Once a small village, Siem Reap has grown to meet the needs of tourists visiting the nearby ancient ruins of Ankgor, and is now a bustling collection of hotels, bars, restaurants, galleries, shops, and spas. Its name, which means ‘Victory over the Thais’, hails from the 16th century, when the Khmer people triumphed over the Thai invaders.
The highlight of Seam Reap is of course the ruins of the ancient city of Angkor, discovered by the French naturalist Henri Mouhot in 1861, and capital of the Khmer kingdom between 802 and 1295. This ‘City of Kings’ covers 97 square kilometres, and contains some of the largest religious monuments ever made. For those wanting to escape the crowds, boat trips into the mangrove swamps, trekking in the lush jungle, or a visit to the large bird sanctuary are a must.
One of the largest of the megalithic religious monuments, Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, serving as both a temple to Vishnu and a mausoleum for his body. The scale of the building is staggering, with its tower, libraries, and famous bas-reliefs of mythological and historic scenes. This temple, considered one of the most majestic in the world, is best viewed at sunrise or in the early afternoon.
Famous for the 216 faces that adorn its towers, Bayon was built in the latter half of the twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII. The first two levels hold an amazing selection of bas-reliefs, and the uppermost is the central sanctuary of the temple. Best visited in the middle of the day, you can even enter Bayon on the back of an elephant for a $10 fee.
Representing the sacred Mount Meru, Baphuon is one of the largest structures in Angkor, and famous for the giant reclining Buddha which was added in the 15th century when the area went from being Hindu to Buddhist. Renovation of the temple, which began before the civil war, is still ongoing.
The ancient city that contains the Baphuon and Bayon temples, Angkor Thom had a population of one million people. It also contains the beautiful Elephant Terrace, the first temple-mountain of Angkor especially famous for its sunset views, and the Terrace of the Leper King, a five-gated complex with 13km of connecting walls.
This temple began to be built by Jayarvarman V but was never completed.
Possibly the third most popular temple after Angkor Wat and the Bayon, Ta Prohm has been left as it was found, its crumbling stone work locked in an embrace with the strangler fig trees of the jungle. An amazing site for photographers, the periphery of the temple is much less busy than the central route, although care should be taken as parts are in danger of collapsing.
A large temple complex in the process of restoration.
Opposite Banteay Kdei, this terrace leads to a small lake.
A small 10th century temple made of red stone.
The first capital of King Jayarvarman VII, this temple is partly overrun by the strangler fig; its excellent carvings are lesser frequented than nearby Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm making it well worth a visit.
Neak Pean/Ta Som/East Mebon
Built by Rajendravarman II in the 10th century on what was once an island, the highlights of this three-storey temple topped by five towers are the large elephant statues.
This temple mountain has stunning sunset views over the rice paddies and jungles of Cambodia.
These ruins were the capital of Hariharalaya in the 9th century.
A temple-mountain pyramid with five storeys.
Built in a baray, which is a man-made body of water, this island temple is now surrounded by dry land.
Built in the 9th century, this temple is the first ever constructed in this region.
At a distance of 37 kilometres from Angor Wat, the intricate carvings in this red-stone temple make it worth a half-day trip from Siem Reap.
A fascinating series of carvings on the banks and surrounds of a stretch of river, Kbal Spean is reached by a 1.5 kilometre walk through the jungle past a picturesque waterfall. The track leads on to Banteay Srey.
In the style of the famous Ta Phrom, this temple has been given over to the jungle, and can be traversed by a wooden walkway or an exciting clamber over its ruined walls. It is situated 80km east of Siem Reap and combines well with visits to Banteay Srey and Kbal Spean.
This temple 12 kilometres southwest of Siem Reap was built in the 9th century on a hilltop overlooking the Tonle Sap Lake; take a boat trip to the lake and combine the two.
Built as a rival capital to Angkor in the 10th century, this area with over 180 sanctuaries lies a remote 120 kilometres from Siem Reap. Its highlight is the massive temple pyramid of Prasat Thom.
A temple whose importance is attested by the marks of many great kings, Preah Vihear enjoys fantastic views as it sits atop the Dangrek Mountains. Thailand had claimed this site a number of times, until 1962 when it was ruled to be part of Cambodia.
The centre of an important city in the 13th century, this massive temple was built by the prolific Jayavarman VII, and has only recently been cleared to reveal beautiful carvings and the faces of Avalokiteshvara.
Siem Reap Town itself is also worth exploring:
Angkor National Museum
This museum presents the history of the Angkor complex and the Khmer civilisation in a modern format; its highlights include the gallery of 1,000 Buddhas, which looks at the significance of the Buddhist religion to the region.
Set up by local de-miner Aki Ra to educate tourists on the dangers of landmines, the guides at this tiny museum are mostly teenagers orphaned by landmine fatalities. It is situated 6km south of Banteay Srey and welcomes donations towards this worthwhile cause.
Tonle Sap Lake
Visit this rich ecosystem complete with amazing floating villages for a break from the temples.
To get an authentic sense of life in a floating village, take a motorbike and then a boat to this more remote part of the lake.
Phouk Silk Worm Farm
See the process of silk creation from beginning to finished product.
This air-conditioned theatre serves local food with traditional and classical dances.
Spend a Day in a Cambodian Village
Get a taste of Cambodian rural life as you join the locals in their daily activities.
A large complex displaying Cambodian cultural practices, historical figures, and architecture; you may also see Khmer wedding ceremonies or local dancing as you tour the park.
