A lively city with a small-town feel, Siem Reap has undergone a rapid transformation in recent years, from humble beginnings to tourist mecca. Yet despite its booming travel industry, Siem Reap hasn’t lost its charm.
The city of Siem Reap is, of course, best-known for the nearby Angkor temples (which cannot be missed). However, in between your temple explorations, there is plenty more to see and do in this thriving epicenter. Here are some of the top things to do in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Angkor was the original capital of the Khmer Empire, and the temples within the Angkor Archaeological Park are all that remain of this epic realm, an exploration of the ancient and mysterious temples is one of the essential things to do in Siem Reap but it can take days to explore all of them. As you stroll through one of history’s lost civilizations, you will get an architectural glimpse into a world long forgotten. Any one of these temples is spectacular at sunrise, so be prepared to head out early for a great photo opportunity.
You will understand so much more about the Khmer Empire if you pay a visit to this important museum before visiting the Angkor Wat complex. The museum is dedicated to preserving Angkorian artifacts and does an exceptional job of explaining art and culture in the Khmer era dating back to the 9th-14th centuries.
Decades have passed since both the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge regime, but it is estimated that there are 4-6 million unexploded landmines in Cambodia with new casualties occurring every day. The Cambodia Landmine Museum educates visitors about the importance of clearing these undetonated landmines, which have killed or maimed about 63,000 people in Cambodia.
In addition to a history lesson and an up-to-date briefing on the landmine situation, you will get to see some active and detonated landmines up close. You will learn about how it has affected locals and see what efforts are being made to rid the region of these hidden dangers.
The museum is located within the Angkor National Park and was established by a former child soldier from the time of the Khmer Rouge, who went back to the villages where he had fought and started defusing landmines he had planted by hand. He has since dedicated his life to finding and destroying landmines and has set up a school for victims of landmine explosions. Money raised by the museum goes towards further landmine clearing, and towards funding its school and amputee children.
The mighty Tonlé Sap Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and has been a UNESCO Nature Reserve since 1997. More than three million people live beside the lake, making their living by fishing on the water. The houses of the surrounding villages are built on stilts to allow for the lake’s changing levels.
As well as exploring the villages, and seeing how the communities depend upon the lake, a visit here also offers a great chance to see local birdlife and wildlife, which includes more than 300 species of fish, as well as snakes, crocodiles, tortoises, turtles and otters. Preak Toal Bird Sanctuary is a place for all bird lovers, where you can find a significant number of rare breeds gathered in one small area.
Phare, The Cambodian Circus, is one of Cambodia’s most innovative social enterprise models. The NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak offers underprivileged kids from across the country the opportunity to train in a variety of performing arts, including music and circus skills. Around 75 percent of all profits go directly to the school.
Phare shows are unlike any in the world: dance, theater, original live music, juggling, gymnastics, and breath-taking circus arts are used to tell uniquely Cambodian stories from recent history, folklore and modern society. You will see everything in just one show: energy, emotion, enthusiasm and talent. Phare Ponleu Selpak was founded in 1994 by nine young Cambodian men returning home from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. At the camp they took drawing classes and found art to be a powerful tool for healing.
If you want to understand a culture, you must eat its food, and the best way to discover local cuisine is on a street food tour. Khmer cuisine is one of the oldest in the world, which over time has also been influenced by Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and French techniques. A local food-expert guide can show you around some of the best vendors and food stalls in the city, ensuring that you learn about the dishes and their origins.
If you are brave enough, you could even try some of the more exotic local treats – such as fried crickets, red ants, and tarantulas.
Phnom Kulen in the Kulen National Park is a great spot to enjoy a day out in nature. This beautiful place is only 1.5 to 2 hours from Siem Reap. Here, rainforest trails will lead you to some hidden gems including timeworn temples, respected monasteries, and beautiful rushing waterfalls, where you can take a dip if you wish. Make your way a bit further up to the River of a Thousand Lingas, with its sophisticated carvings.
Further on, you will find a beautiful Pagoda and its world-famous Reclining Buddha at rest. This is a fabulous day trip from Siem Reap and easy to organize through most hotels or tour companies in the city center.
The Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity works towards the advancement of species and habitat preservation through several channels including species breeding, animal rehabilitation, community education, and conservation and research. The biodiversity center offers tours during which the knowledgeable and passionate guides will explain how they rehabilitate otters, porcupines, birds and other animals so that they can be reintroduced into the wild.
Take your taste buds on a trip around Cambodia and dine out for a good cause: Marum and Friends are two Khmer restaurants which give back to the local community. Underprivileged youth are trained up in their restaurant to develop their cooking skills and give them a bright future in the hospitality industry.
If you feel inspired in the kitchen and want to put your culinary skills to the test, a cooking class gives you the opportunity to master dishes delicious enough to impress your friends back home. Learn how to prepare and cook your favorite Cambodian cuisine, and then enjoy eating it after!
If you’re a butterfly enthusiast and a nature lover, you will love the Banteay Srey Butterfly sanctuary and conservation center, where you can see dozens of species of free flying Cambodian butterflies in this interactive butterfly exhibit. The enclosed garden is built like a rainforest to mimic the butterflies’ natural habitat. You can take an educational tour with a guide who will show you the various stages of the butterfly life cycle.
A cross between Cirque du Soleil and a Native American Pow Wow, the Apsara Dance performance is mesmerizing. Meaning “beautiful girls” in Khmer, the Apsara was historically performed by girls who were believed to have supernatural powers. The dance stems all the way back to Angkorian times when Suryavarman II was in power. Back then, these goddess-like women only danced for the royal family. The show is a full-on production that lasts over an hour, with captivating dancers, intricate costumes, professional lighting, and intense backdrops.
Spend the day at the Angkor Pottery Center with English-speaking pottery teachers who will teach you how to make pots, vases, and bowls. Be prepared to get your hands messy while you sit at the pottery wheel and spin wet clay to form beautiful and functional pieces. You will fire them in a ceramic oven where they harden and become the best souvenirs to take home. This is a fantastic cultural experience and a great activity for groups, couples, solo travelers, and even children.
Get the local experience at Psar Chaa, the Old Market in the city center. This dense, maze-like indoor market is crammed with stalls selling everything you could possibly imagine. Locals come here to shop for food and household items but there is also a large section where you can find clothes, shoes, jewelry and a lot more. If you’re hungry, head to the center of the market where you can find authentic Cambodian dishes.
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