Siem Reap overview
This magnificent region in the north west of Cambodia marks the gateway to the world-famous Angkor ruins – the seat of the Khmer kingdom between the 9th and 15th centuries. Both the province and the main town in the province share the same name – Siem Reap. The name literally translates to mean ‘Siam Defeated’ and comes from a centuries-old conflict between the Siamese and the Khmer.
The province is known for its verdant forests in the north and rice paddies in the south. The Siem Reap River meanders all the way through from Phnom Kulen in the north to the Tonle Sap Lake – part of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve – in the south. However, the most famous part of this province is the capital city of Siem Reap – the sixth largest city in Cambodia. Located on the shore of the Tonle Sap Lake, Siem Reap was only a village until the 19th century, when French explorers rediscovered the ruins at Angkor. As the ruins were gradually restored and more tourists were attracted to the region, Siem Reap became the vibrant, buzzing city it is today.
See and Do
The reason most people visit Siem Reap is to go to Angkor – a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is said to be one of the most important archaeological sites in South East Asia. Angkor was a former megacity stretching over 400km2 and it’s been described as the largest pre-industrial city in the world. The former capital city of the Khmer Empire, Angkor was thriving with life for 600 years between the 9th and 15th centuries. Needless to say, it’s a fascinating place to explore nowadays.
One of the most famous sites is the Temple of Angkor Wat
– the largest religious monument in the world. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple, it was then transformed into a Buddhist temple and subsequently became a symbol of the Khmer Empire and Cambodia.
Angkor Thom was another great Khmer city and it’s worth exploring the ruins today. At the centre of this ancient city is the Bayon temple – the lavishly decorated temple of the Buddhist King Jayavarman VII – which has a number of towers with smiling stone faces.
In the broader Angkor region, there are plenty of temples and ruins to visit aside from the mainstream attractions everyone stops at. These include the royal temples at Hariharalaya, the Roluos group of temples – Bakong, Lolei and Preah Ko, and the magical Ta Prohm temple – which has gradually been swallowed by the jungle over time. The three-tiered temple mountain at Baphuon is also worth visiting, as is the Terrace of Elephants, previously used for public ceremonies.
Ruin of Angkor Complex
A little outside of the main Angkor complex is Kbal Spean, an archaeological site on the Stung Kbal Spean River. Known as the ‘Valley of 100 Lingas’, this is a place to see ancient carvings of Hindu mythological motifs in the riverbed.
Kbal Spean (River of Thousand Lingas)
To explore artefacts recovered from Angkor, the Angkor National Museum
is a fascinating place to explore. The museum also looks at Khmer history, civilisation, cultural heritage and art.
In Siem Reap city, explore the urban centre on foot or by hiring a bicycle – it’s the best way to make your own discoveries. Look out for delicious street food and street masseurs offering sit-down massages for bargain prices. Bordering the city is Tonle Sap Lake – perfect for a lakeside stroll, or make a day of it and take a boat ride across the lake to the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary.
South Gate of Angkor Thom
Elsewhere in Siem Reap, the Angkor Centre for Conservation and Biodiversity (ACCB)
is worth a visit. This is the first nature conservation and endangered wildlife rescue centre in Cambodia. It’s a fascinating place to learn more about Cambodia’s wildlife and how animals rescued from the illegal wildlife trade are treated and rehabilitated. The centre is home to everything from leopard cats to gibbons.
The Cambodia Landmine Museum
in Siem Reap gives important insights into Cambodia’s relatively recent history of conflict and the dangers of landmines. The story of landmines is partly told from the perspective of an individual who was forced to fight for the Khmer Rouge Army as a child soldier. The museum also helps to support a relief centre and school for children who have been affected by landmines.
To get a little off-the-beaten-track in Siem Reap Province, visit some traditional Khmer communities
. The floating village of Chong Khneas is widely visited, but Kompong Khleang is much less well-known.
Culture and Arts
The craft village of Artisans Angkor is dedicated to preserving Cambodian arts and crafts heritage. Giving hundreds of artisans and craftspeople a place to create and sell their work, Artisans Angkor is a brilliant concept for the region and helps visitors get their hands on truly original pieces. Explore the workshops here to find plentiful examples of Khmer craftsmanship, wood carvings, stone carvings, jewellery, clothing and much more.
The Angkor Night Market in the centre of Siem Reap city is another place to find Khmer artwork and crafts, with plentiful street food to keep you going while you shop too. Find everything from rice art and leather carvings to scarves and original fashions.
