Tourism in Cambodia has found a comfortable heart in Siem Reap, the gateway to the Angkor Temples and Cambodia’s biggest tourist destination. From its archaeological ruins, colonial architecture, nearby jungles and wild nightlife, there’s no wonder this town is unavoidable on a Southeast Asia itinerary. But what’s best to see and do? We’ve put together a list of our favourite recommendations and tips from Stray staff, from the historical to the cultural and the creative. So don’t be fooled! Its biggest attraction may be ancient ruins, but this is still an incredibly lively town.
1. Visit the Angkor Temples – with a twist
Let’s be honest: what would a visit to Siem Reap be without a trip to the Angkor Temples? Just a short tuk-tuk ride away from the city centre, the Angkor Archaeological Park is one of the largest and most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. It contains diverse remains from the Khmer Empire spanning from the 9th to 15th centuries, the most stunning of which are its temples. Angkor Wat is by far the most famous, with its famed sunrise and sunset views, though many visitors most easily recognise Ta Phrom with its tree-root-strangled doorways from the Tomb Raider film. All this fame for Angkor, however, typically means one thing: crowds. Big crowds. Here’s a few quick tips to help you spend less time jostling for space and more time admiring the sights:
- Go counter-clockwise. The most common route through the temples starts at Angkor Thom and the Bayon, then heads east to the smaller temples like Ta Keo and Ta Prohm before ending at Angkor Wat. Instead, start at Angkor Wat and work your way through the park in the opposite direction, thereby dodging the crowds.
- If you’ll be arriving for sunrise, take a picnic breakfast instead of going back to the hotel for it. The morning hours are the most quiet at Angkor, and ideal for exploring before the larger groups arrive.
- Visit the further flung temples, such as Banteay Srei – they might be more challenging to get to, but many are just as beautiful as those in the heart of the park, and less visited.
2. Hike through the River of 1000 Lingas
What a name! Within the Phnom Kulen National Park, just under 50 km from Siem Reap, lies one of Cambodia’s most mysterious and enchanting archaeological sites: Kbal Spean. Also known as the River of 1000 Lingas, this is a holy place where sacred Hindu images have been carved directly into the riverbed. The images date back almost 1000 years and are just one of many places of interest within the park, making it an ideal day out. From Kbal Spean, visitors can also hike to Preah Ang Thom, a massive reclining Buddha statue carved directly into a sandstone boulder, and to a series of waterfalls with natural swimming pools at the base. Best of all, though there aren’t many foreign visitors who make it to Phnom Kulen, you’ll be in good company with locals making pilgrimage.
3. Be awed by aerial stunts
Got your fill of ancient Khmer art at Siem Reap’s archaeological sites? Then check out Cambodia’s modern creative scene with an evening at Phare, The Cambodian Circus. This show has been lauded as one of the most entertaining and innovative performances in Cambodia today, and best of all, it’s not just good fun – it’s also for a good cause. Started by Phare Ponleu Selpak, a non-profit Cambodian organisation promoting arts training for vulnerable groups, the circus and acrobatic school is a way for young Cambodian performers to learn employable skills in the arts. Shows at Phare frequently feature a mix of traditional and modern performance, and deal with themes like love, family life, discrimination, gender roles, and even the repercussions of war.
4. Get inspired at New Hope
What happens when an ex-monk moves into one of the poorest slums in Cambodia? If you’re Soth Kemsour, there’s no choice but to start a school. Mondul 3, a village in an ex-military base, is one of the poorest parts of Siem Reap province, with its ills ranging from chronic malnutrition, disease, lack of education, and unemployment. After buying land in Mondul 3, Kemsour was appalled to discover these conditions, and decided to face the village’s woes head-on. His weapon of choice? Education. Now, from his first simple classroom in a grass hut, Kemsour has built the New Hope Cambodia foundation, featuring a free school, health centre, crisis centre, halfway houses, training restaurant and sustainable farming projects for the village. Visitors can sign up for a tour of New Hope’s facilities to check out the work he’s doing, and see for themselves the effects of the programme. It’s hands-down one of the most inspirational things to see in Siem Reap, so drop by to support a good cause.
5. Party in Pub Street
It’s hard to miss Siem Reap’s Pub Street, with its neon signs and cries of revelry coming out of every bar. This is the go-to area for nightlife in town, and a visit to Siem Reap isn’t complete without an evening exploring. Looking for a bit of class with a cool cocktail? Drop by Miss Wong, a joint inspired by 1920s Shanghai. Prefer a bit of grunge and live music? Catch a show from a local band at Laundry Bar. Or maybe you just want to dance til dawn with other backpackers? Temple Club and Angkor What? are the go-to spots. Whatever your flavour, you’ll find it on Pub Street, so grab some friends and try ’em all!
6. Be mesmerised by ‘heavenly dancers’
While exploring the Angkor ruins, you’ll most likely notice carved images of dancers making their way across the temple walls. These Apsara dancers represent one of Cambodia’s oldest art forms, a traditional dance performed by young women with famously graceful movements. The Apsara dance is still alive and well in Cambodia, so stop by a show in Siem Reap to see history in action. Temple Balcony on Pub Street features a free performance, but it’s usually overshadowed by the crowds in the restaurant and bar. Though a bit more pricey, the performances at the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor and the Angkor Village Hotel come with dinner and more professional dancers. There are also other shows that combine dance performances with shadow puppetry or martial arts. Pick up a ticket, and prepare to be mesmerised.
7. Explore the countryside, dirt-first
If you’re ready to get out of the lively, though touristy, heart of Siem Reap, make a beeline for the countryside to explore its smaller villages. But we bet you can’t guess our favourite way to do so! Go on, we’ll give you a second. Ready? It’s not just walking, or hiring a tuktuk, or hitchhiking…but quad biking! Getting out on your own four wheels is a fantastic way to explore the real Siem Reap because it gets you up-close-and-personal with the villages. With kids running and waving as you drive past, plus the view of verdant gardens along the roads, taking a quad bike tour is an experience you won’t find many places else in Southeast Asia. And forget those sunset shots from Angkor Wat – watching it illuminate the sky over rural rice terraces is an image far more enthralling, and a truly unique experience.