Things to do in Siem Reap
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A lively city with a small-town feel, Siem Reap has undergone a rapid transformation in recent years, from humble beginnings to a Southeast Asia backpackers’ Mecca. Yet despite its booming tourist industry, Siem Reap hasn’t lost its charm. The city is the gateway to the Angkor National Park, Cambodia’s top attraction, famous for its legendary ancient temples. While a trip to Angkor Wat is definitely one to ticket off the bucket list, Siem Reap offers plenty more to do, see, and discover in the way of Cambodian culture.
What to do in Siem Reap
1. SOAK UP THE SUNRISE AT ANGKOR WAT
The world’s largest religious monument, Angkor Wat is an ancient temple built in the 12th century by the Khmer King, Suryavarman II. Extraordinary to behold both inside and out, Angkor Wat has five distinctive towers which form the shape of lotus flowers, and a 190-meter-wide moat which encircles the temple. The best way to see Angkor Wat is at sunrise, in front of the lotus pond. As the sun ascends, a reflection of the magnificent temple and the dreamy changing sky will transpire before your very eyes.
2. TOUR THE TEMPLES BY TUK TUK
Aside from Angkor Wat, the Angkor complex is home to many other impressive Khmer creations. Why not tour the temples by tuk tuk (from $15 per day) and discover the remains of a once-mighty ancient empire. Don’t miss Angkor Thom, a royal walled city containing many temples within its ramparts; or the jungle temple of Ta Prohm, a relic left to the forces of nature, smothered in thick, snaking tree roots.
Note: There is also the opportunity to visit temples dotted around Siem Reap city. Some include Wat Preah Prom Rath, Wat Bo, and Wat Kesararam.
3. DISCOVER ANCIENT AND MODERN HISTORY
There are several museums worth visiting in Siem Reap. Stop by the Angkor National Museum to learn all about the Khmer Kingdom which formerly reigned over Cambodia from the 9th to the 14th century. View archaeological artifacts and discover the story behind Angkor’s great temples, ideally before touring the site.
For more recent history, the War Museum provides a harrowing account of the Khmer Rouge era, a communist regime which ended the lives of one quarter of the country’s population between 1975 and 1979. The guides are war veterans with first-hand experience of the Cambodian genocide.
25 km out of the city center is Siem Reap’s Landmine Museum. During the wars and unrest of the 20th century at least 8 million landmines were littered throughout the country. A danger which is all too real, these explosive devices can remain active for 50 years. Lives are lost to undetected landmines every day in Cambodia, and those who survive are incapacitated. Fortunately, a movement to ban landmines has taken force, and landmines in Cambodia are gradually being defused. In the museum you can see these deadly devices with your own eyes (now of course inert), and support the inspiring work being done by those disarming the landmines.
Note: Don’t let landmines put you off your trip – visitors to Cambodia face very little danger from landmines which are located well away from the tourist trail.
4. GET CRAFTY
Take home a very special souvenir – one made by you! At the Angkor Pottery Center (Wat Atwear Village) you can get your hands dirty under the watchful eye of an expert potter. Create and decorate your very own Khmer ceramic made from Cambodian clay!
Do a good deed by shopping for locally-made handicrafts. At the Angkor Handicraft Association, you’ll find authentic wares made by rural craftspeople. Another initiative is Artisans Angkor, where you can see the craft-making process and support the training of young artisans.
5. SAMPLE KHMER CUISINE
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 on their restaurant and cooking skills, giving 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!
6. EXPERIENCE LIFE ON THE GREAT LAKE
Venture out of the city to discover Tonle Sap Lake, the beating heart of Cambodia, a vast body of water teaming with life. Located 15 km south of Siem Reap, this giant lake provides over 50% of Cambodia’s fish, as well as the livelihoods of 1.2 million people who fish and farm in and around the lake. Take a trip to Tonle Sap and marvel at the floating villages, communities literally living on the water. Chong Khneas is the closest but most touristic village. Kampong Phluk, Kampong Khleang, and Prek Toal (renowned for its bird sanctuary) are a little further out but considered to be more authentic. Discover the locals’ way of life on the river and experience complete serenity as you view the sun set over the lake.
How to get to Siem Reap
Siem Reap boasts an international airport, located just 20 minutes – or 7 km – from the city center. Overland travel to Siem Reap is also an option. Buses can be taken from other Southeast Asian cities, including from Cambodia’s capital. Another alternative is a boat trip from Phnom Penh or Battambang, taking you on a scenic route along the Tonle Sap River to Siem Reap.
When to visit Siem Reap
Like much of Southeast Asia, Siem Reap has a tropical climate, meaning it is typically warm and humid year round. Dry season runs from November to March, and these months are also cooler. Rainy season is between April and October, and temperatures peak from March to May, reaching over 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).