Things to Do in Siem Reap — From Village Tours to Cooking Classes
Things to do in Siem Reap include everything from scrambling temples and cruising the floating villages to learning to cook Cambodian cuisine and indulging at super affordable spas. This is our hit list — a definitive list of our favourite things to do in Siem Reap.
Despite all of the stories we’ve published on our adopted home, until now we’ve neglected to post a definitive list of things to do in Cambodia’s Siem Reap. This is by no means a comprehensive list, rather these are what we think are the absolutely essential things to do in Siem Reap that could be realistically be spread over a week. Yes, a week. While three days seems to be the average stay, it’s not nearly enough time to spend in Temple Town and the surrounding villages and countryside.
To learn more about each of the things to do in Siem Reap, make sure you click through to the links in the story to our other posts which have much more detail on the practicalities and logistics, from the best time to do things to where to stay and what to eat.
Things to Do in Siem Reap
Spend a Night at the Phare Cambodian Circus
One of our favourite things to do in Siem Reap is to spend a night at the circus, and it has also become one of the most popular things to do in Siem Reap in general. First up, there are no circus animals at Siem Reap’s Phare Cambodian Circus. Think of it as a more quirky, rustic, down to earth, and more intimate version of Cirque du Soleil. Just like Cirque du Soleil, Phare has several different shows on different themes in its repertoire, but they all include live musicians, dancing, juggling, acrobatics, tightrope walking, contortion, and much more. Many seem to think it’s a strange way to spend an evening in a city that’s famous for its archaeology, history and crafts, yet the circus dates back to the great days of Angkor, when artists used to perform for the Angkor kings. These often hilarious, at times sad, and occasionally breathtaking shows have easily become one of the top things to do in Siem Reap, and Phare’s success has turned around the lives of its performers. We have now seem a dozen or more shows and we’ll happily accompany friends and clients again and again, it’s that special. Don’t leave without seeing a show. Trust us: it’s definitely worth sacrificing a night on Pub Street or even a meal at a restaurant to see a show. They also have a cafe serving delicious food and drinks. It’s also a good idea to buy your circus tickets in advance no matter what the season, but especially during high season when shows sell out well in advance.
Discover Vast Angkor Archaeological Park
Visiting Angkor Wat tops most people’s list of things to do in Siem Reap. The city is the departure point for stupendous Angkor Wat in nearby Angkor Archaeological Park and that’s probably why you’re here. But Angkor Archaeological Park is so much more than Angkor Wat, as extraordinary as it is, with over 150 significant archaeological sites across 400 square kilometres. Buy a 3-day pass and after you see the big three (Angkor Wat, Bayon at Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm), get out and explore more of the lesser-visited temples (we love Preah Khan and Banteay Kdei). Ignore the advice we’ve been seeing about sunrise being over-rated and make an effort to rise for dawn. While it can be a little underwhelming on an overcast day, you still get an early start to visiting the temples (after sunrise, go around to the East Gate and enter through the ‘back door’), you avoid the tour bus groups (you’ll be leaving as they arrive) and mornings are cooler. For sunset, Pre Rup is a fantastic alternative to Bakheng, which can get very crowded. And don’t miss the idyllic Roluos Group, especially beautiful Bakong, surrounded by a moat, best in the morning for photography and in the late afternoon for the peaceful atmosphere. Click through for our Insider’s Guide to Angkor Wat and Angkor Archaeological Park, an archaeologist’s guide to Angkor Archaeological Park and tips to how to get more out of your visit to Angkor Archaeological Park.
