. There is a strong tourism industry which allows for both interesting and exciting tours, fantastic hotels, and terrific shopping. The food is absolutely delicious and the service is excellent. Angkor Wat and the other temples were fascinating to see and explore. Best of all, it was very inexpensive for comparable products and services in North America.

In only four days, we uncovered these hidden gems. I know there must be more. Do you have any?

If you would like to save this article for future use, please click on the Save button on the photo below.

Siem Reap was my favourite city in Southeast Asia. It had beautiful hotels, delicious food and amazing service. We enjoyed exploring Angkor Wat and was surprised by all the other ancient temples around that were also fascinating to visit. The shopping was great and the tours we took were exceptional. The best was an ATV tour of the countryside.



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8 Comments

  • Reply
    Wendy Maes
    October 21, 2017 at 8:14 am

    Looks like you had a wanderful time. We are heading to Singapore and Bali in 6 days. If the vulcano in Bali doens’t go to sleep, we might change plans and go to Cambodia. #WeekendWanderlust #Travel

    • Reply
      nlhunter
      October 21, 2017 at 5:19 pm

      I heard the beaches in Cambodia are phenomenal too. I just read that it used to be very difficult to get to them without a long drive from Phnom Penh. I think you can fly direct from Ho Chi Minh City to some beautiful beaches if you want to compliment a visit to Siem Reap with some beach time. Have a great trip!

  • Reply
    tracy collins
    October 22, 2017 at 6:22 am

    My daughter visited Cambodia this last summer and loved it – the beaches and of course Siem Reap. We missed it off our itinerary and spent more time in Bangkok than I would have liked (I didn’t like it but then food poisoning for the entire time didn’t help!) Next time – Siem reap for sure!!! #weekendwanderlust

    • Reply
      nlhunter
      October 22, 2017 at 4:36 pm

      As soon as I read “food poisoning”, my heart went out to you. How awful! Anyways, I hope you get to Cambodia before it changes too much from tourism.

  • Reply
    Yasmin (@babaeh_travel)
    October 22, 2017 at 6:38 pm

    Such an adventurous trip to Asia! I have been to Siem Reap myself 7 years ago. I guess it must have changed a lot in the last years. As I now have two small kids, I am wondering – would you recommend to go there with smaller kids (<4 years)?

    • Reply
      nlhunter
      October 22, 2017 at 6:48 pm

      Hi Yasmin! I am not sure whether this would be the right place for really little ones, especially if it is as hot as it was when we were there in March. The kids will likely only want to be in the pool! My kids struggled with the heat when we went to see the temples and they were a lot older. I think that they could sit on the ATVs with you (but you would need to double check that) and I’m sure that they would love that. Would they be engaged with a cooking lesson? My gut says to wait a few more years and then, I think all of you would have a better time.

  • Reply
    Rob+Ann @TravelLatte(.net)
    October 25, 2017 at 1:56 am

    What fun! Glad you found Siem Reap better than expected, but too bad to hear about the Mekong cruise. We’re considering a cruise there also, so we’ll ask about the development of the area. The quad runners look like loads of fun! Would love to do that, and the cooking class. (Yes, the eating, too!) Thanks for sharing on #WeekendWanderlust!
    Rob+Ann @TravelLatte(.net) recently posted…Favorite Travel Quotes: How Much I Haven’t SeenMy Profile

    • Reply
      nlhunter
      October 25, 2017 at 3:26 pm

      I think where you cruise in Vietnam is super important for your experience. We took the Mekong Eyes (a beautiful boat) from a spot a couple hours drive away from Ho Minh City. I think if you head to a more remote part of Vietnam, you will have a more authentic experience. Have fun!

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