Beyond the temples: exploring Siem Reap


For most people, Siem Reap in Cambodia is all about Angkor Wat. But once you've seen it - then wat? We interviewed Siem Reap resident Dr William Housworth, the Executive Director of the Angkor Hospital for Children, for the local lowdown on Siem Reap - and how travellers can give back to the community.

To many people, Siem Reap is all about Angkor. Can you tell us what there is for travellers beyond the temples?

To me the most important thing for travellers is to get to experience some of Khmer culture beyond just sightseeing. If you are fortunate enough to stay a little longer and do some volunteer work with any of the various NGOs working here or just make friends with some locals, I think your travels are much more personally fulfilling. And of course there are many other sights and activities I would recommend including a hike up to Kbal Spien, a boat trip to Preak Tol, or simply an overnight excursion to the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng all are fascinating experiences that far fewer people do.

Tell us about the best - and worst - Cambodian food experience you’ve had?

The best: many times in many different places eating at traditional Khmer restaurant swinging in hammocks overlooking rice paddies eating Cambodian barbecue. There is just something good about a meal being served while relaxing in a hammock.

The worst: fried spiders at Skun village in between Phnom Penh and Kampong Thom. The legs are like potato chips but I cannot make myself eat anymore than that.

What's the best thing about living in Siem Reap?

We are blessed to work with some of the most remarkable people on the planet. If you get to know any AHC staff over 30 years old and get them to tell you their personal story, you will realise how remarkable it is that they not only survived Cambodia's past but that they have been able to achieve so much under such harsh circumstances.

Cambodia is still emerging from its turbulent past, yet its citizens often embrace optimism and positivity. Can you tell us more about the particular Cambodian attitude towards life and the future?

I humbly try to make sure I don't present myself as an 'expert' on Cambodian culture. However I would say that resilience and fortitude are some of their strong points. Also, no matter how stressful the situation, you are for sure likely to be met with a smile and a kind word from your typical Cambodian.

Any lessons for travellers?

While the reserved nature of traditional Khmer culture certainly has changed in the past ten years, I strongly believe that both dressing conservatively and always taking the time to be polite and cordial in greetings and goodbyes goes a long way here. Also,  I always say that the most important thing to some of us westerners is time - often because we equate it with money. But for a Cambodian the most important thing is relationship even if takes more time to achieve.

If people feel a real affinity with Cambodia, what’s the best way for them to give back to the community?

Pick a reputable organisation doing solid work on the ground and support it. I would suggest always working with an organisation whether international or local rather doing things individually. This can really help prevent miscommunication due to cultural differences. But support can mean many things - money, volunteering, raising awareness, simple encouragement all come to mind.

Can you tell us a bit more about Angkor Hospital and the work it does – and why it’s needed?

Unfortunately, even today, Cambodia remains a poor country for many of its people. 70% of the population lives in rural areas and most of these people live on a dollar or two a day. In addition, Cambodia continues to have a high child mortality rate. When the hospital was founded ten years ago, one in five children died before their 5th birthday. Today that number is one in 15 which is an improvement but far from the one in 160 seen in more developed nations. Simply put, Angkor Hospital for Children exists to treat Cambodian children affected by poverty and disease and to educate and train the healthcare workers and leaders of Cambodia's future. For details, just check out our website or come by when you are in Siem Reap.