There was a time when Siem Reap was just a small dusty town. Before Angelina Jolie arrived to make Tomb Raider and before the busloads of tourists followed in her footsteps to see the weathered temples of Angkor, it was just a sleepy community in the north of Cambodia.
My first trip here was almost 20 years ago and I still remember arriving into the town centre by tuk tuk one evening, and having to wander the streets for a while to find somewhere to stay. These days, every second building is a hotel.
I also recall having a drink at a small bar on a dirt road that has now turned in the neon-lit centre of the nightlife known as Pub Street. Backpacker Michael would not recognise what has become of Siem Reap – but I don’t think he would be too disappointed. This was inevitable, with such an important World Heritage Site on its doorstep.
The city is now heaving with visitors, and all the tourism infrastructure that goes along with that. In someways it’s become a bit too crowded, but the good news is that there are now so many things to do in Siem Reap.
Where Phnom Penh feels like the political and business capital of Cambodia, Siem Reap is its artistic hub. This is where you’ll find the country’s best artisans, incredible performances, and some wonderful insights into local life.
There’s also a vibrant food scene here and visiting the top restaurants, taking a food tour, or joining a cooking class are some good places to start when you’re planning what to do in Siem Reap.
Adventure tourism has also boomed in Siem Reap, with local businesses creating experiences for visitors who want a day away from the temples. The bonus is that a lot of these Siem Reap tours will take you out into the countryside to see that part of the region as well.
There was a time when people would visit Siem Reap for just a couple of days, spend a day at Angkor Wat, and then fly out of the country again. With a large suite of attractions in Siem Reap, the city is now a destination in its own right, and somewhere you can use as a base to then see even more of Cambodia.
The quaint town of my memory may be gone, but what has grown in its place is a fun city full of that activity, that still has a distinctive Cambodian feel and makes the most of its natural and heritage attributes.
To help you plan a visit to Siem Reap I’ve put together a few suggestions of the best things to do in Siem Reap. You may not have time for them all, but it’s nice to know there’s such a variety on offer.
Of course, of all the Siem Reap attractions, the main one is Angkor. The enormous ancient capital of the Khmer Empire has some of the world’s best temples, with soaring spires, looming faces carved into rocks, and trees entangling themselves with the ruins.
Sometimes people don’t realise that Angkor Wat is just one of the many temples at Angkor. Of course, it’s the biggest and the best, but it can also be the most crowded. Getting away from it and seeing more of the Angkor World Heritage Site is the key to making the most of your time here.
I’m not going to go into much more detail here because I already have a separate story about how to visit Angkor Wat. You can read that for more details, including a suggested itinerary and some tips for making the most of your visit. For now, though, here are some good tour recommendations:
When you’re planning your trip to Siem Reap, I would suggest you leave at least two days to visit the Angkor temples. It can get hot and tiring out there, plus you may want to see a sunrise, so it’s best to do multiple half days rather than trying to see everything in one long day.
While Siem Reap is not the kind of place you visit to spend your days in museums, there are a few that are actually quite interesting and will give you a worthwhile insight into some of the region’s history and culture.
Angkor National Museum
The stone complexes of the temples at Angkor may be impressive today, but once upon a time they were even more vibrant, full of life and imperial trappings. Although the buildings remain, most of the artefacts have been removed.
Many of those items from the temples have found a new home at the modern Angkor National Museum. There are sculptures, stone inscriptions, jewellery, and much more. The galleries focus on particular topics, including the history of the Khmer Empire, life in Angkor Wat, and the construction of Angkor Thom.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t an official government museum – the Cambodia National Museum in Phnom Penh actually has a more comprehensive collection of artefacts. This is run for-profit by a Thai company, and there’s been some criticism about how it is presented.
Cambodia Landmine Museum
The story behind the Cambodia Landmine Museum is fascinating and inspiration enough for a visit. It was founded by a former child soldier called Aki Ra who went back to the villages where he fought to clear landmines.
The Cambodia Landmine Museum is about 25 kilometres from Siem Reap, within the Angkor Archaeological Park, and tells the stories of landmines in Cambodia – which are still a big problem here. As well as the items on display, there are guided tours that will give you a personal insight into the situation.
APOPO Visitor Centre
Clearing landmines in Cambodia is a slow and dangerous job, which is why the workers at the APOPO Visitor Centre are so important. You see, they’re not humans, they’re rats!
The APOPO Hero Rats, as they’re known, have been trained to sniff out the explosives in land mines, but they’re too light to set them off. They can clear in 30 minutes an area that would take a human about four days.
At the APOPO Visitor Centre, you can learn all about the project and see a demonstration of the rats at work. It’s quite incredible to see how effective (and cute) they are!
Over recent years, Siem Reap has made a name for itself as a city of the arts, embracing traditional techniques and experimenting with more modern creative styles. You’re likely to see this artistic influence in quite a few places in the city, but here are my suggestions if you want to seek it out.
