Top 8 Things to Do in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap has justifiably become an international tourist destination, an item on the bucket list of every collector on the ancient and monumental. It is a bustling tourist area in which lies a gigantic temple complex known as Angkor Wat. It is a place which offers its visitors adventure, rich history and even richer nightlife. From here, you can set off on a jungle expedition, enjoy guided or self-guided tours throughout the vast historical complexes, etc. The list would be infinitely long, but since you’ll probably have limited time, we’ll share with you the must-do activities of your sojourn here.
Visit Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious monument that originated in the 12th century. Once a Hindu worshipping site, Angkor Wat fell into decline when the Khmers accepted Buddhism over Hinduism. Rediscovered only recently (in the 19th century), it now features reconstructed temples and splendid architecture, to say the least. The complex assumes central position of a fairly large island, which is encircled by a water moat. Such a creation illustrates the Khmers’ belief on how the universe was established; the moat represents the oceans encircling the earth, while the galleries are concentrated around a structure with five towers, symbolizing the Mount Meru, home of the gods.
Angkor Wat’s exquisite artwork covers provinces of Hindu religion and nature. Most striking are female cloud spirits called Apsaras, followed by carved figures of mythical beasts, guardian lions, and even Buddha sculptures. Lotus blossoms, referring to various Hindu beliefs (Brahma’s birth is among them), are also to be looked for.
The best way to familiarize yourselves with this marvellous site is to hire a professional or local guide. Sunrise is the best time of the day for taking photos.
Visit Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom was once a religious, official and military center of the great Khmer Empire, with countless temples, Imperial palace and other noteworthy establishments. Heavily fortified, Angkor Thom is also encircled by a moat, which once upon a time was abundant with crocodiles. Angkor Thom is traversed by four causeways, edged by balustrades sculpted with nagas (half human half cobra beings), gods and demons.
Within a huge city, big faces carved on the walls, bas-reliefs and other intricate details, decorating soaring towers, terraces and other establishments awaits you. The Bayon Temple, for example, features outside reliefs depicting historical events, while those inside get you into a legendary world, where gods rule and underworld creatures lurk.
Other noteworthy establishments include the Terrace of the Leper King (probably an imperial crematorium), Terrace of the Elephants ( a stone wall decorated in a parade of pachyderms, mahouts, garudas and lions), and Preh Palilay (former worshipping place claimed back by nature).
Once you have a basic knowledge of the Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat complexes, the best way to explore is to rent a bike ($2) and experience these architectural marvels at your own pace. Also, note that to enter the Angkor Archeological Park, you’ll need one of three available passes (1-day pass: $20, 3-day pass: $40, 7- day: $60).
Take a food tour
The traditional cuisine of Cambodia is quite unknown outside the country’s borders and most people don’t realise that the basics of Khmer cuisine were set well before the 16th century.
The rich culture and history of this region has left an imprint on the national cuisine which, in the main, rely on the country’s abundance of freshwater fish – there are more than 500 varieties – plentiful indigenous herbs and spices, and uniquely Khmer flavours like prahok (fermented fish that is stomped like grapes) and syrupy, fragrant palm sugar. Meat, seafood and duck eggs also feature prominently in local Khmer dishes. Local delicacies, such as the rice cake or fruit shake, always prove a worthy closure to the end of a long day.
To get acquainted with the best of this outstanding cuisine, you would be best served to take a guided food tour. Angkor Street Eats (angkorstreeteats.com) is one such company that is consistently regarded as the best guided street food tour operating out of both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
Be entertained with the Apsara dance
Having acquainted yourself with Apsaras through carvings at Angkor Wat’s temples, you can now enjoy their dance. In the centuries past, the Apsara dance was performed only for the monarchs and their families, while today it represents an important part of the Khmer national folklore. It’s estimated that the dance originated in the 12th century.
The Apsara dance used to be performed by female dancers, but nowadays they are accompanied by males. It’s, generally speaking, a gentle performance with a lot of symbolism in it. The dance consists of several stages (Dialogue with God, Glorious Kingdom, etc.) and Khmer martial arts, temple structures and festivals also form part of the performance. Each stance and position has a special meaning. “Today”, for example, is indicated by a pointing finger to the heavens. As you enjoy the performance, you’ll certainly remember that their movements are those illustrated on the walls of the Angkor Wat temples.
Take a look at the floating villages
To the south of Siem Reap lies Cambodia’s great Tonle Sap Lake, which is a natural reserve and a place where humans live in harmony with nature. Depending on the season that you visit, you will either see houses sitting on the water surface, or up high on stilts significantly above it. It is dependent on the natural phenomenon that fills the lake through the Mekong River during the wet season and empties it during the dry season. The amplitudes of the water levels may range up to 10 meters.
A few communities gravitate to Siem Reap on the northern shore, with Kampong Khleang as the largest and farthest (35 kilometers), but also most convenient for tourists. Besides stilted houses, you can see huge fishing nets (half of the fish caught in Cambodia is from this lake), shrimp and crocodile farms, floating schools and markets, watery streets, etc.
Experience intact nature
The Tonle Sap Lake natural reserve abounds with mangrove forests, making it rich in wildlife. A myriad of fish and bird species, some of which are endangered, inhabit the reserve, as well as crocodiles, turtles and otter among other wildlife.
Prek Toal bird sanctuary is a breeding ground for endangered species, and you can take a closer look by going on a boat tour. The dry season (December – May) is the best time for bird watching activities, when among others you can find Grey-Headed Fish Eagle, Milky Stork and Spot-Billed Pelikan, to mention just a few.
Pay a visit to the Angkor National Museum
If you head to the Angkor Archeological Park, it’s worth making a stop and visiting the Angkor National Museum. Here, you can obtain comprehensive knowledge of the Khmer civilization, which enhances your understanding of the Park’s symbolism should you opt for a visit without a guide. A two-hour visit would suffice. Note however, that there is an admission fee of $12.
The museum exhibits works of art discovered and salvaged during archaeological works. Interactive displays facilitate your exploration taking you through galleries elaborating Hinduism and Buddhism, pre-Angkor and Angkor periods, time of the kings (emperors)… Highlights include a Buddha Shelter by Naga sculpture, Standing Vishnu (a Hindu deity), and Ganesha (a human with a head of elephant).
Take a peek into the not-so-distant past of Cambodia at the Landmine Museum
During the 1970s, Cambodia was ruled by the repressive Khmer Rouge. In that period, countless landmines were planted throughout this beautiful country, and it is estimated that many of them are still out there.
The Landmine Museum displays a collection of landmines, mortars, rifles and other weaponry. The Museum’s curators are people who got hurt by stepping on the mines. Here, you can hear a story about Aki Ra, a Khmer de-miner who single-handedly neutralized endless mines, and re-live his life in an reconstructed entertainment area where you try to locate deactivated mines. The museum can be found near Banteay Srei.
Besides these recommended must-do activities, there is so much to discover in Siem Reap. In fact, take a stroll through its commercial areas and something is bound to pop up, be it a cheap massage, spa treatments, cooking classes, or something completely new. Shopping is also fun, but don’t fall for stories about “the antique artifacts”. It’s not that there aren’t any, but do be extra careful since exporting artifacts from Angkor is forbidden.
And finally, the name Siem Reap literally means “Defeat of Siam”, alluding to banishment of occupying Siamese forces (Thailand) from the ancient Khmer capital Angkor Thom.