In the spring, my bestie and I were looking for somewhere special to run a race. The idea was that race would give us something to train for and the fun destination would give us a great excuse for a holiday. After a bit of research, we came across a half marathon in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Knowing the weather wouldn’t be too hot or too cold at that time of year, the course would be flat, and I hadn’t yet explored Cambodia made it the perfect destination.
Since this was my first time in Siem Reap, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Little did I know I would absolutely fall in love with the town and its charm.
About Cambodia and Siem Reap
Located in Southeast Asia and surrounded by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, Cambodia is one of the must-visit places on the typical backpacker circuit, thanks to its cheap prices, friendly locals and wealth of authentic cultural experiences. In 802 AD, Jayavarman II declared himself king of Cambodia, a move which marked the beginning of the Khmer Empire. This empire flourished for more than 600 years and resulted in royals accumulating immense wealth and power which they used to build thousands of remarkable temples travelers flock to visit today.
Most people's first point of contact with Cambodia is Siem Reap — the capital city of the Siem Reap Province in Northwest Cambodia. This resort town is most popular for being home to Angkor Wat — the world's largest religious structure that's so spectacular you have to see it in person to truly appreciate it. Because it attracts so many travelers, Siem Reap is brimming with hotels of all categories, a thriving nightlife scene and ever-growing foodie culture making it a fascinating place to explore.
You need a tourist visa to visit Cambodia. But thankfully the process is really quick and easy. Just visit the official government visa website, fill out the online form and pay the fee (currently $36USD). You'll receive your approval letter within 3 days by email. Then all you need to do is print it out and show it to immigration at the airport in Cambodia.
This type of visa is single entry, meaning you can only use it to arrive in Cambodia once. If you leave the country and want to return, you'll need to apply for a new visa. The visa is valid for three months (so plan accordingly so you don't get caught out!) and it allows you to stay in Cambodia for up to 30 days. If you totally fall in love with the place and want to stay there longer, you can extend your visa for an extra 30 days within Cambodia for an extra fee.
Your money goes a really long way in Siem Reap because everything is so cheap. Food, drinks, accommodation, transportation...everything you need when traveling is super affordable, making it a great place if you're on a tight budget. Cambodia does have its own currency (the Cambodian riel) which you can withdraw from ATMs. But US dollars are accepted everywhere. So you're best off bringing lots of small bills ($1, $5, $10) and using those if you want to keep things simple.
Siem Reap is easy to get to from anywhere in Southeast Asia. By plane, Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport (REP) is just 1 hour from Bangkok, 1 hour 20 minutes from Ho Chi Min City, and 2 hours 40 minutes from Hong Kong. These speedy flights mean that if you're short on time, you can still pop over to Siem Reap — even if it's just for a couple of days.
Cambodia's in the center of the tropics, so it gets warm weather all-year-round. But that doesn't mean it's a place you can visit any time of year. Like a lot of places in Southeast Asia, Cambodia has a dry and a wet season. The dry season runs from November until April, when temperatures are 77F-95F and the air is really humid. The wet season runs from May until the end of October, when the temperature is 77F-81F and it rains pretty much every day either early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
Getting around downtown Siem Reap is super cheap and easy. There are tuk-tuks absolutely everywhere, waiting to whisk you off to your next destination for just a couple of US dollars. Almost all the tuk-tuk drivers speak English, too, so you're unlikely to end up in the wrong place accidentally!
We stayed at the Rambutan Hotel, a wonderful oasis located in a quiet residential area just a 5-minute walk from the Old Market in the historical center of Siem Reap. The hotel arranged for a tuk-tuk driver to pick us up at the airport and take us straight to our accommodation, which was really handy.
When we arrived at the hotel, we were in awe at the lush tropical gardens and salt water swimming pool. The place was designed to look like a traditional Khmer village and it really did!
A great thing about the hotel is that it's spread out over two properties built side-by-side. The Rambutan Hotel has ten rooms and the Rambutan Resort as 16 rooms. Regardless of which property you stay in, guests have full access to the services and amenities at both.
Breakfast was included in the price of our stay which we enjoyed each morning by the pool. The hotel has its own spa, but we never got around to using it. There was far too much on our must-see list! We did find time to squeeze in a quick foot massage by the pool which was fantastic.
The staff were incredibly warm, friendly and really went out of their way to help us with anything we wanted. This was the icing on the cake and made for a fabulous experience that I highly recommend you try if you're ever in Siem Reap.
Things to Do in Siem Reap
Not the typical reason people visit Siem Reap! But if you know anything about me, you'll know I love the idea of combining exercise and travel. Siem Reap offers a loads of different kinds of races, including a 10k, half marathon, and full marathon.
The main races are held in August and December and we were lucky enough to catch one when we were there in the spring. We were luckier still to get the perfect running conditions - a gentle cloud covering and cool temperatures.
Our race began at sunrise through Angkor. With this being my first time in the city, I was absolutely speechless seeing all the temples flash by as I ran. They gave me an incredible energy unlike anything I've ever had on a run. Siem Reap was by far the most beautiful destination I've ever run a race.