Avoid the Crowds at Off-the-Beaten-Track Temples
Not only are these off-the-beaten-track archaeological sites generally uncrowded, the drives to these temple ruins are wonderful, passing through diminutive villages and palm fringed rice fields. At a minimum we recommend visiting compact Banteay Srei (included in the Angkor Pass) for its exquisite carvings, but note that this is the closest of the temples so it can get very crowded. To avoid the crowds, be there at opening time or go in the late afternoon to avoid the tour buses. Not far away is the rarely-visited Banteay Samre, a mini-Angkor Wat with more beautiful detail within its imposing walls and an impressive causeway with lion statues. Don’t miss the atmospheric yet dilapidated Beng Mealea, again best visited at opening or the end of the day. You won’t bump into too many people at sprawling Koh Ker, spectacular Preah Vihear, perched on the edge of a mountain, nor at Phnom Kulen’s temple ruins and colossal statues of the so-called ‘lost city’ of Mahendraparvata. These could be combined in a two-day excursion with an overnight stay out at Preah Vihear Boutique Hotel. Add another few days to your stay and you can do an overnight trip up to Banteay Chhmar, near the Thai border, and in the other direction, little visited Sambor Prei Kuk and Preah Khan of Kampong Svay. Excursions to these remote temples is definitely one of the most memorable things to do from Siem Reap. Click through to read more about the remote archaeological sites and how to visit them, the new archaeological discoveries, and an interview with the archaeologist behind them.
Experience Local Life in the Countryside and Floating Villages
To experience rural local life, one of our favourite things to do in Siem Reap is to take a tuk tuk trundle out to the countryside surrounding Siem Reap or do a cruise through the floating villages. While you can visit the temples and countryside independently with a tuk tuk driver and guide, we recommend a tour to the floating villages and Tonle Sap (Great Lake) to avoid the hassles. We love both the foodie focused half day tour with Beyond Unique Escapes that includes an interactive village walk, where you get to chat to locals, and a stop at a market for snacks, before cruising through the villages out to the Great Lake, as well as the full day tour with Triple A Adventures. Triple A’s kicks off in the morning with a gentle village bike ride along shaded dirt roads and a stroll through a small village market. Expect to do a lot of waving and shouts of “sousdai!” (hello in Khmer) in response to the many cries of hello/goodbye from the cute kids along the way. This is a highlight of the tour. After a short drive, you board a boat for a cruise through the floating villages to the Tonle Sap, with a stop for a simple lunch and swing in a hammock at the charming home of a lovely women who lives in a traditional stilted house. Both tours visit the lesser-visited floating villages of Kompong Khleang, 50 kms from Siem Reap, and while it might seem that you lose a big chunk of your day going so far, it’s worth it for the authentic insight into local life and far fewer tourists. If you arrive at the end of the dry season when water levels are low, you can always hire a bike and do your own exploration. See our Guide to Cycling Siem Reap for details on routes, bike hire etc.
Savour Traditional Cambodian Cuisine
Much misunderstood, under-appreciated and a cuisine about which there are many myths, Cambodian cuisine may not have the international profile of Thai cuisine, even though some of the dishes in the Thai repertoire are based on old Cambodian recipes, however, it’s equally as delicious and just as enjoyable to explore as far as we’re concerned. An introduction to Cambodian food should start with Chef Kethana’s home-style cooking at Sugar Palm restaurant, then proceed to Malis to sample dishes from around the country in rather regal surroundings, or Chanrey Tree, for refined versions of dishes not widely seen on Siem Reap menus. For contemporary takes on classic Khmer and Cambodian dishes, you should next dine at Cuisine Wat Damnak, named Cambodia’s Best Restaurant by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants folks; Mie Cafe, where Chef Pola is serving up an elegant Euro-Cambodian fusion cuisine, and The Embassy, where the women executive chefs Pol and Sok are taking things ever further, delivering some of the city’s most inventive cuisine in true fine dining style. Finally, sample creative Cambodian-Asian tapas by Chef Saren at Marum and Chef Mengly’s up-styled Cambodian street food at funky Spoons in a cool eco-friendly structure. While hygiene is definitely improving as far as Cambodian street food is concerned, it’s best to eat with a local if you’re concerned and follow our advice for eating safely in Cambodia. See our tips for breakfast in Siem Reap and consider our Savour Siem Reap experiences. For more details on the eateries mentioned without links, see this story on Siem Reap’s Best Cambodian Restaurants.
