Guide to Siem Reap: What to see and do (Shutterstock)
Article Words : Rosie Fitzgerald | 24 August 2019

Siem Reap, Cambodia: The ultimate Wanderlust guide

Travel to Siem Reap in Cambodia is usually tied in with visiting Angkor Wat. But there's much more to see and do in this city, including sacred waterfalls, floating villages and marvellous markets...

Where is Siem Reap?

Where is Siem Reap? (Shutterstock)

Where is Siem Reap? (Shutterstock)

The city of Siem Reap is in the north-west of Cambodia, lying just over 300km from the capital, Phnom Penh.

It is also relatively close to Cambodia’s border with Thailand, if you wanted Siem Reap to be a stop off as part of a longer trip.

How to get to Siem Reap

How to get to Siem Reap (Shutterstock)

How to get to Siem Reap (Shutterstock)

Most flights from London will take you to Bangkok, where you can get a connection to Siem Reap. Domestic flights take you to Siem Reap from the capital.

Alternatively, Giant Ibis is a reliable bus company which will take you from Phnom Penh and even across the border from Thailand, at a fraction of the price.

Bear in mind that although travelling by land is cheaper, it takes a lot longer, so paying extra for a flight is probably worth it if you’re short on time.

Once you’re in the city, it’s easy and cheap to get around by tuk tuk.

Why should you visit Siem Reap?

Why should you visit Siem Reap? (Shutterstock)

Why should you visit Siem Reap? (Shutterstock)

For its rich culture, interesting cuisine, welcoming people, bustling markets and of course, its proximity to the ancient world of Angkor Wat.

6 things to see and do in Siem Reap 

1. Visit a floating village

Visit one of the floating villages on the nearby Tonlé Sap lake (Shutterstock)

Visit one of the floating villages on the nearby Tonlé Sap lake (Shutterstock)

Siem Reap may be far from the coast, but the biggest lake in all of South-East Asia, Tonlé Sap, lies nearby. Many communities call this vast body of water home.

Drive for just over an hour from Siem Reap’s centre to visit the floating village of Kompong Khleang.

Here, you can hop on a boat and sail past the floating rustic houses. Their reflections ripple and blur across the murky surface of the lake – a sight you’ll likely never forget.

Learn the incredible culture of the community who use the water as part of their everyday life. People take a boat to work and the children attend a floating school.

Visit the floating forest (Shutterstock)

Visit the floating forest (Shutterstock)

Swap to a smaller boat to weave in and out of mangroves and see the mesmerising flooded forest, where you’ll also find floating restaurants to eat in.

Be sure to be respectful when visiting the village: don’t go inside the schools, don’t take photos of people without their permission, and use responsible companies who support local guides.

2. Go to the circus

Visit the Phare Circus (Peter Phoeng)

Visit the Phare Circus (Peter Phoeng)

Calling Siem Reap’s Phare Circus a circus at all does it a complete injustice. This evening of authentic entertainment offers so much more.

Inside the red tent (an easy 10-minute tuk tuk ride from Pub Street), you’ll see the usual incredible circus tricks along with live music, theatre and mesmerising dances. All these forms of art combine to tell stories of Cambodia’s folklore, past and more recent history.

Visit the Phare Circus (Diallo Jamal)

Visit the Phare Circus (Diallo Jamal)

What makes the authentic show all the more enjoyable is that by buying a ticket, you are giving something back to the performers. The people on stage are all students or graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak’s vocational training centre in Battambang.

The money from the ticket is used to ensure the performers earn a decent wage, taking them out of poverty and granting them their freedom.

3. Brave Pub Street

Visit Pub Street (Shutterstock)

Visit Pub Street (Shutterstock)

Flashing neon sites, shouting food vendors, music thumping from every open door and mixing on the street - Pub Street truly overloads all the senses, but you would regret skipping an evening spent in this lively, chaotic yet infectious hub.

