40 Hours in Siem Reap

I am an avid New York Times "36 Hours" loyalist. Whether it's Cincinnati or Shanghai, the first thing I do when I book a trip is read the 36 Hours guide to that city. Sometimes the tips are spot on, sometimes they're great, but not worthy of your limited time, and very rarely, they are huge flops. Here, I share my own weekend guides to cities I've come to know in my own not-so-subtle nod to "36 Hours".

*Asterisked recommendations were originally recommended by the NYT, and have received my firsthand mark of approval.


Siem Reap took us by surprise. We were expecting to use the city as a launchpad from which to tour the Angkor Wat temple compound, and little else. What we found instead was a bustling little river town, with a small but rich art scene, a strong ex-pat community, and delicious food and drinks aplenty. Despite having been built on the tourism industry, Siem Reap boasts an authentically Cambodian charm with a welcomed infusion of Western influence.

{Link to the NYT's 36 Hours in Siem Reap}

FRIDAY

4pm | ANGKOR WAT TUK TUK BOOZE CRUISE Grab a tuk tuk outside of your hotel and head to the Angkor Wat Visitor's Center to pick up your entrance tickets. Unfortunately, each individual must go and pick up their own ticket themselves - a photo is printed on each pass. A little celebrated fact is that you are able to pick up your entrance ticket between 4pm and 5pm the night before you wish to visit the park. This is fantastic for two reasons. One, you will skip the horrific lines of tourist filled tour buses that flood the visitor's center early in the morning. Two, after picking up your ticket, you can take an Angkor Wat tuk tuk booze cruise at dusk to get a lay of the land, feel the breeze for a few hours, and see a few of the temples at a time when the huge crowds have already started to dwindle. After you get your tickets, ask your driver to stop off for some beers (grab a grocery bag filled with ice to keep them cool), then head out on the "short loop" through the park. Expect to pay about $7 for about 2.5 hours of cruising. (USD is an accepted currency in Siem Reap)

Tuk Tuk through the countryside on the way to Angkor Wat.

Tuk Tuk through the countryside on the way to Angkor Wat.

7:30pm | FEAST AT MARUMThis is a NY Times 36 Hours in Siem Reap pick, and it is worthy of their glowing recommendation. Marum has a lovely atmosphere, with both indoor and outdoor seating, including some comfy outdoor couches where a table for two could enjoy drinks or a meal. We stayed away from any dishes including red tree ants, but we thoroughly enjoyed every single drink and dish that we ordered. The Wild Mushroom and Brie Rice Balls, Taro Chive and Shiitake Dumplings and Grilled Beef Filet with Kampot Pepper Sauce were among our favorites. 

9:30pm | CHEAP DRINKS AT CHARLIE'S You come across your fair share of weird ex-pats traveling through Southeast Asia, but Charlie and his wife Zoe, proprietors of the bar Charlie's, are the rare exception. They are lovely people, delightful to chat with, and their cocktails are CHEAP. I'm talking $1.50-for-a-mojito cheap. The bar is a favorite among Siem Reap ex-pats for it's lively atmosphere and convenient location just off of the much more raucous "Pub Street", which is worth a walk-through, but not worth sticking around. 

SATURDAY

6am | TEMPLE TIME I cannot express this with enough conviction - do not go to Angkor Wat (the main temple after which the entire temple compound is named) to see the sunrise. If you listen to one thing I tell you about Siem Reap, let it be this. Do get an early start - but choose a different temple for sunrise. Your tour guide will try to take you there, because he is so accustomed to doing so, do not let him. The views of Angkor Wat reflecting in the pond below it are simply not worth waiting in the heat (yes, it will already be hot) with thousands of tourists to see. 36 Hours suggests heading first to Phnom Bonk temple, and I fully back them on this one. We used San Park as our tour guide and he was phenomenal - despite convincing me against my will to see Angkor Wat at sunrise. $70 for a full day tour in an air-conditioned van. You can also tour Angkor Wat by tuk tuk for a fraction of the price but, trust me, you will appreciate the air conditioned breaks and safe space to stash your backpack between temples more than you can imagine. Expect to tour the Angkor compound for 4-6 hours... our group made it from 6am to 10am before we had to call it quits.

Smiling faces at Bayon Temple.

Smiling faces at Bayon Temple.

