Over-touristed places are the pits and we humans have made tourist traps of some of the most amazing places on earth. Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat, is crawling with tourists and you should totally be one of them!
Colonialism echoes through Siem Reap. French touches can be found in architecture and cuisine (though not as much as in Vietnam). Despite this Franco-past, the level of spoken and written English is high and so native English speakers, as usual, don’t need to try hard to understand and be understood. Another international twist is the widespread use of the American Dollar (USD). The Cambodian Riel is fixed at 4,000 Riel to $1 USD. Both can be used and prices are often listed in both. Change may be given in a mashup of the two, so be sure you’re paying attention. If you are using USD, try to have small bills on you ($10 or smaller) as tiny vendors cannot make change for larger notes. Also, before you travel, ensure you have fresh money as weathered or damaged notes will not be accepted.
Siem Reap town serves as the transit gateway and economic engine for the province that shares it’s name. Outside of the town, where tourism reigns supreme, agriculture is the main employer. There are a few local universities and if you take the time to talk with people from the area, you’ll see the 3-fold-pattern of (1) raised on a farm in a village (2) went to university in town (3) stayed to earn more from the tourist industry. Though they are earning more, many locals we chatted with dream of returning to their childhood homes.
With roadside food stalls, motorcycle + cart tuktuks, free range cattle, and the jungle unwilling to let go of the town and her streets, Siem Reap is charming in a way that other larger urban centres in Asia have lost. You may come for the temples, but the strolling and the people watching are the biggest treat of all.
5 stars down to no stars – Siem Reap has it all. Generally speaking, Siem Reap offers a lot of bang for your buck. You can get nice digs without bottoming out your wallet. So if you’re in the mood to splurge or need a break from hostel bunkbeds, then this is your town.
We stayed at the Koulen Hotel. These apartments were transformed into hotel rooms in early 2018. There are still signs of this transformation as reno work was in progress on the ground floor. The owner lives at the back of the property and we think this helps create the unbelievably welcoming attitude of the staff. Seriously, we’ve never felt so attended to in our lives. This welcome grabs you right away as they pick you up from the airport. Attention and smiles were lavished on our kids. It’s Asian hospitality on steroids.
The Koulen Hotel has 2 restaurants, a poolside bar with snacks, room service, a garden-facing fitness room, and a lot of tour options on offer. They also have tuktuk’s working for the hotel. You still pay for them, but it makes arranging a ride a breeze. The pool is urban-sleek and they’ve done a great job of enclosing the pool in exotic gardens. It’ll make you forget about that outside world. If somehow the pool and palms aren’t enough, the 2-for-1 drinks in the afternoon will certainly help! There were happy tunes playing by the pool for most of the day and attentive staff around to ensure you have everything you’d like.
Because of it’s residential past, energy saving features, such as keycards to control electricity, are absent. So be a good guest, of this hotel and Mother Earth, and be sure to switch off the AC and lights as you come and go. We did appreciate that the Koulen Hotel made use of real napkins (not paper) and that the soaps and body washes were provided in refillable, not single use, bottles.
We stayed in a 2 bedroom apartment style hotel room with a kitchen, dinning, and seating area. The fridge made it easy to store snacks for the kids. The room also has a long balcony with bistro tables overlooking the pool courtyard.
The Heritage Walk shopping mall is across the street. If you’re in a pinch, have kids that won’t eat, or just want something quick, then The Heritage Walk has some easy fixes including Starbucks and The Pizza Company (a Thai company that is equal to Pizza Hut, but cheaper). There is a small indoor kids play place (paid admission) and a cinema if your days are too hot or too rainy. Noble Premium Mart is a good place to buy grocery items (milk for the baby, for example) and, as the name implies, some culinary treats.
Siem Reap is incredibly walkable. There are sidewalks, but we won’t call them stroller friendly. Leave the pram at home and opt for a carrier. If you or your children do not feel like walking, then tuktuk’s are bountiful. You can hail or pre-book one through the GRAB app [check out Our Favourite Apps in SEA to learn more] or snag one curb-side. Be sure to negotiate the price before you go. Most trips in and around town will cost you around $2 USD. Tuktuk driver’s are ubiquitous in Siem Reap and you should expect to be offered rides every couple of meters. Though their offers are frequent, these drivers are not aggressive and a simple “no thank you” will suffice.
