Adventures in Angkor – Siem Reap

I missed last week’s installment of Adventures at Angkor… oops! This last installment isn’t so much on Angkor, but on the modern town of Siem Reap, which is where you’d want to go if you want to visit the temples. It’s a small, bustling town – bustling from the massive tourist boom it has experienced since the late 1990s, and even in the off-peak tourist season the town still hums with excitement.


This section of town you are seeing in these pictures is called the Old Town, the heart of Siem Reap. It still contains many of the shops and watering holes that draw in the tourist dollars. Food and drink here are relatively cheap – although not cheap compared to the native Cambodians, who I suspect less than half of what a tourist would normally pay on a menu.

Souvenir shops like these are ubiquitous in the old market, a square block of shops selling everything the tourist needs by way of a souvenir – bags, hats, small statues, t-shirts, fridge magnets, postcards, etc. A tourist trap, to be sure. So make sure to haggle in these types of shops!

Part of the old market is also a “wet” market, which sells the local produce and fresh meats. I would’ve bought something here, but I wasn’t equipped to pack fresh foods. It’ll be a good place to sample some of the local fruits though.

While you’re in the Old Town, be sure to explore some of the inner lanes and alleyways – more often than not, you’ll find nooks and crannies of shops. This particular lane contains rows of restaurants specialising in Khmer food – this is significant because in many of the main roads in Old Town, you’ll find plenty of restaurants catering to tourist tastes – burgers, pizzas, Italian, Indian… me, I like to sample the local cuisine of any country I visit. Because it’s also in the Old Town, I suspect that the food here is also watered down to suit the tourist tastes… one of the few things I bought in Siem Reap was a bottle of chilli sauce, and none of the Khmer food I sampled ever had the spiciness that came near to what came out of the bottle!

Siem Reap - Old Town

Also, make it a point in your visit to Siem Reap to support the local economy and purchase Cambodian-made products. Another thing that I really enjoyed during my stay in Siem Reap was the coffee, which I learnt was harvested by hill tribes. Cambodian coffee is wonderfully aromatic and has a spicy scent. Another place you should visit here in Siem Reap is the Boom Boom Room – it’s a music and clothing store (that even sells iPods!).

There’s an even more important reason why I’m featuring this store: you can purchase an audio tour of the Angkor temples from here. The CD is produced by Heritage Watch and is narrated by Prof. Charles Higham. Really good stuff in the CD (which costs USD25) and you can even download the tour into your iPod so that you can have your own personalised tour of the temples.

The Cambodians are generally very nice people, very accomodating and friendly. Because of the touristy nature of Siem Reap, most speak at least some basic English (and some guides are trained in other languages as well!)

(It seems every Southeast Asian culture has some sort of cooked banana snack.)

This is Anh, a tuk-tuk driver I befriended during my stay. Tuk-tuk drivers can take you anywhere around town for USD1 per person per trip.

I couldn’t resist but slip in a photo of the hotel pool, which looks suspiciously like a linga.

A young boy is playing with some of his toys on the ground at one of the many bridges that cross the Siem Reap river.

As you can see, the is quite dirty – a side effect from the pollution caused by the population boom in Siem Reap – and the water level is surprisingly low. This is despite the fact that I visited Siem Reap during the rainy season.

Visitors to Siem Reap and Angkor take note: responsible tourism is the keyword.

  • Help conserve water while in Siem Reap
  • Support the local economy by buying Cambodian products
  • Use environmentally low-impact forms of transport like bikes and tuk-tuks
  • Respect the temple sites for what they are: temples!
  • For heaven’s sake, DON’T buy antiques and plunder Cambodia’s heritage
  • Stay longer than 3 days!

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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