When most people say they will visit Cambodia, Angkor Wat instantly comes to mind. Why? Because Angkor Wat is home to one of the Wonders of the World and is one of the most visited places in the country, with millions of tourists visiting there every year. That being said, the real question is – is Siem Reap worth visiting outside this well-known site?
Besides Angkor Wat, there have to be other exciting places in the region to visit after traveling miles. Some people are just not interested in touring temples no matter how famous they are, so why see sights that don’t excite you?
In this article, we’ll cover the various sites and activities Siem Reap offers (apart from Angkor Wat, of course). We’ll tell you where travelers go on day trips, and by the end, we should be able to answer the question “Is Siem Reap worth visiting”?
Where is Siem Reap?
Before we dive in, let’s catch up on a brief history of Siem Reap. It’s a province located in northwest Cambodia and is described as the region’s central tourist hub. This is mostly because it is the closest city to Angkor’s world-renowned temples. Its capital is also named Siem Reap and is located in the south of the province by the Tonle Sap Lake’s shores, the largest sweet water reserve in Southeast Asia.
Siem Reap originates from the term “Siemese Defeated,” which may not be the best name for a major city. Although, there is a touch of irony to this because the Khmer Empire of Cambodia was defeated by the army of Thailand, which occupied the nation some hundred years. It is speculated that Siem Reap was habitable as far back as 1000 BC.
While Angkor Wat continued to prosper between the 9th and 13th centuries, Siem Reap, just about 25 kilometers away, remained the same. From being a French protectorate colony to a flourishing tourist destination and then a no-go tourist area, Siem Reap has gone through many cultural, social, political, and economic changes.
Cambodia is currently back as one of the hotspots on the tourist map, with most visitors staying in Siem Reap, making it one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. With a diverse collection of lively restaurants, bars, and luxurious boutique hotels, this vibrant modern city is no longer a small village.
Despite this astronomical growth in recent years (with it being voted the 4th Best City in the world in 2014 by Travel and Leisure Magazine), Siem Reap has managed to maintain much of its unique culture.
Is Siem Reap Worth Visiting?
Siem Reap is home to many beautiful cultural sites and is full of fun things to do. You can dive into pottery making lessons, visit war museums, enjoy a cooking class, and then join the locals at local pubs to try some excellent Western food and cheap beer.
Since Siem Reap has a variety of comfortable accommodation options spanning from quaint hostels to luxurious hotels, it is convenient to spend a week exploring without burning through your wallet.
With that said, let’s delve into our six best things to do and places to visit in Siem Reap.
1. Tour Angkor Archaeological Park
Did you think we would skip this all-important place? We’re not that crazy. Visiting Siem Reap and not seeing the Angkor Wat? It’s taboo! This iconic park does not only house the world-famous Angkor Wat but also 50 Buddhist and Hindu temple sites, constructed mainly during the 9th and 12th centuries.
Fun fact: This park was once the largest pre-industrial city globally and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. For those who are not temple buffs and may not want to spend the whole day there, you can visit these four places and call it a day: Ta Prohm (famous for being featured in Tomb Raider), Bayon (the temple with all the faces), Angkor Tom (the largest site in the park) and the Terrace of Elephants (a beautiful 300-meter long wall adorned with stunning sculptures of elephants, a 5-headed horse, Khmer warriors, and dancers).
Since it can take a few days to visit each of the temples, passes range from 1 – 7 days, and a single day can cost you about $37. Nevertheless, you’d have to cough up $72 for seven days. Now, if you want to avoid the long queues, and you have the cash, then you can see it all from above in a helicopter ride.
This incredible ride will give you a stunning aerial view of all the temples and other secret sites hidden in the jungle. And the best part; it would only take half the time.
2. Take a trip to Phnom Kulen national park
The Phnom Kulen National park is regarded as one of the most beautiful places to visit while in Siem Reap. Although it’s located quite a distance from the city (about 45 km north of Siem Reap), trust us, it is worth visiting. It is located within the country’s most sacred mountain.
You can take a hike up the mountain and enjoy some fantastic scenery of its vegetation and landscape. The top of this mountain houses over 55 ancient temple ruins, and at the summit, there exists a 16th-century Buddhist pagoda.
There is also a waterfall situated in the park where the locals often go. You can join them for a swim and take in some beautiful scenery as the water cascades over the cliff. If you still feel adventurous, you can also pay a visit to the River of a Thousand Lingas.
The best way to typically visit Phnom Kulen is with a group tour, which would most likely include your admission fee, lunch, and transport.
