From Vietnam, we made our way to Cambodia, a country in Southeast Asia mostly known for the biggest temple in the world – Angkor Wat. That was the draw for us too, so we headed directly to Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second-largest city and the nearest to the ruins.
We spent 4 days exploring the temples and found many other things to do in Siem Reap besides Angkor Wat. We concluded that Siem Reap is a destination in and of itself. It’s a small charming town with French colonial and Chinese architecture, creative outlets, and a burgeoning dining scene. To help convince you to add this city to your Southeast Asia itinerary, here are our reasons to visit Siem Reap.
Incredible New Year Celebrations
Little did we know en route to Siem Reap that we would be in for a massive surprise. Upon arrival, it turned out we accidentally overlapped our trip with the Cambodian New Year called Sangkranta, which usually falls on the 14th to 16th of April. What a wonderful coincidence it was that allowed us to learn about the traditions and participate in them too.
The Solar New Year farewells the harvesting season and welcomes the rainy season. To celebrate, the locals set up altars of offerings to their ancestors, visit shrines, express their gratitude, and pray. During this time, people give donations to the less fortunate and conduct cleansing rituals. The part of the celebration that fascinated us the most was the pouring of water and smearing talc powder on people who gather on the streets and take the festivities well into the night.
We didn’t hesitate to join the Angkor Sankranta event that takes place annually in Siem Reap and brings everyone together like a giant family. There were dances, cultural performances, talc powder and squirt gun street battles, and fireworks. And some of the events took place in the UNESCO heritage sites of Angkor Wat. If you are wondering what is the best time to visit Siem Reap, it’s definitely during the Sankranta New Year.
Mysterious Angkor Archeological Park
The number one reason to visit Siem Reap is, of course, for the Angkor Archeological Park. Siem Reap is the closest city to the park, just 15 minutes away from the entrance. Very well-known globally, Angkor Wat draws a sizable tourist crowd. But to beat the rush, we suggest making your way at first light and exploring beyond the main temples. The entrance to the park opens at 5 am. Though the ungodly wake-up call may be dreadful, it all becomes worth it when you are able to soak in the magical atmosphere one on one with history.
It’s common for tourists to stop in Siem Reap for a couple of days, visit Angkor Wat once and move on to the next destination. We recommend giving Siem Reap at least four days and visiting the park a few times. It’s split into two circuits that cover different temples – Small Circuit and Grand Circuit, and Angkor Wat is just one of the popular temples. So, to enjoy the park at a leisurely pace and have time to venture off the beaten path, you will need to reserve more than one day.
The mystical ancient ruins complex, only a small part of which has been unearthed, is considered the largest religious structure in the world that dates back to the 12th century. And if you are looking for unique hidden gems in Siem Reap, just go exploring the dirt tracks and forests around Angkor Wat in search of lesser visited ruins. The temple is unrestored, and many of the structures are intertwined with tree roots, slowly being reclaimed by the jungle. Photography aficionados should allow extra time for the guaranteed spell of photo frenzy. And if you are a history buff, then add a tour of Siem Reap’s Angkor National Museum to your itinerary to learn more about the history and view relics moved there for safekeeping.
Southeast Asia’s Largest Lake and Floating Villages
Tonle Sap Lake, located just 15 km from Siem Reap, is the largest lake in Southeast Asia and makes for a perfect day trip. It’s a rich biosphere reserve housing rare Siamese crocodiles and birds. The locals live in floating villages, built in clusters of houses on stilts along the edges of the lake, and some are welcoming tourists. In this part of Siem Reap, life is much simpler than the glitz of boutique and five-star hotels and the bourgeoning dining scene in the center. We visited Kampong Phluk Village, arguably the most authentic of all, to marvel at the wildlife and meet the village people and fishermen. We recommend going in the second half of the day to watch the sunset cast beautiful colors over the water and observe the commotion of birds at dusk.
Breathtaking Nature in Phnom Kulen National Park
A visit to this park is a full day adventure only an hour away from Siem Reap, packed with breathtaking landscapes and sights. The park is concentrated around the majestic Phnom Kulen mountain, with a lush rainforest engulfing ruins, Buddha statues, and cascading waterfalls. With multiple temples in the area, the surroundings are considered sacred and said to be the birthplace of the Khmer Empire, dating back to the 9th century. The giant reclining Buddha and Kbal Spean stone carvings in the river are two of the most impressive places to visit in Siem Reap.
History at the Cambodia Landmine Museum
Cambodia is one of the most land-mined countries in the world due to the turbulent conflicts that took place in its past. Unfortunately, the explosives are still scattered throughout the country and continue to kill and injure civilians. The Landmine Museum tells the story of the conflict and casualties and was put together by a man who has deactivated thousands of bombs himself. You can hire a tuk-tuk to get to the museum and purchase the tickets upon arrival, the money for which goes towards education.
The Cambodian Circus
The Phare Circus is not your average circus experience. This daily evening performance is an opportunity for young students of the Professional Arts Training Center to showcase their skills. The school is an NGO that takes care of economically and socially challenged Cambodian youth and provides education in performing arts. The contribution you make by purchasing tickets goes towards supporting these children. Join a magical evening of a Cirque du Soleil-style performance full of authentic emotion and passion.
Unique Khmer Food
Cambodia, too, has a varied and scrumptious street food scene that can give Thailand a run for its money. But it is not often that it takes the spotlight resulting in many visitors being unfamiliar and shying away from indulging. We decided to take the plunge into the pool of local flavors with experts by our side from the food tour we booked on Get Your Guide.
If you prefer a self-guided experience, there is no better place to do so than the Old Market or Night Market. The markets are a vibrant combination of shopping and street food that offer everything from bags and trinkets to spring rolls and spiders on skewers. This is also the place to pick up your souvenirs but be sure to bargain.
Siem Reap’s restaurant scene is varied and abundant. Not only will you find excellent street food, but will also be spoiled with luxury dining options at five-star hotels offering a contemporary twist on Cambodian cuisine. Not to mention, there is an entire pedestrian street called Pub Street serving local grub in a lively atmosphere. On one of the evenings, we treated ourselves to a beautiful dinner in Chanrey Tree, where we tasted authentic Khmer cuisine in a jungle-like courtyard with ingredients sourced from the local markets.
All these amazing places to visit in Siem Reap kept us very busy for 4 days and completely spellbound. Have we convinced you to plan a trip to Cambodia? Pin this guide!
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