Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Siem Reap: 5 Things You Need to Know

© Jiewwan


Siem Reap,which is located in northwestern Cambodia, means "Siam Defeated" -- in reference to long years of conflict with  neighboring Thailand.

The main reason why people visit Siem Reap is that it is the gateway to the 12th century temples of the ancient city of Angkor. And though the town started registering into travelers' radar as far back as the 1960s, it is only recently that tourism has really gone well under way.

Lodgings of every kind -- from luxe hideaways to budget hotels have sprouted up in Siem Reap, while dining and spa facilities have also kept pace. Still, all the development in the city has to adhere to the rule that not one of them can be built higher than the Angkor Wat.

Even with the surge in tourist arrivals, the Siem Reap is still able to maintain its laid back, small town vibe. It's a splendid little charmer -- French colonial houses, a serene lake, tree-lined avenues, and a refreshing air of unpretentiousness.  

Let's hope it stays that way. 

2.  WHY GO 

The temples of Angkor -- ancient and grand -- are still the main draw. Bayon Temple's carved faces, the majestic and magnificent Angkor Wat, and the massive banyan trees engulfing Ta Prohm are the most popular.

TIP:  Tickets can be bought at the entrance of the temple complex, which allows access to all the temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park.  

One day: US $20
Three days:US $40
One week: US $60

The temples are open from 5:00 am to 6:00 pm. Some temples such as Kbal Spean closes at 3:00 pm. Make sure you carry your ticket with you at all times, as they are checked at the entrances of every temple.

 3. WHERE TO STAY: hotels in Siem Reap

Where we stayed : A boutique hotel in Siem Reap called The Angkor Pearl

At US $20 a night, we were able to sleep in a nice, spacious and tastefully-decorated deluxe room. The staff was very helpful, and they arranged for our tour guide. My friend Mia, who chose this hotel said that the reviews all agreed that it was "too good to be true," and one of the best boutique hotels in Siem Reap.

Photo courtesy of Angkor Pearl, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Where I would I have loved to stayThe Amansara

My dream is to stay in all the Aman resorts worldwide, and the Amansara (aman means peaceful, and sara comes from the word apsara, or the celestial nymphs from Hindu lore) in Siem Reap, would have been a nice place to start.

The property was originally the guest house of King Sihanouk, where he housed his famous friends like Jacqueline Kennedy, French President Charles de Gaulle, and legendary actor Peter O'Toole (Lawrence of Arabia!) when they visited Cambodia. 

The Amansara today is a study in minimalism and intimate chic. Done in neutral hues like gray and white, the resort offers 24 exquisite suites, a dreamy slate pool, and a dining room with a 23-foot-high ceiling. A private guided tour of the temples is also part of the package.

But, the cheapest rooms come with a hefty US $850-a-night price tag. So, never mind.

Where Angelina Jolie stayedHotel de la Paix

This US $2,000-a-night hotel was Jolie's home in the days when she was filming the Tomb Raider movie in 2001. The hotel is done in Art Deco slash Khmer style, with chic rooms, a serene garden, and a divine swimming pool.
photo of Hotel de la Paix, Siem Reap courtesy of

I've learned recently that the Hotel de la Paix is currently undergoing a renovation, and will open in 2013 under a new name and new management -- Park Hyatt Siem Reap. 


We actually visited in early November, and while it was hot, it wasn't exactly stifling. 

According to most websites, the ideal months for a Siem Reap escapade are December and January, when the humidity isn't as high and rains are not expected. But we were fine in November, so I would still recommend going during that time. 



We took the long route to Siem Reap -- hopping on a plane to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, where we spent 24 hours, before riding a Mekong Express limousine bus to Phnom PenhCambodiaIn Phnom Penh, we stayed overnight before going off to Siem Reap.

We did this because, a) we had time, and b) we wanted to experience three cities and have more stamps on our passport.


The Mekong Express bus costs  US $13 from Ho Chi Minh to  Phnom Penh,  and it comes with breakfast (two pastries in a box), water, and long hours of the strangest Cambodian music videos  (Lady Gaga's Poker Face sung by a Cambodian girl who splashed around in knee-length water). Make sure your MP3 players are fully charged if you don't want to go through this ordeal. 

The bus leaves at 7:00 am, 8:30 am, 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm, and the journey takes around 6 hours.


The bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap leaves at 7:30 am, 8:30 am, 12:30pm & 2:25pm, and costs US $12. This takes another 6 hours.

TIP: Keep your passport handy at all times as you will have to present it in the bus, as well as at the immigration when you arrive in Phnom Penh. The guard at the Ho Chi Minh-Phnom Penh border was big and mean-looking, but I smiled at him and when he saw in my passport that I was a Filipina, he said, "Mahal kita." ("I love you.")

TIP: Avoid the Mekong Delta River cruise from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. It is only charming and romantic in theory. We met a Chinese couple who lives in France who had tried it, and they said the boat was old, and the river cruise was slow and not as scenic as they had hoped.


If you want to fly direct, Cebu Pacific recently unveiled direct flights from Manila to Siem Reap every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. The flights to Siem Reap are as follows:

Departure from Manila7:50 pm
Arrival in Siem Reap:  9:30pm.

Return flights from Siem Reap: 10:30 pm
Arrival in Manila: 2:10 am

 : US dollars are easier to change into Cambodian riel. Any other currencies require a special trip to the market/bank where the exchange rates are a rip-off. Also, US dollars are accepted anyway in almost every place in Cambodia.

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