A colourful collision of history, culture and stunning landscape, Siem Reap Province is a must-visit destination when exploring Cambodia. There are endless things to do in Siem Reap, whether you like bar-hopping, visiting museums, traditional Khmer art, shopping for handicrafts, cycling through rice paddies, checking out silk farms, or strolling through expansive temple complexes that show the grandeur of the Khmer empire.
Siem Reap is fast becoming the hotspot for travellers in Cambodia, with a variety of new luxury hotels and world-class restaurants opening each year. Even the amazing historical ruins you can see here get an update each year; new temples and archaeological sites are regularly discovered hidden beneath the thick wilds of Cambodian jungle thanks to the advances being made in imaging technology.
Siem Reap is a thriving city alive with spirituality and vibrant colour, and the jewel in its crown is the Angkor temple complex, considered the most important archaeological site in Southeast Asia. Recognised by UNESCO, Angkor Archaeological Park is a wide swath of land that covers over 400 square kilometers, and is a living relic of the Khmer empire, with ancient temples and artefacts offering a window to the past.
Get to know the many fabulous faces of Siem Reap with this itinerary for a perfect long weekend away in Cambodia’s cultural capital.
Start your day with a tour of the best temples in Siem Reap on the Angkor Wat Small Circuit. Dive straight into traditional Khmer culture with an exploration of the Angkor Archaeological Park, which starts with a walk through the Victory Gate, one of five gates that surround the ancient city. Built by King Jayavarman VII, this breathtaking entry way resides on the east wall of Angkor and legend has it that the King would pass his army through these gates on their way into battle.
Next you’ll visit Prasat Kravan, a stunning tenth-century Hindu temple. Dedicated to the supreme Hindu god Vishnu, Prasat Kravan is one of the only temples in Angkor that was not built by a king, but by a priest of very high ranking. It’s surrounded by a small moat, and is well-known for its five towers of architectural symmetry and classical lines. But you don’t need to be keen on architecture to enjoy the scenery—it’s a beautiful site for all visitors, with exquisite sculptures set into the brickwork and dotted all around the temple.
Next up on the tour is the Temple of Ta Prohm. This temple was built as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery, as well as a university, and, because it is widely known for its appearance in the popular movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, it’s often referred to as the Tomb Raider Temple. Ta Prohm is lauded as an example of the culmination of man and nature, thanks to the gigantic trees and tree roots that have entwined their way into and around the ruins. As you explore the gorgeous grounds, the tour guide will divulge a lot of the interesting history of Angkor Wat, so be prepared to learn a thing or two!
The next site visited on the Angkor Wat tour is Ta Keo, a temple built during the Khmer Empire and made entirely of sandstone blocks. It’s one of the tallest monuments throughout Angkor, and consists of five sanctuaries that sit atop a five-tiered pyramid and surrounded by a moat. Unfortunately, Ta Keo was never completed, with work ceasing at the beginning of the eleventh century. The rough-hewn construction gives this temple an eerie beauty, and the incredible architecture and view from the top make Ta Keo well worth a visit.
Built in the twelfth century, Bayon Temple is the next stop on the tour and is one of the most interesting temples in Siem Reap. Constructed in Angkor Thom for King Jayavarman VII, one of Cambodia’s most highly celebrated royals, Bayon is made up of 54 towers that have been designed in the style of both Gothic and Khmer architecture. It is a place of wonder and surrealism, where you are met with 216 faces of the smiling Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion and mercy. These sculptures have been created in the bas-relief design, which means they protrude from the flat surface on which they’re carved. These bas reliefs are behind Bayon Temple’s nickname ‘the face temple’, and they add to the beauty of this richly decorated ruin. Here, you will also find the Terrace of the Leper King, built by King Jayavarman VII, where a sculpture of Yama, the Hindu god of death, sits.
