Things to Do in Siem Reap
Thousand-year-old carvings, thundering waterfalls and an iconic reclining Buddha make Phnom Kulen National Park one of the most-visited escapes in all of Cambodia. Travelers pile into four-door sedans that navigate the narrow, scenic road from Siem Reap to the popular park for an up close look at impressive statues and a massive Buddha. But it’s views from the park’s two waterfalls that really draw visitors.
Decrepit “stairs” at the bottom of the climb point to the direction of the trail. Visitors in the know recommend wearing good walking shoes to negotiate the rocks, planks and slippery slopes that lead to spectacular views. Swimming in the pools proves the perfect reward for a difficult climb and gives travelers a place to relax and unwind before heading back to the city center.
While houses on stilts can be quite common in Cambodia (you’ll often see people relaxing in hammocks strung underneath the houses, homes on stilts in a lake…well, that’s a bit more unusual. Kompong Phluk is a set of villages that are located on the floodplain of the Tonle Sap Lake, about 10 miles (16 km) from Siem Reap. The community, which consists of about 3,000 villagers, mostly live in stilted homes and depend on fishing and tourism for their livelihood. During wet season, this area will be completely submerged (hence the houses on stilts) and Kompong Phluk truly becomes a semi-floating village; in the dry season, the same stilted houses may rise up to 18 feet (about 6 meters) above the water.
When Aki Ra, founder of the Cambodia Landmine Museum and School, was a child, he was recruited as a child soldier in the army of the Khmer Rouge and spent much of his formative years fighting. After the war he returned to try and remove and defuse by hand many of the thousands of mines he planted during his time with the army. In 1997 he founded the Cambodian Landmine Museum and School to care for children wounded by landmines.
Today, the facility houses more than three dozen children from throughout Cambodia who’ve endured various forms of physical, emotional and familial hardships. They’re all given an education, including English language classes, and eventually a university or trade school scholarship. While visitors aren’t allowed into the children’s home, they are encouraged to visit the museum, where proceeds go toward supporting the children’s relief center.
Beng Mealea is located 40 kilometers east of the main Angkor Wat complex. The temple was mainly constructed from sandstone, with its architectural style identical to that of Angkor Wat. Because of this, it is thought that Beng Mealea was built in the 12th century under the reign of Suryavarman II.
The temple grounds are surrounded by a gigantic moat and was once entirely consumed by jungle. This atmospheric temple is oriented toward the east, with entranceways from the other three cardinal directions also. If entering from the south, visitors will find themselves amid piles of chiselled sandstone blocks, sweeping vines, and mysterious dark chambers.
The layout of the temple consists of three enclosed galleries situated around a central tower, which has now completely collapsed. There’s a well-preserved library in the northeastern quadrant, plus extensive carvings of scenes from Hindu mythology and long balustrades formed by bodies of the seven-headed Naga serpent.
While the decaying structures and overgrown temples of Angkor Wat remain among the most popular destinations in Siem Reap, the rare collection of stone carvings along the Stung Kbal Spean River, often referred to as “Valley of 1000 Lingas,” continues to bring art and archaeology lovers outside the city and beyond Angkor.
The impressive carvings that line the 125-kilometer riverbed pay homage to the Hindu god Shiva. During the 11th and 12th centuries, artisans chipped away at delicate sandstone leaving intricate phallic symbols, mythological creatures and religious images along the shores. Visitors must trek two kilometers up rocky, uneven terrain to spy the hand-carved statues. Some argue the hike is more trouble than it’s worth, but most agree that travelers seeking to connect with nature and explore Cambodia’s rich and colorful history will appreciate a trip to Kbal Spean.
Believed to have been built during King Suryavarman II’s reign in the first half of the 12th century, Wat Athvea (Prasat Vat Althea) is one of several Hindu temples in the area shrouded in mystery. Built from laterite and sandstone, both still in relatively good condition, the temple has no inscriptions and few carvings. It seems as though the carvings it does were abandoned before they were completed.
Wat Athvea isn’t nearly as touristy as many of the other temples of the Angkor complex, even though it’s one of the better maintained temples. Visitors looking for a peaceful place to take photos without the crowds can easily do so here, particularly in the late afternoon when it’s at its quietest.
More Things to Do in Siem Reap
Travelers looking for cold beers and cheap food almost always find themselves in the throes of chaotic Pub Street. Local taverns, unique vendors, musicians and traditional dancers line this paved pass, giving Siem Reap’s entertainment Mecca a true party vibe.
Pedestrian-only streets mean it’s easy to wander between stalls selling traditional crafts, ice-cold beers and spicy hot soups. Food here is as popular with locals as it is with travelers. Strong-stomached visitors can sample frog legs, beetles, snake and crispy grasshoppers, while the less adventurous can head indoors to dance at bumping disco techs, or simply saddle up to one of the numerous outdoor tables and sip cool drinks while absorbing all of the city’s energy.
Though it’s more than 500 years old, Wat Preah Prom Rath is a modern-looking temple and monastery located in the heart of Siem Reap. The front gate is the perhaps the oldest looking piece of the site, with Bayon style carvings that are similar to the ones found in Angkor Wat. The temple grounds are large, home to a university building as well as the main hall. However, the main attraction is the reclining Buddha—which is now sinking as well as reclining—and the story that explains how the statue came to reside there.
As the legend tells it, a famous monk was traveling on the nearby river when sharks attacked him and the boat broke into two pieces. The monk escaped in the prow of the boat and soon landed ashore. The remains of the boat were carved into the reclining Buddha that is housed in the Preah Vihear building. Outside of the Preah Vihear building is a statue that illustrates the monk and his boat; it’s a popular spot for photos.
Open since 2007, the Angkor Night Market was the first of its kind to open in Cambodia. Today, more than 240 shops line the halls of this massive warehouse, selling handmade crafts, local silk, traditional jewelry and Khmer-style wood and stone carvings. It’s the perfect place to spend an evening wandering the stalls in search of souvenirs. And it’s also one of the best spots to sample traditional Cambodian cuisine. Travelers can explore the well-curated stalls, sip steaming hot bowls of spicy soup, relax over shisha and a cold beer or unwind with a traditional massage.
There’s a reason why most businesses in Siem Reap give their addresses in relation to Psar Chas—better known as the Old Market. Its well-stocked stalls selling Buddhist treasures, hilariously misspelled t-shirts, jewelry and other souvenirs are a must-stop destination for travelers visiting this ancient city.
Friendly sellers used to foreign visitors make it easy to haggle for the best deal at this market in the heart of Siem Reap. The narrow passes between vendors are typically jam-packed with locals and travelers creating an energy that’s as kinetic and alive as nearby Pub Street. Hungry shoppers can wander to the food stalls on the northern side of Psar Chas, which sell traditional dishes prepared on the street, as well as the farm fresh ingredients locals use to prepare the evening’s dinner.
Recognized as the first nature preservation in Cambodia, Angkor Center for Conservation of Biodiversity is known for its wildlife rescue, animal rehabilitation and endangered species breeding.
Visitors to ACCB can tour the grounds under the direction of expert guides who are well informed about the unique challenges facing the protection of Cambodia’s wildlife. From the pileated gibbons to silvered langur, ACCB is home to animals found in few other places on earth. Visitors leave impressed by the well-kept grounds, knowledgeable staff and diversity of animals. And whether it’s combined with a trip to nearby Banteray Srei, or made a destination all its own, ACCB treats visitors to a one-of-a-kind experience up close with the wild.
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