ITINERARY INSPIRATION: 4 Days in Siem Reap
If you’re planning a trip to Siem Reap, the Angkor Temples will undoubtedly dominate your planning. The temples – and it goes far beyond Angkor Wat – are jaw-droppingly beautiful and worth being on every traveler’s bucket list. Siem Reap goes beyond the draw of its famous temples though. It’s a spiritual town with plenty on offer to keep your interest piqued from start to finish. Below I’m sharing an itinerary for 4 days in Siem Reap that includes visiting the requisite Angkor Archaeological Park plus unique museums and evening entertainment.
Day 1 // Meet Siem Reap Introduction to Cambodia
ARRIVAL. The peacefulness is palpable in Siem Reap. We were greeted by a representative from Jaya House and a tuk-tuk awaiting our arrival to escort us to our hotel for our 4 days in Siem Reap. This marked the end of our month in Southeast Asia, and I couldn’t have picked a better way for our trip to culminate. We arrived mid-morning, which allowed us time for some daytime exploration, and a gorgeous lunch at Sokkak River Lounge. Tuk-tuks are readily available everywhere in Siem Reap and will be your de facto mode of transportation for getting around. Keep local currency at the ready for smaller transactions as your Cambodian riel (about 4000:1 against the USD) will come in handy for everything from tuk-tuk rides to small gifts. Shopping in Siem Reap provides some great opportunities to pick up locally-crafted gifts that help support local artisans. For those particularly interested in supporting independent craftsmen, the Made in Cambodia Market is a great destination to explore to get started.
If you’re staying at Jaya House like we were, ask about their tours and excursions. We spent a special first evening exploring temples – temple ruins and a functioning temple – plus got a glimpse into life surrounding Siem Reap. We made our first night an early one and stayed close to home for dinner since we had a very early wake-up call the following day to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat.
?? Read about our sunset expedition in Siem Reap for our first night in the city.
Day 2 // Angkor Temples Exploring World Wonders
If you’ve made it to Siem Reap there’s no doubt that your core focus is the Angkor temples, which are utterly spectacular. We spent two days exploring the temple ruins that make up Angkor Archeological Park. For our first full day, we hired a guide to help lay the foundation for us on the history of what we were seeing, plus to provide some guidance on which temples to see during our time in town.
We started our day with the sunrise at Angkor Wat (a 4:30AM wake up call) and continued on, taking in about a half-dozen temples during our day in the area. A driver and guide will cost you a bit more than doing something self-guided but it’s well worth it for the local knowledge that it brings. If your schedule is like ours, you’ll complete your day in the afternoon and enjoy a little R&R to compensate for the early morning wake-up call.
We spent the evening exploring the town of Siem Reap, which has several unique shops for local crafts, clothing, and accessories. When it comes to dining in Siem Reap, Cambodian food is more like Laotian cuisine than it is like Vietnamese or Thai, and we made it our mission to try some local specialties. You’ll see dishes like fish amok, specialties using green mango, Khmer curries, and some rare off-beat bites like balut (Scott tried balut during our tour of Saigon by motorbike!). Check out Culture Trip’s round-up of foods to try in Cambodia.
?? Read about our experience exploring the temples in Siem Reap for inspiration plus logistics for your trip.
Day 3 // Temples + Museums + HeroRATs Ancient & Modern Cambodia
Our third day in Siem Reap brought more temples, plus some museums and visitor sites that came highly recommended by past visitors and current residents. After spending a full day taking in a range of temples, we chose to spend a half-day exploring a few more off-the-beaten-path temples: Banteay Srei and Ta Som. Since we had a plan in mind, we chose to hire a tuk-tuk for the journey. If you have a number of other temples on your radar to experience, you may be better served hiring a guide for a second full day so you can cover larger distances and benefit from the knowledge of an insider.
After our morning temple exploration, we visited the Cambodia Landmine Museum, which sits between Banteay Srei and Siem Reap. For all of the wonderful temples and amazing history that Cambodia offers, there is a recent history that’s emotional to face and some of this is highlighted at the Landmine Museum. Cambodia remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world after decades of civil war, the Khmer Rouge, US bombings, and more, and this museum does a great job of highlighting the impact and reality of unexploded ordinances in Siem Reap and beyond. Aki Ra, the local founding partner, was involved with planting mines during his youth after being taken by the Khmer Rouge. In adulthood, he founded a demining NGO and the Cambodian Landmine Museum. Here’s a glimpse into Aki Ra’s life and mission:
Following the Cambodian Landmine Museum, we headed to the APOPO Center to visit the HeroRATs, and timed it perfectly, more by luck than by planning. The APOPO Center was one of my absolute favorite stops on this journey and was nice to pair with the Cambodia Landmine Museum. The museum will give you a glimpse into the work being done on unexploded ordinances (UXOs) and the manpower involved in the mine removal. It’s intensive, and there’s still much work to be done.
