The Cambodian city of Siem Reap is synonymous with temples, and a visit to Angkor Wat is an obligatory and much-anticipated part of any holiday here.
However, don’t think that you’re done and dusted with this destination once you’ve ticked off the famous archaeological site. Siem Reap offers access to an array of historical, cultural and culinary experiences. As with many places in South East Asia, it can also be a great place to do very little — but where’s the fun in that?
Enjoy this Siem Reap travel guide.
Siem Reap for history lovers
For such a beautiful country, Cambodia has experienced some seriously tragic historical events.
One lasting impact of the civil and military conflicts that have dogged the country for decades is the unexploded ordnance (UXO). Cambodian man Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge conscripted child soldier, has cleared an incalculable amount of the deadly stuff and founded the Cambodia Landmine Museum and Relief Centre outside Siem Reap. The centre raises awareness and funds for the ongoing efforts to rid the Cambodian countryside of this scourge.
Aki Ra works with Landmine Relief Fund president and ex-USA army officer Bill Morse, who is often present at the centre to provide informative and moving details of the landmine clearing process. Be warned — you will probably cry.
Top cultural experiences in Siem Reap
It’s impossible to think of Siem Reap without thinking of Angkor Wat — the largest religious structure in the world.
It is indeed a sight to behold (particularly at sunrise), but for me there are other temples that are just as special. It’s definitely hard to go past Ta Prohm of Tomb Raider fame. There’s something extraordinary about seeing how nature has reclaimed the ruins of this ancient civilisation. The Angkor Thom complex is equally impressive, with the Bayon faces at its centre.
If you are happy to venture further afield, getting out to Banteay Srei could well be the highlight of your temple circuit. The colours and carvings are spectacular. Banteay Srei is located 32 kilometres northeast of Siem Reap. The trip takes just under an hour by car.
Back in town, the colour and choreography of a performance by Phare, The Cambodian Circus is much more than just a visual feast for visitors. It also carries a message of hope and performs a vital social role. Many of the young performers on stage come from challenging backgrounds, but they’ve found new purpose as part of the troupe. Feel good about your small contribution as you enjoy the show.
Great places to eat in Siem Reap
Siem Reap’s food scene is tasty and generally cheap — music to the ears of the city’s large population of backpackers.
You’ll find them hanging out in the myriad bars and restaurants that line lively Pub Street.
If your backpacking days are all but over, try the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) for a more refined dining experience.
Madame Butterfly is also well worth a visit. The atmosphere is luxurious and the food is so good it’s impossible to order just one dish. You’ll want to try everything. Go with someone who will share the fried eggplant, Khmer crepe and the heart of banana flower salad (but will let you have the bigger portion!).
Want to learn how to prepare such tasty morsels at home? There’s certainly no shortage of cooking classes on offer in Siem Reap — everything from hotel-run options, to intimate, small-group classes in local homes. Generally, you’ll shop for ingredients at a local market, prepare the meal, and round the experience off by enjoying the fruits of your labour.
Where to shop in Siem Reap
Markets are king when it comes to shopping in Cambodia.
With its vast array of locally crafted souvenirs (along with plenty of cheap imports — the difference will be in the price!), the Angkor Night Market is a great spot to browse for gifts for those at home.
The Central Market offers an enormous array of harem pants and other clothing favoured by budget travellers — so if you want to look like you’ve hitched from Mumbai to Bangkok, this is the market for you. The fresh food section is a serious eye opener.
If you’re after something of higher quality and artistic value, with a price tag to match, Artisans Angkor will be more your style. Not simply a shopping experience, here you can also see the artisans at work. From ceramics and silks to weaving and woodwork, a tour of the centre is both interesting and educational.
Listen to a podcast of our tips for top things to see and do in Cambodia:
Ways to relax in Siem Reap
After you’ve spent a few hours traipsing around the region’s temples, you’ll need some R&R.
For pampering paired with a good cause, visit Seeing Hands Massage. The masseurs here are vision-impaired locals.
While you’re out at Banteay Srei, take a detour to the Butterfly Centre. Despite its small size, the centre houses the largest collection of butterflies in South East Asia. Guides will teach you about the different species present and their lifecycles. Wandering around as butterflies land on you is a lovely experience.
Another great way to unwind is to take a boat tour of the floating villages on Tonle Sap — the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. While the brown lake is not much to look at, the tour is definitely worth doing to learn about a different way of Cambodian life to that which you’ll see on dry land. There are moments, however, when all you can see in any direction is murky water — and for those of us with overactive imaginations, that can be a little freaky!
Do you have any tips to add to our Siem Reap travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock/Photodune
About the writer
Samantha Wasson is a Sydney-based freelance writer and former educator. She lived in Vietnam for three years and has travelled extensively in Asia, Europe and the United States, with a brief sojourn in Africa. Travel highlights to date have included studying German in Freiburg, volunteering at an elephant rehabilitation project outside Chiang Mai, and travelling by motorbike through the Mekong Delta. A lover of literature and travel, Samantha subscribes to Augustine of Hippo’s observation that ‘the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page’.