The insider advice on this page is from two of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Southeast Asia: Andrea Ross and April Cole of Wild Frontiers.
During the ten years she lived in Cambodia, Andrea founded Journeys Within (as well as the nonprofit Journeys Within Our Community, which operates education and poverty relief initiatives in the region). Though now living stateside, the network that she and colleague April have developed in Southeast Asia keeps them up-to-date on the newest can’t-miss accommodations, restaurants, and experiences, and their close relationships with the region’s hotels ensure that clients get the best rates and the best care. Andrea specializes in family travel, while April is the beach and island expert—and a master at crafting affordable yet extravagant honeymoons. Both women are committed to philanthropic travel, weaving volunteer work into many itineraries.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
The Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor is a beautiful colonial gem located between the temples and town. They serve a wonderful afternoon tea and in the evening they show black-and-white movies on the giant screen beside the pool. We get excellent rates below rack rate, and our guests are upgraded whenever possible.
Restaurant the locals love
Touich Restaurant Bar is outside town, but they will come and pick you up since it can be hard to find. It’s worth getting there, though, as the food is amazing and the value can’t be beat.
Meals worth the splurge
Cuisine Wat Damnak sits across the river from town and serves a truly unique menu of delicious and beautifully composed dishes that include exotic fruits and vegetables and fresh fish from the Mekong and Tonle Sap.
Chanrey Tree offers contemporary Khmer cuisine, using a fresh approach to traditional dishes while retaining the essentials of Cambodian cooking.
Meals for a good cause
Cambodia is a mecca for restaurants and businesses that specialize in giving back to the local community. Haven, in Siem Reap, is a training restaurant for orphaned street kids; they serve a selection of flavorful Asian and Western food, including some Swiss specialties. This is a popular spot, so be sure to make reservations a few days in advance. Marum is another training restaurant that works with street children and other marginalized youth and serves delicious local Khmer cuisine; reservations are essential.
Amok, a curry fish entrée, is the national dish of Cambodia, so it’s widely available and worth trying at least once. Khmer barbecue is also popular with locals and visitors alike. It’s an all-you-can-eat barbecue where you grill your own meat, noodles, and vegetables right at your table. Try the yellow sauce. I have no idea what is in it, but it’s delicious.
Prime picnic spot
We offer a special picnic lunch at a remote temple. It’s a great way to get away from the crowds and enjoy some quiet time in this amazing place. But if you want to head out on your own, pick up a picnic lunch at Blue Pumpkin and head out with a tuk-tuk driver to a quiet spot along the Angkor Thom wall.
What to See and Do
Some of the lesser-known temples, such as Banteay Kdei or Pre Rup. These are magnificent examples of Khmer architecture, but most tourists don’t know about them and most guides don’t go to the trouble to take people there, which means you might just have them to yourself.
The Landmine Museum near the Banteay Srei temple complex provides a fascinating look at the history of land mines in Cambodia and the devastation they continue to cause. The museum is remarkably powerful and well organized and supports land-mine victims and ongoing clearance efforts throughout the country. It’s small and doesn’t require much time but can have a huge impact.
Sunset at Phnom Bakheng. The crowds descend on this hilltop temple at sunset, so it’s overwhelmingly crowded. Worse, you have to stand in line for hours because the officials only let a limited number of people up at a time. Head to the Pre Rup or Phnom Krom temples instead and enjoy a beautiful sunset without the hordes.
Most tours of Tonle Sap are also overrated. While there are great ways to see the lake by kayaking or visiting lesser-known villages, the main tourist part of the lake is a virtual poverty zoo: Visiting it is unpleasant for you and bad for the community.
Take a quad ride through the countryside and see village life. Kids run out and wave as you go by, and you can stop for drinks and snacks at small country stalls. Full-day and half-day trips are available, as well as a two-hour sunset ride. It’s a wonderful way to have an adventure and take a break from the temples.
How to spend a Sunday
Most Cambodians work six days a week, so Sunday is a special day for them. Head into the temples and join the locals having picnics overlooking Angkor Wat and the moat. At night, head to Road 60 and enjoy the local carnival—meat on a stick, games, and even a roller coaster (though I’m sure it hasn’t passed a safety inspection too recently).
Late November and early February, when the worst of the hot and steamy weather has passed and the huge crowds that descend on Angkor Wat in December and January have not yet arrived or have already departed (do also avoid the week of Chinese New Year when that falls during February). I also love to visit the temples in August when the monsoons have started and the countryside is green and lush and many tourists have been scared away by the heat and humidity.
April and May are just unbearably hot and should be avoided.
Assuming you’ll ride through the jungle on an elephant and “discover” Angkor Wat! It’s best to be realistic that this is a major international destination and plan accordingly. You can avoid the crowds and have a more special experience if you get an early start and begin at the back entrance to Angkor Wat, or visit lesser-known temples. If you head in unprepared, you’ll be in the middle of packs of tourists and you won’t really get to see anything.
There are a lot of kids asking for money at the temples and it’s hard to not want to help them. But instead of giving them money, bring them stickers or pencils. These kids really need to be in school, so encouraging them to beg by giving them money won’t help them in the long run.
I like the World Nomads Cambodian Language app. It has audio so you can hear how the words are supposed to be pronounced, which is really helpful.
Get a visa-on-arrival form before your flight lands. That way you can fill it out beforehand and get straight into line when you arrive, avoiding what would otherwise be a long wait. There are ATMs in the airport if you forget the $30 for your visa. Don’t bother exchanging money: Almost all of Cambodia operates with U.S. dollars, so there’s no need for local currency.
Tips are high around Angkor Wat and Siem Reap because of the influx of tourists. Guides are used to $10 to $20 per day and drivers half that; at restaurants I tip 20 percent, just like in the States.
I would recommend a shawl or a large scarf. While you can get a scarf easily in the market, finding one large enough to act as a shawl is harder. With a shawl you can easily cover your shoulders as needed at the temples, but roll it up and put it in your day bag or purse without adding a lot of extra weight.
Of course you have to head to Bayon, the most famous temple in the complex, and touch noses with one of the mighty Buddha statues. Your guide or a local can show you where to stand, and you can take a quick shot that looks like you’re face to face.
The Old Market is a fun place to shop as well as to see local vegetables and meat being sold. Silk scarves are made in Cambodia and are a great value. If you’re looking for something really special, head to Artisans de Angkor, which is an NGO that trains locals in the ancient arts, from making beautiful stone carvings to lacquerware. The results are absolutely stunning.
Enjoy a private candle-light dinner in a temple at the Angkor complex, including a three-course Khmer meal and traditional Apsara dancers accompanied by musicians. This dinner is perfect for special occasions like an anniversary or even a proposal. Unforgettable!