3. Visit the Banteay Srey butterfly centre
This butter center is the largest butterfly exhibition in Southeast Asia. Situated about 25 km from Siem Reap, it helps train local people to rear butterflies for export abroad and local sales.
The butterfly species here include the Lime Butterfly, Gaudy Baron, Red Helen, 5-Barred Swordtail, the Blue Glassy Tiger among others. Most of these species are indigenous to the country.
It is a beautiful experience to see the butterflies hop from flower to flower feeding. If you are lucky enough to be blessed by the “butterfly gods”, you may catch a caterpillar morphing into a pupa.
4. Check out the Angkor old market and night market
You may be asking, “Why visit two markets”? Won’t they be selling the same things? Well, no, the Angkor Night Market has different souvenirs and a unique vibe to it than the old market.
The old market was the original market in Siem Reap before countless others cropped up. While shopping at the Old Market, also know as Psah Chas, you can find anything for under $5, from painted bowls to silk to souvenirs.
You better be ready for an exciting shopping experience when you get there. Since most traders are selling the same thing, they begin to get your attention as soon as you step inside, calling you “Sir” or “Madam.” They indeed work hard for a sale.
Just remember; haggle, haggle, haggle! Most of the traders inflate the prices up by 50 – 70% percent solely for tourists. The night market also has many things to buy, and you may get a better bargain since most people go to the old market during the day. From tacky earrings to fake watches, even Cambodian handicrafts and souvenirs, this place does come alive at night.
5. Explore the floating village
One of the most exciting things to do around Siem Reap is to take a trip to the Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. This area is a natural flood zone where locals live in houses on stilts, and the village expands from 2,500 square km to 12,000 square km.
This is a great way to immerse yourself in the culture. Simply travel in traditional wooden boats through the floating communities, and take in all the fish farm and the local markets.
6. Entertain yourself at Phare, the Cambodian circus
A circus in Cambodia? Yup, you heard us right. This Cambodian circus is indeed famous around the world. Even though it takes place in a small and intimate setting, we can inform you that it is one of the best circuses you will ever attend. From the death-defying stunts to unbelievable gymnastics, each performance tells a unique Cambodian folk tale.
Is there more to see than Angkor Wat?
There are many other sites to visit besides Angkor Wat, and the five others we mentioned above. Here are ten of some places to visit to experience the fantastic culture of Siem Reap, Cambodia.
- Angkor Silk Farm
- Cambodia Landmine Museum
- Hatha Yoga Classes
- Siem Reap Crocodile Farm
- Siem Reap Shooting Range
- Sample bugs at the bug cafe
- Get Cheap Massages and a Fish Pedicure
- Have a Street Food Tour
- Party on Pub Street
- Take a pottery class
- Take a Hot Air Balloon Flight
One day Siem Reap itinerary
If you had just a day in Siem Reap, where would you go? Obviously, you would want to visit as many places as possible, but that may stress you out and even mar your experience. Let us help you out by taking you through our recommended activities for a day in Siem Reap.
When it’s bright and early, start your journey to Angkor Archaeological Park, which houses the world-famous Hindu and Buddhist temples. You definitely can’t see all the temples in a day, so we suggest you see the most popular ones. After visiting the park, head over to the Floating village on the Tonle Sap Lake. Over there, you can visit the fish farm and take a ride in the traditional wooden boats.
Now head over to the Old Market, which showcases indigenous and beautiful artifacts and souvenirs you can get at a bargain. After all that haggling, this would be a perfect time to go on a short street food tour to experience the local cuisine. If you are feeling daring, make a stop at the bug café to try out some bug smoothies, insect soup, or scorpion salad.
By now, your feet are probably aching, and the day is taking a toll. So get a local Cambodian massage to help ease your aching muscles. You could also visit the Fish Spa where skin-eating fish munch away on your dead skin cells, leaving your tired feet refreshed.
In the evening, head over to the Siem Reap Art Night market and choose from a wide range of handicrafts and souvenirs only available at night.
Now it’s time to party! Pub Street is perfect for dancing and enjoying drinks with friends. Make friends with the locals and party the night away!
Is Siem Reap Worth Visiting? – Summary
Well, our future “Siem Reapers” there you have it!
By now, you should be a Siem Reap expert, with knowledge in everything from their history to tourist sites. Remember the six best places to visit in Siem Reap. Also, the Angkor Wat is not the only attraction in Siem Reap.
There are tons of amazing things to do to immerse yourself deeply into their culture, such as sampling bugs at the bug café and visiting the landmine museum. Also, take a tour of the Angkor Old Market, and the night market. We can’t wait to hear about your trip when you return.