Day 1: Arrival in Siem Reap
Our journey in Cambodia began after spending a week in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The flight took less than an hour, but we ended up waiting in the customs line for longer amidst a buzzing crowd of French and Korean tourists.
Hot and tired, we were greeted at the airport by our hotel driver in typical Cambodian fashion: with a warm smile and Sampeah (a bow with palms in prayer position). When we got into the car, we were given a chilled bottle water and our driver taught us how to say “hello,” “thank you,”and “please” in Khmer—an exquisite, rolling language that is heavily influenced by Sanskrit and Thai.
Check-in to Hotel Be Angkor
Hotel Be Angkor is located in the old district of Siem Riep, tucked in a lively alley dubbed “The Passage.” This pedestrian street is strewn with restaurants, pubs, galleries, and shops. The hotel only has three rooms so that guests receive the utmost service and privacy (not bad considering rates start at $75 a night). The owners are American ex-pats who follow sustainable practices and take great pride in partnering with the local hospitality school to staff the hotel and further careers within the local community. The hotel is adjoined to a contemporary photo gallery and the trendy AHA tapas restaurant. We were led through an atrium and over the second-floor steel bridge to the Saffron Room: a modern, natural space filled with traditional touches like fresh flowers, silk fabrics, and fresh fruit. Above our wooden platform bed and in our seating area hung funky monk-themed artwork by local Filipino artist Loven Ramos. There was even a small balcony that overlooked the action of the Passage.
The Old Market
Our first afternoon in Cambodia was spent exploring the town of Siem Reap. We started with a stroll to the nearby Old Market, Psar Chaa. We entered into a giant, dimly-lit room full of food stalls. Sounds of foreign chatter and the scent of fresh earthy herbs mingled with raw meat in the air. We spent a long time admiring the produce tables selling exotic delicacies like spiny jackfruit, hairy red rambutan, and long bumpy bitter melon. There were several tables selling dried fruit, spices, and nuts—perfect for snacks or souvenirs. We next ventured to the other, newer side of the market. This side definitely catered to the tourist crowd. The space was a labyrinth of vendors trying to lure us to their booths full of identical trinkets, souvenirs, textiles and clothing.
Behind the Old Market, the Siem Reap River divides the eastern and western sides of the town. The west bank caters more to tourists, whereas the eastern side is where you’re more likely to find residents and budget accommodations. We enjoyed an afternoon promenade along the wide paths that follows the river, decorated with stone sculptures and ornate light posts. We rested our weary feet on a shaded bench near a bridge so we could people-watch, catching uniformed schoolchildren returning home and groups of teenage monks wrapped in saffron robes. We continued north until we reached the Old French Quarter. This colonial district is where many of the boutique and upscale hotels are located. We left the river behind to visit the lush and peaceful Royal Gardens. The park’s beautiful thoroughfares were lined with tropical plants and giant trees full of fruit tree bats. On the southern side of the park, we discovered the shrine to Preah Ang Check and Preah Ang Chom, adorned with brass figurines of the two princess sisters and piles of offerings left behind by visitors.
Loop back Home and Tour Arrangements
We looped back to our hotel via the commercial Sivutha Boulevard, encountering many chain hotels, restaurants and shopping centers. We stopped at Lucky Mall to restock toiletries from the pharmacy and scout deals at the camera store. We passed the bustling Central Market, another market full of food, clothing and souvenir vendors. Upon our return to the hotel, we set up a private sunrise tour in Angkor Wat with the concierge. We were happy to learn that we didn’t have to do any cost comparisons—pricing is standardized for licensed tour guides and drivers. They are paid by the day, not per person, so it’s economical to split the difference if you’re traveling in a small group. At the time of our travel, a certified Angkor Wat guide cost $25 for the day, a car with driver was $18, and we each had to pay $20 for admission.
Pricing is standardized for licensed tour guides and drivers. They are paid by the day, not per person, so it’s economical to split the difference if you’re traveling in a small group.
Dinner and Foot Massages in Siem Reap
We were fortunate that our hotel was located across from the Chamkar—a delicious vegetarian restaurant serving a fusion of Khmer and French cuisine. We enjoyed a fragrant meal of stuffed tofu with fried pumpkin and curry paste and cassava fritters with krasaing fruit sauce and a green mango chutney. Though not a necessarily a steal by Cambodian standards, each gourmet entrée was priced slightly under $5USD.
The areas around the Passage and Pub Alley were hopping at night. Restaurant and shop owners stood outside their businesses trying to lure in customers. There were numerous fish pedicure spas where clients could plunge their feet into a giant, shared tub filled with silver fish that would eat away at their dead skin. I find these treatments unhygienic and also inhumane as the fish are kept in questionable conditions and sometimes starved. We opted instead for small foot spa that offered a $5USD hour-long reflexology treatment. First, our feet and lower legs were cleaned with warm towels, next slathered and massaged with oils and lotions. Then out came the stick. I was a bit apprehensive about having my feet poked with the pointy wooden device, but it ended up being both rejuvenating and calming experience. The theory behind this technique is that certain pressure points on the foot correspond to other parts and organs of the body. Stimulating these points re-balances your “chi,” the body’s energetic pathways. Whether you believe in this alternative form of therapy or not, it was a relaxing way to end our evening and prepare us for the long day ahead.
Lara was instilled with the travel bug at an early age and has visited over 25 countries. Her mother’s job as a flight attendant enabled a childhood of seeing the world. In addition to being the founding editor of En Route Traveler, Lara also works as the Art Director for the branding firm, Belmont Inc., in Alexandria, VA. In her spare time, she instructs high-energy Zumba dance classes, contributes as a Local Expert to AFAR, enjoys vegetarian cuisine, dabbles in photography and, of course, travels as much as possible.