Explore Siem Reap’s Lively Local Markets
We live in Siem Reap and split out grocery shopping across a handful of markets and supermarkets. Unfortunately there’s no one-stop-shop that has everything we need. While we get to Siem Reap’s local markets regularly, we don’t get there nearly enough as we’d liked to judging by my reaction every time we arrive at Psar Chas, Siem Reap’s Old Market, or Psar Leu, the big central local market, which is nearly always “Why don’t we come here everyday???”. Trust us on this one: if you’re visiting Siem Reap you need to make sure you get to at least one of Siem Reap’s markets. Start with Psar Chas (Old Market), which is where most tourists head for their elephant pants. Ignore the blogs that bewilderingly claim that it’s only a tourist market and head right into the centre of the market where the locals shop to absorb the sights, sounds and smells of the fresh food section and small wet market. If you’re settling into Siem Reap for a while and are looking for fresh produce, go early (between 6-8am) as it has a completely different atmosphere once the small vendors leave who set up on the ground in the shoe aisle to sell produce they’ve brought from their villages (they’re only there until about 10am), and the permanent vendors are having an afternoon nap. The big market, Psar Leu is an even greater assault upon the senses — if you’re a foodie that’s a good thing, but if you’re not, the front section of the market is where you should wander. If you’re after locally produced and packaged goods, head to Made in Cambodia Market. For more information see our guide to Siem Reap’s markets
Learn to Cook Cambodian Food in a Cooking Class
We’ve long said that a cooking class is one of the first things that a home cook or food enthusiast should do when they arrive in a new town and we also believe it should be one of the first things to do in Siem Reap for visiting foodies and cooks. It’s long been the first activity for us when we’ve arrived in a place we haven’t been where we want to learn about the cuisine. Even if we’re already familiar with the food a cooking class is a great opportunity to get to the market with an expert and learn some local secrets. Cooking classes are increasingly popular in South-East Asia and Siem Reap has a large number of both cooking schools and hotels and restaurants running cooking classes of varying quality and authenticity. We especially love the classes offered by Sugar Palm‘s Chef Kethana at her home near Banteay Srei; Chef Luu Meng’s team at Malis, where they are building a cooking school upstairs; Mahob Khmer, where Chef Sothea teaches his classes both at the restaurant and his organic farm. Also good are the classes offered by Sojourn in partnership with Beyond Unique Escapes, Raffles and Anantara. Unfortunately most cooking classes could be sponsored by Knorr stock cubes (chefs here love to sprinkle a little extra chicken ‘seasoning’ in a lot of dishes that don’t need it), but, regardless, it’s still great to learn how to cook a few Cambodian classics, and as we’re huge fans of Cambodian cuisine, we like the idea of visitors here spreading its virtues around the world. See our Culinary Guide to Siem Reap for links to our Cambodian cooking class recommendations, above. We will soon be announcing a Cambodia Cooking Holiday which will include many of those experiences.
Absorb Traditional Crafts and Contemporary Art
A long rich history of traditional crafts and a vibrant contemporary art scene make absorbing arts and crafts one of the most fascinating things to do in Siem Reap. Gain more of an appreciation of the architecture and carvings and sculpture you will see at the temples by first visiting Angkor National Museum, which has a compact but state-of-the-art exhibition. (To learn more about the revival of traditional crafts in Cambodia, read this interview with Nathalie Saphon Ridel.) Next, visit Artisans d’Angkor to watch artisans at work, carving in stone and wood, producing beautiful lacquerware and jewellery, and silk-painting and silk-weaving (they offer free tours to their silk farm). Then visit Theam’s House, which still remains something of a secret, even to Siem Reap residents, and yet in our view is a must-do with its fascinating small museum, tranquil garden, art galleries, artisan workshops, and beautiful boutique. Here you can see how Theam and his artisans use traditional techniques to create thoroughly modern objects, from lacquered Buddha statues to the most adorable elephants, which have become a quintessential Siem Reap souvenir. Siem Reap is also dotted with numerous other crafts workshops, many operated by NGOs, that can be visited. There’s also an emerging contemporary art scene with several new galleries that have opened within the last six months, such as Sasha Constable’s gallery in Kandal Village. We have a post coming very soon on the arts scene in Siem Reap.
