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It’s no secret that Siem Reap is often seen only as a base for Cambodia’s most famous attraction, Angkor Wat. This complex is incredible – and the views at sunrise are second to none – but I’m here to fly the flag for Siem Reap. A town that’s seriously underrated as a destination in its own right.
Thousands go to Siem Reap each year, but very little is known about the town itself. It boasts beautiful French colonial houses and Chinese-style architecture that is similar to that of Hoi An in Vietnam, but it’s nowhere near as famous. And whilst it has experienced a significant boom over the last few years, compared to Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, the streets of Siem Reap are relatively traffic-free, and people enjoy a slower pace of life (‘Pub Street’ being the notable exception).
Siem Reap is often described as the ‘epicentre of chic Cambodia’, where boutiques, local markets and a thriving dining scene contribute to a laid-back, cosmopolitan vibe. What’s more, there’s always LOADS going on. In fact, whatever your interests – film, food, music or sport – Siem Reap’s got it all.
1. Take in a show at Phare, the Cambodian Circus
Firstly, it’s home to the Phare Circus; a troupe of world-class acrobats who mesmerise audiences on a nightly basis with impressive choreography and death-defying stunts, all to the sound of Cambodian folk music. This respite from temple-trudging will also leave you with a warm fuzzy feeling in your heart; the Phare circus was set up as a social initiative to provide employment and support to young Cambodians from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s an unexpected treat and many travellers count it as one of the highlights of their trip.
2. Master Khmer Cookery
You’re likely to fill up on Cambodia’s delicious curries while you’re away – walking around vast Angkor Wat is hungry work. Be prepared for the post-holiday blues by learning how to make them. There are plenty of Khmer cookery classes in Siem Reap, many of which include a trip to the market to buy produce. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, dare yourself to try the local speciality – deep-fried tarantulas. Crunchy yet delicious…
3. Learn about recent history
Angkor is a magnificent symbol of Cambodia’s illustrious Khmer empire. But in recent history, Siem Reap was the site of the brutal Pol Pot regime and this country’s darkest time; as a result, the area was riddled with landmines until relatively recently.
Seeing Siem Reap residents bearing the lasting effects of an encounter with a landmine can take tourists by surprise. To gain a better understanding of this time, the Cambodia Landmine Museum is well worth a visit. Whilst sobering, the museum gives context to the country as it is today. It also sheds light on the selfless work being done to clear landmines in villages throughout Cambodia. All proceeds go directly to the landmine charity.
4. Show off your best Angkor Wat snaps
Angkor Wat is a photographer’s paradise, but very few people realise that Siem Reap plays host to one of the biggest photography competitions in the world. The Angkor Photo Festival is a free international platform and educational resource for established and emerging photographers. Over the course of a week in December, there are evening events, presentations and screened projections showcasing different sets of photographs each night. Whether you’re a budding David Bailey or just appreciate the art, this festival offers a fascinating new perspective on the beauty of Cambodia.
5. Rub Shoulders with Angelina*
Not content to play host to one internationally renowned event, Siem Reap also hosts an annual (free) film festival in December each year. In addition to showing previews of around 30 new releases over the course of three days, there is an educational element to the festival; a series of Q&A panels address a whole host of topics from digital cinema to the preservation of culture and the environment. There are also screenings for children.
The festival kicks off with an opening gala concert – typically held at the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort. If you thought you didn’t need heels and your glad rags for a trip to Cambodia, think again!
6. Don your trainers
Not a culture vulture? No problem. There are more energetic ways to take in the scenery around Siem Reap, like… running a marathon! Various races take place in Siem Reap over the course of the year and anyone can sign up.
Fool-hardy runners in August can take part in the Empire Full or Half Marathon, and visitors in (cooler) December can don their trainers for the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon. Unlike pounding the pavement at home, this unique track will see you running past the temples of Angkor Wat and into the Cambodian countryside. If that all sounds a bit intense for a holiday, pick one of the shorter routes starting from 3km. It’s all in aid of a good cause – the money raised goes towards victims of landmines in Cambodia.
7. Take in Angkor from horseback
If marathon running in 30°C heat sounds too hardcore, take a leisurely horseback ride around Angkor. You’ll cover more ground than you would on foot, so you can get right out into the Cambodian countryside around Siem Reap – a world away from the crowds. Whether it’s your first time in the saddle, or you’re a seasoned rider, there’s nothing more relaxing than ambling along, taking in the scenery to the gentle clip-clop of hooves.
8. Party on down
Just when you there were no end of things to do in Siem Reap, in 2016, the powers that be decided to introduce a music festival into the mix! For six days in February, the Chub Met Music Festival takes over town. The festival has already attracted the attention of internationally-acclaimed artists like Joss Stone, and has cemented its position as a key event in the music industry calendar.
Spend three days exploring things to do in Siem Reap on our Vietnam & Cambodia Uncovered Small Group Tour – booking now for departure in February 2018. Alternatively, speak to one of our Indochina experts if you’d like to find out more about travelling to Cambodia for any of the specific events mentioned.