1pm | LUNCH AT FIFTY 5 After resting up for a bit at your hotel, head to Fifty 5 near Pub Street for a respite from the heat and a delightful, much deserved Western-style lunch. The decor at Fifty 5 is more akin to something you'd find in downtown Manhattan than in Cambodia, but was a much appreciated, relaxing zone for us after a long morning of roaming around in the heat. Expect fresh salads, juices, smoothies, plus tasty burgers and sandwiches.

3pm | SHOP & EXPLORE Wind your way through the tiny streets and mini-markets near Fifty 5. Head back to your hotel for a dip in the swimming pool and to rest up before dinner.

7pm | DINE AT CUISINE WAT DAMNAK Cuisine Wat Damnak is considered fine dining in Siem Reap - $24 will score you a beautiful 4 course tasting menu. The restaurant made it onto the 2016 "50 Best Restaurants in Asia" and is well worth the "splurge" thanks to dishes like the slow cooked beef cheek with mushrooms and homemade oyster sauce.

9pm | COCKTAILS AT MISS WONG'S Take a quick tuk tuk ($1) across the bridge to Miss Wong's for sophisticated cocktails in a cozy little 1920s Shanghai themed bar. And if you miss your new friends at Charlie's, head there for a nightcap as you're just a block away.

SUNDAY

9:30am BREAKFAST* Grab an expertly crafted latte and a Western breakfast at Little Red Fox cafe. Sit outside to watch this sleepy street wake up, or head up to the second floor where there's a comfortable lounge area to spread out and enjoy your breakfast.

10:30am SHOPPING IN KANDAL VILLAGE* Little Red Fox is in the heart of Kandal Village - two streets of converted shop fronts that have been converted into beautiful stores selling upscale handicrafts a mark above what you'll find in the markets around Siem Reap. Head to Trunkh - just across the street - first, then wind your way down the street towards the river. When you've reached the river, turn right. Just before the Chanrey Tree restaurant is a woven straw warehouse of sorts, packed to the gills with stunning woven creations from chaise lounges to cocktail coasters. I picked up 12 gorgeous woven straw coasters for around $3. 

12pm HEALTHY EATS Before you head to the airport, grab a quick lunch at The Hive, another Kandal Village haunt. This hip, snug little cafe serves up healthy cuisine including large salads and juices. 


LODGING

Viroth's Villa Location, location, location. This charming little 7-room hotel is located just a three minute walk across the river from many of the locations cited here. The pool is small but does the trick, the decor is minimalist chic, the staff absolutely charming, and the included breakfast is extensive and tasty. They'll even pack you a to-go box for your early morning at Angkor. Request room #3 which has a private sun deck just beside the pool. $50/night

Amansara You can't go wrong with an Aman hotel, and being able to escape to the confines of Aman luxury after exploring Angkor in the brutal heat would be pretty exceptional. Rooms come complete with private plunge pools, private Angkor guides, laundry, and two meals per day in this former King's stunningly stark oasis. $1,600/night


36 Hours Flops: 

Siem Reap Food Tours | I wanted to love this tour. Cool website, 36 Hours recommended, run by an ex-pat chef -- it had all the makings for something I would adore. Unfortunately, this was the biggest flop of the trip. Paying $75 for a food tour, when our beautiful hotel cost only $44/night, should have been a warning sign. Steve took us to 4 or 5 spots, ordered only 1 or 2 dishes (for 6 of us to share) at each one, and was incredibly stingy when we asked for beers along the way. Mind you, we are a drinking crew, but a beer only costs about $.50 in Siem Reap -- I wasn't exactly worried about his margins. If money is no object, this tour is worth your time (and gets wonderful reviews on TripAdvisor), otherwise - stick to Marum to get your fill of Khmer food. 


Runners-up:

Mie CafeMie Cafe was closed for the month during my visit, but I might have tried it for lunch in place of Fifty 5 or on Sunday if there was time for a longer lunch. The cafe belongs to the "Secret" group - a consortium of boutique hotels and restaurants most comparable to Relais & Chateaux. 

Angkor Wat Putt* | The heat prevented us from heading to this kitschy, but totally entertaining Angkor Wat themed putt putt course. This would be such a fun pre-dinner activity instead of just going to a bar, and would be great for kids.