I arrived in Siem Reap 5 days ahead of my Habitat Global Village Team. We would all be meeting at the end of the week to begin our adventure together, building houses for two families in need in the Tbeng Kert village, about an hour outside of Siem Reap. I wanted to spend a few days recovering from jet lag and exploring on my own, and I am SO GLAD I did. This is a town you could fall in love with easily.
I chose to stay at The Butterfly Pea Hotel. It is a gem of a boutique hotel. I loved everything about it, and I highly recommend it for hospitality, location, amenities and value. Breakfast was included with my room and they offered a free airport transfer so waiting for me was my tuk tuk driver who whisked me into town in about 25 minutes.
If you need an itinerary, whether you’re on your own or with others, this is an excellent one, if I do say so myself!
Keep in Mind:
- I knew I’d be seeing Angkor Wat with my team, so I didn’t do that on my own.
- If you only have time for one more extra, make it Phare I cannot overstate its fabulousity!
- Cambodia uses the US dollar. You can use them everywhere and will either get change in dollars of riels. ATMs are plentiful. Come with small bills for ease of many transactions.
- Credit cards are widely accepted, but not everywhere especially in markets and some restaurants.
- Voltage is 230. I recommend investing in a universal adapter, which will convert most plugs around the world. You may come across more than one outlet style in Cambodia.
- Bring a small umbrella or rain coat and sturdy shoes for walking around.
- Embrace the Campaign for a Plastic Free Cambodia. Most businesses have already stopped using it plastic. I drank filtered water served in glass bottles at hotels and restaurants with no problems and just about every purchase came in a very cool recycled paper bag. Bring a collapsible shopping bag of your own.
- Along with walking, tuk tuks are the way to get around Siem Reap. You’ll notice most residents use motor bikes and want to be careful crossing the streets. Tuk Tuks are inexpensive and plentiful. Expect to pay $2-3 to get across town, depending upon the distance, a round trip might cost $4-5. Bring a bunch of one-dollar bills for such occasions.
- Talk to the staff and other travelers at your hotel and ask them for their recommendations.
Settle in at The Butterfly Pea. Upon check in the staff will give you a local map and you can get acquainted with the layout of the town (super easy, as the Siem Reap River divides the town in half, east and west.) Shower, change. Eat. The Hotel serves Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner (I recommend the veggie green curry). Ask the hotel staff to call to see what time the next tour is at APOPO and arrange a tuk tuk for you. After learning all about the most amazing land mine detecting Herorats, have the tuk tuk driver (who waited for you) drop you at the Angkor National Museum. Walk around and explore from there until you can’t stay awake anymore!
Conceived in Belgium in 1997, APOPO’s mission is to “develop detection rats technology to provide solutions for global problems and inspire positive social change.” At present, these Herorats are trained to detect landmines or tuberculosis. With a highly developed sense of smell, the African giant pouched rats are lightweight enough to walk over landmines undetected. Important work in Cambodia, which as the highest ratio of mine amputees per capita in the world. Once cleared, the land can be put back to productive use in village communities. If you are as impressed as I was, you’ll adopt a rat like I did!
Learn the history of the ancient Khmer Empire on a self-guided or audio tour of the museum. No photography is allowed. My favorite was the ‘Exclusive Gallery: 1,000 Buddha Images’ followed by ‘Gallery D: Angkor Wat’. If you don’t use an audio guide, all of the displayed text is in English and Khmer, and there are movies in several galleries explaining the exhibits.
When I travel, I do loads of research in advance of my arrival in a new place. Then I craft an itinerary based on my interests, having some things booked in advance and blocks of time open allow for spontaneity. It wasn’t until after I’d arrived that I’d discovered Wat Thmey, and that’s what did in the afternoon this day. But, I booked a spa treatment online in advance, thinking it would help me get over the jet lag and a cramped long flight (Brilliant!).
The Killing Fields: Wat Thmey
Exactly what are the Killing Fields? Coined by Cambodian journalist Dith Pran after escaping from the Khmer Rouge regime, the term refers to all the sites in Cambodia where over a million people were murdered or buried by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Bodies were often dumped in fields, schools, wells or pagodas. It’s estimated that nearly three times that number of people died from other policies that lead to massive disease and starvation.
Now, a little history lesson. The Khmer Rouge is the popular name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. In the 1950s the term was used to generally refer to Cambodia’s far left. After winning the Cambodian Civil War in 1975 overthrowing the Khmer Republic leader Pol Pot began murdering opponents and using other social engineering policies as a means of control, such as attempts at agricultural reform to insist on absolute self-sufficiency. As a result, in less than four years, 25% of the total population died. In 1979 Vietnam invaded Cambodia and defeated the Khmer Rouge army, but it wasn’t until 1993 when the monarchy was restored, that the name of the country became the Kingdom of Cambodia. By 1999 most members of the Khmer Rouge party had been captured or surrendered and the party ceased to exist.