Duck under the rails of clothing being displayed and sold down the extremely narrow streets, and eat outside of one of the many restaurants crowded together.

After dinner, tuck yourself into one of the outside bars and sip on astonishingly cheap beer, while watching Pub Street’s nightlife spring into action.

A bar called 'Angkor What?' is a great place for people watching. Keep your eyes on the venue next door and watch as the revellers spill out onto the street for impromptu dance-offs.

4. Learn to make pottery

Learn to make pottery (Shutterstock)

Learn to make pottery (Shutterstock)

Khmer porcelain and pottery was once a flourishing art form in Cambodia. But it had almost disappeared until Khmer Ceramics started its project to revive the craft in 2006.

Since then, members of the local community have been creating beautiful pottery in the traditional way, as well as leading classes to teach their skills to others.

Attend one of the project’s pottery classes and learn to make an Angkorian bowl. You’ll be shown how to use the potter’s wheel, as well as learning to add Khmer carvings to your pot.

Not only will you leave with a souvenir made with your own hands, you’ll also have given directly back to the community that the project supports.

5. Explore the many markets 

Explore Siem Reap's many markets (Shutterstock)

Explore Siem Reap's many markets (Shutterstock)

To help preserve more traditional Khmer handicrafts, walk between the 200 bamboo huts that make up Angkor Night Market.

You can see the skill, care and attention that has gone into every detail of every item on display here, from the beautiful silk paintings and shadow puppets to the funky handbags made from recycled materials.

If you’re looking for food rather than souvenirs, head to the very centre of Phsar Chas (old market), the first of its kind to be set up in Siem Reap.

Here, you’ll have the chance to sample some of the most authentic food you’ll taste during your trip: Cambodian soups are a classic, while spice frogs are on offer for the bravest among us.

The Made In Cambodia Market may be more expensive than most, but the price is justified by the high quality goods on display.

Stacks of rainbow coloured clothes are bound to catch your eye, while the spice-infused rice spirits make for good souvenirs. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, this market is still worth strolling, with street food and live music making it an atmospheric way to spend the evening.

6. Take a day trip to Phnom Kulen National Park

Take a day trip to Take a day trip to Phnom Kulen National Park (Shutterstock)

Take a day trip to Take a day trip to Phnom Kulen National Park (Shutterstock)

It’s hard to believe that an hour outside of this bustling, busy city lies a thick tangle of forest, offering peace and quiet from hectic city life. Phnom Kulen National Park is a haven for locals, who come here to cool off in its falls.

The falls are a sacred site, so be respectful (Shutterstock)

The falls are a sacred site, so be respectful (Shutterstock)

The climb to the top of Kulen Mountain is worth it to get some respite from the sun, in the natural swimming pools and the tree-shaded hammocks around its edge.

Just remember that this is a sacred site, and when swimming you must cover up, wearing shorts and t-shirts.

The reclining Buddha in Phnom Kulen National Park (Shutterstock)

The reclining Buddha in Phnom Kulen National Park (Shutterstock)

Once you've relaxed by the waterfall, take a walk through the park to discover many hidden sites.

Most notable are the stone carvings at the Thousand Lingas and the Preah Ang Thom Pagoda, where you’ll find a giant reclining Buddha.

So peaceful is this area, it’s easy to kid yourself that you’re the first and only person to have discovered its incredible ancient sites.

Visiting Angkor Wat 

How to visit Angkor Wat (Dreamstime)

How to visit Angkor Wat (Dreamstime)

So vast and extraordinary is Angkor Wat that it not only deserves its own section, but an entire dedicated guide. Here’s just a quick introduction…

Siem Reap is the perfect jumping off point for exploring Cambodia’s biggest lure – Angkor Wat. The 163-hectacre ancient site lies 20 minutes by tuk tuk from the city centre.

Arrange for a driver to pick you up from your hotel in the early hours of the morning, so you can be at the iconic temple in time for sunrise.

