Siem Reap, in northwest Cambodia, is a home to the country's number one tourist attraction, Angkor, making it a popular starting and finishing point for cruises along the Mekong River.
Cambodia was a French colony from 1863 to the mid-1950s, and this heritage is reflected in Siem Reap's colonial architecture, elegant tree-lined boulevards and bakeries selling French baguettes and pastries. The majority of cruise passengers arrive and depart at the city's airport and are transported by bus to and from the Mekong or Tonle Sap lake, which feeds into the river and is the embarkation point for some itineraries.
Known as the gateway to Asia's ancient world, for decades Siem Reap has beckoned travelers eager to get a glimpse of 12th-century temples and incredible Buddhist complexes that have withstood the tests of time, weather and human interference. The most famous, Angkor Wat, beckons more than 2-million travelers a year to its sprawling temples and breathtaking landscapes.
Frequently referred to as the "eighth wonder of the world," Angkor was the center of the ancient and mighty Khmer Empire, which once stretched from the Bay of Bengal to the South China Sea. Excursions are typically spread over one or two days and will include Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument (at its most atmospheric at sunrise and sunset), and other temples, such as mysterious Ta Prohm, discovered by 19th-century explorers in the midst of the jungle surrounding Siem Reap.
Siem Reap is also home to an impressive collection of other palaces, temples and historic sights, many of which don't see as many tourists -- giving you a chance to truly get lost in Asia's intricate and complicated past. Beyond temples and sunrises, Siem Reap is growing rapidly to match the number of tourists flocking in -- with new luxury hotels popping up around the outskirts of the temples, new and varied restaurants and guest houses for more budget-conscious travelers. Plus, the town has a burgeoning art scene -- with artists, street performers and bands adding to the quirky vibe of the new Siem Reap.
Other excursion options include "Senteurs d'Angkor," where local craftspeople make beautiful handcrafted soaps, candles and other gift items from local products. There's also a dinner show with traditional Apsara dances -- marked by elegant hand movements -- and the bustling night market, open until midnight, where it's fun to bargain for silk scarves, handicrafts and other souvenirs.
Since ships don't actually dock in Siem Reap -- they dock nearby -- passengers are transported to and from the ship via ferry. The ferry arrives at Chong Khneas near Phnom Krom, 12 kilometers south of Siem Reap. There is always transportation waiting at the dock. Mototaxis charge about $2 to $3 and cars $6 to $7 for the 20- to 30-minute ride into town. In addition, daily ferries navigate from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and often take a few hours.
Like most Southeast Asian countries, the poverty of Siem Reap is hard to ignore and children begging for money or food might approach you. As a rule, never give money to children (it only perpetuates their poverty and keeps them further out of schooling). If you want to give them something, purchase fruit, bread or snacks from a local market and give them that instead of any money. In addition, the motorbike drivers can be rather aggressive on the roads, so always look both ways (often more than once) before crossing the road. As a rule of thumb, walking slowly across the road is the best bet as the motorbikes will weave around you. If you run, they're more likely to hit you or slam on their brakes to avoid you, causing a larger accident behind you. Another thing to watch for is pickpockets in the temple complexes (especially Angkor Wat). Many of them are very sly and can easily take wallets, phones and even cameras from your pockets or your hand. Avoid losing anything important by keeping your valuables out of your pocket and your camera wrapped around your neck.
Cambodia's currency is the riel (for the latest exchange rate, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com), but most vendors, restaurants, hotels and even the temple complexes take (and prefer) U.S. dollars. Also, bring ample small bills, which come in handy for tipping, buying water and tuk tuk or taxi rides. It's advised to bring enough money to get you through your stay ahead of time (as ATMs are often out of order or not government mandated); however, there are still banks available if you need to safely withdraw money.
The traditional dialect of Siem Reap (and most of Cambodia) is Khmer, an interesting language that blends the influence of Sanskrit and Pali, as well as dialects from the neighboring countries of Lao, Vietnam and Thailand. Although most tour guides, hotel employees and temple workers do speak conversational English, it's best to learn a few key words in Khmer as the level of English varies by person.
Siem Reap's main markets offer an eclectic variety of unique souvenirs to take home. Most younger tourists inevitably leave with at least two pairs of stretchy elephant pants (sold at almost any market stall), sarongs and soft-as-silk handmade scarves. For something distinctively Cambodian, pick up a bamboo farm hat, which resembles almost an old-fashioned bowler (an entirely different shape than Vietnam's famous rice field hats). The temple shops and the markets are also a good place to pick up local artwork and photographs of the infamous Angkor Wat silhouette flanked by the morning sunrise or oil paintings of monks walking to and from the temples. Many also leave with a variety of plates, trays, paintings or cups made from lacquerware (the best vendor is Eric Stocker), which is actually produced from the Chinese lacquer tree's sap.
For a quick buzz, sample Cambodia's famed rice wine, known as sraa in Khmer, which is often described as rocket fuel due to its overwhelming potency. To sample different flavors of the strong wine, head to a Sombai shop to taste the libation infused with coffee beans, ginger, coconut and pineapple. If you'd rather sip on something a little lighter, try the local brew, known as Angkor Beer.