I love Siem Reap. I visited the town 10 years ago, and I remember the dusty air and dusty roads, the whirlwind tuk-tuk rides, the messy traffic conditions, the crazy hot weather, the constant shouts of “buy something” — and it is still the same now. These things might sound daunting, but it gives the town its own character, and I love it. Siem Reap has gotten much more touristy over the years; but even then, people are friendly, food is good, and life… still simple.
Siem Reap is located in the northwest of Cambodia, and is the country’s second largest town. It is most known as the gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor, and home of Angkor Wat. However, aside from the ruins, there are many other things to see and do. From the great lake of Tonle Sap and its floating villages, to the cultural shows, museums and nightlife — this town is constantly growing, and looking at the amount of visitors it gets, it’s not stopping anytime soon.
Here is my list of the top 10 things to do in Siem Reap:-
1) Explore Angkor Wat and the Angkor Ruins
The biggest draw of Siem Reap is the UNESCO World Heritage ruins of Angkor. From the largest religious monument in the world, the Angkor Wat, and the famous temples of Bayon and Ta Phrom; to lesser known ruins and hidden temples like Banteay Srei and Bakong… these ancient wonders are bound to fascinate and inspire its visitors.
I spent 4 days visiting the ancient ruins and was almost templed-out. However, each and every temple was just as impressive and majestic as the other, so it was hard to stop the exploring! You can read about my visits here:- Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Temples on the Angkor Small Circuit Tour, and The Angkor Big Circuit Tour, Banteay Srei and Roluos Temples.
2) Go to the Angkor National Museum
To learn more about the history and architecture of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the Khmer civilization and its kings, as well as the Khmer cultural heritage (religion and costumes); visit the Angkor National Museum. The archeological museum was opened in 2007, and has a whole collection of Angkorian artifacts, taken from the temple ruins around the area.
I felt that visiting the museum before heading out to see the Angkor archeological sites gave me a better insight on what I was about to see. I walked through the eight galleries in about 2 hours. The admission fee is a little steep at US$12, and the audio guide cost US$3.
3) Visit the Floating Village on Tonle Sap Lake
The floating village of Kompong Phluk is located on the banks of the great lake of Tonle Sap. The village offers a little understanding into the fascinating lifestyle of Cambodians whose livelihood depends entirely on the lake. Their houses are all built on stilts — during the wet season it is flooded with water; and during the dry season, it is possible to walk at certain parts of the village.
I visited Kompong Phluk during the dry season. I had a lovely time — a refreshing boat ride through the floating village, a stop to walk around to see the temple, school and houses; and then a short break at the floating restaurant for some coffee. It was interesting watching the fishermen on the lake, and one was even painting his boat! My tour cost US$25, and I would recommend following one than going by yourself.
4) Drop by the Landmine Museum
The Cambodian Landmine Museum is located about 25 kilometers (about 45 minutes) north of Siem Reap. I included it during my visit to the Angkor ruins of Banteay Srei. The museum began from the efforts of Aki Ra, a Cambodian who took it upon himself to clear the landmines around the area with a stick. It houses all the landmines he has cleared over the years. He was later supported by a Canadian, who then funded the current museum and land it stands on. There is also a relief facility in the compound that cares for children effected by the landmines.
A pavillion filled with landmines stands in the middle of the museum; surrounded by 4 galleries that tell of Aki Ra’s story, and the horror and effects of landmines still found in the country. It was really heart-wrenching to read the stories and see the pictures, and it helped me understand what the country is still going through. Entrance to the museum is free, but donations are welcomed. Audio-guide rentals are also available.
5) Enjoy an Apsara Show
When you visit the ruins of Angkor, you’ll definitely notice the carvings of Apsaras on the walls and bas-reliefs. In Hindu and Buddhist mythology, they are nymphs, or water spirits. The Apsara Dance is a classical dance performance created in the mid-20th century, inspired by the Apsara. Dressed in costumes depicted on the walls of Angkor, a group of women narrate religious myths and stories through dance.
