Siem Reap can easily be thought of as the Orlando of Cambodia. In Orlando, most visitors leave the city during the day to visit the theme parks. In Siem Reap, they leave to visit the Angkor areas or the attractions of Tonle Sap, a huge lake where tourists can visit floating villages. Unlike tourists in Orlando, who return each night only to sleep, tourists in Siem Reap return mid-afternoon when the stone temples turn into ovens.
Like Orlando, the road between the airport and downtown is lined with hotels, many of them gigantic complexes catering to tour groups. We were told that Chinese tourists make up the lion's share of Siem Reap visitors, followed by South Koreans and the Japanese. From our own experiences, I'd say that Australians must be next, but we were there in January, the month when most Australians are on vacation. We did not encounter any other Americans in Siem Reap, though of course there must have been a good many.
Prior to our trip, I'd read that Siem Reap is becoming a destination in its own right. If you're intent on drinking a lot, you'll find plenty of company on Pub Street. If you want to shop, there's a Night Market (vendors selling souvenirs as well as clothing), several high-end crafts shops, and a Night Art Market (less crowded than the Night Market and with expensive jewelry added to the usual mix of T-shirts and souvenirs). We picked up an elephant mobile for an infant great-nephew at the Night Art Market. There are also a lot of restaurants at all price points, including a branch of Phnom Penh's popular Foreign Correspondents Club, better known as FCC. There's even a wine bar, The Station, with a gay "lady boy" show a couple of times a week, which we somehow missed.
Once you're in Siem Reap, you need to plot your outings. An independent travel office (whose card I've lost) arranged a boat outing for us to a "floating forest" on Tonle Sap. It's what we Americans would call a swamp, mostly an unremarkable mangrove swamp. On the way to it, we passed through an amazing riverside (canal side?) community of homes atop very tall stilts, below.
Your other outings will be, of course, to the temples. Almost all visitors take what's called the small circuit, which includes Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat -- it's called the "small" circuit because its temples are close together and involve less driving. A tuk-tuk is adequate for this outing. We did not try to be at Angkor Wat for either sunrise or sunset, generally considered the best times to photograph its towers. The small circuit takes the better part of a day, and after it you'll be ready to return to your hotel's pool to cool off.
The "grand circuit" is grand because it covers a larger area. Banteay Srei (see the next posting) is not always included in the grand circuit, which covers Pre Rup, East Mebon and other temples. We hired a car for this -- a slower tuk-tuk would have made this a much-longer day.
For either circuit, you're best advised to hire your own transportation and guide to get the most out of your temple visits. A guide is roughly $22 to $30 a day; the driver and vehicle are a bit less. Your guide and driver will be in cellphone communication so that the tuk-tuk or car is waiting for you no matter where you exit Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom or any of the other big temple complexes.
You shouldn't be totally dependent on your guide, however. Read about the temples to identify features that you don't want to miss. We might have missed the Churning of the Sea of Milk at Angkor Wat had Jane not asked our guide about it. We were advised to arrange guides through tour companies rather than through our hotel. We tried to do that but the tour company that arranged our Tonle Sap outing couldn't get us an English-speaking guide on one day's notice. So we had our hotel set us up. We had a different guide for each of our two days in the Angkor temples, and each day we felt that the guide could have gone into much more depth about what we were seeing. That said, we've probably already forgotten 90 percent of what the guides did tell us.
Our three full days (four nights) in Siem Reap were (1) Tonle Sap (2) small circuit, and (3) grand circuit. Each day's outing ended early enough to give us plenty of time to wander the markets and try the restaurants and bars of Siem Reap. Some, but probably not many, spend a third day at the temples. Guidebooks and tour guides can tell your what a third day would allow you to see.
Below are some snapshots of the Siem Reap.
Above, the FCC in Siem Reap, an elegant complex with a restaurant, bar and several high-end shops near the royal residence on the river. Below, a drinks stand on one of the shopping streets.
Above, a presumably thirsty tourist wades into the chaos of Siem Reap's Pub Street. Below, a sidewalk restaurant gets ready for dinner.