Siem Reap is one of those places in the world that should have a ‘stay another day’ tourism campaign. And if you wonder why I am suggesting this, my reasons are in my story below.
Siem Reap is the site of the magnificent Angkor Wat temple complex that is not only the city’s main and greatest tourist attraction but also of Cambodia’s, attracting travellers from all over the world to marvel at this spectacular architecture. It is so vast and with so much to explore that a day is not sufficient to discover its magic and unravel its rich historical secrets.
Located in north-western Cambodia Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South East Asia and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Dating back to the 9th century it was the capital city of the Khmer Empire and a major power in the region for five centuries. It is an amazing historical site with a diversity of temples and shrines that is unique to Asia. Most travellers spend two days exploring the temples either as an extension to a journey in Thailand, Vietnam or Laos, but few take the time to see anything else in the area. They honestly don’t know what they are missing.
Siem Reap is the city nearest to Angkor, as well as the entry and exit point for most travellers to Cambodia. A sleepy village 20 years ago it has since developed into a fun place to spend a few days in. I have no doubt that, in a few years, it will be on the ‘must visit’ list of most travellers to Asia.
I spent a few days recently exploring Siem Reap and the nearby countryside, and I simply loved it. On my first early morning I set off with Yann, the owner of the Green E-Bike shop, on a countryside tour. Riding his eco-friendly bike, which runs on batteries, is really easy. It’s like riding a bicycle with no prior skill required, and no need for a driver’s license either.
We left the town centre with its morning traffic and headed for a short ride along the main streets before taking a turn to the untarred country roads. It was quite unbelievable that, only after a short drive of about 15 minutes at 20 km/hr, we had the impression of being in the middle of the Cambodian countryside. Buildings gave way to forests and rice fields, rivers and lakes, wooden houses on stilts, and sugar palm trees. The sun was strong, and I was glad to have my sunglasses and protected my skin with sunscreen. However, the heat was not overwhelming as we were riding through forests and along the lake.
Yann showed me a few temple ruins that I would never have found on my own. We stopped at several villages for a chat with the locals, and to observe their simple way of life. We had a home-cooked lunch in one of the village house before heading back to Siem Reap. A truly rewarding Cambodian countryside experience.
In the afternoon I opted for the antidote of an E-Bike, and decided to go back to the countryside on a quad bike, also known as an all-terrain vehicle (ATV). This is an activity for the more adventurous and daring. There are several quad bike tour options to choose from – easy countryside rides to off-the-road discovery experiences. Anybody reasonably fit and over 18 years of age can ride a quad, and it’s an exciting way to travel.
The quad team took me to a completely different area than what I had seen in the morning, confirming how diverse Siem Reap’s outlying areas are and dispelling the notion that it is a dull city.
As I always say, seeing is believing. We drove along countryside roads, went off road on sandy paths and through muddy fields, stopped at local farms and workshops, visited a temple lost in the middle of nowhere, and drove past buffalos, cows and pigs and making sure not to frighten them. Everywhere we went the children waved at us while their parents gave us friendly smiles. After two hours we were back in Siem Reap, dusty and muddy, but in excellent spirits.
On returning to my hotel in Siem Reap in the early evening and after a good shower, I embarked on a restaurant discovery evening. There is plenty of choice, from simple country restaurants to top 5-star dining that serve both Cambodian and international cuisines as well as meals that were previously unheard off in this part of Asia. With such fascinating food offerings, I am sure the city will soon become a culinary hotspot in the region. If you don’t believe me then you just have to head to Siem Reap and find out for yourself.
My own personal favourites serving Cambodian cuisine include Cuisine Wat Damnak, Chanrey Tree, Viroth’s and the brand new Malis Siem Reap. The most adventurous should not miss the Bugs Café for a taste of the unusual such as tarantula spider, spring rolls with ants, or cupcakes with cricket or scorpion salad – check it out on TripAdvisor.
There is also a vibrant bar scene in Siem Reap with its numerous bars and coffee shops, ranging from fancy ones to simple establishments serving cocktails, beers or wine. Check out Miss Wong, The Angkor What, Asana, Mezze, or the Wine Bar near the local market.
The next morning I decided to go on one of our Vespa Tours. The evening Vespa excursion with the dine-around option is a well-known tour, but I wanted to do the new tour that incorporates the countryside. Asian Trails’ Countryside Life Tour is a day tour exploring the authentic Cambodian countryside and experience what life is like in the shadow of Angkor Wat, all from the back of a Vespa scooter.
This was another great off-the-beaten track yet relaxing experience, just sitting on the back of a Vespa driven by a courteous and professional driver. We visited villages, a local market, a sugar palm juice producing family, a monastery complete with blessing from a monk, a fortune teller, as well as enjoying the hospitality of the local people. Our journey took us through rice paddies and the jungle, on dirt paths and countryside roads. Once again I was amazed that during the entire morning I did not see another tourist even though I was less than 10 kilometres from Angkor Wat.
The afternoon was devoted to exploring the new shopping areas that have mushroomed in the city, and a visit to the spa for a relaxing massage.
My recommendation to travel professionals is to add another day to the itinerary of your clients, and give them the chance to see the Cambodian countryside and to explore Siem Reap’s restaurants, bars, shops and spas. It’s really worth it as the experience is amazing. Asian Trails will be happy to discuss any new tour options with you.