In case you are wondering, as I was, Pol Pot died in his sleep of heart failure at age 72. Hardly seems fair.
Places like Wat Thmey (or Thmei) Killing Field in Siem Reap exist to honor and memorialize those who senselessly died. The pagoda on this site was used as a prison and killing field. Some of the stories of those who survived are told. It’s free to enter and self-guided. The area still seems to be in use by the resident monks, who move about.
Don’t miss a small building around the corner from the large building for the chief monk (written on it); which is a “Cambodian Historical Photo Museum.” It tells the story of one man’s experience, forced to service in Pol Pot’s army witnessing horrific tortures and loss of life. Despite the name, there are no photographs inside but paintings that depict the gruesome means of torture and execution.
[PRO TIP: In particular, the exhibit inside this building was the part of my experience that made me feel a bit sick to my stomach. Like all accounts of torture, as my mind takes in what I’m reading and seeing, my body reacts, and possibly so will yours.]
Confronting the horror of the recent past forces you to react. To envision those who died, to keep the history alive in this way, is to be aware that evil persists. The world has lost millions of great minds and future human potential in conflicts like this one. May we mourn and never forget these atrocities so that they are never repeated. At the same time, may we cling to the optimism and hope in reconciliation that underpin Cambodia’s future. Seventy percent of the nation’s population was born after 1979 and there’s nothing like youth to bring on productive and positive change!
Take a Spa Day
I tried two spas during my two weeks. The Thai Zen Spa and the spa at the Damrei Angkor Hotel, the second place I stayed with my Habitat Global Village Team. Keep in mind that spas, while not all created equal, are an excellent value here in Siem Reap.
For example, I opted for a three-hour treatment at the Thai Zen which I booked in advance (through Facebook) so I could get the day and time I wanted. I was very happy that I chose the day after my arrival to shake off the final vestiges of the long journey. My booking included pickup and drop off, four treatments and a snack before and after for only $69 (credit cards not accepted). My overall experience at both spas was a good one and well worth the price. The products were high quality and staff was kind and accommodating. Any criticisms were trumped by the value.
[PRO TIP: Set expectations in advance about modesty. While most Asian cultures value modesty in dress and manner in public, for some reason, in the spas they seem perfectly comfortable with nudity and touching during treatment. Meaning, if you don’t want your entire chest area or buttocks scrubbed, masked or massaged, make that clear in advance, or during treatment. Otherwise, when in Rome….]
After my treatment at Thai Zen I asked the tuk tuk driver to drop me off at the Phsar Chas or Old Market which teems with activity until 9 or 10pm. It was a pleasant experience wandering through the narrow passages. I bargained for a few silk scarves to take home as gifts and made mental notes of what else I may want to buy. The stroll along the river back to the hotel, well situated away from the noise and hustle, was a pleasant way to end the evening.
Sleep in if your body will let you. Enjoy a leisurely breakfast. I had pre-booked two things: a spot on the 1:30pm free tour of the Silk Farm offered by Artisans Angkor and a 6:30pm ticket to the Bambu Stage performance. Therefore, I decided this would be a good day for me to explore and shop in between.
There are so many lovely things to take home from Cambodia. The trick is finding handicrafts that are ethically made in Cambodia. A great place to start is the Made in Cambodia Market on King’s Road (next to the Hard Rock) which opens at noon.
Cross the bridge to have a walk around the quaint pedestrian streets and alleys around Pub Street, so named for the pubs, restaurants and bars, boutiques and shops in the area. Some of the nicest streets are pedestrian only. Just wander until you find them, ask someone or use my favorite offline navigation app Maps.me.
I loved these shops if you stumble upon them or seek them out:
Smateria – My FAVORITE find! Italian design. Recycled materials. Cambodian made. Awesome!
Graines de Cambodge – Multiple locations. Locally designed jewelry using seeds. The slippers can be customized and ready in about 15 minutes.
Very Berry, handmade in Cambodia – Wonderful little shop selling locally made handicrafts.
[PRO TIP: Go hungry and eat at the Socheata Restaurant, so quaint and inexpensive yet delicious. It’s directly across the corner from Very Berry, Old Market Lane.]
Artisans Angkor offers free shuttle service to their Silk Farm where you can tour the farm, learn about silk making and shop the exquisite merchandise. In my opinion, if you want something made of high-quality silk from Cambodia (clothing, scarves, accessories, pillow covers) buy it here; prices are reasonable and quality is superb.