Shop for Beautiful Handmade Things
Siem Reap boasts some of Southeast Asia’s best shopping. While it can’t compete with Bangkok or Singapore in terms of quantity (Siem Reap is a little city so we don’t have a Sukhumvit Road or Orchard Road), the quality of the boutiques and ateliers here is outstanding making shopping one of the must-do things to do in Siem Reap. Start at Eric Raisina Couture House for some of the most original and affordable couture and ready-to-wear you’ll find in the world. (See Eric Raisina’s Siem Reap Style Guide.) Then visit Nathalie Saphon Ridel’s elegant shops at Raffles, Galerie Cambodge and Khmer Attitude, which are collaborations with two top Cambodian fashion designers, Sirivan and Romyda Keth respectively. Next, visit Romyda Keth’s Ambre for feminine fashion. You’ll find more beautiful stores in the riverside FCC shopping arcade and around the corner at Cassia, adjoining Shinta Mani Resort, which are home to a branch of Eric Raisina, Tiger Lily and Jasmine (at FCC), and WA Gallery with their Christian Develter gallery (Cassia). Not far away, Kandal Village is home to some of Siem Reap’s coolest little shops specialising in everything from handmade clothes, accessories and home decor (Sirivan) and beautiful interior decor and objects (Louise Loubatieres) to all things sensual and aromatic (Saarti) and vintage, cool and kitsch (Trunkh). (Kandal Village is also home to Siem Reap’s best coffee (Little Red Fox Espresso), handmade pasta (Mamma Shop), healthy drinks and eats (The Hive), scrummy cupcakes (Bloom Cafe, formerly Blossom), and a heavenly spa (Frangipani).) In the Old Market area, seek out handcrafted jewellery by Pisith Ly at Garden of Desire, handmade seed jewellery by Rany Som at Graines de Cambodge, and an impeccably curated collection of fashion, jewellery and accessories at Christine’s. For more, see Nathalie Saphon Ridel’s Local Guide to Shopping Siem Reap.
Indulge in Spa Treatments and Massages
Lotus filled bowls. Lemongrass scented candles. Tinkling music. The spas in Siem Reap are as soothing and sensual as any in Southeast Asia and are one of the things to do in Siem Reap that we most recommend to visitors. They are amazing value with one hour massages at the finest spas costing as little as $20 — and much cheaper massages available at the more modest massage joints dotted around the Old Market area and along Sivutha Boulevard. We always suggest our guests and tour participants get a massage or treatment on the first day to help them relax from that stressful job or that long haul flight. Many of them end up going every day, some trying a new spa each day or a different treatment at the same spa. Most good boutique hotels offer spas and massages for very reasonable prices in their on-site spa or in your room. The standalone spas that we always get great feedback on are Bodia, Frangipani and Sokhak Spa. If a $20 massage is still above your budget, you can always settle for a $2 foot massage around Pub Street but we know where we’re going to send people…
Have you been to Siem Reap? What are some of your favourite things to do in Siem Reap that you think are must-do activities for visitors here?
Planning a trip to Cambodia? Lara offers a bespoke itinerary service along with themed itineraries, such as her Savour Siem Reap experience. We also introduce you to Cambodian produce, ingredients and street food on our culinary tours and food and travel writing and photography retreats. More details on our Siem Reap Retreats and Tours site.