Don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll be the only one up early, because you most certainly won’t be. But watching the sky slowly turn a pinky orange, and the shadow of Angkor creeping across the water in front of it, being pulled into focus as the sun rises higher, is a sight you won’t want to miss, despite having to share it with the crowds.

Siem Reap at sunrise (Dreamstime)

Siem Reap at sunrise (Dreamstime)

Head to the ticket office to choose your options, which include a day pass, a three-day pass or a week-long ticket.

One day certainly won’t be enough time to explore the site, and while three days means you’ll have time to cover a lot of the sites, a week ticket is worth it if you want to see some of the lesser-known (and further afield) temples in more detail.

Cycle Angkor Wat (Shutterstock)

Cycle Angkor Wat (Shutterstock)

The next thing to consider is how you will explore the temples. Most people opt for a guide to drive them from temple to temple, which saves time, means you won’t get lost in the vast site and affords the luxury of an expert on hand, who can provide you with information about each temple.

Exploring the site alone, however, gives you more freedom, and you can spend as little or as much time as you want exploring the intricacies of each building.

Hire a bicycle to pedal Angkor Wat in order to see more sites. Cycling the back route and discovering Angkor Wat from the back entrance means you get to marvel at the iconic site in almost complete silence. 

Angkor Thom (Shutterstock)

Angkor Thom (Shutterstock)

Angkor Wat is the main attraction, but there are other sites in the complex that shouldn’t be overlooked. Ta Prohm – the setting for Indiana Jones – is great for exploration.

The ancient stone walls are speckled in moss, and the chunky gnarled roots of ancient trees grow over them, like a giant is trying to pick up the temple in its hand.

The Bayon temple will leave you looking up in disbelief at the symmetry, detail, beauty, and sheer scale of the faces carved into the many points at its peak.

Go beyond the main three, if you can. Wander the array of crumbling buildings, and we bet you will find a favourite that you never even knew existed.

Where to stay in Siem Reap? 

Where to stay in Siem Reap?

Where to stay in Siem Reap?

There’s an extensive range of accommodation all over Siem Reap offering something for all budgets and all personalities.

Cheap guesthouses can be found in Wat Bo Village, across the river from Siem Reap’s main drag, where you can enjoy less crowded and more peaceful evenings.

If you want to stay in Siem Reap's livelier district, choose one of the many cheap, mid-range or luxury hotels situated in the Old Market.

Airport Road is where you'll find the higher-end hotels, but do bear in mind that it’s quite a long walk from the centre and is very touristy.

If the main reason for your stay is to visit Angkor Wat, choose one of the many grand hotels that line the street leading up to the sacred site.

What to eat in Siem Reap

Amok 

Tey an Amok curry (Shutterstock)

Tey an Amok curry (Shutterstock)

Siem Reap’s speciality, and something you’ll see on almost every menu is amok. This creamy, coconutty curry is made with white fish or catfish, and is typically rather spicy.

It's presented beautifully, often wrapped up in a banana leaf. And it tastes good, too, with each restaurant adding their own unique twist.

Mango salad

Mango salad (Shutterstock)

Mango salad (Shutterstock)

Siem Reap can get uncomfortably hot, so it’s no wonder this refreshing dish is so popular with locals and visitors alike. The fruit is served with a fresh, spicy dressing and works well as a starter or a side dish.

Nom Banh Chok

A woman cooking Nom Banh Chok or Khmer noodles (Shutterstock)

A woman cooking Nom Banh Chok or Khmer noodles (Shutterstock)

Each South-East Asian nation has their own signature noodle dish, and Cambodia is no different. Breakfast like a local by ordering a bowl of Nom Banh Chok or Khmer noodles.

The rice noodles are tossed with fresh vegetables and the carefully-made curry that gives the dish its distinct flavour. The noodles are usually topped with slices of pork. It may sound simple, but it's unmissable.

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