The traditional Apsara Dance
is a classical Khmer performance art. Inspired by Hindu and Buddhist mythology, depictions of Apsara Dance are found engraved in the ruins at Angkor. Siem Reap is therefore the perfect place to take in an Apsara Dance Show, which includes traditional dress and ornate jewellery to complete the picture.
Angkor Silk Farm
For those who love silk, a visit to the Angkor Silk Farm
in Puok is a must. Learn about traditional silk production techniques and watch artisans weave fine pieces of silk thread into scarves and other garments, which are available to buy.
Festivals and Events
One of Cambodia’s biggest festivals is the Khmer New Year, which falls in April at the end of the harvesting season and lasts for three days. On the first day, Maha Sangkran, people dress up, light candles and burn incense in shrines. It’s seen as being good luck to wash your face with holy water in the morning, your chest in the afternoon and your feet before bedtime. The second day of the celebration, Virak Vanabat, is known for charitable work and attending ceremonies at monasteries in honour of ancestors. On the final day of the celebrations, Vearak Loeng Sak, people wash Buddha statues in perfumed water in the hope it will bring longevity, luck and prosperity. In and around Siem Reap, the Khmer New Year is celebrated in an event called Angkor Sankranta. Expect music, dancing, parades, games and exhibitions around this time, as well as a lot of activity around the temples. There is also a regular blessing ceremony that takes place in front of Angkor Wat. Traditional kralan cake is served around this time too – made from steamed rice, beans or peas and coconut milk, roasted inside bamboo sticks.
Srang Preah (Washing Ceremony)
Although Cambodia’s main celebrations for the Water Festival
(Bon Oum Touk) centre on Phnom Penh, Siem Reap also hosts some festivities. Held in November, this three day celebration marks the end of monsoon season – and it’s been celebrated in Cambodia for centuries. In Siem Reap, expect to see various colourful boat races taking place on the Siem Reap River and fireworks in the evening. In general, there’s a lot going on along the riverside during this festival, while the bars along Pub Street are particularly buzzing.
The Kathen Festival
is a Buddhist festival celebrated every October. This is a religious festival of robes, where saffron robes are offered to Buddhist months at pagodas up and down the country. With so many temples and pagodas in Angkor, Siem Reap is a great place to be for this festival. As well as the robe-giving ceremonies, there are usually colourful processions, puppets and music.
Water Festival (Boat Racing)
ChubMet Music and Art Festival
is an annual occasion in Siem Reap with a mixture of Cambodian and international artists playing. With various events and performances over a two week period in February, this is a great occasion for music lovers.
The Giant Puppet Parade
is another annual festival taking place every February. Oversized puppets lit up and adorned in bright colours make their way along the streets of Siem Reap in a parade to raise money for a children community art project.
Fans of photography and art should make sure they’re in Siem Reap in December for the Angkor Photo Festival
. With workshops and exhibitions, this is partly practical and partly inspirational for those who love photography.
Angkor Marathon (outside Ta Prohm temple)
For those who like a little activity, the Khmer Empire Marathon
and Half Marathon takes place every April. With a route that passes some of the most famous heritage sites in the world, this is a once-in-a-lifetime marathon opportunity. The Angkor Wat International Half Marathon
takes place every December too.
Food and Drink
Siem Reap is a melting pot of cultures, and with plenty of agricultural land and abundant fish in Tonle Sap Lake too, there is certainly a diversity of food in the locality.
Given the easy access to fish in particular, many traditional Khmer dishes here come with fish instead of meat. Many amazing Cambodian staples can be found from street food stands or in high-end restaurants, so whatever your budget is, you won’t miss out.
Fish amok is one must-try Cambodian dish in Siem Reap. This is a freshwater fish curry steamed in banana leaves, filled with the fragrant flavourings of lemongrass, turmeric, kaffir lime, shallots, galangal and garlic. You’ll see everyone eating it during the Water Festival, but it’s readily available the rest of the year too.
Khmer Red Curry
is another popular dish in Siem Reap. Made with coconut milk, Khmer curry paste and slices of fish, beef or chicken, it also comes packed with fresh vegetables. The French influence in Siem Reap is also apparent when this dish is served, as it often comes with a French baguette!
Another popular dish in Siem Reap is Nom Banh Chok – Cambodia’s staple noodle dish. Often enjoyed for breakfast, it comes with rice noodles, bean sprouts and green beans in a fish-based curry sauce.
Amok & Nom Banh Chok
For those who like to enjoy a few drinks, Pub Street is the place to visit in Siem Reap. Thronging with pubs and bars, the Angkor Night Market is also just a short walk away from here for delectable street food. And for those who want to dance the night away, who could resist paying a visit to the humorously named Angkor What? bar and club!
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