Destination of the Week: Siem Reap, Cambodia
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For today’s Destination of the Week, we’re heading to an increasingly busy town that is known as the gateway to Cambodia’s Angkor complex of temples, where colonial and Chinese-style architecture fills the streets, rice paddies dot the nearby countryside, and the range of visitors varies from backpackers on a shoestring to tourist-filled megabuses to ultra-rich jetsetters looking for a bit of history and culture. We’re heading to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
You might have noticed TPG Managing Editor Eric Rosen’s posts from there earlier this week if you follow him on Twitter or Instagram since he was there as part of his month-long trip to Southeast Asia, so Team TPG decided to pool their tips on Siem Reap and Angkor Wat including TPG’s own experiences there last year for this week’s destination.
WHAT TO DO
Siem Reap means the “Siam defeated,” and refers to the centuries-old conflict between the Siamese (now known as Thai) and Khmer peoples. Despite its confrontational name and troubled history during the brutal Khmer Rouge Regime, the region is actually a peaceful place nowadays and the relative political stability of recent years has boosted the tourism industry in the region since the mid-1990s from thousands into millions of tourists annually.
Siem Reap today is virtually unrecognizable from a decade or two ago, when it was still a bit of a sleepy backwater. These days, you’ll find construction everywhere, traffic jams, hordes of tourists crowding the restaurants and markets, and huge groups of visitors descending on the nearby Angkor national park every day.
It is a vibrant if chaotic town that boasts some beautiful resorts with easy access to the heritage sites of the Angkor temples and other cultural attractions, but it also has some of its own charms.
Siem Reap itself is a collection of villages along the banks of the Siem Reap River leading to Tonle Sap Lake, and there are lots of colorful things to see there.
While beyond the city limits jungles and rice paddies abound, within Siem Reap people-watching is a fascinating activity.
Where to Eat
Pub Street is a popular spot to grab cheap beer or traditional grub such as crispy fried insects, amok fish stew, lok lak seasoned beef and various rice and noodle dishes.
The Old Market, also known as Psah Chas, is crowded with stalls selling all manner of souvenirs and even stranger food items. You can go in the day from 5 am-6 pm, or visit the night market from 4 pm-midnight. These days there’s a lot of schlock, but you might still be able to spot a find or two amid the stalls.
If you would rather sit down in a civilized restaurant to enjoy your meal, Touich is a perennial favorite since the cuisine is fresh and feels authentically Cambodian, but presented very nicely. Try the Beef Battambang starter and Chicken with Pineapple, which are both spiced to perfection. Another great spot within walking distance of all the fun bars is Khmer Kitchen, specializing in Cambodian barbeque and noodle dishes (each for about $4) such as Lok Lak Beef and Spicy Sour Soup. Dinner for two including Angkor beer rarely gets above $12.
Another great spot to try lok lak is Chanrey Tree on the banks of the Siem Reap River. There is a delightful open-air dining room set in the ground-floor garden as well as an air-conditioned second-floor dining room.
Over on the other side of the river, Viroth’s is another upscale dining experience with tables arranged on individual decks in a tranquil garden, and if you have a hankering for Thai, you’ll find Chivit Thai just down the street.
Perhaps the most upscale option in town is Wat Damnak, hidden behind the temple it is named for, where French-born chef Joannes Riviere (who was formerly at the landmark Hotel de la Paix in town) whips up a prix-fixe tasting menu of Cambodian specialties with a European twist that changes every Tuesday.
Although it’s not hard to find a great bar to spend an evening enjoying cheap drinks right on Pub Street or Pub Street Alley a block away, those in the know (and plenty of expat locals) stop for a cocktail at the kitschy-cool Miss Wong, a Chinese lantern-lit bar off Pub Street where the (strong!) cocktails are mixed using house-infused spirits and specialties include the Lemongrass Collins with lemongrass-infused vodka, vanilla syrup and lime juice with a ginger ale float.
Though it’s fun to hang around Siem Reap – and you’re sure to meet lots of other travelers – the main allure of coming here is to venture out into the nearby countryside for its many cultural gems.
