A decade ago Siem Reap was the place where you stayed, ate and grabbed a beer or two between explorations of Cambodia’s 12th-century temple complex Angkor Wat. Now the city that Angkor made is something of a destination itself, luring visitors with a lively and varied dining scene, stylish hotels, genial residents and a laid-back river town ambience. Add a growing community of Cambodian and international artists, performers and designers reviving traditional arts and experimenting with new means of creative expression (the Angkor Wat International Film Festival celebrated its fourth year in February; the Angkor Photo Festival runs in December) and you’ve got an ideal short-break city, whether or not the temples are on your agenda. (Plan on using dollars in Siem Reap, where most prices are quoted in American currency. Small bills come in handy for incidentals like tuk-tuk rides and bottled water.)
1. Temple Golf | 3 p.m.
For an initial, lighthearted overview of Angkor’s highlights, head just outside town to a crazy golf tribute to Cambodia’s national treasure. Opened two years ago by a former temple guide, Sopheap (Tee) Nheop, Angkor Wat Putt ($7 per adult includes hotel pickup and drop-off) is a 14-hole miniature golf course anchored by nine strikingly accurate scale models of Angkor’s major temples. Shaded by banana trees and serenaded with American rock classics, putt your way under Preah Vihear and the Bayon temple’s iconic stone faces to finish at Angkor Wat itself. Ring the bell at the start of each hole for fairway drinks delivery. A hole in one (no easy task; the course has a 51 par) earns a free beer.
2. Sraa Sipping | 6 p.m.
Variously described as elixir and rocket fuel, Cambodia’s potent rice wine (sraa in Khmer) is an acquired taste. Not so Sombai, a line of infused rice wines inspired by the flavored rums of Mauritius and produced in Siem Reap by two Mauritius-French expatriates. At the Sombai shop (reservations required), you can tour the petite infusion room, filled with glass jars of sraa afloat with ingredients like star anise, coffee beans from Ratanakiri province, ginger and coconut and pineapple (the wine infuses up to eight weeks before being transferred to hand-painted bottles). Then settle in for a tasting ($5 a person) of flavors like green tea-orange (honeyed, smoky) and lemongrass-lemon (reminiscent of a good limoncello). To sample tipples made with the wines (the Sombai Sour, with ginger-red chili sraa and lime juice, packs a tart, zesty punch), accompanied by local chips and other drinking foods, request a cocktail tasting when you reserve ($10 a person).
3. Refined Dining | 8 p.m.
Don’t let the polished plating at the well-regarded Cuisine Wat Damnak fool you: The dishes from the longtime resident French chef Joannès Rivière’s kitchen are firmly rooted in Cambodian flavors. Making use of seasonal ingredients that he gets from vendors at Siem Reap’s Old Market, Mr. Rivière devises two tasting menus ($24 and $28 for five or six courses) each week. On a recent visit, Cambodia’s iconic sour fish soup appeared in the form of a tart curry with freshwater fish and banana trunk, and wild mushrooms gathered from forests around the temples complemented frog meat in an Angkor Stout reduction.
4. Street Eats | 8 a.m.
Street food in Cambodia is every bit as varied and delicious as that of Thailand or Vietnam. Yet whether for lack of familiarity, fear of prahok (Cambodia’s pungent super-fermented fish condiment) or hygiene worries, few visitors to the kingdom indulge. A morning spent navigating the city’s food markets and street food stalls with the Scottish chef Steven Halcrow or the American writer Lina Goldberg, the two behind Siem Reap Food Tours ($75 per person), will vanquish any doubts. Expect treats like grilled fish paste pancakes wrapped around spicy cucumber pickles, steamed rice flour dumplings oozing coconut cream, jujube fruit (red Chinese dates) stewed in smoky palm sugar and pumpkin-soy milk shakes. Pace yourself, or you’ll end up too stuffed to partake of the tour’s pièce de résistance: num banh chok, cool, slippery rice vermicelli doused with coconut-fish or chile-chicken gravy and tossed with farmed and foraged greens and herbs, all the more delicious eaten after a visit to the village where many families still make the noodles by hand.
5. Shopping Spree | 2 p.m.
Siem Reap’s creative vibe is evident in the city’s growing number of quirky boutiques. Work off a morning of grazing with an afternoon of browsing, starting at Pop-Up Shop, where the Australian owner’s love of Scandinavian design comes through in not-your-usual Angkorian souvenirs (watermelon-half pillows and block-print notecards). Then walk three blocks to Kandal Village, a community of shop, cafe, restaurant and spa owners who have transformed two rows of once-bland storefronts into one of Siem Reap’s coolest mini ’hoods. Silk scarves with modern ikat designs, boldly hued diamond-quilted cotton blankets and delicate silver spoons and miniatures, plus one-off pieces like geometric 19th-century weaving patterns from France, are on display at Louise Loubatieres. A few doors down is funkier Trunkh., packed with treasures produced (or found, on a co-owner’s provincial buying forays) in Cambodia: boldly patterned cotton shirts and pants, primitive animal figurines made of unfired river mud, dragonfly silk-screened sarongs, aging hand-painted shop signs, and carousel animals. The Cambodian designer Sirivan Chak Dumas’s boutique of the same name displays smart, well-priced women’s wear in bright and neutral-toned linen, silk and featherweight cotton, but if tailor-made is more your style, head to Neary Khmer, where you can select from richly hued raw silks (starting at $7 a meter) and have something made to order.