I saw the Puppet Theatre and loved this experience. Bambu Stage offers various live performances and films, check the website.
Now this was serendipity. Upon leaving the theater on foot, thinking I’d get a tuk tuk to take me back to the hotel, I spotted Spoons Café, a place I had wanted to eat. Run by EGBOK (Everything’s Going to be OK) students, the restaurant provides hands-on training and education to underserved Cambodian young adults, who gain experience in the hospitality industry. They delivered; it was delicious!
After breakfast I was picked up by my tuk tuk driver and chef for my cooking class! I knew I’d be gone most of the day and already had my ticket to Phare for the evening performance, which I pre-booked online.
As someone who loves to cook at home and explore a new culture through its food, I’m always looking for cooking classes like this one. I took the “Master Class” (yes that ME in the photos on the website!) for these reasons and was rewarded with being the only student that day. I was also the first to take the class in the new space at Theam’s House.
Atelier and Artist Studio, Theam’s House is a gallery and mixed-use space that aims to preserve and explore Khmer culture through architecture, everyday life, musical instruments and the artist, Theam’s own work. It’s a beautiful little oasis and much of the art is for sale.
This was my most favorite activity of all! I cannot overstate just how amazing the performers and musicians are. Do a little reading about Phare on their website and get your ticket. I paid a bit more for my tuk tuk ride, $5/each way, but it’s out there. The driver was there at the end to pick me up and take me back “home.” The gift shop also sells loads of ethically and locally made merch. You’ll love it.
I knew I’d be visiting Angkor Wat with my Global Village Team, but I’d heard of other temples that were worth a look, so I booked a private tour guide, recommended to me. The tour was an all day affair, in an air-conditioned car and guide who happened to also be a talented photographer. It was a nice plus to have some great photos that weren’t selfies.
One More Tour to Consider:
With my Habitat Global Village Team I also took a tour to one of the floating villages on the Tonle Sap Lake, the largest fresh water lake in southeast Asia. There are many to choose from and you can also book ahead online.
More Restaurants & Bars Worth Mentioning:
The Green Curry and the traditional Cambodian Breakfast Soup at The Butterfly Hotel was the best I’d had in all of Siem Reap. It’s a small restaurant in the hotel, but it’s worth checking out.
Miss Wong – Great bar and late night hang out favored by a lot of local expats.
Brown Coffee & Bakery – 2 locations. If you’re jonesing for that latte…
More You Should Check Out:
AMMO – Social enterprise that makes jewelry out of recycled spent bullet casings.
Muoy Chorm Fashion Designer – I met Muoy at a party; he and his designs are gorgeous!
Especially for Global Village Team Leaders:
- Use WhatsApp to communicate with everyone. This was a very handy tool for us and in fact, our group still sends out messages once and awhile now that we’re home!
- Be sure you have enough cash to pay for some meals and whatever you’ll owe your GV coordinator at the end. My ‘tab’ was more than I expected, and I’d already maxed out the amount of money I could take from the ATM that day. Jeepers!
- My team stayed at the Damrei Angkor Hotel, which was excellent. Don’t hesitate to use the restaurant. One night I was able to pre-order (showed the team a screen shot of the menus) so that the food came out (more or less) at the same time. It’s well priced too. The only drawback was, there’s not a good meeting space. Therefore, we used Local Pub, a brew pub two doors down. It worked well to meet there before dinner to talk and have a local craft brew.
My team ate dinner (16 people) at these restaurants, which I’d recommend. Our coordinator called ahead for availability to make a reservation.
- Madam Butterfly – Did our welcome dinner here upon another TL’s recommendation. Beautiful private dining room for our large party. Great food and service.
- Viroth’s – Around the corner from the hotel on Wat Bo Road. We walked. Food is excellent, if a bit on the pricey side (comparatively).
- Amazon Angkor – Okay, so this is a bit ‘cheesy’ because it’s a huge place that serves buffet style food. Waiters take your drink orders (full bar), you serve yourself, and then enjoy a traditional Apsara dance show. It was nice not to have to wait for food and to have a huge variety. My team enjoyed seeing the dance most.
- Marum – This wouldn’t be at the top of my list for service, but it’s a run by an NGO that helps street kids. Cool social enterprise with a good menu.
- The Red Piano – CASH ONLY. This place was the least expensive place we ate and it’s right on Pub Street, which is why I chose it. It gave the team a night to stay out and explore the area if they wanted to.
- [PRO TIP: There is a massage place a few doors down – Temple Massage. The one-hour foot massage will be the best $6 you spend, hands down!]
- Wherever you go, DO NOT eat at Atmosphere. We had a terrible experience there. Trust me.