Cambodia is a country in Southeast Asia best known for it’s temples and turbulent recent history. I just returned from a family trip to Cambodia where we decided to focus on the area surrounding the city of Siem Reap. Siem Reap is located in the northwestern portion of Cambodia, and is the gateway to the greater Angkor region, the former capital of the Khmer Empire. The temples of Angkor are surely the highlight of Siem Reap, but travelers would be missing out if they didn’t explore the city a little further. The people, food, markets, and surrounding area, made this a trip I’ll never forget. Here are five reasons you need to add Siem Reap to your bucket list of travel destinations!
1.) The Beautiful Temples Are A “Must See”
Most travelers visit Siem Reap for the flagship temple complex, Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is a massive temple complex that is the largest religious site in the world. Angkor Wat was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II as a Hindu temple, but transitioned to a Buddhist temple at the end of the 12th century. Angkor Wat has become the enduring symbol of Cambodia, and it appears on the country’s national flag.
Right next to Angkor Wat, visitors can explore smaller temples that are no less impressive. The most famous is The Bayon, a temple best known by the myriad of smiling stone faces that were sculpted onto the temple towers.
Ta Prohm is a temple located about 1km east of Angkor Wat. This temple is commonly referred to as the “Tomb Raider Temple”, as it was featured in the Tomb Raider movie starring Angelina Jolie. The most stunning feature of Ta Prohm is the number of trees and tree roots that have taken hold as part of the ruins.
Banteay Srei Temple
Banteay Srei is the only major temple in the Angkor complex that was not comissioned by a monarch. Instead, two courtiers that served as counsellors to the king had it built. Bantãy Srĕi translates to ‘citadel of the women’ or ‘citadel of beauty’, a nod to the detail and beauty of the relief carvings found throughout the temple.
The four temples I highlighted above just happened to be my favorite. There a many more temples in the Siem Reap area to explore and enjoy!
2.) The People Are Amazing Despite A Rough History
The people of Cambodia have been through very tough times in the last few decades. in 1975, The Khmer Rouge emerged victorious in the Cambodian civil war and began forcibly depopulating the county. This began the Cambodian genocide that killed upwards of 3 million people, nearly 25% of the country’s population. Cambodia has a struggling economy that generates a notable amount of revenue from tourism. Being based out of a tourist resort town like Siem Reap, you won’t see what life is like for most Cambodians. Keep this in mind when exploring the area. You may feel like the tuk-tuk drivers or street vendors are harassing you, but they are just hustling to make a living. Once you see that, you’ll realize that despite the relative struggle, the people of Siem Reap are usually very warm and friendly, especially to those traveling with children.
We partnered with Odynovo Tours for this trip, and they provided us with an amazing local guide and driver. Our guide, Sip, gave us all of the real highlights and history of the Siem Reap area, but also the honest and earnest truth when we asked questions. His humor had us laughing for hours each day, and he even helped with our son when he took off running around the temples.
After our days spent exploring the temples, we’d get dinner in Siem Reap and explore the local markets. Julia is much more of a shopper than I am, and she had a great time meeting locals selling their clothing and jewelry.
It seems that everywhere we went we were greeted with smiling faces and friendly people.
One of our favorite encounters was at Angkor Wat, where we met a young Buddhist offering blessings for a small donation. Just outside of Angkor Wat was a group dressed in traditional Khmer temple attire. My son was terrified by the man in the mask!
3.) The Food Is ‘Out Of This World’
The Cambodian (Khmer) food was one of my favorite parts of this trip. The combination of flavors, textures, and ingredients mirrors the cuisine from local neighbors Vietnam and Thailand. Rice, pork, freshwater fish, and a wide array of vegetables were staples of each meal. The food of Cambodia is one of the things I miss most now that I’m home!
4.) The Markets Come Alive At Night
The main downtown area of Siem Reap is known for it’s night markets and “Pub Street”. The city starts to come alive at sundown and the energy can really be felt as you walk around. Motorbikes and tuk-tuks canvas the roads, street food vendors offer juices, meats, and crepes, and all the alley stands open up to sell local crafts and wares.
As a traveler and photographer, I love the way markets allow me to interact with and observe people. People watching is one of the things I enjoy most about visiting a new area.
5.) Tonle Sap Lake Shows You A Different Side
The Tonle Sap Lake is a freshwater lake that is part of the Mekong River Basin. Tonle Sap has a wide range of biodiversity and has been a staple of sustenance to the Khmer people for centuries. The best way to see Tonle Sap is on a boat tour.
There are still many people that live full time on the lake and make their living doing it. Prepare to see a different side of life on Tonle Sap that will be in stark contrast to the hotels and resorts found in Siem Reap.
Tonle Sap is home to endangered crocodiles that can be seen at a few crocodile farms. The lake is also called home by a unique and wide range of birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles.
Bonus: Siem Reap Is A Phenomenal Location For Travelers With Kids
Cambodia was a phenomenal location to travel with a toddler. I add this as a ‘bonus’ addition because this point comes with a few caveats. The streets of Siem Reap can be dangerous to cross and walk around, the street food can give you food poisoning, the air quality is pretty poor, and the overall sanitation leaves a bit to be desired. If those things don’t scare you off as a parent, your kids will probably love Siem Reap. I know ours did!
Our 18 month old got to explore temples and see things that most only lay eyes on in books and magazines. He got to meet people from all over the world, and enjoy foods we can’t find at home.