How to spend a sustainable weekend in Siem Reap

Why go now?

Beneath the dusty streets of Siem Reap, green things are growing. Several social enterprises have recently sprung up, offering travellers who care about giving back lots of ways to do so. It’s never been so easy to eat a delicious meal while supporting disadvantaged young people, or to participate in the #refillnotlandfill movement by grabbing a reusable water bottle from your hotel’s lobby. At long last this city is stepping out from the shadow of the temples of Angkor and into its own light, as a destination for sustainable tourism. 

Get your bearings 

The heart of Siem Reap’s tourism beats around Pub Street (1) and the Old Market (2) (also known as Psar Chaa). The latter has stall after stall of scarves, T-shirts, sunglasses, flip-flops, and souvenirs; the former, restaurants, hostels, and bars. Don’t worry about getting lost among the pedestrian-friendly passages: head far enough in one direction and you’ll discover tuk-tuk drivers eager to take you wherever you need to go.  

To the east, across the Siem Reap River, is the Wat Bo area (3), so-named for the city’s oldest Buddhist monastery. You can cross the river at any number of bridges – one of the nicest links Wat Bo to the Old French Quarter (4), full of calm, leafy streets with colonial-era buildings and art galleries. Nestled between the Old Market area and the Old French Quarter is Kandal Village (5), whose hip Hup Guan Street (6) has ethically minded cafes and shops.  

Most places not only display prices in US dollars but prefer that currency ($1 = 4,000 Cambodia riel). 

Day one 

Take a hike

Pokambor Avenue (7) follows the Siem Reap River. From the Royal Residence (8) meander south, crossing back and forth whenever a bridge or scene catches your fancy. Ornate streetlights and benches line the pavements. A lazy 2km later, you’ll be at the Old Market (2). 

Lunch on the run

Sitting downstairs at Chamkar House (9) (00855 92 733 150) allows you to watch the chefs at work in a tiny kitchen, carefully crafting all-natural, made-to-order vegetarian fare. The wedding dip blends coconut and mushrooms with peanuts, while the glass noodles feature dried bean curd, assorted veggies, and curry sauce. Open 11am-10.30pm, Monday to Saturday; 4.30-10.30pm on Sunday.  

Grab dessert at Blossom (10) (00855 077 75 75 00; blossomcakes.org), a bakery that empowers young women by providing job training and employment. Its four-bite cupcakes come in a variety of flavours, including French toast with maple syrup cream cheese frosting. Open Monday to Saturday, 10am-5pm.      

Window shopping

Alley West (11), one of the city’s prettiest streets, has become an epicentre of sustainable shopping. The eclectic totes and backpacks at Smateria  (12) (00855 63 964 343; smateria.com) repurpose plastic bags and fishing netting. This store gives its employees, many of whom are mothers, free on-site childcare and preschool, plus the opportunity to train across the organisation. 

The Khmer Ceramics Fine Art Centre (13) (00855 017 843 014; khmerceramics.com) opposite reinvests profits from the sale of its beautiful bowls and other finely rendered wares into the research and preservation of Khmer pottery, as well as teaching and funding artisans. 

An aperitif

Siem Reap Brewpub (14) (00855 80 888 555; siemreapbrewpub.asia) is the city’s only microbrewery. Order a pour of honey weiss, made with Cambodian honey; dark ale, featuring Cambodian palm sugar; or saison, made with organic Cambodian green peppercorn and lemongrass. Notice a trend? This pub does what it can to infuse indigenous ingredients into its craft brews. 

Dine with the locals

Make a reservation at Marum (15) (00855 17 363 284; tree-alliance.org/our-restaurants/marum.php) and ask to sit in the romantic garden. Affiliated with Friends International, this restaurant trains at-risk and marginalised youth to work in the tourism industry and serves creative Khmer cuisine, such as a mini-crocodile burger with Sriracha mayo and banana chips. 

Meanwhile, Bugs Café (16) (00855 17 764 560; bugs-cafe.e-monsite.com) takes seriously its mission of helping people see the benefits of eating insects. The kitchen marries tradition with innovation, utilising French and Cambodian techniques to create dishes like the “Bug Mac,” a patty made from crickets, ants, and bee larvae. 

