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How to Plan a First-Time Siem Reap Tour

The main gateway to the spectacular temples of Angkor, Siem Reap is a beautiful city that is often overlooked by tourists who are intent on getting to the massive temple complex. But while the temples are normally the main reason people come to the north of Cambodia, there is still plenty to see and do in this epicenter of Cambodian chic. With everything from backpacker party pads to the best in hip hotels, Siem Reap offers more than most people could imagine.

The city offers world-class wining and dining across a huge range of cuisines from all over the world, as well as local tours to suit every pocket, for both adventure seekers and food lovers. Angkor is a place to be savored, not rushed through on a tuk-tuk in an hour, and Siem Reap, with its amazing cultural scene, is the perfect base of operations from which to plan your adventures, and enjoy the hospitality of the stunning Cambodian north.

About Siem Reap Tourism

The capital of the Siem Reap province in northwestern Cambodia, Siem Reap is a popular resort town and the gateway to the Angkor region, with its huge temple complex. Filled with colonial and Chinese style architecture, the city is one of traditional dance performances mixed with cultural villages and museums, and with a sprinkling of traditional provincial life to add some spice.

That is not to say that it is not modern. In Siem Reap today you can find any number of tourist hotels, popular resorts, exquisite and cheaper restaurants serving all kinds of foods, and many businesses that have close ties to Cambodian tourism in the area. Tourism in Siem reap, while making the city a bustling hub of ancient and modern delights, owes its popularity to its proximity to the Angkor temples.

Weather and When To Go

Cambodia has one of the simplest weather systems in Asia, with just two seasons, and almost no difference from the north to the south of the country. As with the rest of the country, in Siem Reap the dry season runs from October to late April, while the wet season, which includes the tropical monsoon, normally starts around the beginning of May, and runs through until late September.

Temperatures are similarly set into two distinct ranges, with the coolest period between October and December, with an average high temperature of around 28 degrees Celsius. While that may not be considered particularly “cool” by many of the visitors to the region, it can be better described as “balmy”. The hottest time of the year is from February to June, which crosses the distinct border between wet and dry seasons, and the average highest temperatures during the “summer” range from around 32 to 35 degrees Celsius.

The best time to visit Siem Reap is in the peak season from November to March, when there is almost no rain and the temperatures are at their best for touring the region. However, at this time of year the temples and other sights can get very crowded, so if you are looking for fewer people, the best time is in the low season, from May to early October, when prices are also lower. You may encounter some rain, mainly in the late afternoon due to the monsoon season, it rarely affects travel plans and the countryside comes to life with plenty of lush greenery.

Top Sights around Siem Reap

Angkor Wat

Completely buried by jungle until it was discovered by French colonists in the 1800’s, Angkor Wat is probably the most famous of all the temples of Angkor, and people show up in their thousands to watch the sunrise. However, if you get off the main walkways, and head for the outpost buildings, you can get a less crowded view of the magnificent sunrise over the temple complex.

Tonlé Sap

The largest freshwater lake in Cambodia, Tonlé Sap is of major importance to the region, and the source of much of the fish that is sold in the local markets. The lake is subject to the changes of the seasons, and shrinks or expands depending on the monsoon rains. It is also the home to numerous Vietnamese and Cham communities that live in floating villages around the lake. The area around Tonlé Sap, including the province of Siem Reap, is part of the Tonlé Sap Biosphere Reserve.

Siem Reap Markets

The Old Market or Psah Chas is located between Pub Street and the Siem Reap River, and offers a mixture of souvenirs for tourists and a variety of food produce and other items meant for the locals. Other markets in Siem Reap include the Angkor Night Market, Phsar Kandal (The Central Market), and the Phsar Leu (The Upper Market), which is the largest of all the local markets. The Made in Cambodia Market is a night market for tourists in Siem Reap that only sells products made in Cambodia.

Cambodian Cultural Village

The Cambodian Cultural Village is a theme park and museum that lies just six kilometers outside Siem Reap on the road to the airport. It hosts miniature versions of important historical buildings and local customs, and includes eleven unique villages that represent the varied cultural heritage of the nineteen ethnic groups in Cambodia. It also includes a wax museum displaying scenes from the culture and history of Cambodia.

Banteay Srei

A tenth century temple that was dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva, Banteay Srei lies to the northeast of the main group of Angkor temples, near the hill of Phnom Dei. Built mainly of red sandstone, the temple is unusual by Angkorian standards in that the buildings themselves are miniature in scale. This has made the temple very popular with tourists and locals alike, and has led to the site being praised as a “precious gem” of Cambodia, and the “jewel of Khmer art”.

How to Get to Siem Reap

Cambodia has three major international airports, and all three have excellent facilities for international tourists. While Phnom Penh may be the place most people will come into the country at, there is an international airport at Siem Reap, which means you can fly in direct, and not have to travel across country to get there. If you are coming in overland, the closest neighbor to Siem Reap is Thailand, which has six overland border crossing points into Cambodia, all within a few hours’ travel of Siem Reap.

Overland travel from Laos is possible, and it just takes a little longer to get from the border to Siem Reap by bus. From Vietnam, however, while it is possible to travel overland into Cambodia, the trip from the border to Siem reap takes from around 12 hours non-stop travel.

Visa Requirements

Visas for Cambodia can be obtained either from the Cambodian Embassy in the country of departure, or by VOA at both major airports and the majority of border crossings. The standard cost of the VOA is US$30, but on many of the border crossings, the officials will try to increase it to around US$45, by asking for the fee in Thai baht. It is not a hard-push scam, so by simply staying friendly, smiling, and insisting on only paying the official fee – which is advertized at every crossing point on a large sign-board – the officials will normally give way.

However, they will then charge you a 1-2 dollar “processing” fee, for the visa process, which is not really worth arguing over. Visas in advance make border crossing easier, but are more expensive, although they save a lot of time since you can just jump the queues.

E-visas can be obtained by citizens of most nations, and can be applied for online at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation website. The visa does cost US$40 instead of thirty, due to the online transaction and card-processing fee. If you get an e-visa, make sure you print multiple copies, as officials will keep the copy that you show them on entry. There are several websites that try to scam for e-visas, and will charge higher than the forty-dollar price, or even charge and not send the visa. Be careful with online visa applications. E-visas can only be used at the airports and three of the border crossings, so they have both pros and cons, depending on your tour route through Cambodia.

Currency

The official currency of Cambodia is the riel (KHR), although the US dollar is also widely used, and the two currencies are interchangeable. Riel is normally more used for smaller transactions, while large payments tend to be in US dollars. Cambodia does not have the strict regulations of countries like Vietnam on currency and torn bills, although some vendors may refuse to accept them. Clear tape is the normal remedy for this, and is widely accepted, even in banks.

50 and 100-dollar bills are normally carefully checked before acceptance, as there are often large numbers of fake bills in circulation. Be wary of traders removing the bill from sight and then claiming they cannot change it, as this is a common swindle to substitute a fake bill for your real one. It is useful to note that Cambodian riel has no value outside the country, and foreign banks will not exchange the bills. Try to spend all your local currency before you leave, or get it changed as you go out of the country.

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