There are certain places you travel to that simply steal your heart, without even trying. That was the case for Siem Reap, in Cambodia.
Cambodia made our list for a very simple reason, Carine’s love of yoga. Early on, when we decided we’d be globetrotting through South East Asia, we knew Cambodia was a must-visit destination. It is renown as one of the best places in the world for yoga retreats, not to mention the amazing temples. We arrived there with no expectations. We only had 12 days to spend in the city, including some time in a yoga retreat.
After 6 months of traveling, we’ve learned to take it slow, go with the flow, and not try to do too much in a short amount of time. Siem Reap was exactly on the same page as us. Easy-going, laid-back, charming, and just the right amount of fun!
The people of Cambodia
The first thing we noticed about Siem Reap were the friendly smiles on the locals faces, as soon as our plane landed. We were greeted with the warmest welcome a customs border officer will probably ever give you! We were off to a great start, and the smiles only continued to roll in after that. First from Dara, the Babel Guesthouse tuk-tuk driver who picked us up and would explain where we were at every turn.
Then the kids on scooters, who would slyly wave or pull a peace sign out with their brightest and warmest Hello! We couldn’t help but have a smile permanently on our faces while driving around the city. It seemed like even the market vendors were just out to get a laugh with you when we walked by their stalls… even if we weren’t buying anything. Usually, in other South East Asian countries, they would haggle, and argue, sometimes getting angry when we’d walk away. But not in the magical Kingdom of Cambodia. Here, all interactions were done with a smile, and friendly banter.
One of our best memories with locals was the night we set out to find some bugs to eat at the night market. As we walked by some restaurants, one bar manager stopped us to talk about football (or soccer for all our friends in North America). Derek might have been wearing his famous Argentina jersey, which always gets us into some fun conversations. He wanted us to come in for a drink at his bar, for free. He just wanted to talk! When we told him that we were looking to get some bugs to eat, he made us a deal: “I will come and show you where to find the best bugs, if you come back to my bar with me for some beers after…”
You have yourself a deal!
First, the woman selling the bugs was the sweetest and liveliest one we’ve met. She enthusiastically explained where she gets her bugs, why they are good for you, and all that good stuff. I kind of wish she would have hired me to help her sell bugs, as I’ve grown quite fond of them (and her). What good is all my experience in marketing if I can’t help some sweet lady sell bugs! But more on that later!
We held our end of the promise. After getting our fix of bugs, we headed back to the bar for drinks. There, we sat with our friend for a good hour. He spoke to us about his childhood, his upbringing, his hopes and dreams for his future, but more importantly, for the future of his country. He has started a program with some friends and other locals to help build homes for the less fortunate. They all pitch in some money every week, and once they have saved up enough, they find a family to help out, either renovating their home, or building a new one. He didn’t want other kids to grow up the way he did. He was an inspiration!
In French, they would say that we had a”Coup de Coeur” for the people of Cambodia. But it seems like that doesn’t do it justice!
Disconnecting to better connect
After a few days in the bustling city, we were ready to disconnect a little. Disconnect from our phones and screens, from the hustle and bustle of the city, and just reconnect with nature and ourselves. We found the perfect retreat a short tuk-tuk ride away from Siem Reap called Angkor Zen Gardens.
We spent about 5 hours a day in yoga or meditation classes. We worried about this before we started, but the classes were spaced out just enough. By the end of the day, we were a little sore, but felt refreshed and rejuvenated, both in body and mind. Any free time we had was spent by the pool – Can you blame us?
We were dealing with +30ºC temperatures. We could also be found in the dining hall, chatting with new friends, eating some delicious vegetarian meals and insanely fresh fruits.
We stayed there for 4 days, but needless to say that we would have loved to extend our stay! Our home during that time was a lovely little bungalow. And our time was shared with like-minded ‘Do-It-Your-Way’-ers we won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
The temples – Siem Reap’s pièce de resistance
Well obviously! Did you really think we would go to Siem Reap and not visit the Angkor Wat temples? We know we do things our way, but you can’t ignore the 7th wonder of the world, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the largest religious monument in the world!
We got up super early one morning, earlier than we care to admit, and we set out to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. We spent 3 days admiring the beauty that is Angkor Wat and its many temples. The organized tours are split into 2 categories: The Big tour (as temples are further from each other) and the Small Tour (which has your famous Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Bayon). If you’re feeling adventurous, there is the beautiful Lady temple, Banteay Srei that’s about an hour out of Siem Reap. It’s small but quite beautiful, and you get to see life in the countryside.
We weren’t expecting much when we set out to discover the temples. Yes, we knew they were old, that they were impressive and beautiful. But it’s only when you see them up-close and personal that you truly understand the magnitude of their beauty and the insane ways they had to be built. Angkor Wat is probably the best conserved of the bunch, but because some temples have not aged so well, many countries around the world are working to restore them to their former glory.
We took 3 days to see 10 temples, but if we could have, we might have taken 10 days, to truly explore them (and maybe try an organize a game of hide-and-seek in there). If you plan on going, here’s what you should know.
Places to stay
When it comes to accommodations in Siem Reap, there are plenty of offers, from budget-friendly to high-budget, but here are the ones that struck out to us:
Babel Guesthouse: The premier eco-friendly, responsible tourist destination in Siem Reap. A lovely staff, a quaint garden restaurant, the friendliest owners and a contributing member of their community, we loved our stay here.
Bou Savy Guesthouse: Located in the heart of Siem Reap, a short walk away from the Royal Residence, the Old Market and Angkor Night Market. This guesthouse is a great place to stay if are looking to experience Siem Reap’s legendary temples, or their vibrant city centre. You’re close enough to the action, without being bothered by hoards of loud tourists. Attentive staff; beautiful and cozy rooms; a great restaurant downstairs where breakfast is served; a nice swimming pool to help you cool down after a long day of temple visits; what more could you need?
Popular Residence: Located slightly off the tourist trail, in a lovely area, this beautiful boutique hotel featuring a breakfast variety, amazing spacious rooms, lovely modern design, and of course, a great swimming pool right in the centre court. The staff will go to all lengths to make sure your stay is the best in Siem Reap. They even asked every morning if we slept well the night before, I mean who even does that?!?!
Angkor Zen Gardens: If Yoga is your thing, and even if it isn’t, but you’re looking for a new experience, we cannot say enough good things about this retreat. Connected with nature, Angkor Zen will help you be one with your body and mind, and feed you like a king or queen while it does! You can either stay here for a retreat, or drop in for any of the classes.
For any bookings, you can use our Booking.com link to save some money, cause we can all use some extra change to keep the adventure going.
Where to Eat
Tuk Tuk Tacos: When you need a little break from Khmer food, head down to Tuk Tuk Tacos. They have amazing margaritas and delicious tacos that are fairly priced. Our favourites were the pulled jackfruit tacos that pack in quite a kick!
Khmer Grill: For a delicious but cheap Khmer meal, this is the place! Situated close to Pub Street, the restaurant offers all sorts of traditional Khmer dishes, and a great variety of vegetarian food. They will even add tofu to their traditional meals to make sure you get enough protein. Bon appétit!
Le Tigre de Papier: From Khmer dishes to Italian fare, this restaurant has it all. And it’s all delicious, unlike other places that fail at making traditional Western food. If you want a good fire-oven pizza, this is the place!
If you found this article helpful, please help us by pinning it for others.