Day two

Sunday morning

The not-for-profit New Leaf Eatery (17) (00855 063 766 016; newleafeatery.com) donates 30 per cent of proceeds to educational initiatives in the surrounding province and splits 20 per cent among its Cambodian staff. The Cambodian Espresso Martini mixes Kahlúa, cold-brew coffee from a roaster in Phnom Penh, and traditional sombai (rice wine). Take your leftovers to go, using a bag made from recycled newspaper. Serving both Cambodian and Western food, it’s open daily, 7.30am-9.30pm.  

A walk in the park

You don’t need to be a blue blood to enjoy the Royal Gardens (18) – the only green space in central Siem Reap. Free and open to the public, these gardens front the palatial Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor (19) and abut the low-key Royal Residence (8), where King Norodom Sihamoni stays when he’s in town. Stroll landscaped paths past photogenic fountains and admire the more than 20,500 species of plant and numerous fruit bats.

Take a ride

Some hotels or B&Bs offer private taxis, yet tuk-tuks are, by far, the cheapest and most convenient way to travel around the city. Agree on a price with the driver – most destinations within the city centre will cost less than US$5.   

The nonprofit White Bicycles (00855 92 33 27 30; thewhitebicycles.org) partners with select guesthouses and B&Bs to let guests investigate the city on two wheels. Rental costs about US$2 per day, and the money funds clean water and educational projects. Hop on your bike and cycle about 25 minutes north to reach the temples at Angkor. 

Cultural afternoon

The temples at Angkor have been astonishing visitors for generations. You can hit Angkor’s highlights in a very rushed single day, but a three- or even seven-day pass is preferable to truly explore and experience its 400 square km. 

Many guidebooks and tour guides will have you arriving at Angkor Wat (20) at sunrise, Ta Prohm (21) at mid-day, and Banteay Srei (22) at sunset. Do the opposite – stopping first at the so-called Tomb Raider temple, where nature is winning its war of reclamation, then visiting Banteay Srei, with its multiple monuments to the monkey god Hanuman, and finally Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious temple – and you’ll have the sites to yourself. 

The icing on the cake 

The high-octane Phare (23) (00855 92 225 320; pharecircus.org) shares Cambodian folktales and history through music, contortion, acrobatics, fire-eating, and more, and bolsters a network of social enterprises. Performers graduated from Phare Ponleu Selpak (phareps.org), a school of visual and circus arts founded by a group of young refugees who, upon returning home after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, realized the power of creative expression to heal. The Big Top opens at 7.30pm and the show starts at 8pm. Buy tickets in advance. 

Travel essentials

Getting there 

China Southern (global.csair.com), Etihad (etihad.com), and British Airways (ba.com) are among the carriers departing from Edinburgh, Manchester, and London Heathrow to Siem Reap, generally with a stopover in Abu Dhabi, Bangkok, or Guangzhou. Return fares from £372 (China Southern). 

One-month visas are required for all foreign passport holders. You may apply by post or in person at the Royal Embassy of Cambodia in London, or get your visa upon arrival. 

The city centre is located approximately 9km from the airport (24). Book a taxi (US$10) or tuk-tuk (US$9) at the taxi desk, immediately outside of the arrivals terminal.

Staying there 

Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel (25) (00855 77 769 126; babyelephant.asia) has an ethical approach to hospitality (as well as a lovely saltwater pool). It believes in supporting its staff – employees receive a fair wage, free meals, and access to savings plans. As part of its ongoing Go Green! initiative, the hotel has planted an organic kitchen garden and sponsors “clean up your neighbourhood” days. Doubles from US$42, B&B.

Co-founder of the Accor hotel group Paul Dubrule fell in love with Siem Reap and decided to open a hospitality vocational school there. Today the Ecole d’Hôtellerie et de Tourisme Paul Dubrule (26) (00855 63 963 672; ecolepauldubrule.org) boasts a 90 per cent job placement rate for graduates. Pick from four training rooms, designed to provide students with real-world experience. Doubles from US$44, B&B. 

The management of Jaya House River Park (27) (00855 63 962 555; jayahouseriverparksiemreap.com), a tree-lined deluxe hideaway, founded the Made In Cambodia Market (28) to create jobs and connect visitors to authentic entertainment and crafts (kingsroadangkor.com/made-in-cambodia-market); open daily 12-10pm. The hotel also sponsors several NGOs, such as the Cambodian Landmine Museum and the Music Art School. Doubles from US$123, B&B.

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