The areas to explore are most certainly concentrated along the river and in the Old Market area. Little shops, cafes, and eateries stand shoulder-to-shoulder vying for your attention. There are a number of night markets in the area and given enough exploring, they do tend to seem like more of the same. Our favourites by far are the local artists painting the surroundings. Bring home original art, and not another coffee mug, as your souvenir.
From the Koulen Hotel, you can easily walk to the Old Market area, explore, make your way along the river, and then cut back to the hotel. There’s even a Cambodian post office by the river where you can mail your recently purchased postcards.
The nightlife swirls around Pub Street which becomes a pedestrian zone in the evenings. Open air bars spill onto the streets and neon lights and music wash between tourists who crawl from pub to bar to club. Like the night markets, eventually it all becomes more of the same, but if you’re looking for action after dark, this is where you’ll find it.
OUT AND ABOUT AS A FAMILY
Social Enterprises are almost as prevalent as temple memroabilia in Siem Reap. The local humanitarian, business, and tourism sector know very well that they only have your attention (and your wallet) for a window of time. They’re doing wonderful things with both. As visitors, there are wonderful foods to taste and experiences to soak-in all while benefiting the local economy and community.
On our first night in town we went to Phare, the Cambodian Circus. These acrobats and entertainers deliver a high energy show in an intimate setting. They combined live music, humour, and some truly amazing feats (the kind where you worry for them). The performers are graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak’s vocational training center in Battambang. These students are able to cross social barriers through their schooling and earn a better wage through the circus. More than being entertained, a portion of the proceeds support the school. Even better is that they have multiple shows (we saw Khmer Metal) so you can go and be wowed again and again
The APOPO Visitor Center champions the work of hero rats! These rats are specially trained to detect landmines and can cover an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes as compared to 4 days for a human. With Cambodians brutal past still felt today, this guided tour and live demonstration was a great way for us to learn as adults and to expose our children to the reality faced by millions living with landmines. Tours take about an hour and can be pre-booked through their website. We couldn’t do a same-day booking through their site, but a simple phone call was enough to get us in. Be sure to check out their gift shop or make a donation as you exit.
For a hands-on learning experience, visit Khmer Ceramics Fine Arts Centre. This social enterprise employs people with physical limitations and is passionate about reviving the art of Khmer ceramics. The classes are open to adults and children. You’ll need to book ahead and leave yourself at least 2 hours. Before booking, talk to your kids about their interest level as it does require focus. Younger ones may find it a bit long.
If you’re simply looking for some family fun where you can still drink beer, head over to Angkor Wat Putt mini golf. This 14 hole course lets you knock a few balls around replicas of Angkor’s most famous sites.
DINING – JUST EAT EVERYTHING
For a unique outdoor (indoor options too) dinning experience, check out Marum. This treehouse inspired eatery is an experience all it’s own. In addition to good food, Marum is doing good through their partnership with Kaliyan Mith.
One of our favourite meals was at New Leaf. This eatery views the world through an ethical lens and it makes their food that much more delicious. The menu has Western and local options so you can try new things and not fight with your kids who would rather survive on peanut butter and ketchup. We thoroughly loved their Beef Lok Lak and their vegetable curry (we’re not vegetarian but this dish made us consider it). While there you can talk with someone from ConCERT. They have some amazing insights into responsible tourism.
When near the river and in need of a pick-me-up, stop at Sister Srey. This social enterprise will keep you parenting at your best because that what coffee was invented for.
Ice cream. Need we say more? Blue Pumpkin and it’s Greek-esque blue and white palette is a great place to beat the heat with funky seating options that the entire family can snuggle into. There’s a lot of food an beverage options here, but we were there on an ice cream mission!
TEMPLES FOR DAYS – LITERALLY
Exploring all of the temples of Angkor and the surrounding area requires more stamina than the average 6-year-old posses (this of course means it exceeds the patience of the average parent of a 6-year-old). This doesn’t mean you skip the temples, it simply means you pick which ones you want to see. Check out our Angkor Wat with Kiddos thoughts.
TAKE YOUR KIDS AND GO
If you’re still wondering, should we do this with our children, then let us answer for you – YES! Siem Reap is family friendly, easy to navigate, affordable, and is a great way to introduce your children to history, the real life implications of war, architecture, and food that may be very different from their own.
Still have questions about Siem Reap? Get in touch with us and we’d be happy to share more.