The Sangkheum Centre for Children
A centre to give aid to children in the area in need of it, this village-like complex is home to 50 children of ages 2-18, and schools a further 50. Visit with donations of clothes, food, or school supplies to help them out.
Boat Cruise on Tonle Lake
Tour the floating village and watch the sunset before a delicious dinner.
The perfect way to see the majestic ruins of Angkor Wat and the verdant Cambodian countryside.
This 10 minute tethered balloon ride takes you far above the countryside for a bird’s eye view of Angkor Wat and surrounding temples, as well as the massive Tonle Sap Lake.
Horse Riding at Happy Ranch
View the local scenery from horseback.
Blessing Ceremony at a Buddhist Pagoda
Receive a private blessing form a Buddhist monk, believed to bring health, long life, and happiness.
Cambodian Phare Circus
An amazing medley of music, dance, and modern circus, this show narrates Cambodia’s history and present in a unique and spellbinding performance.
Quad Bike Countryside Tour
Accompanied by a professional guide and with full training provided, this is a fun and different way of seeing the local sights.
Flight of the Gibbon Angkor
See the Angkor Archaeological Park in an exciting zip-lining adventure.
Siem Reap Shooting Range
Open to beginners and the more experienced; safety comes first.
The best of these in Siem Reap is offered at the Paul Dubrule School of Hotels and Tourism, whose higher prices ae justified by its superior experience and charitable intentions, which include awarding scholarships to underprivileged Cambodians.
Tour the Angkor temples in a peaceful and eco-friendly way.
Gala Dinner in a Buddhist Temple
Start the evening with a blessing from the monks, before walking along flower-strewn paths to your table, where you will be served a delicious Khmer or Western meal and be entertained by traditional Cambodian performances.
About Phnom Penh
Phomh Penh is the capital of Cambodia, home to the king and approximately one million people, and the commercial, political, and cultural hub of the country. Currently in the midst of rapid change, Phnom Penh is becoming increasingly tourist friendly and easy to reach, with its many hotels, guest houses, bars, fine dining, street food, and improving transport network.
A visit to Phnom Penh will give you a taste of the fabled Cambodian hospitality, and place you at the gateway to the wonders of Cambodia, with its Khmer monuments, tropical beaches, and beautiful rural landscape peopled with ethnic minority groups.
This pleasant boulevard running along the banks of the Mekong and Tonle Sap is home to bars, shops, cafés, and some of Phnom Penh’s best sights. Popular with expats and tourists, it is also frequented by Cambodians who come to enjoy the upbeat vibe.
The Royal Palace
A magnificent building which still houses the Cambodian king, the royal palace was built in the 19th century in Cambodian style but with French design, along with the beautiful building in its grounds, the Silver Pagoda or Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
The National Museum
Holding some of the best Angkorian artefacts including a wonderful statue of Jayarvarman VII, this museum sits opposite a pleasant park which is the site of the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony, which determines the success of the harvest: both are worth a visit.
Once an important temple, Wat Phnom is now in disrepair but sits in an attractive park which is popular with the locals.
A temple once favoured by royalty, Wat Botum has the unfortunate fame of having been home to the novice Saloth Sar, who later changed his name to Pol Pot and was responsible for the deaths of millions of people.
Independence and Liberation Memorials
The imposing Independence Memorial sits at the centre of the city and marks the departure of the French in 1953; the far less attractive Liberation Memorial marks the Vietnamese capture of the city in 1979.
Tuol Sleng Prison Genocide Museum
For those interested in the atrocities in Cambodia’s recent past, this building, which was the site of the torture of 14,000 prisoners after it opened in 1975, documents the details of the violence.
The Killing Fields
Now marked by a memorial stupa containing the skulls of thousands of victims, this place witnessed the murder of thousands of people under the Khmer Rouge regime.
The Olympic Stadium
The stadium was built in the 1960s for the Asian Games but was never used; although it has fallen into disrepair, the top perimeter offers a pleasant walk where you can look down on the exercise and dance classes.
Stung Meanchey Garbage Dump
A sprawling pile of refuse which is sadly home to hundreds of the poorest Cambodians who scavenge there, the dump is neighboured by the French NGO, ‘Pour un Sourire Enfant’, which provides succour to the young victims of poverty and teaches them French and English to increase their job prospects.
Phnom Penh Orphanages
For the pleasure of helping out some of Phnom Penh’s many orphans, visit the better run of these establishments with an appointment in place.
A colourful art deco market established in the 1930s and called Psar Thmei in Cambodian, this is well worth a visit. For an air conditioned experience, choose the nearby Sovonna or Sorya Malls.
Off the usual tourist track, this market, which was named as a result of the Vietnamese occupation, gives visitors an opportunity to buy real designer brands at discount prices; this is made possible by the many factories producing designer clothes in the area.
Home to many curious boutiques.
Sunset Cruise on the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers with Dinner
See the beautiful Royal Palace, National Museum, and other sites over a delicious meal.
Shooting Range, Siem Neap
Open to beginners and the more experienced, safety comes first here.
Cooking School, Phnom Penh
Get experience of Khmer cooking and ingredient selection, as well as understanding the influence of Khmer cuisine on subject countries and vice-versa.
Opened in 2003, the Cambodian Equestrian Centre is a world-class training facility offering lessons and ride-outs for all abilities.
Kambol F1 Go-Karts
You’ll have great fun on this 900 metre track, whether a beginner or an experienced go-karter.