Most people visit Siem Reap to explore Angkor and its fascinating temples. One of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, Angkor lies 4 miles north of Siem Reap and covers an astonishing 400 km2 in total. During the classical era of Cambodian history, it was the capital of the Khmer Empire and today contains magnificent remains of various temples which date between the 9th and 15th centuries. The most remarkable structures include Angkor Wat and the Bayon Temple, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
One thing you need to be aware of when visiting Angkor is the dress code. It's important to cover your shoulders and your knees. It's quite common for travelers to be turned away for wearing what's deemed to be revealing clothing, so make sure you cover up. As for footwear, I noticed most people had tennis shoes on. I was wearing sandals and they were fine. It can get incredibly hot, depending on the time of year, so something light is a must.
Sunrise/Sunset Tour in Angkor
One of the best ways to see Angkor is on a sunrise or a sunset tour. You can pick up single-day passes or 3-day passes for this kind of trip. Angkor is beyond huge, so if you really want to get a good look at all the temples, I recommend you go for the 3-day pass. But because I knew I'd be returning to Cambodia sometime in the future, I settled on a single-day pass which I arranged through the hotel.
Our tuk-tuk driver pulled up bright and early (before 5am!) so we'd have enough time to swing by the ticketing center without missing out on the sunrise. We arrived around 30 minutes before the sun was due to come up and the whole place was seriously crowded. A sure sign that we were going to see something amazing! Watching the sun slowly rise up above the horizon while standing in such astonishing surroundings turned out to be one of my favorite memories of my trip.
After the sunrise, we hopped back into the tuk-tuk and enjoyed a tour around Angkor Wat to see all the different temples. Ta Prohm is perhaps the most famous temple in the complex. Nicknamed 'The Tomb Raider Temple', Ta Prohm provided the mystical backdrop for the famous 2001 Hollywood movie starring Angelina Jolie. Like many of the structures, it's a Buddhist temple and was built in 1186. As you can see, it's been taken over by nature with big, beautiful fig trees, but that only adds to its charm.
The Bayon Temple stuck out to me so much I can still picture it perfectly when I close my eyes! It's a Buddhist shrine constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries by King Jayavarman VII. What made it stand out was that there are 216 smiling faces crafted to look like the king carved into its gigantic towers. Sadly, several of the towers have toppled over the years. But there are still around 200 faces smiling at you.
It was crazy hot that day, so we only lasted 3-4 hours before we zipped back to the air-conditioned comfort of our hotel.
The Old Market/Psar Chas
Found on the western side of the river, the Old Market is made up of loads and loads of stalls selling clothes, accessories, souvenirs, luggage, paintings, and other treasures. There's even a selection of fresh veggies, fish and meat that attracts locals who arrive first thing in the morning to buy their groceries.
Most stalls have similar items on display and they're not as refined as newer markets, like the Angkor Night Market, but this place is still definitely worth a visit. I found the prices here were cheaper than in Vietnam and Thailand, which is an extra bonus.
Be sure to wander the downtown area near the Old Market. There are brightly colored lanes with adorable boutiques. I found beautiful handmade jewelry to bring back as gifts for friends.
Made in Cambodia Market
The Made in Cambodia Market was set up to help create local jobs, from the villagers who work hard producing the handicrafts to the people selling the trinkets and talking to the visitors. It's a great place to find genuine handmade pieces that are entirely unique. I snapped up some fabulous gifts here for friends and also sound some wonderful skirts and dresses I couldn't say no to.
As well as the stalls, the market also has live entertainment and hosts artisan workshops, making it a great place to spend a few hours. It's really easy to find, just next to the Hard Rock Café, and is open every day between noon and 10pm.
This very charming neighborhood is just a short walk away from Pub Street and is home to chic boutiques, home interior shops, cafes, and spas. My favorite lifestyle boutique was a beautiful place called Louise Loubatieres that was born out of a passion for travel, a love of beautiful things and a desire to combine the old with the new.
It’s run by a lovely woman called Louise who’s a designer from London and puts incredible love and attention into each item in her shop. From beautiful cotton scarves and hand-painted bangles to gorgeous ceramic decorations and one-of-a-kind jewelry, everything in her boutique was so stunning I wanted to take it all home!
Eating in Siem Reap
Siem Reap is a real foodie's playground, with a huge variety that guarantees something to please all palates. Because it's such a popular destination for travelers to visit, the town's dining scene is booming, with new cafés and restaurants popping up all over the place, run by adventurous locals, eager to offer something new and unique.
There's a huge number of traditional Cambodian restaurants, dishing up classic plates such as fish amok and Khmer red curry. But, just like in Koh Samui, there's also a fantastic choice of restaurants catering for vegetarians, vegans and people in search of healthier choices.
One of my favorite things about Siem Reap's food scene is that it's currently undergoing a big shift toward socially-responsible restaurants. During my visit, I came across so many training cafés and restaurants dedicated to helping young locals develop valuable work skills and the opportunity to get a decent job.
I didn't quite know what to expect from these places, but I was pleasantly surprised! Each one I visited had a great ambiance and impeccable service — proof that if you believe in people and give them a little support, you'll get great results.
There's so much I want to say about the food in Siem Reap that there isn't enough space to fit it all into this post! Check back soon for a follow-up post on all the delicious eats you've absolutely got to try while in Cambodia.
Lovelies I would love to know...
Have you ever been to Siem Reap, Cambodia?
If yes, what did you love about your trip to Siem Reap?
If no, are you feeling inspired to travel here?