The APOPO Center, by contrast, will bring some positivity to the conversation in learning about part of the solution — a creative one. The center has 33 HeroRATs that have been trained to detect TNT in the ground, up to one-trillionth of a gram. There are demonstrations throughout the day so timing is important if you’d like to be there for one of the planned tours. Five rats are used for demonstrations and the rest work in the field, clearing one section at a time. When TNT is detected, the rats are trained to scratch and alert their human counterparts, who then go in and deactivate the landmines. Where the weight of a human would cause an explosion, the rats’ light weight (usually around 2.5 – 3 lbs.) isn’t enough to set off the mines. A HeroRAT can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes; a human deminer with a metal detector can take up to 4 days since metal detectors pick up superfluous metal scraps, not just landmines. The rats live about 6-8 years and cost around $6000 each and are specially trained in Tanzania, where they can also be trained to detect TB. It’s fascinating and will give you amazing respect for this entire process. To me, this is an absolute must on your list and provides something interesting beyond the temples (a great thing when you’re experiencing temple fatigue).
For dinner, head into town for drinks and dinner (here’s some dining inspo from Culture Trip). For foodies in the bunch, Cuisine Wat Damnak came highly rated by Siem Reap regulars but we weren’t able to get a reservation once we’d arrived in town. For any hot spots, be sure to email in advance to avoid disappointment.
Day 4 // Siem Reap City Relaxation + Nightlife
For our final day in Siem Reap, we chose to enjoy some R&R at Jaya House, spend time exploring the city center, and pick up some final souvenirs (this was the grand finale of our time in Southeast Asia as a whole). At Jaya House, daily massages are included, which is a major treat, so R&R mode is facilitated in a major way.
We booked an evening of entertainment, slated to start around 8PM so we designed an appetizer crawl to take in a few restaurants and bars along the way. A few of our favorites: WILD, which is a spring roll-focused concept playing on a range of themes. Cocktails are creative and great, too! For a cool cocktail lounge, try Miss Wong, which draws on a bit of a 1920’s Shanghai feel (it came highly recommended by locals and tourists alike). For wine, we visited Balthazar, a wine bar with some lovely charcuterie and cheese boards.
We spent our final evening at Phare, the Cambodian Circus, which is a Cirque du Soleil-type production in an intimate setting. The performances change regularly and are a great way to contribute to the arts while in the region. The circus is a social enterprise that helps cultivate performance arts in Cambodia and assist in providing economic opportunities for youth in disadvantaged areas. There are generally two shows per night – we opted for the later of the two – and in our experience, the theatre was nearly sold out. Visitors have the choice of three sections – A, B, and C – with the most expensive tickets running $38/person. For those seated in the front section, you’ll get a complimentary reusable water bottle for your stay (retail for these is around $10), which is a great perk and helps with eliminating plastics in the region. Read more about the plastic-free revolution happening in Southeast Asia with Refill Not Landfill.
A quick video recap of our 4 days in Siem Reap:
Our 4 days in Siem Reap provided us with the perfect introduction to the city. For those interested in delving into a broader array of temples that are part of the Angkor Archeological Park, there’s a seven-day pass available, and you could easily spend a slower-paced week investigating the ruins in the region. As you’ve seen from our itinerary, there’s also plenty to enjoy beyond the temple scene. There’s a larger focus on ancient Cambodia for many visitors, but there’s also plenty of opportunities to engage with modern-day Cambodia in a meaningful way with a few well-crafted museums, thoughtful social enterprises, and artisanal items to bring home. Hindsight is everything, and in looking back on our month in the region, Siem Reap was one of my absolute highlights from our journey. The temples are top of mind, of course, but there’s so much more to discover in this Southeast Asian gem.
For those that have been, anything you’d add to an itinerary for 4 days in Siem Reap? Anything we should add to our agenda for a future visit?