Siem Reap has been overtaken by tourism. I felt the guilt of a privileged Westerner as I wandered around town camouflaged by crowds of fellow foreigners. Locals pushed massages, English menus, and Cambodian souvenirs from every direction. Chartered tour buses attempted down narrow dirt roads never intended for anything bigger than a tuk-tuk or motorbike. Perhaps I was aiding the economy by visiting? Or was I ruining the culture by encouraging locals to cater to outsiders? I debated these questions each time we left the tranquility of our resort to venture into town.
The tourism influx to Siem Reap over the last few decades is due to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Archaeological Park in its backyard. I’ll admit that prior to researching our trip I envisioned a few temples overgrown with trees a la Tomb Raider. I learned that Angkor consists of hundreds of temples and structures, of which Angkor Wat is the most well-known.
Angkor was built up between the 9th to 15th centuries by the Khmer Empire. The alternating religious preferences of Hindu and Buddhist rulers are reflected in the diverse temple designs.
Angkor is so massive that most tourists hire tuk-tuks to explore it. Thanks to advice from friends, we opted for a cycle tour with Grasshopper Adventures to cover more ground. Although the combination of cycling, wearing temple-appropriate clothing, and enduring 90 degree heat was exhausting, seeing the temples by bike was exhilarating.
Know Before You Go:
- Pub Street and the Night Market are incredibly touristy, but interesting to wander through once.
- Siem Reap is home to various NGOs who help provide training skills and introduce sustainable revenue streams for locals. We dined at two NGO-run restaurants which were both excellent: Marum and Haven.
- My favorite breakfast in Siem Reap was at Vibe, an organic cafe.
- You’ll need a pass to enter Angkor. At the time of our visit a day pass was $20/person. They also offer multi-day passes if you have major temple stamina. Our 9 hour bike tour gave us our temple fix.
- Taking tuk-tuks everywhere is the easiest transportation method. To my surprise, the airport transport arranged by our resort was a tuk-tuk. We survived. And took at least 5 more tuk-tuk rides throughout our stay.
- Paying in USD was the norm. Local ATMs offer up dollars.