One of the best-known institutions in Siem Reap, Artisans d’Angkor embraces the traditional forms of Khmer art and craft – even if they’re applied to some modern ideas these days.
On the day I visit, I watch artisans carving, painting, and weaving. They’re creating crockery and statues, necklaces and scarves, and other authentic handmade goods that you can take home with you. Some of it even looks like the art you would see out at the Angkor temples!
Behind the craft is a heart-warming story, because Artisans d’Angkor is run as a social business that helps young artists from small rural villages. It now has more than 40 workshops in the regions and employs more than 1300 people.
You can just pop into the main workshop and gallery whenever you like, or there’s this tour that will also take you out to a nearby silk farm.
Angkor Pottery Centre
If seeing the artists at work has inspired you, then you could head to the Angkor Pottery Centre to try your hand at making some ceramics.
It’s run by local artisan Paruth Hann who will teach you the traditional Khmer techniques and designs. She can show you how to make pots, cups, bowls, or vases… or probably anything else you like, to be honest.
The school is in the countryside, which makes for a nice excursion. Alternatively, there is also the Khmer Ceramics and Fine Arts Centre, which has this ceramics class you can join.
Although there are quite a few art galleries in Siem Reap, a really special one I would recommend is Theam’s House. It’s the gallery (and home) of Lim Muy Theam, who went to France as a refugee when he was a child in 1980. He returned to Cambodia with a French art education and applied it to telling the stories of his homeland.
The large gallery has various rooms that evoke different emotions. As well as his own pieces, there are lots of works that Theam has collected or are by local artisans that he has mentored.
The art scene in the city isn’t just limited to physical works, it can also be seen in performances, and one of the best things to do in Siem Reap is a night at Phare Circus.
The high-energy acrobatics performance (without animals, of course) is in a small circus tent, creating an intimacy that explodes with tightropes, fire dancing, and aerial ballet.
Although distinctly modern, the stories dig into the country’s folk heritage for inspiration, but it’s the more recent history that led to the creation of Phare Circus. It’s part of an organisation founded almost 30 years ago by a group of young men who discovered art at a refugee camp during the Khmer Rouge era.
There is a bar and food stalls at the circus, so it’s worth getting there early. You can see available shows and book tickets here.
There are plenty of things to do in Siem Reap itself and you’ll easily be able to find enough ways to spend your time in town. However, there are a few particular sites that are of special interest that I’ll mention as day trips from Siem Reap (or even half-day trips if you need to rush them).
Phnom Kulen National Park
Don’t get confused between the Kulen Elephant Forest and Phnom Kulen National Park. They’re in the same area but are completely different sites.
The highlight of Phnom Kulen National Park is its majestic waterfalls which has pools you can swim in. But the natural beauty of the park has plenty else to offer and there are some walking trails you can explore.
The national park is also home to several important archaeological and religious sites, with the most significant being the main temple of Preah Ang Thom on Kulen Mountain. The Thousands Lingas is on the way to the temple and also worth a stop.
Entry to the park, at US$20 per person, is quite expensive for Cambodia, and it’ll take almost two hours to drive there from Siem Reap. You may want to consider this tour which will make the visit much easier – or there are some other options here:
After seeing all the Angkor temples, you may feel like you’re a bit templed-out, but consider saving some energy for Beng Mealea because it’s a really special one and feels quite different.
This 12th-century temple is one of the largest built by the Khmer Empire, but it’s hard to get a sense of its size at first. That’s because it hasn’t been restored, and much of it is covered with jungle. With vines and roots entangled in the walls and carvings, you can walk through the different parts of Beng Mealea and feel a bit like Lara Croft.
Because it’s 80 kilometres from Siem Reap, it doesn’t get nearly as many visitors as the main Angkor temples, and that’s part of its charm.
I’ve got some specific tips in another story about visiting Beng Mealea… but this is another time when getting either a private or small-group tour is probably the best approach. I would recommend this tour that also includes Koh Ker Temple, or there are some other good options here:
And, ok, I know I’ve talked about lots of temples, but this last one really is significant and different.
For starters, Preah Vihear is a World Heritage Site in its own right (not as part of the broader Angkor site). That’s because although much of it was built during the Khmer Empire, it was founded in the 9th century and has elements of successive rulers.
When you visit Preah Vihear, you’ll realise it’s built in a long line on the north-south axis, rather than in the rectangular shape of most other temples. Walking through, you’ll progress along the stages until you get to the end for an incredible view from the top of a cliff across the landscapes below.
From the top, you’re not just looking at Cambodia, you’re also looking at Thailand, because the site is almost on the border. Over the years, this has caused conflict because both countries claim Preah Vihear and there’s even been fighting over it!
To visit, I would recommend this great tour that also includes Beng Mealea and Koh Ker.