Many travelers may come to Cambodia solely to visit the temples of Angkor Wat, one of the most popular attractions in Southeast Asia, but there are many other interesting things to do in Siem Reap. Over a million tourists a year pass through Siem Reap, making it the fastest growing place in Cambodia outside of Phnom Penh, the capital city.
With history dating all the way back to the year 802, visiting Siem Reap is a highlight for many people traveling through Southeast Asia.
1. Angkor Wat
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, 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 Angkor Wat which is about four miles north of Siem Reap.
The scale of Angkor Wat is overwhelming; a three-day pass (US $40) is necessary to enjoy even a fraction of the carved reliefs and ruins away from the main temple site.
2. Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary
The Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary has become one of the most important breeding grounds for endangered water birds in Southeast Asia. Located in the marshes of Tonle Sap Lake, this bird sanctuary provides a chance to tour by boat and see rare birds outside of captivity.
You can make arrangements to visit Prek Toal through your guest house or hire a boat from Phnom Krom/Chong Khneas boat dock (US $35 - $45 return). You’ll be dropped off at the Prek Toal Environmental Research Station (entrance fee: $5), where you can pick up more information about the area’s wildlife and plant life, or book a boat tour of the sanctuary ($15-25).
3. Balloon Ride Over Angkor Wat
Just west of Angkor Wat, a touring company offers an exciting - and different - way to appreciate the ruins without fighting the hordes of tourists and touts. Seeing the site from 600 feet in the air gives a new perspective on just how massive the temple complex really is.
Balloon rides start at US $35 and prices go up for longer tours. You’ll find the balloon on the road from the airport to Angkor Wat, about a short distance from Angkor Wat’s gates. Call +85 12 520810 for more details.
The Khmer Rouge in 1975 and the Vietnamese occupation in 1979 have contributed to Siem Reap's tumultuous, war-torn past. Siem Reap did not begin to stabilize and become safe enough for tourists to visit until the 1990s.
Unfortunately, millions of land mines and unexploded objects were left behind by decades of conflict. The many legless beggars in town are a living testament to how dangerous these artifacts still are in the present day.
The Cambodia Land Mine Museum was founded by a former child soldier whose parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge and is staffed by victims and orphans of mines. Although sobering, the Land Mine Museum is a real piece of Cambodia away from the tourism glam.
5. Military Shooting Range
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 - US $1 a bullet and up - 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).
6. Aqua Swimming Pool
During the months of March, April, and May, temperatures can reach over 100 degrees in Siem Reap. One great way to escape the sun and oppressive, jungle humidity is to head for Aqua - an Australian-owned bar and restaurant situated around a giant, public swimming pool.
Don't let the outside appearance fool you, Aqua provides a great environment for cooling off and meeting people at the same time. For US $2 a day you can lounge by the pool with a drink in hand.
The Angkor National Museum houses thousands of artifacts recovered from Angkor Wat and the surrounding areas in an impressive building. Art, statues, and well-planned video presentations make this museum well worth the US $12 entrance.
Visiting the Angkor National Museum before Angkor Wat will give you an insight into the history of the Khmer civilization and will enhance your visit to the temple ruins.
A walk through the museum only takes around two hours.
Dr. Beat Richner from Switzerland has been helping the children of Cambodia since 1992 and has even appeared in films.
Every Saturday evening around 7 p.m. Dr. Richner gives a free cello performance at the Jayavarman VII Children's Hospital to anyone wishing to see - and help - his efforts to give local kids a better future. Donations accepted.
9. Kampong Phluk
About 13 miles from Siem Reap, Kampong Phluk is a fishing village constructed on stilts in the swamps around Tonle Sap Lake, the largest lake in Cambodia.
Only a handful of tourists make 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.
- Read about etiquette in Cambodia to enhance your visit to Kampong Phluk.
10. Wat Thmei
Siem Reap suffered horribly under the Khmer Rouge, and the area’s victims are commemorated today in this monastery. 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.
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 – for more on why you shouldn’t patronize the area’s orphanages, read this: Orphanages in Cambodia are Not Tourist Attractions.)
Wat Thmei can be found about 540 yards west of Angkor Wat, on the left fork on the way out.