Edited by Mike Aquino.
Over a million tourists a year pass through Siem Reap, making it the fastest growing place in Cambodia outside of the capital Phnom Penh. With a history dating all the way back to the year 802, visiting Siem Reap is a highlight for many people traveling through Southeast Asia… with a wealth of activities and attractions that go far beyond the ancient ruins down the road.
Despite so many other things to do in Siem Reap, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat is still the primary draw for tourists. Constructed in the 12th century by the Khmer people working under Jayavarman II, the temples of Angkor Wat must be seen to be believed.
Scores of temples - some restored and some still overgrown with jungle vines - make up the Angkor temple complex, which is about four miles north of Siem Reap. (Many travelers staying at one of the hostels or hotels around Siem Reap simply hire a tuk-tuk to take them around the temple complex.)
The scale of Angkor Wat is overwhelming; while a one-day pass is enough to reveal the highlights, you can buy a three- or even a seven-day pass to explore the Angkor temples in microscopic detail.
The lithe young female dancers performing the “apsara” traditional dance draw from a tradition as old as the carved Angkor Wat dancers they’re named after.
The millennia-old Khmer traditional dance was almost wiped out during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. Fortunately, a few survivors managed to pass on the art to a new generation of apsara dancers, whose students in turn now perform on stages across Siem Reap, wearing form-fitting clothing and gilt headdresses.
Visitors looking for absolutely authentic apsara performances should avoid the usual dinner-buffet-dance performances and head to the Divine Sala (Google Maps) to watch the Sacred Dancers of Angkor, the only apsara dancers under royal patronage.
Sacred Dancers of Angkor shows take place at the Divine Sala on Wednesdays and Sundays from 7pm onward, entrancing viewers with an intricately-performed Khmer dance performance infused with a spiritual presence lacking in the city’s other apsara shows.
For tickets and show information, visit their official site.
Opened in 2007, the Angkor National Museum (location on Google Maps) houses thousands of artifacts recovered from Angkor Wat and the surrounding areas in an impressive building.
Relics from the ancient Angkor Empire – including over 6,000 lintels, assorted statues of Hindu gods, Buddhist bodhisattvas and sandstone reliefs – tell the fascinating story of the Angkor Empire's beginnings and eventual downfall.
Visit the museum before you check out Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples, and you'll visit the latter with significantly more insight into the culture that brought it into existence!
To get the most out of your visit, rent a portable media player (available at the entrance) so you can get an audio explanation of some of the more obscure items on display. When you're done, stop by the 86,000 square foot duty-free mall to take back a little part of Angkor with you.
Take in a Show at the Phare Circus
Founded by eight Battambang performers, Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS, location on Google Maps) operates a Big-Top-style extravaganza that interprets Cambodian culture through a raucous blend of comedy, dance, and acrobatics reminiscent of Cirque d' Soleil.
Despite its modern look, Phare Circus taps deep into a historic Khmer tradition of acrobatics, making this fun romp just as authentically Khmer as the apsara dance. Any speaking parts are performed in the Khmer language, though subtitles in three languages are projected on a screen to help the narrative along.
Performing at the Phare Circus comes as a dream come true for many PPS students, who train for years before getting a shot at the stage. For tickets and show information, visit the Phare official site.
Wing it at the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary
The 31,000-hectare Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary (location on Google Maps) has become one of the most important breeding grounds for endangered water birds in Southeast Asia.
Located in the marshes of Tonle Sap Lake around Battambang province, this bird sanctuary provides a chance to tour by boat and see rare large waterfowl outside of captivity – storks, ibis, pelicans and much, much more.
Travelers who come between the dry months of December and March see untold thousands of local and migratory birds fishing and mating in Prek Toal's waters.
If this is your kind of nature experience, make arrangements to visit Prek Toal through your guest house, or hire a boat from Phnom Krom/Chong Khneas boat dock. You’ll be dropped off at the Prek Toal Environmental Research Station, where you can pick up more information about the area’s wildlife and plant life, or book a boat tour of the sanctuary.
You can even book an overnight stay at the Station – all the better to see the area's “fowl” play after dark!
Take a seat behind one of Cambodia’s most experienced microlight pilots to see the Cambodian countryside from a birds’ eye view. Eddie Smith’s Microlight Cambodia takes paying passengers on any of a selection of flight patterns.
The company’s Pegasus Quik microlight seats two (pilot and passenger) and flies at a cruising speed of about 68 mph (110kmh/59 knots) and an altitude of some 1,500 feet.
Some 3,000 passengers have already flown with Eddie, taking flights of up to one hour to see the floating villages on Tonle Sap; the storks inhabiting the waters around Kampong Phluk; and an aerial temple route that covers the Roluos Group, Banteay Samrei, Sra Srang and Angkor Wat.
(The latter route takes in the view from a distance of 1.7 nautical miles from the temple sites; microlights are not allowed to fly directly over the Angkor temples.)
Microlight Cambodia flies seven days a week, from 7am to 11am, then later in the afternoon from 3pm to 6pm. Custom itineraries are available upon request.
Don’t let the name fool you, Kandal “Village” (location on Google Maps) isn’t some secluded rural hamlet, but a cunningly-rebranded street south of Siem Reap’s French Quarter. Hap Guan Street is a 500-foot shophouse-lined avenue that has become ground zero for Siem Reap’s hip and upscale set.