The first stop for most tourists is a tour of the temples at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, which was the capital of the Khmer empire, a kingdom that once covered parts of modern-day Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. A ticket into the park costs $20 per day or $40 for three days, and you can purchase on on your way into the park via car or tuk tuk. Many tours include the ticket price in the cost.
Speaking of tours, hotels will arrange them for you, though you’ll often pay a premium and have no way of vetting the guide. While some hotels like La Residence and Amansara (see below) work with specific companies, many guides are simply government-certified young people who can speak your language and have completed basic courses on Angkor’s history, so it’s a very mixed bag and word of mouth is the best way to find a guide.
If you have friends who have gone, ask them if they liked their guide or tour company, and then book from there – for instance a friend of TPG’s suggested Hidden Cambodia Adventure Tours, who run tours of Angkor but also adventure and other experiences all over the country.
Many of the hotels can arrange tours to the temples by tuk-tuk (motorcycle with carriage attached) or car, you’ll often pay a premium, so if you want a comprehensive experience, you might as well hire a private company such as Peace of Angkor Tours and get the most for your money.
The temple complexes cover huge amounts of land, though most tours focus on a few well-worn sites. The best-known of these temples is the spectacular Angkor Wat, a well-preserved 12th-century temple complex (the largest religious structure in the world to this day thanks to huge surrounding walls), whose distinctive lotus-shaped stone towers are synonymous with exotic travel and faded bygone glory.
Tourists flock here, especially at sunrise when it does get very crowded, to capture the magical light as the sun illuminate the vast structure and its reflecting pond. Be warned however, that once you walk through the temple, there’s not a whole lot to do, although the sculptures and bas reliefs depicting Hindu myths and deities are stunning in their detail and scope – having a great guide will make a huge difference to your experience. Another key thing to do is to go up to the third level which gives a bird’s-eye view of the temple grounds and holds a couple unique shrines.
At nearby Angkor Thom you can explore the towering Bayon Temple, which was built as a Buddhist shrine (most of the temples at Angkor were Hindu) and has many dozens of beatific faces of Buddha set into the stone structure. A little to the north, Ta Promh, which was immortalized in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, known for the huge trees that are growing through the temples, creating a spooky, mystical atmosphere. Even though the trees are technically destroying the temples slowly, it’s an amazing sight to see. If you want to see a more rustic collection of artifacts, visit the 900-year-old Beng Mealea, which would challenge even Indiana Jones’ expedition skills due to the overgrowing jungle; while the hike up to the ruins at Phnom Bakheng – among the oldest in the region – has the best views of Angkor Wat at sunset.
One of the more unique tourist attractions that TPG enjoyed on his visit is a military training camp where you can shoot a number of powerful guns that were once used by the Khmer Republic to fight against the Khmer Rouge. The high-powered weaponry includes M18 automatic, M16 and AK47, and while it is a huge rush to fire off rounds from them, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who has never shot a gun before as there is very little instruction and it is expensive at $50 per gun. A more leisurely activity is hot air ballooning, which is $15 for 20 minutes and it does provide pretty nice views of Angkor Wat.
If you would rather stay on solid ground, you can take in the scenery on horseback There are a number of riding tours available, such as from the Happy Ranch Horse Farm, ranging from one to three hours, from sunrise to sunset, and they have horses suitable for everyone from first-time riders through to advanced. The advantage of a trail ride is that you get to see parts of the landscape not accessible by car, such as local countryside villages and scenic rice fields away from crowds of tourists – and you can’t beat the unspoiled view from the saddle! Rides range from $25-56 and they only accept cash.
Another unique way to get out and explore the area is by quad bike with Trails of Indochina. Half-day tours start at $90 and full days are $165 per person and a guide on motorbike teaches you to drive a quad bike (which is fun in and of itself) then leads you through the villages and backroads surrounding Siem Reap to see local life at its most basic. It’s a truly eye-opening if not exactly low-impact experience and one that puts the rest of your Cambodian experience in perspective.
To get another perspective of the dark times from which the country has only recently emerged, you can also visit the harrowing Cambodian Land Mine Museum and School started by a former child soldier, Aki Ra, about 30 minutes outside town to learn about the devastating rule of the Khmer Rouge and the civil war that racked the country.
