You may not have heard of Siem Reap, but it’s one of the coolest, most amazing, and interesting places to visit in the whole world. In fact, this province and small city of the same name in northern Cambodia is home to Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument, as well as much more to do, see, experience, and eat! Here is my checklist for your next visit to Siem Reap:
1. Angkor Wat:
As I mentioned, Angkor Wat is the highlight of Siem Reap, as it’s the largest religious site on earth. It’s actually the ruins and remains of an ancient temple that was the center of the mighty Angkor Empire (around 1200 AD or so), as well as a whole city of one million residents at that time – insanely large and advanced for that period. Most of the temple is still standing, and you can easily navigate around the architecture and grounds, finding out why it’s an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
2. Other temples:
The main temple at Angkor Wat is the most visited, photographed (and crowded), but there are scores of smaller and less popular temple ruins you can visit in the area, taking days and day to meander around by bicycle, tuk-tuk, or on foot. Some of them are famous, like the temple from the Lara Croft Tombraider movie with Angelina Jolie (with a tree growing right out of the stone building!), and Angkor Tom, but many are virtually unknown and sometimes empty!
3. Charity work:
You’ll notice almost immediately upon stepping foot in Cambodia that non-profits make up a big part of Cambodia’s identity. In fact, this once-poorest country in Asia had a brutal civil war in the 1970s that led to genocide under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge that wiped out about a quarter of the country’s population and set development back by decades. For that reason, there are an incredible array of international and local charities, non-profits, advocacy groups, religious and volunteer organizations at work in Cambodia these days.
In Siem Reap, you’ll see them everywhere, from orgs that promote massage and a special restaurant for the blind, to groups helping street kids, landmine victims, handcrafts by disabled people, and shops that sell artwork to help the victims of sex trafficking. Be sure to support some of these great (and reputable) charities and leave Cambodia better than you found it!
4. Shipping container complex
I just found this little gem on my way out to the airport during my last visit to Siem Reap earlier in 2018, but it was really cool! They have a whole complex of bars, restaurants, and other entertainment venues made out of shipping containers! They’re multi-colored, stacked and placed at interesting angles, and decorated in different themes or motifs based on the establishment. It’s a great place to go walk around, get a few beers and some dinner, listen to a band, and try something off the usually Pub Street experience. I also spotted what looked like a giant Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome style two-story jail that was to be a bar, but it wasn’t open yet. Someone, please shoot us an email if you visit and see it!
Siem Reap, Cambodia is one of my absolute favorite places in the world for a short holiday, and I make it a point to go there at least once a year for a few days. In the first part of this review, I covered the first five things you must see, do, and eat or drink in Siem Reap, and here are the next five!
5. The Children’s Improvement Center orphanage:
As I mentioned in the first part of this review, there are a myriad of charities, non-profits, and NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) active in Cambodia. Unfortunately, not all of them are doing business legitimately, do what they say they will, or are making good use of your funds. So, when it comes to volunteering in Siem Reap, one of the best options (and some of my favorite PEOPLE in the world) is CIO or the Children’s Improvement Organization. Located just a 20-minute tuk-tuk ride outside of the central town, it’s a wonderful compound for parentless children run by a caring, giving man named Sitha and his wife, Sreymom. I’ve been visiting and helping them for years, and there is no better charity around, and I encourage you to contact them on Facebook or their website and arrange a visit (and donation, please ), too!
6. Floating Village of Kompong Khleang
The Tonle Sap lake is the largest in all of Asia, and every year during the rainy season, the lake waters swell and rise, flooding nearby communities and villages. In fact, its so prevalent that many villages right on the water now build with their houses and structures on high stilts, and a lot of “buildings” and homes are actually just floating structures or even boats! The best place to see that is in Kampong Khleang about an hour drive (car not tuk tuk) outside of Siem Reap. But there are two other floating villages closer, more popular, and pretty much glorified scams, so avoid those.
7. Night market
Siem Reap has some of the best night markets in the whole country, with an incredible array of goods, crafts, clothing, and more fun stuff all ready for you to haggle over. The night markets are a perfect place to buy souvenirs for those back home or have fun walking around, and it’s pretty safe. (Just watch your wallet and phone no matter where you go in Asia.)
8. Bar hopping – and Mrs. Wongs
One of the best parts of a trip to Siem Reap is its iconic and memorable Pub Streets area, which is about four city blocks closed off except to pedestrian s at night and alive with bars, carts, kiosks, food stalls, restaurants, and just about everything else you can think of. The nightlife is fun, colorful, and takes on a carnival-like atmosphere every single night.
And one of my favorite hidden little treasures in Siem Reap is the famous bar, Mrs. Wongs. Try any of the cocktails there named after my good friend and renowned mixologist, Jen Queen!
9. Bicycle around
Of course, you can take tuk-tuk rides everywhere in Siem Reap, but it’s also fun to rent a bicycle (like $5 a day or less) and peddle all over the city or even to Angkor Wat. It’s a great way to see the nooks and crannies of the city and discover fun cafes, museums, art galleries, street art, and more! Just wear your helmet and realize that there are really no rules on the road!