There are many Apsara Dance performances in Siem Reap, and a lot of people pay to watch the show at exclusive buffet restaurants. On my first visit to Siem Reap, that’s what I did — but on my recent visit, I watched a free performance at the Temple Restaurant (they perform at 7.30 every night). I felt that it was just as good and entertaining.
6) Support the Phare Circus Show
If there is one show you must watch in Siem Reap, it has got to be the Cambodian Phare Circus. It is not exactly a circus show but more like an acrobatic performance; with the group of performers acting out balancing acts, juggling, gymnastics and martial arts — creating a story with their stunts.
The performance was good; but what makes the Cambodian Phare Circus amazing is what happens behind the scenes. The circus has helped transform the lives of local impoverished youths by giving them an outlet to showcase their talents, while making a living for themselves and their families. It has given many of them a brighter future, and endless opportunities. And they need our support. Tickets for the nightly show cost US$35, US$25 and US$18 depending on seats; and almost half price for kids.
7) Walk the Night Market and Markets
When night falls, the town of Siem Reap buzzes with activity. Visitors are back from their day out, the night markets are in full swing with their bright colorful lights, and shopkeepers can be seen calling out to the crowd to buy their wares. There are a couple of night markets to visit around town; Angkor Night Market, Siem Reap Night Market and Art Center Night Market. All of them sell the same things — clothes, souvenirs, art pieces and sculptures; so if you’re shopping around, don’t forget to bargain your socks off! I had so much fun.
And in the morning, drop by Psar Chaa, Siem Reap’s central market. It is a wet market, with some of the usual souvenir items for sale as well. There are also small food stalls within the market — I joined the locals for breakfast here one morning, and because I can’t speak Khmer, I ordered my bowl of noodles by just pointing, smiling and nodding.
8) Party at Pub Street
Another reason why Siem Reap‘s nightlife is often buzzing with activity is Pub Street. And just like its name, Pub Street is just one long street that is filled with pubs, pubs and more pubs! The alcohol is cheap too — with the local Angkor beer offered for only 50 cents, it’s no wonder the place is swarming with people. I was a happy girl.
I dropped by the Red Piano on one of the nights, and ordered myself a Tomb Raider cocktail, named after Angelina Jolie during that movie shoot in the country. Every 10th Tomb Raider cocktail is on the house — and guess what, mine was!
9) Indulge in the Local Food
I enjoy Khmer cuisine. During my visit, I went to the Sugar Palm Restaurant and had a fantastic Khmer meal of prahok kh’tih, fish amok and Khmer chicken curry; I also dined at Marum Restaurant, where I tried the stir fried tree ants with beef! For a halal food option — the Muslim Family Kitchen has got the best fish dish ever, it’s called ‘Fish on Morning Glory Pond’. And if you’re going the healthy way, Peace Cafe offers vegetarian food and fresh juices — and they also have free scheduled Yoga and Khmer language classes. I attended the Khmer language class and learned a couple of useful Khmer words and phrases to help me get around.
I also had good fun trying out the street food — from fried noodles, barbecue skewers and duck eggs; to Cambodian baguettes, shrimp fritters, and even insects! There are not many street food choices in town, so head out of town for some authentic street food — I found a whole group of food stalls along the road to Angkor.
10) Get a Lot of Massages
Last but not least, the massages. There are massage parlors at every corner in town — ranging from fish spas, to foot reflexology and body massages. Some massage parlors offer really cheap foot massages from as low as US$1 for 30 minutes. These places have really old chairs with worn down cushions lined up outside their shops, so I chose to go somewhere that looked a little better (like the Temple Massage) and pay slightly more at US$5 instead. I noticed many people going for the fish spas, where you dip your feet in a pool of water with lots of baby fishes that will nibble on your dead skin. I find it very unhygienic; so I gave it a miss.
During my time in Siem Reap; I also pampered myself with a Khmer massage, a 4-hand massage (where 2 masseuse work on you simultaneously), and a blind shiatzu massage. They were all absolutely relaxing and invigorating; and always the perfect way to end the day.