Another area of natural beauty is Tonlé Sap Great Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and the source for much of Cambodia’s food economy thanks to fishing and rice irrigation. Along with its size and abundance of fish, the other thing unusual about Tonlé Sap is that the flow changes direction twice a year, and the lake grows and shrinks dramatically between the seasons. A good way to understand the anomaly is a boat tour through the flooded forests around the village of Kampong Phluk (meaning Harbor Of The Tusks), where because the area is submerged for half the year, the trees have to had to adapt to become part of the ecosystem. There is a toll fee of around $12-20 to enter the area.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
The main entryway is the Siem Reap International Airport, which is the busiest airport in Cambodia in terms of passenger traffic, and recent renovations have greatly improved both the arrivals and departures areas. The majority of flights come in from Bangkok, but there are also arrivals from Singapore on Silk Air (part of Singapore), Kuala Lumpur (on Malaysia Airlines or Air Asia), Seoul (on Korean Air), China Southern from Guangzhou, and Ho Chi Minh City (on Vietnam Airlines), Dragonair (part of Cathay Pacific) from Hong Kong, or you can fly from Phnom Penh via Cambodia Angkor Air – or just stop in Phnom Penh, which is 198 miles away. Buses from there take 5.5 hours and cost $11 on the Mekong Express and $9 on the Hour Sokka.
If you choose to fly into Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, there is only one terminal building for both domestic and international flights, but it is enormous (by some measures the world’s largest), so allow time for getting to or from your gate and immigration and customs processing can take a while. Travel time to Bangkok is about 17 hours from the West Coast, 22 hours from Chicago and 20 hours from the East Coast of the US. Every alliance is well represented here including Oneworld with Cathay Pacific, British Airways and Qantas; SkyTeam with KLM, Korean Air and Air France; and Star Alliance with Thai Airways (of course), United, Singapore, Asiana, ANA and Air China.
From Bangkok there are a number of flights to Siem Reap on Bangkok Airways – although they tend to be expensive – or if you are feeling adventurous you can take a bus, such as the new direct route by the Thai Government-run Transport Co. for $28.
If you want to fly via Singapore, there are plenty of options on Star Alliance partners especially as Singapore Airlines is one of the more comfortable flights out there (even in coach) and goes more or less direct, with brief layovers in cities like Frankfurt or Tokyo, Hong Kong and Seoul, from five U.S. cities: New York, Newark, Houston, San Francisco and LA. There’s also United from Chicago, Newark, and Washington Dulles; Emirates via Dubai; Lufthansa; Cathay Pacific; Asiana; Air China; EVA Air; THAI Airways; and Turkish Airlines, among others.
For Oneworld, Japan Airlines connects via Tokyo to Boston, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and San Diego. You also have Cathy Pacific, which connects through Hong Kong. Malaysia Airlines and Qantas are two more options.
In SkyTeam, Delta connects via Tokyo from a number of U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Also, China Airlines, China Eastern, and China Southern, plus Korean Air, Czech Airlines, and KLM have regular flights there.
You do need a visa to visit Cambodia, but if you arrive by air in Siem Reap, you can purchase one for $20 cash (in US dollars, which is the main currency used here) when you arrive and it’s processed in minutes. Just be sure you have an empty page in your passport and that it’s good for at least 6 months after your date of entry.
Thanks to rampant recent development, there are more hotels than ever to put your points to use or to earn valuable benefits thanks to your credit cards at hotels all over the area.
Park Hyatt Siem Reap: This new hotel took over the landmark Hotel de la Paix and reopened earlier this year as a Park Hyatt. Located right in the heart of town a short walk from the river and the Old Market, the Park Hyatt is comprised of 108 hotel rooms and suites. Guests can enjoy Italian marble and dual vanity bathrooms, and there is a Nespresso machine in every room as well as fresh fruit every day. The rooms also come with air conditioning and complimentary WiFi. Relaxation comes easy at the spa, and there is an all-new fitness center and a meandering pool with shaded terraces for a respite from the heat of the day. Guests can also enjoy dining at the three restaurants, The Dining Room, The Living Room, and The Glasshouse Deli. Stay tuned for TPG Managing Editor Eric’s review of his stay at the Siem Reap Park Hyatt coming soon. Room rates start at $228.75 per night in November. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 15,000 Hyatt Gold Passport Points for an award night.
