Things I Loved in Siem Reap...Off the Temple Path
Things I Loved in Siem Reap...Off the Temple Path
I've been daydreaming about when we can travel safely again, and reflecting on my trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2017. Seeing Angkor Wat was a lifelong dream of mine.
As a teenager, I had Nat Geo spreads of the temples hung on my walls, promising myself that one day, I would explore and experience the sacred spaces, still standing in all their glory.
And I did. It was the experience of a lifetime, truly. At the same time, Siem Reap is more than the temples, and some of my favorite moments were the times spent in between exploring temples.
Full disclosure: My travel style may be a bit un-orothodox. As type A, anxious as I am in real life, in my travel life, it melts away. I woke up most days without a real plan, and asked for advice or a guidebook to fill my days. I like to stay and explore outside of the typical tourist destinations and spaces, visit social good enterprises, talk to people I meet, pet street dogs and temple cats, and spend time wandering aimlessly, taking it all in.
If you're planning a trip to Siem Reap, keep these ideas in mind for an even-more-amazing trip!
LODGING: The Community School of Hope/ 3 Sons Homestay
The School of Hope is a very special place! Chheak, a former tour guide, teaches English to the children in the village (who may or may attend school, where English is not usually a part of the curriculum). Because many jobs in Siem Reap are tourism based, speaking English can be important for employment.
Rooms are rented to fund the school operation. Included is airport transportation (by tuktuk) and a massive breakfast plate. Chheak also can arrange any tour you like, help you plan your daily activities, and offers tours and classes of his own. (My greatest regret of that trip is that I did not take a cooking class with his wife!) There are also dogs, cats, and chickens scooting around...and at night you my be treated to a frog serenade!
The rooms at the Community School are clean and welcoming. The community spaces allow you to meet fellow travellers. When I first arrived, I spent my time with two other families, and we even worked on some painting at the school.
What's so special about 3 Sons Homestay is the people. Not only are Chheak and his family amazing, welcoming, and kind, you'll get the chance to meet some great people! Because I had the same tuktuk driver, Pring, my whole stay, we got to know each other through many rides and meals together. I also had the opportunity to meet some of the other people from the village when I came home to a barbecue.
Driver Pring and I shared many meals...and a few drinks. Here, at Angkor What? the American bar on Pub Street.
3 Sons Homestay is just off the beaten path, but the time you spend travelling between the Homestay and the temples is well-worth it, giving you time to see the non-tourist side of Siem Reap.
I fell in love with the 3 Sons Homestay and the village and I know you will too!
EDUCATION: The Angkor National Museum
Sometimes, after days of temple gazing in the hot sun (especially if you're me and go in August) you need an air-conditioned break. Enter: the Angkor Museum!
My background is in public history, which makes me the number 1 museum nerd, so I opted for the audio tour. I learned about Cambodian history, how the temples were constructed, and marvelled at the Room of 1000 Buddhas, which is jaw-droppingly beautiful.
Cambodian history is rich, and the museum is a great stop to learn more about the country while staying cool. Also, their gift shop is amazing.
ENTERTAINMENT: Phare, Cambodian Circus
Everyone told me I HAD to see the circus. I'm not much of a circus person, but with a free evening, I obliged. I am so grateful that I did.
Not only is the story amazing (it was founded by survivors of the Pol Pot regime), it is a truly beautiful performance that moved me to tears. The circus takes place in a big top, with live music and live art (seriously, someone draws the backgrounds in real time), while performers tumble and soar through the air, telling the story of the Khmer Rogue (there are other shows as well).
It is one of the most incredible, entertaining, and moving performances I've ever seen and I would highly recommend the circus to any curious traveler. (And a bonus: air conditioning!)
Additionally, the Phare circus educates over 1,200 children attend free K-12 school and get performing arts training for free. During COVID, Phare pivoted to offer free circus performances to Cambodian locals. Phare is doing the work of social good in a colorful way.
ENTERTAINMENT: THE KHMER CERAMICS STUDIO
The home of the first collection, Khmer Ceramics was not on my to-do list and ended up being one of my favorite memories of Siem Reap. I found it in a guide book, and chose it because it sounded unique and had no risk of sunburn (I am VERY fair).
Khmer Ceramics allows you to get your hands dirty, making your own ceramics, guided by expert potters, many of whom communicate using Khmer Sign Language.
It was an enjoyable learning experience to try my hand at something new and learn about the history of Khmer ceramics and the studio. Visiting the studio requires a bit more forethought though, as it takes a day or two for your pieces to be fired.
If they're successfully fired (without breaking), you get a certificate calling you a certified Angkor potter. Maybe it's silly, but I've got mine framed and hanging on my wall.
After you finish crafting your masterpiece, you can browse the truly stunning pieces the artisans create. I had to resist the urge to take them all home!
DRINKS: Miss Wong's Cocktail Bar
Miss Wong's is a cozy, chic cocktail bar in the heart of Siem Reap. I like a cocktail, but the pounding music of Pub Street was not my scene. Enter: Miss Wong's!
Miss Wong's, founded by a New Zealand ex-pat, is a throwback to 1930s Shanghai bars, and located just off Pub Street and near market stalls, making it a great place to stop in after shopping.
I had the pleasure of meeting the owner, Dean Williams, while I sat at the bar, reading my book. We briefly discussed how his bar was special because a lady traveling alone (as I was) could feel comfortable having a drink without being bothered- which is honestly appreciated- a luxury I don't get at home!
The cocktails and service were excellent, the peace of mind, priceless! Miss Wong's has opened a second location in Battambang too.
No matter how you choose to travel, adding any of these experiences to your trip will make it even more memorable!