Take an afternoon to explore Kandal Village’s clutch of culturally-conscious establishments. The proprietors traffic in repurposed Cambodian culture, from the lacquerware and textiles at Louise Loubatieres to the Buddhas with modern paint patterns at Niko’s Studio.
Watched one too many action movies and want to give it a try? Forty minutes from Siem Reap, tourists may shoot an array of automatic weapons at an old military shooting range.
The prices are not cheap, but where else will you have the opportunity to fire an AK-47 or throw a live hand grenade?
Retired soldiers supervise the range and continuously harass you to try the latest and greatest in firepower, including belt-fed machine guns. Those with enough money and guts are even invited to fire an old, soviet-made rocket launcher!
The range can be found along Road 67 to Banteay Srey (look up their location on Google Maps).
See Authentic Village Life at Kampong Phluk
About 13 miles from Siem Reap, Kampong Phluk (location on Google Maps) is a fishing village constructed on stilts in the swamps around Tonle Sap Lake, the largest lake in Cambodia.
Only a handful of tourists makes the journey by boat or bus to Kampong Phluk, which has helped the village retain much of its authenticity. This is the place to go to see daily Khmer life away from the influence of heavy tourism; come on any regular day, but try to schedule your visit to coincide with the Cambodia festival calendar.
Read about etiquette in Cambodia to enhance your visit to Kampong Phluk.
Like the rest of Cambodia, Siem Reap suffered heavily under the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and the Vietnamese occupation in 1979. Despite largely recovering from those national traumas, the horrors of the past still lie beneath the surface - quite literally.
Millions of land mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) still remain from those deadly years, occasionally maiming or killing locals even today.
To warn of the dangers of UXO, the Cambodia Land Mine Museum (location on Google Maps) was founded by a former child soldier whose parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. In the present day, it's staffed by victims and orphans of mines.
Visitors are charged $5 (adult rate) to enter. The funds support a relief center and school attached to the museum. Tours can be booked on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 9 am to 3 pm, in English and Japanese.
Buy Souvenirs at the Old Market
The riverside Psah Chas, or Old Market (location on Google Maps), combines shopping for tourists and locals alike. The half of the market bordering the riverside stocks tourist tchotchkes from floor to ceiling – silverworks, T-shirts, brass sculptures, jewelry, handbags, and art.
A whole arcade sells pearls, gold, and silver, though the buyer should beware when browsing through the valuables in this part of the market.
The other half of the market caters to locals, most especially in the “wet market” that bisects the Psah Chas complex at its center. From this smelly, humid market, locals haggle for raw meat, vegetables, and processed food products. Tourists with an interest in Khmer day-to-day life can visit this part of the market and watch the wives banter and buy.
Shudder at Relics of Human Cruelty in Wat Thmei
Siem Reap suffered horribly under the Khmer Rouge, and the area’s victims are commemorated today in Wat Thmei (location on Google Maps).
A glass-walled stupa on the premises holds a mass of bones belonging to massacre victims. Like its counterpart Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, Wat Thmei provides a stark reminder of the insanity that ruled Cambodia in the 1970s. (Read about Southeast Asia's other dark museums here.)
It’s not all bones and death here, though; the large monastery here houses a good number of monks and orphans under their care. (Wat Thmei is not part of Siem Reap’s unfortunate orphanage tourism circuit – find out why orphanages in Cambodia should not be tourist attractions.)
Sombai's workshop (location on Google Maps), set in a traditional Khmer wooden house, offers a modern take on a heritage tipple. Marrying the traditional Cambodian sraa tram (“soaked wine”) with modern flavored rums, Sombai sells the result in hand-painted bottles, or serves it in cocktails for your pleasure.
About 8 flavored liqueurs make up Sombai’s product line: the tasting parlor allows you to taste and pick your favorite flavor combination. From the Pina-colada-inspired coconut and pineapple, to the fiery ginger and red chili liqueur, no two products have the same flavor or impact on your taste buds.
To get the most out of your visit to Sombai, book a tour from their website: you’ll be guided through their workshop and infusion room to see the liqueurs (and the bottles) come to life; then taste samples of all available flavors. Come in sober, leave riding that sraa tram buzz!
(Find out more about getting drunk in Southeast Asia.)
Party or Shop After Dark at the Pub Street & Night Market
After dark, it's less about the authenticity and more about getting soused: thus the draw of Pub Street and the neighboring Night Market for Siem Reap's tippling visitors. (Pub Street location on Google Maps.)
Drink an Angkor Beer (or a good number of decent Southeast Asian beers, for that matter) at one of the many neon-lit bars down this pedestrianized corner of the city.
The best place to start: the graffiti-covered Angkor What? (Facebook page) the bar that launched Pub Street into the Siem Reap stratosphere when it opened in 1998. Its incredible energy, cheap drinks and late, late hours keep it a Pub Street mainstay for both long-timers and newcomers alike.
The Night Market across Sivatha Street from Pub Street offers some neat bargains, from Kampot peppers to obscenely-carved ashtrays to counterfeit branded clothing. Shop for souvenirs among the Night Market's warmly-lit Khmer hut-styled stalls.