Le Meriden Angkor: This hotel is located 14 miles from the airport and on the way from town to the temples in Angkor. Each Khmer fusion-inspired room offers a pillow top mattress, ceiling fan, aromatherapy oil, bathrobe/slippers and DVD players. WiFi costs $15 per day in the guestrooms. There is a beautiful pool area and a fitness center, as well as shopping within the hotel for traditional handmade Cambodian items. The Angkor spa offers a variety of treatments, both Eastern and Western. You can choose from several dining options, L’Angelo (Italian), Naga Bar, the Terrace, the Poolside Bar, Lobby Lounge, and the Angkor Royale Cafe. Room rates start at $145 per night in November. This is a Category 3 hotel requiring 7,000 Starwood Points for an award night. Check out TPG’s review of Le Meridien Angkor from his March 2012 trip here.
Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts
Fine Hotels & Resorts is a loyalty program for Amex Platinum cardholders who receive special benefits at participating hotels such as early check-in and late check-out, complimentary breakfast, room upgrades, and other perks.
Amansara Hotel: Located in Siem Reap, this hotel is just 10 minutes from the entrance to the Angkor temples. Designed by French architect Laurent Mondet, it has a real 1960’s feel to it. The Amansara has 24 suites that each offer complimentary WiFi, a king-sized bed, a large soaking tub, ceiling fans, and safes, plus 12 of the suites have small plunge pools within their courtyards. There is a dining room, a library, spa and one large pool within the resort. You can also shop at the gallery for handmade Cambodia items. Room rates start at approximately$1,000 per person per night in November.
La Residence d’Angkor: This hotel is located in the Siem Reap city center, right on the river bank, and though the area is busy, inside this sprawling compound, it’s all quiet tranquility in the lush gardens and by the deep blue pool. All 62 rooms and suites feature floor to ceiling windows, complimentary water, luxury toiletries, complimentary WiFi, fresh fruit and a private terrace. The Kong Kea spa features traditional Cambodian treatments and you can do yoga daily at 8 am. There is also a pool, shopping boutique and fitness center. Dining options include Circle, Ember, and the Martini Lounge. Room rates start at at $415 per night in November.
Raffles Grand Hotel: This 15-acre property is across from the Royal Palace in Siem Reap and has 119 rooms and suites, including two villas. All rooms and suites have 4-poster beds, a handmade silk bathrobe, coffee and tea machine, complimentary WiFi and a large working desk. Some rooms also have a private balcony. Visit the spa, the gym with sauna and steam room, the lap pool and several acres of landscaped gardens. There are several dining options including Restaurant Le Grand, The Wine Cellar, Cafe d’Angkor, Elephant Bar, Poolside Terrace, The Conservatory and Apsara Terrace. Room rates start at $325 per night in November.
Visa Signature Hotels
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, Chase Sapphire, Ink Bold, Ink Plus, British Airways Visa Signature Card, the Hyatt Credit Card, the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
Visa Signature Hotels in Siam Reap include the previously mentioned Amansara, L’Residence, Raffles and Park Hyatt Hotels. Additionally, the Heritage Hotel and the Sothea Hotel are also part of the Visa Signature program.
The Sofitel Angkor: This 238-room hotel is just a few miles from the Angkor Temples in Siem Reap. All rooms come with a safe, the Sofitel My Bed, wooden floors and a ceiling fan. WiFi is complimentary but note that only some of the rooms are non-smoking. The resort also has a golf course, however this is a 25-minute drive from the hotel itself. The Sofitel Angkor has the largest free-form swimming pool in Cambodia, in addition to a luxury spa and fitness center. There are three restaurants: the Citadel, W’s Pub and Mouhots Dream, and two bars: Explorer’s Tales and Serpent Bar. Room rates start at $271 per night in November.