Come for Angkor Wat, Stay for… Everything Else in Siem Reap
Cambodia’s famous temples are just the tip of the jungle iceberg.
Something has changed recently about Angkor Wat—and really Siem Reap in general. While visitors are still drawn to the Angkor Archaeological Park for a glimpse of Cambodia’s grand past, where centuries-old monuments sleep amidst dense jungles, they’re going beyond the temples as well.
These days, people have begun to come for the archaeology, but stay for the fish amok (coconut fish curry) and nom banh chok (Khmer noodles), the buzzing art galleries, the swanky designer boutiques, and the therapeutic spas (step aside, Thailand). Once you’ve had your fill of wats, you could go for a stroll along the riverside promenade or the sprawling Angkor Botanical Garden. Or just a two hours drive away is Phnom Kulen mountain, perfect for a short hike or a refreshing soak under a waterfall.
Much has regrown in Cambodia, not just around the temples, but also since the rule of the Khmer Rouge in the mid 1970s. Like the park, there’s much more to the beautiful country where so much thrives. Siem Reap is a place of transformation. Here are all the places to eat, drink, explore, and be transformed while you’re here.
Tour the temples
It is worth waking up (really) early in the morning to catch the sunrise at the 12th-century Angkor Wat. Cambodia’s most significant landmark, built in honor of the Hindu god Vishnu, finds a place even on the national flag. And for good reason. The highlight here at this UNESCO site is the magnificent bas relief of the mythical churning of the ocean of milk by gods and demons in their search for the elixir of life.
After you’re done gawking, head to the Angkor Thom complex to see one of southeast Asia’s masterpieces: the dozens of Buddha faces on the walls of the Bayon temple, frozen in an enigmatic smile. The fortified city of Angkor Thom was the last capital of the Khmer empire, and is home to other impressive sights, such as the pyramid-shaped Phimeanakas temple and the royal terrace of elephants.
Keep an entire evening free for a visit to Ta Prohm temple, whose crumbling walls have been held captive by banyan tree roots for centuries. Tourists come here as much for the eerie spectacle of the ruins at twilight as to pay homage to the filming location of Angelina Jolie’s 2001 movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider; it’s a multifaceted kind of place. And definitely don’t miss the tiny but exquisite Bantaey Srei (translated as the “citadel of women”), built with pink sandstone and lush wall carvings, located just outside the main town.
Add some Khmer flavor to your meals
Young and enterprising Cambodian chefs have been reviving traditional Khmer cuisine in the last few years, and there is no better place to sample this than at Jomno (there is even a mushroom amok for vegans who want to taste this quintessential dish). At Cuisine Wat Damnak, French chef Joannès Rivière has managed to create excellent tasting menus that marry Khmer flavors with those from his own homeland.
For food served with a large heart, have a meal at Marum, a restaurant that employs street kids and marginalized youth trained in hospitality by the parent company Tree Alliance. And to wind down at the end of a long, hot day of temple hopping, sip on a Tomb Raider cocktail at the Red Piano, graced by Jolie herself during the film shooting (or so the locals claim).
Swing by the circus
Phare Circus is a fun way to spend an evening in Siem Reap, far away from the heat and dust of the ruins. This homegrown entertainment is presented by extremely talented and dedicated artists, musicians, dancers, and acrobats trained at the vocational school of Phare Ponleu Selpak (meaning ‘brightness of the arts’) in the town of Battambang, just three hours away. The performances may be world class, but the skills and the stories at this circus are uniquely Cambodian. Along with the show at the big top, there is also shopping and dining within Phare’s premises, making this an eventful evening out for the entire family.
Find treasures at workshops and night markets
Small Cambodians treasures—such as lacquer tableware, wooden statues, or pearl jewelery—can be found at Artisans d’Angkor. Created in the late 1990s as a social enterprise to revive lost cultural heritage and train young Cambodians in local art and craft, the workshop near the old market also offers free tours explaining the process of creating wood and stone artifacts, as well as traditional weaving techniques.
For a more relaxed vibe along with delicious street food, you can’t do better than the Psar Chaa (Old Market), where vendors are constantly in the midsts of some sharp bargaining. When this shuts down for the evening, the Angkor Night Market comes to life. Pick up a silk painting by a local artist or pamper your weary feet with a quick massage here at this bustling bazaar that stays open until midnight.
Peep into the art and landmine museums
For a small town, Siem Reap has several interesting museums, but there are two that stand out from the rest. Through carefully curated displays of art, artifacts, statues, and garments, the Angkor National Museum shines the spotlight upon the ancient Khmer civilization, who built the Angkor monuments.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Cambodia Landmine Museum, narrating the story of the several million undetected and undetonated landmines left over from the Khmer Rouge era. This museum is managed by a former child soldier in the Khmer Rouge, who aims to educate visitors about a vital chapter of this country’s modern history.
Where to stay in Siem Reap
The FCC Angkor is an Art Deco gem close to the river, and within walking distance of local markets. Complete with a modern Cambodian restaurant and an upscale spa, this boutique hotel is located in what used to be the French Governor’s residence. The Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor is another classic stay in the heart of Siem Reap, offering bespoke temple tours and Apsara dance performances. Originally built in 1932, this hotel reopened in mid 2022 after an extensive facelift that took over three years.
For a more rustic experience, stay at Phum Baitang, surrounded by palm trees and paddy fields. This luxury resort is modeled on a typical Cambodian village, and comes with two restaurants, a cocktail lounge, and a wellness area that includes a spa, steam and sauna room, and a yoga pavilion.