City Spotlight: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Why Siem Reap, Cambodia is my Favorite City:

What makes Siem Reap magical?

Upon entering Cambodia, it is clear that it is a place like no other. Upon descent into the capital city, Siem Reap’s, tiny airport, you will see a sea of faint flickering lights if you are lucky enough to fly in at night. These intriguing lights are used by shacks with little or no electricity supply; not to bring light to homes, but to attract insects, which are later used for cooking. The country’s first airport, which opened internationally just six years ago, exudes a certain sense of mystery itself. Its terminal building, which resembles a traditional pagoda, is tidily lined with green grass and trees, and features a large welcome sign in native Cambodian transcript. Upon leaving the airport, the intrigue continues as you travel along one of the country’s only tarmac roads, which is lined with seemingly out-of-place large, exotic hotels and the mansions of Cambodia’s richest ambassadors.

However, upon entry into Siem Reap, visitors are greeted with a rather underwhelming high street with an obligatory KFC and McDonalds that were obviously installed to cater for the city’s increasing influx of Western back-packers. However, what is most magical about Siem Reap is the overwhelming feeling of stepping into a tiny city that remains the gateway to a country of mystery and intrigue. Each under-developed, dusty street hints at what is beyond. The larger, more established buildings in the Siem Reap’s centre quickly trail off to become modest shacks within a few hundred yards on the same road; the city quickly disintegrating into a mysterious abyss.

Best reason to visit Siem Reap

Cambodia is a Buddhist country and, as the city of Siem Reap appears friendly, enchanting and spiritual, it is easy to momentarily forget of the extreme suffering and brutality that, until only recently, was a part of everyday life for its citizens. Particularly harrowing and poignant are the stories told by the local people, which provide an unparalleled and truthful encounter of a country that was once engulfed by war and fear. Many people come to Siem Reap – and wider Cambodia – to feel enchanted and inspired, but the best reason to visit is to meet the local people, and to learn first-hand about the history behind the city. What is particularly awe-inspiring and eye-opening is the warmth expressed by many locals, and how, although they have experienced suffering beyond what most of us can imagine, they do not express bitterness or sadness, but instead promote peace and forgiveness.

Best places to eat and drink in Siam Reap. Cambodia

The centre of Siem Reap is very lively, and turns into a party destination at night. There are two main streets lined with bars, restaurants and discos offering food and alcohol at extremely low prices. These streets contain the best places to eat and drink with friends, and visitors can expect to sample a great range of authentic Cambodian hot pots, as well as a vast range of drinks. You can pick up a beer for as little as 50 American cents in most bars along the main streets.

Most unusual attraction in Siem Reap 

One of the most unusual and interesting parts of Siem Reap’s centre is its famous night market. For such a small city, the night market fills up very suddenly at night with hoards of locals and tourists alike. Siem Reap’s night market, situated just a couple of streets away from the city’s main bars, contains an eclectic mix of traditional Cambodian crafts, food stalls and health treatment centres. Bustling with life and multi-coloured lights, the night market offers a unique insight into how traditional Cambodia is fusing with the new, and catering to the sudden worldwide interest it is attracting. Highlights of the market include the health centres, where you can invest a dollar to receive a scalp and neck massage, and the craft stalls, where you can buy local paintings and wood carvings. Although not quite 1p deals, the bargains of the night market are not far off; you can expect to pay around $3 for a traditional, hand-drawn picture, or $2 for a locally-woven silk scarf, for example.

What to do with just one day in Siem Reap?

If you only had one day in Siem Reap, it would be highly recommended to visit Cambodia’s infamous temples. Situated just outside the city, the haunting and mystical UNESCO site of Angkor Wat is the most well-known. Built in the 11th Century by King Suryavarman, the magical empire was later forgotten, buried under mounds of trees and peat. Rediscovered in the early 20th Century, it was painstakingly restored using only original and natural materials, to reach the impressive state it stands at today. Angkor Wat is home to hundreds of temples and monasteries, each displaying a unique mix of art and architecture. The best time to visit is sunrise, where the temples’ distinctive spires form a magical silhouette on the horizon.