Gateway for the temples of Angkor, Siem Reap (see-em ree-ep; សៀមរាប) was always destined for great things. Visitors come here to see the temples, of course, but there is plenty to do in and around the city when you're templed out. Siem Reap has reinvented itself as the epicentre of chic Cambodia, with everything from backpacker party pads to hip hotels, world-class wining and dining across a range of cuisines, sumptuous spas, great shopping, local tours to suit both foodies and adventurers, and a creative cultural scene that includes Cambodia's leading contemporary circus.
Angkor is a place to be savored, not rushed, and this is the base from which to plan your adventures. Still think three days at the temples is enough? Think again with Siem Reap on the doorstep.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Siem Reap.
Looming large on the road to Angkor is the Angkor National Museum, a state-of-the-art showpiece on the Khmer civilisation and the majesty of Angkor. Displays are themed by era, religion and royalty as visitors move through the impressive galleries. After a short presentation, visitors enter the Zen-like Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas, which has a fine collection of images. Other exhibits include the pre-Angkorian periods of Funan and Chenla; the great Khmer kings; Angkor Wat; Angkor Thom; and the inscriptions.
Siem Reap is the epicentre of the drive to revitalise Cambodian traditional culture, which was dealt a harsh blow by the Khmer Rouge and the years of instability that followed its rule. Les Chantiers Écoles teaches wood- and stone-carving techniques, traditional silk painting, lacquerware and other artisan skills to impoverished young Cambodians. Free guided tours explaining traditional techniques are available daily from 7.30am to 6.30pm. Tucked down a side road, the school is well signposted from Sivatha St.
Meet the hero rats that are helping to clear landmines in Cambodia. Apopo has trained the highly sensitive, almost-blind Gambian pouched rat to sniff explosives, which dramatically speeds up the detection of mines in the countryside. The visitor centre gives background on the work of Apopo, with a short video and the chance to meet the rats themselves.
Located just west of the royal residence is this shrine. Said to represent two Angkorian princesses, these sacred statues were originally housed at the Preah Poan gallery in Angkor Wat, but were moved all over Siem Reap to protect them from invaders, eventually settling here in 1990. Locals throng here to pray for luck, especially newlyweds, and it is an atmospheric place to visit around dusk, as the incense smoke swirls around.
Les Chantiers Écoles maintains the Angkor Silk Farm, which produces some of the best work in the country, including clothing, interior-design products and accessories. All stages of the production process can be seen here, from the cultivation of mulberry trees to the nurturing of silkworms to the dyeing and weaving of silk. Free tours are available daily. A free shuttle bus departs from Les Chantiers Écoles in Siem Reap at 9.30am and 1.30pm.
Cambodia has a long tradition of producing beautiful lacquerware, although the years of upheaval resulted in some of the skills being lost. Cambolac is a social enterprise helping to restore Cambodia's lacquer tradition and create a new contemporary scene. You can tour the workshop to learn more about the perfectionism required to produce a piece. Most of the guides are hearing-impaired and a tour allows some great interaction and the opportunity to learn some basic sign language.
Angkor Conservation is a Ministry of Culture compound that houses more than 5000 statues, lingas (phallic symbols) and inscribed stelae, stored here to protect them from the wanton looting that has blighted hundreds of sites around Angkor. The finest statuary is hidden away inside Angkor Conservation’s warehouses, meticulously numbered and catalogued. While it's not officially open to the public, it is sometimes possible to get a peek at the collection for a fee.
The botanic garden of Senteurs d’Angkor is a sort of Willy Wonka’s for the senses, where you can sample infused teas and speciality coffees in the on-site cafe. More a laboratory than a garden, the operators also make soaps, oils and perfumes here. It recently relocated to a stunning new centre near the Angkor Golf Resort.
This is one of the town’s oldest temples and has a collection of well-preserved wall paintings from the late 19th century depicting the Reamker, Cambodia’s interpretation of the Ramayana. The monks here regularly chant sometime between 4.30pm and 6pm, and this can be a spellbinding and spiritual moment if you happen to be visiting.