No tour of Angkor would be complete without a visit to Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the whole world. Built by King Suryavarman II of the Khmer Empire back in the 12th century, it was first constructed for the Hindu God Vishnu, but was slowly transformed into a Buddhist temple over time. Angkor Wat (which means ‘City of Temples’ or ‘Temple City’) is the most well-preserved temple in the area, and is a true testament to the classical style of traditional Khmer architecture. Angkor Wat is the only temple in the area that faces West, which is known to be symbolic as the direction of death. This caused many historians to believe that the temple was used as a tomb, but it came to be understood that the western orientation was purely in conjunction with Vishnu, who is frequently associated with that direction. This temple is so fiercely beloved by all of Cambodia it’s even featured on the country’s national flag, and visitors will learn all about Angkor Wat history from their guide. The grandeur and serenity of Angkor Wat, as well as the intricate bas-reliefs, Apsara statues, and the gorgeous view from the central tower make this a truly breathtaking site to see.
The final stop on this tour is the Banteay Kdei Temple. Its name means ‘The Citadel of Chambers’ and it’s similar in style to Ta Prohm in that the architecture is distinctly Bayon, but this temple is much smaller and more dilapidated than others in Angkor. However, restoration of the ruins has been made possible thanks to laser scans and imaging conducted by the University of California and Sophia University of Tokyo. While some areas of the temple have been roped off due to these renovations, it’s still a beautiful place to visit, and a stunning way to end the tour.
When the sun goes down, the party people come out. Cambodia isn’t only temples and ruins, there are plenty of things to do in Siem Reap for night-wanderers. The famous Pub Street is a rowdy road with loads of hopping pubs to stop in on. From five o’clock onward, Pub Street is closed off to traffic, making it a great place to walk around and explore.
Some local favourite watering holes are Soup Dragon, a rooftop bar offering a great view of the sunset; the YOLO bar, where visitors lay down in hammocks and sip on strong cocktails; and Angkor What?, one of the first bars in Siem Reap, and one of the last ones to close.
If you need energy to fuel your exploration, there are tons of great street-food stalls and restaurants to satisfy your belly rumbles. Sample some mouthwatering cambodian dishes, or have some of your favourite international fare. Some notable restaurants are the Banana Leaf, with live music and an eclectic array of dishes; the Khmer Family Restaurant, serving genuine and affordable Cambodian dishes; and Chamkar, a garden-side restaurant with tasty vegetarian dishes.
The Cycling Siem Reap Tour is the perfect way to discover the beautiful Cambodian countryside. Begin your day with a slow, easy ride along the Siem Reap River, where you can see the day breaking with a stunning Angkor Wat sunrise, as the fishermen begin boating out across the water and the children stumble sleepyheaded through their morning chores. The river itself is gorgeous, with picture-perfect landscapes surrounding it on both sides, providing the ideal backdrop. You will soon be feeling invigorated and ready for the day ahead.
As the cycling tour progresses, the group stops at the ancient Buddhist pagodas that are dotted along the river. Wat Damnak, the biggest pagoda in the Province, was originally a royal palace and served as a military depot during the Khmer Empire. It is now home to a monastery, a primary school, two charities and even a sewing academy for young Cambodian women. Wat Damnak is a tranquil oasis where visitors can learn about the life of Buddhist monks, admire Khmer architecture and wander through the fragrant gardens as the tour guide divulges all the fascinating information about Siem Reap’s history.
The tour continues by bicycle through rice paddies, where riders can experience Cambodia’s agricultural processes firsthand and see the farmers cultivating their rice using traditional farming methods. Around 20 minutes from the centre of Siem Reap is another worthwhile attraction: the silk farms of Artisans D’Angkor. Silk farming is a large part of Cambodia’s trade industry, and the free tours that take visitors around the silk farms provide insight into the age-old practice. Guests are shown the mulberry plants that are used to feed the silkworms. The leaves give the silkworms the energy they need to spin cocoons, which are harvested once they reach the right age. Raw silk is surprisingly thick and rough, very unlike the smooth fabric seen in the shops. Once it’s gathered, it’s dyed a variety of different colours before it’s prepped for weaving. To showcase the gorgeous results, the silk farms in Siem Reap display a number of beautiful clothes, scarves, bedspreads, pillowcases and similar wares, as well as other intricate styles of traditional Cambodian clothing. Afterwards, the tour continues on to a palm-sugar factory, where visitors learn the process of harvesting and boiling the juice into sugar and even get to taste the finished product. Next up is a stop at a restaurant to enjoy some authentic Cambodian cuisine for lunch, with delicious dishes such as mee kiev, kuy teav, samlor kako, babor and kho.
