After my flight to Siem Reap flight landed, I headed toward to town center with one thought in mind: Why, after nearly a decade and with hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism revenue gained, had the standard of living for locals changed so little since the last time I spent 3 days in Siem Reap?
The man who picked me up at Siem Reap airport, as if to read my mind, asked my opinion as we turned onto a bumpy side street off the not-much-of-a-main road. “Is it very different from how you remember it?”
Where to Stay in Siem Reap
I’d wanted to come back to Cambodia’s most-visited city since last November, when I took an illuminating return trip to Phnom Penh, also for the first time in many years. So, when Siem Reap hotel Tresor d’Angkor Suite invited me to review their property, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity.
(The property was lovely, in case you’re wondering, and certainly better than the last place I stayed in Siem Reap, though I’m not sure I can go so far as to recommend it, on account of its awkward location and some other minor issues.) The next time I visit the city for 3 days, Siem Reap might be better explored from another hotel.
How to Divide Your Days in Siem Reap
Discover Siem Reap’s Awesome Dining Scene
I’m neither a foodie nor a nightlife person, but I can appreciate Siem Reap’s Pub Street and the area around it for what it is. While it’s true that it’s full of tourists, some of which are the very worst kind of people who visit Southeast Asia, it’s also where you find Siem Reap restaurants that feature some of the best food I’ve eaten anywhere in this region—my 3 days in Siem Reap certainly weren’t hungry ones.
Most specifically, Viva is home to the best Mexican food I’ve had in Asia, hands down—I literally felt like I was back in Texas as I devoured a plate of crispy flautas and washed it down with several different flavors of margarita. The Pub Street/Old Market area is also home to dozens of other types of cuisine, including (of course) Khmer food, and is probably my favorite of all the things to do in Siem Reap, even though I don’t usually enjoy places like this (navigate to some of the links I’ve inserted in this Siem Reap travel blog to see what I mean!).
Travel the Local Way
Visiting Angkor Wat again was high on my list of priorities, in spite of the fact that I’d already done it, but I decided in advance of my trip that I’d devote day two of my 3 days in Siem Reap to Angkor-related activities. As a result, when a Cambodian man I met on Grindr just after lunch on day one offered to take me to a nearby lotus pond to watch the sunset with him, I didn’t hesitate.
The somewhat bad news, if you want to follow in my footsteps, is that this pond seemingly doesn’t have a name, and certainly isn’t on any list of Siem Reap attractions. On the other hand, I do know that Siem Reap’s branch of the Lub D Hostel franchise runs bike tours there, to say nothing of the adventures you can come upon if you also meet a local (on Grindr or elsewhere). To put it another way, if you travel on your own to Siem Reap, 3 days might not be enough to discover such places.
Watch Sunrise at Angkor Wat—or Try To
Another piece of bad news is that my second Angkor Wat sunrise proved even more underwhelming than my first back in 2010, though that didn’t surprise me. One of the most sobering conclusions I’ve come to, traveling around the world for the better part of a decade, is that most of the planet’s sunrises and sunsets are grey and colorless. (Before you go accusing me of being cynical, keep in mind that I still watch both almost every day, during my Siem Reap 3 day itinerary and otherwise!)
To be sure, as my second of 3 days in Siem Reap progressed, I didn’t have much of an appetite to explore other temples, such as Ta Phrom, Bayon and Angkor Thom. Instead, I decided to wait until late afternoon to head out again. This proved to be the right choice, even if watching sunset from atop Phnom Bakheng didn’t yield pictures as iconic a proper sunrise at the foot of Angkor Wat would’ve. I ended up finishing my second 3 days in Siem Reap by having dinner with my local friend one last time.
How Many Days Do I Need in Siem Reap?
I’ve already recommended a 3 days in Siem Reap itinerary, so in a sense you know my answer to this question. On the other hand, the issue of how many days in Siem Reap to spend is more contentious than you might think. For instance, if you just want to see Angkor Wat and spend a full day in the city, then two days is plenty; if you want to spend time at secondary and tertiary temples in the Angkor complex, a week might not even be enough. As much of a cop-out as this seems, it’s really all up to your personal preference.
On the other hand, how many days in Siem Reap you spend should always take into account your larger plans in Cambodia and in Southeast Asia as a whole. I’ll discuss more in greater detail in the next section.
Other Places to Visit in Cambodia (Besides Siem Reap)
I’ve mentioned other destinations in Cambodia in several parts of this 3 days in Siem Reap blog, so here are the specific places I’d recommend visiting:
- Phnom Penh
- Sihanoukville and Koh Rong
Which is not to say your Siem Reap itinerary, 3 days (or longer), can’t be completely à la carte. It certainly can, especially if you reside elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Other FAQ About Siem Reap
Is Siem Reap better than Phnom Penh?
Siem Reap is certainly more convenient than Phnom Penh, if visiting Angkor Wat is your priority during your time in Cambodia. Apart from that, however, I think both of Cambodia’s largest cities have their own merits. While Siem Reap is a laid-back tourist town mostly useful as a base for visiting Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh is a vibrant and (relatively) cosmopolitan capital city.
How many days do you need in Angkor Wat?
You can see the main temple of Angkor Wat in just a day, particularly if you’ve got a bike or if you hire your own tuk-tuk for the day. However, if you want to explore other temples like Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom, or even get lost among the dozens of others on-site, two days might be a better amount of time to spend.
How many days to spend in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh?
As a general rule, I think between 2-3 days each in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh is a good idea. While your time in Siem Reap will mostly center on visiting Angkor Wat, your days in Phnom Penh will see you mostly in the city center, apart from the possibility of a day trip to the Killing Fields.
The Bottom Line
I still don’t get fully “get” Siem Reap, and therefore haven’t fully made up my mind about it, but I can say one thing definitively: How many days you spend in Siem Reap is directly linked to your enjoyment of the city. If you come to Siem Reap solely to see Angkor Wat, you will almost certainly be disappointed. If you have an open mind, a free spirit and at least 3 days in Siem Reap, the city quickly transcends tourist trap status. What to do in Siem Reap for 3 days? The sky’s the limit. Hire me as your Travel Coach to get personalized recommendations for your trip to Cambodia (and Southeast Asia, more broadly).