Set in northwest Cambodia, Siem Reap is best known for being home to the incredible Angkor ruins, a sprawling World Heritage-listed complex of ancient temples with the magnificent Angkor Wat as the focal point.
While the Angkor park is surely one of the globe's most amazing historical sites, Siem Reap province is also home to an array of other ruins, such as Beng Mealea, Bantaey Srei, and the holy mountain Phnom Kulen. So if ancient temple ruins are your thing, this province -- an expansive piece of mostly flat land, covered in rice fields and brush -- must be explored fully. It runs along the north shore of the Tonle Sap, Cambodia's "Great Lake", and north to Oddar Meanchey province, where Pol Pot met his end. Few visitors get around to the fringes, even though they are becoming increasingly accessible after many improvements to Cambodia's roads.
The provincial capital of Siem Reap is also a transportation hub, with many people coming through here en route to Phnom Penh, Poipet (the northwest border crossing to Thailand) or by bus or boat to Battambang. And more and more people are now using it as a base from which to visit the renowned Preah Vihear temple.
Siem Reap's international airport now takes in more tourists daily than the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Mass tourism has well and truly arrived to this part of Cambodia and is expected to triple between 2010 and 2015.
The town itself is situated three kilometres south of the temple park, and has exploded from a relatively small backwater town to the fastest growing settlement in the nation. Annually, two million visitors now travel through the small city to see the adjacent Angkor ruins. This tourism hub has three PGA-rated golf courses, the presence of international hotels such as Sofitel, Raffles, Aman and Le Meridien, and an airport with 36 international and domestic flights arriving daily. Developers scramble to build facilities that complement the impressiveness of Angkor, described by Henri Mahout, the Frenchman who re-alerted the West to it in 1860, as "a rival to that of Solomon and erected by some ancient Michelangelo... grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome."
The chaotic growth has not always had the best results and some would argue it has all happened far too quickly, without any planning or considerations of sustainability. For example, the town has been experiencing serious issues with water access for a number of years now, driving businesses to distraction. No matter what your opinion of that, Siem Reap is booming and is set to remain a key stop for travellers to Southeast Asia for years to come.
Straddling the Siem Reap River which flows from Phnom Kulen, the town itself is home to a couple of minor sites of interest, some reasonable shopping and hundreds of guesthouses and restaurants. It is the best base from which to launch your visits of Angkor and the surrounding area and the town offers a full range of accommodation options, from $4 flophouses to $3,000-plus a night luxury hotels.
Most tourists tend to visit the ruins in the morning and late afternoon, taking a break back in town during the middle of the day when the heat and poor light detract from the temples. The easiest way to visit is to hire a tuk tuk or motodop in the morning for a $10 to $15 flat rate, although you can also see the temples by bicycle (on average $2 per day), bus, car, helicopter, microlite and even hot-air balloon.
Back in Siem Reap, visitors tend to spend their time lying around their guesthouse and splashing in a pool if they're lucky, sipping or supping in one of the town's many stylish (and some not-so-stylish) bars and restaurants, seeing the minor sites, visiting nearby villages and shopping. Although it seems like a new hotel opens every month, the impact on prices has been minimal and there has been little variation in the last few years. During low season, it is possible to bargain a little, depending on the month. This will rarely work in July and August though, when visitors numbers spike.
Spas are springing up to tend to ruin-weary legs and dust-encrusted faces, some sumptuous, and many mid-range ones which can be just as good. Almost every hotel has a contract with a local spa to provide in-room massage, while most high-end hotels have separate spa facilities.
Even those with a minimal interest in the ruins will easily be occupied for a couple of days, while if exploring tree-shrouded hidden crevices and piles of rocks are your thing, you could end up spending a month here.