The rest of the tour is spent cycling around Siem Reap, and taking in the beautiful rural scenery. You can see the Cambodian homes and villages—a vast majority of locals live in the surrounding area rather than the main city. The countryside is filled with rich, jungle greenery, dense mangrove forests, rice paddies and rivers, as well as a number of exotic birds and other wildlife. Travelling through these parts allows visitors to get a feel for Cambodia’s lush landscape and peaceful way of life.
After a day of arts, crafts, and cycling, it’s time to wind down with a relaxing cocktail. What better way to end the day than drinks with a view? Central Prestige D’Angkor is a hotel with a fabulous rooftop bar overlooking Siem Reap, where you can see a sprawling view of the charming city in a tapestry of rooftops. As the sky blossoms with vibrant oranges and pinks, your tastebuds will bloom with flavour as you sip on a cocktail. It is a winning recipe for enjoying the lovely Cambodian scenery.
Now that you’ve whet your whistle, time to pique your appetite—The Sugar Palm recently opened a new location in Siem Reap, and we are reaping the benefits. Dedicated to the preservation of ancient Khmer recipes, chef Kethana opened The Sugar Palm with a vision of continuing in the traditional dishes her mother and grandmother made. Bold flavours and a harmonious blend of spices give Chef Kethana’s food that classic Khmer kick. Signature dishes include fish amok, Khmer curry, and pork stew with quail eggs. You may even eat a bowl of rice harvested from the paddies you cycled past earlier in the day.
Venture off the beaten path on Kompong Phluk Floating Village tour, where you’ll discover the daily lives and practices of the friendly Cambodians who live there. The day begins with a long-tail boat ride through Kompong Phluk, one of the most popular floating villages in Siem Reap. This small, rural village is impressive year round: in the rainy season (June to November), the river rises to around the same height as the houses, which gives the impression that they are floating, while in the dry season, when the water level drops, the structures appear to be balancing precariously on thick, wooden stilts. There’s a number of different species that call the waters and jungle surrounding Kompong Phluk home, so if you keep your eyes peeled, you might see crocodiles, turtles, monkeys, macaques, and other exotic birds and fish.
The floating village tour travels down the river towards Tonle Sap Lake, passing through the different villages, giving you the chance to watch the local fishermen hard at work. Tonle Sap Lake is a freshwater lake that connects the Tonle Sap River to the Mekong River. It’s considered one of the most varied, productive ecosystems in Cambodia, and is enormously important for the country’s food supply. It’s the largest freshwater lake throughout all of Southeast Asia, and in 1997 it was recognised as a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Visiting these fertile waters will give you a greater understanding and appreciation of Cambodian culture and the lifeblood that is their waterways.
Lunch is served on the tour at one of the floating villages, where guests can enjoy a delicious riverside meal. After lunch, it’s time to peruse the lively local markets and check out the different structures that have been built for the floating villages, like temples, schools, shops, restaurants, churches, a police station and even fish and crocodile farms. There is no better way to experience authentic Cambodian life. Simply traveling by long-tail boat makes this tour a memorable experience. The long-tail boats are traditionally known as ruea hang yao, and allow both villagers and visitors to traverse the river with ease, gliding through the waters like a hot knife through butter. As the boats slowly make their way back up the river and towards the end of the tour, guests can soak up the sun, smile at the villagers and enjoy another beautiful day in Siem Reap.