Destination Cambodia Review: Siem Reap
Cambodia is now the new “it” destination as travellers are being drawn to its overflowing bucket list of must see and do experiences. Cambodia has the allure of a less trampled destination filled with friendly people, the vibrant Khmer culture, and a plethora of exciting things to do and see. The icon of Cambodia is Angkor Wat in the northern area of Siem Reap. This world wonder and UNESCO World Heritage site has drawn travellers there for decades.
Siem Reap was once where the Khmer dynasty ruled Southeast Asia. This dynasty left indications of its vast power in their temples and man-made marvels from a thousand years ago. Fast forward a millennium and Siem Reap is the tourism mecca of Cambodia with many ways to appreciate the temples and heritage of the Khmer people.
There’s a lot of other things to do in town as well, from exploring the markets, the Tonle Sap Lake, or a night on the town at Pub Street. There is also the Old Market and nearby Kings Palace and Royal Gardens attractions.
What to do
Angkor Wat is the crown jewel of Cambodian heritage. It is a really big deal and as remarkable as the Pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal in India, the Great Wall of China or the Statue of Liberty. People flock there en masse to see this thousand year old man-made marvel. It was constructed by Cambodian Kings from the 12th century to honour the Hindu and later the Buddhist religions. What they left behind is a massive temple that one could spend a full day exploring and admiring.
There are many temples in the area and all are magnificent to behold. Other than Angkor Wat, the must see temples are Bayon and the Ta Prohm temples. Ta Prohm has been made famous by sometime Cambodian resident Angelina Jolie and the Tomb Raider movies. This otherworldly area was abandoned and overgrown by large fichus trees interweaving their thirsty roots in between the temple structures. It was rediscovered in the 1940s and is truly a sight to behold.
The Bayon temple or monkey temple is famous for its two storey high head facades incorporated into the temple design as well as for its green monkeys that are plentiful throughout the area.
There are many ways to experience all that this wonderful destination has to offer. A delightful way to explore and get in a little cardio is to explore the temples using pedal power on a tour by Grasshopper Bike tours. The tour starts out with a pre-dawn pick up at the hotel and then takes puffy eyed tourist to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat.
It’s an amazing experience to watch the sun rise as a backdrop to this marvellous landmark. From there the experienced guide takes a small group of no more than six riders to explore the known and lesser known temples as he narrates with insights and knowledge along the way. After a tasty hot breakfast the tour heads off on streets and trails to see the temples away from the maddening crowds.
It is a wonderful day and a great way to see the major temples as well as some of the lesser known sites. The pace is excellent with frequent breaks and, as the area is relatively flat, it is never too exhausting. The tour also included a wonderful Khmer lunch as well. Grasshopper offers a number of different tours throughout Siem Reap and other destinations in Southeast Asia.
Siem Reap is known for more than its amazing temples. It’s also has many interesting markets selling everything from t shirts to some decent art works and replicas. There’s also the Artisans d’Angkor which is an expensive shop selling high end local artworks and crafts. For those interested in getting behind the scenes, there is a tour which shows how the works are created in their apprentice shop, where locals can learn the craft.
For those looking to get their party on, Pub Street is a short tuk tuk ride away from any area hotel. You can’t find a more descriptive term than Pub Street and this area has 100’s of bars, restaurants, and clubs and is a great place for some casual entertainment. The throbbing music is deafening as the young and young at heart shake their groove things until the wee hours of the morning.
Street Food on Pub Street in Siem Reap Cambodia…care for a bite?
What is also interesting is you’ll find vendor carts selling cocktails for $1.50 and draft beer for 50 cents. If you’ve got the munchies there are vendors selling exotic dishes of fried snakes, spiders, and other fried insects.
Exploring the Tonle Sap Lake
Siem Reap has a must see natural site just a short distance away. The Tonle Sap Lake is one of the largest lakes in Asia, and a great way to explore it is to take a boat ride from the docks and to take in the sunset. The tour takes you past the riverside villages and shanty towns and a network of floating villages to the wide open lake.
The lake’s sheer size is breath-taking. You can’t see its other side, only the horizon. The sun sets and plays a beautiful game of changing colours as it peeks through clouds and prints them in glorious reds, purples, oranges and yellows. It is absolutely magnificent.
Where to Stay
There are many good options for a place to lay one’s head in between the early rises to take in the temple or where every your exploration may take you.
Shinta Mani means good heart or to do good things. The hotel’s concept is simple. Create a five star hotel, take exceptionally good care of the guests, the staff and the community. Sadly, Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world and the government does a poor job of providing education and healthcare to its citizens.
Shinta Mani has stepped in to help with a percentage of each guest’s daily room rate being contributed to the Shinta Mani Foundation which provides health and educational assistance to the community. This little hotel in Cambodia has set the bar for the meaning of Responsible Tourism and has been recognized by Conde Nast, Travel and Leisure and a host of luxury travel purveyors.