6. To Market, to Market | 4 p.m.
Recharge with an iced Cuban (espresso shot, sugar syrup, milk, $2.50) at Little Red Fox Espresso, then make your way two blocks north to Oum Khun Street for the thrice-weekly Well Made in Cambodia Market, a showcase for Cambodian design and craftsmanship now in its third year. Peruse over 40 stalls selling such wares as silk scarves by the designer Eric Raisina; wallets and document cases made from recycled packing material from Friends-International; and the beautiful vegetal lacquerware made with natural pigments at the workshop of Eric Stocker Laque & Textures.
7. Frozen Treats | 5:30 p.m.
Go for the air-conditioning, stay for the house-made ice cream, Siem Reap’s best, at the Glasshouse Deli.Patisserie, a bright cafe on the ground floor of the Park Hyatt. The rich, dark chocolate ice cream is divine, but don’t let it distract you from locally inspired flavors like cinnamon swirl, lemongrass and pandan ($2 a scoop).
8. Under the Big Top | 7 p.m.
Don’t expect dancing animals at Phare, the Cambodian Circus (from $18 a person), where every evening strands of theater, dance, music, storytelling and circus arts come together in a sophisticated hourlong show staged by students and graduates of Phare Performing Social Enterprise’s Battambang school, which provides free arts education to economically and socially challenged Cambodian youth. Reserve your ticket (best seats, closest to the stage, come with a bottle of ice water, $35) and arrive early to browse Phare’s small crafts shop or grab a juice at the cafe. (Note: latecomers are not admitted after the show starts at 8 p.m.) Shows change monthly.
9. Feasting for a Cause | 9:30 p.m.
Hire a tuk-tuk ($2) for the short ride to Marum, a hospitality training restaurant for disadvantaged Cambodian youth run by Friends-International, with similar restaurants in Phnom Penh and Laos. Occupying a lovely teak mansion whose tables spill into a large garden shaded by trees strung with fairy-lights, Marum’s menu tends to tapas-style fare both authentically (crisp and creamy silkworms with spicy green mango salad, $4.50) and creatively Cambodian (rice paper rolls with grilled peppers, goat cheese and tamarind chile dip, $4). The main-course-size stir-fried beef in a silky sauce soured with red tree ants, over crunchy water spinach leaves ($6), will surprise you, in a good way. Save room for the dense, spicy chocolate and Kampot pepper cake with passion fruit syrup ($5.50).
10. Tranquil Temples | 6 a.m.
The best way to avoid the crowds at Angkor Wat is to rise before the sun and venture beyond the main temples. Situated atop a hill of the same name some 90 minutes by tuk-tuk ($25) or one hour by taxi ($40) from Siem Reap, Phnom Bok temple is reached by a climb up 635 wide steps ($20 day passes are sold from 5 a.m. at the entrance to Angkor Archaeological Park, through which you’ll pass en route). Your reward for the effort is silence, plus sweeping views over Tonle Sap Lake, the Kulen Plateau and swaths of undeveloped rice fields. Built between the ninth and 10th centuries, the temple itself is unrestored but picturesque, especially when the frangipani trees sprouting from its three towers are in bloom. Bring a picnic (most hotels will pack a simple breakfast box) and enjoy the solitude for an hour or so before descending to join late-risers at the more popular temples closer to Siem Reap town. A loop might include stops at diminutive Banteay Samre and Banteay Srei, whose elaborately carved red sandstone temples draw visitors by the busload.
If You Go
With over two million visitors a year Siem Reap boasts a range of hotels to match any budget. One of the city’s most luxurious, and private, boutique lodgings is Maison Polanka (Upper East River Road;maisonpolanka.com), with just five rooms (from $170 ) spread over two traditional teak houses in a walled garden 5 minutes by car or tuk-tuk from Siem Reap’s Central Market area.
Less pricey boutique amenities can be had in a tranquil setting about halfway between Siem Reap town and Angkor Wat, at Soujourn Boutique Villas (Treak Village Road; sojournsiemreap.com). Just ten rooms (from $60 ) share a swimming pool set in tropical gardens, and there’s an on-site spa. The hotel was opened under the auspices of a non-governmental organization that funnels hotel proceeds into projects within its surrounding community.