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Siem Reap travel guide

Siem Reap Introduction

| 24 Dec 2017
Last updated 24 Dec 2017

Two decades ago, Siem Reap was a small, dusty, provincial gateway to one of the greatest religious and architectural creations on earth - the temples of Angkor. The area had been a Khmer Rouge stronghold since the 1970s and attacks in and around the temples continued into the early 1990s. Siem Reap town was modest and depopulated. Emerging from decades of war and political turmoil. Only the most adventurous travellers made their way to the Angkor temples.

As a long elusive peace finally descended on Cambodia, a trickle of travellers from around the globe began to return. Angkor had been a popular destination from the 1930s until the 1960s. The seeds of Siem Reap’s modern tourism boom were sown. In 2016, more than 2 million travellers visited the temples.

I first visited Angkor Wat in 1994, when it was possible to spend a day climbing over the temples and encounter few if any other travellers.


The Bayon, Angkor
Photo: Mark Bowyer The Bayon, Angkor


During the past decade, Siem Reap has been transformed by tourism. The town is booming. The population has swelled as new hotels, restaurants, bars, travel companies and a new airport have created thousands of new jobs. And it’s all thanks to the ruins of an ancient kingdom that did its major work 1000 years ago.

While the tourism explosion has brought with it some expected downside, both the temples and the town are holding up well so far. The temples are spread over a vast area. While a handful of temples on the main tourist circuit can get busy - especially Angkor Wat - there are hundreds of temples spread across hundreds of kilometres. Many only see small numbers of travellers.

On our most recent visit in late 2017, we found the temples busy, but we were pleasantly surpised at how easy it was to escape the crowds and enjoy a quiet moment at one of the most atmospheric places on earth.

Take your time. Spend at least a few days exploring. If you like cycling, exploring the temples by bike is a delight. And don’t limit yourself to the most famous temples. Crowds often make these the least rewarding.

Finally, keep in mind that the beauty of the Angkor temples is not just the temples. The lush forest setting is a big part of the appeal. And the centuries long struggle to reclaim the temples is the real magic of Angkor.

Banteay Kdei Temple - by bike
Photo: Mark Bowyer Banteay Kdei Temple - by bike

Siem Reap town

Siem Reap is a great base for Angkor travels. The town has become a destination in its own right with superb hotels and resorts, a good dining scene, funky cafes and an easy small-town feel.

The cool hotels and resorts cover all budgets. Stay a few days and break up your time at the temples relaxing in style. You can check out our recommendations here.

The food scene in Siem Reap has also come a long way. There’s an excellent range of local and international restaurants. The cafe scene is flourishing too. You can check out our recommendations here.


Cycling Angkor
Photo: Mark Bowyer Cycling Angkor

The temples of Angkor - background

The temples of Angkor date from the Khmer kingdom that peaked between the 9th to the 13th century dominating modern day Cambodia as well as large tracts of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. Their scale is vast. 12th century Angkor Wat may be the largest and best known but it’s just one of hundreds of temples strewn over hundreds of kilometres.

A rich selection of temples can easily be accessed from Siem Reap; as always, it pays to travel beyond the standard temple tour.

Siem Reap - the name means “victory over Siam” - was a tiny village when French explorer Henri Mouhot stumbled across the jungle encased Angkor ruins in 1860. Mouhot’s visit coincided with growing French colonial interest in Indochina.

There are two frequently quoted passages from Mouhot’s travels that capture his profound appreciation of the grandeur of the temples and a mindset that would underpin the French colonial project in Indochina.

"One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michael Angelo—might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged."

"At Ongcor, there are ...ruins of such grandeur... that, at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?"

Angkor had been discovered - at least by the West - though locals are thought to have worshipped continuously at the temples from the fall of the Khmer empire centuries before.

The 1920s and 30s saw the first wave of temple-seeking European tourists arrive and inspired the construction of the Grand Hotel (the Raffles Grand d’Angkor these days) which opened in 1932.

But World War II brought Cambodia’s first mini tourism boom to an abrupt hault. 

In the 50s and early 60s a new boom began as Angkor again became the travel destination of choice for the adventurous and the glamourous.

And again, the boom proved to be shortlived.

Jackie Kennedy’s 1967 visit coincided with the encroachment of the Vietnam War on Cambodian territory and the related rise of the Khmer Rouge. Her late husband's role in the critical early years of the Vietnam War must have given her pause for thought.

By 1970, Cambodia was fighting to survive the spillover of war in Vietnam across its borders and a growing Khmer Rouge insurgency. Siem Reap and the Angkor temples fell into the hands of North Vietnamese communists. Darker days followed in 1975 with the Khmer Rouge seizure of power in Phnom Penh.

Another tourism boom ended, Pol Pot’s reign of terror began, and Angkor disappeared from international view until peace returned to Cambodia more than twenty years later.

Despite decades of war, looting and vandalism, not to mention centuries of grinding tension with the elements - what remains of the temples is breathtaking.

Angkor’s third tourism boom has been the biggest and most enduring to date. While Siem Reap is fighting to retain its small town feel. But it remains a lovely place to pass time between temple expeditions. Its stunning boutique hotels, mellow tree lined streets, wonderful French era shophouses, as well as great food and shopping make it a near perfect complement to the temple experience.

The best time to travel to Angkor?

Our favourite months for travel to Angkor are between June and January. The rains fall from May or June and freshen everything up after the long hot dry.

When it comes to travel to Angkor, rain is your friend and dust is your enemy. In the depths of the increasingly harsh dry seasons, the dust is oppressive. March to May are the hottest with average temperatures around 35 degrees. Averages fall 2 - 3 degrees between June and February.

June to September are the wettest months but the rain usually lands in the form of a torrential storm rather days of non-stop drizzle. You’ll see sun most days. We think the rain adds to the beauty of the experience too. The image of dark clouds descending on the temples is especially dramatic.

It’s good to try to avoid the busiest periods for tourist arrivals. The Christmas and New Year period are especially busy. Chinese New Year and Khmer New Year are also very busy. Cambodian public holidays are worth avoiding as well. Weekends will generally be busier as well - though this shouldn’t be a major issue.