There is a comfortable elegance at Shinta Mani which was created by its masterful design. The monochrome colour palate is black, white, and grey with pops of bright orange in homage to the regal robes donned by Cambodian monks. The design is clean and minimalist with dramatic features inspired by the Angkor temples. The rooms are fabulous, with chic interiors of black and white with mirrors and provocative wall art of Cambodian figures. The master behind the design is Bill Bensley who is recognized as one of the top architects and interior designers in the world. He’s created numerous masterpieces and created a design magnum opus in the Shinta Mani for its reopening in 2012.
Dining at Shinta Mani is an adventure into authentic Cambodian cuisine. Their restaurant Kroya opens onto a light and dark grey tiled outdoor terrace where five traditional Khmer beds swing by sturdy ropes hung from two storeys above. It is a definite experience for couples to dine in such comfort, gently swinging.
Kroya means “food” in the Khmer Royal language. The menu often varies based on what is available in the market as well as the whims of the chef. There is no fusion here, it’s real and local. The favourite at Kroya is the Traditional Khmer Tasting Menu. Here they combine fresh ingredients with local herbs and spices to create innovative dishes at one of the most popular restaurants in Siem Reap.
Off the busy street of scooters and tuk tuks you’ll find the Anantara Angkor Resort. This is not a massive resort where you are forgotten among the crowd. It has 39 elegantly appointed suites and service fit for a king. Each of the staff members quickly learns your name and their interactions become personal, be it chatting over breakfast or taking care of your needs by the pool.
The décor in the property and especially in the rooms is fantastic. The rooms feature teak wood flooring and large windows with Victorian touches. The king-sized bed is beautifully draped with mosquito netting and a floor to ceiling wood panel headboard. The bathrooms are unique with clawed porcelain tubs and separate shower, the basin is off set from the bath and separated by a latticed teak panel.
The Chatra Restaurant is in a large open space nicely decorated with large brass lighting fixtures. At night it is romantic with tables set with linen and candlelight to set the mood. The restaurant serves delicious Cambodian cuisine prepared by their local chef. The Khmer Set Menu is a collection of regional dishes from around Cambodia and is a must have during your stay.
Anantara is a hotel brand known for their first class service spa experience and working with each client to heal and rejuvenate their weary bodies. The spa Anantara Angkor Resort is staffed by warm and friendly local Cambodians. There are men’s and women’s wet and dry sauna and Jacuzzi whirlpools. They have a varied treatment menu with everything from massages to facials.
Just on the outskirts of the main area of town, is the Sokha Angkor Resort and Spa. You’ll arrive through the grand entrance into a magnificent lobby with a cathedral ceiling etched with beautiful stone. The centrepiece of the hotel is the pool which is a functioning art piece created to pay homage to Angkor Wat. The two storey high structure is a temple replica with a waterfall emanating from the top and then cascading down steps into the pool below.
The Sokha Angkor Resort is one of the larger hotels in the area with 275 splendid rooms coming in various sizes. The super king size bed is perfect for stretching out after a long day exploring the area. The bathrooms are also large with a separate tub and shower.
The Sokha Angkor Resort has several dining options to choose from. Le Chanthou restaurant features fine Khmer dishes and its ornate décor is designed with traditional Cambodian art blended with a French Colonial style. Their other signature restaurant is Takezono a beautifully decorated Japanese restaurant. The menu is extensive with the dishes you’d expect as well as many not-to-miss signature dishes.
The hotel has a full service spa facility with his and her sauna, steam room and Jacuzzi. They have an extensive spa menu providing an array of services such as facials, body wraps, and all types of massages.
Navutu Dreams Resort & Spa is a true wellness retreat that focuses on whole body health and healing and just happens to be a short distance from Siem Reap’s major temples and attractions. It is a destination created for those truly seeking mental and physical healing. Guests experience a comprehensive wellness program of yoga, acupuncture, energy healing and a full service spa.
This is not a big hotel, it is intimate with only 28 rooms. There are three pools so it never feels crowded. The accommodations are very well laid out with each having a secluded front garden and large patio with day bed for chilling out and reading. The bathroom is very large with a rain shower. The accommodations are very comfortable at Navutu Dreams.
As this is a wellness resort, it is not designed for getting a fast massage and going out on the town. There is a nicely appointed spa pavilion but the emphasis here is on finding one’s self and inner healing. There are three true experts on hand to ensure that you reach your wellness goals focusing on acupuncture, yoga, and the energy healing.
The full service spa has a range of signature treatments range from traditional Asian massages to body scrubs, facials and wraps that incorporate local, tropical ingredients aimed at helping you to be your best self.
This is relaxed luxury here and it is comfortable in every way. The restaurant supports the inner healing and the menu has been created to sustain health. There are three menu options including the Wellness Menu, Asian Menu and Western Menu. Romantic couples, friends, mother/ daughter travellers, and weary solo travellers all enjoyed this refuge of rejuvenation offered by Navutu Dreams.
Cambodia is a destination not often heard in one’s travel top ten list but it should be. It is authentic and exotic, rustic and charming with a warm and genuine people. It’s landmarks, wonderful cuisine, and bespoke accommodations make it worthy of anyone’s precious travel time and resources. If you haven’t yet, put Cambodia on your must-travel-to shortlist.