Uncover the secrets of Siem Reap beyond the tourist trail

It may be known as the gateway to Angkor Wat, the eighth wonder of the world, but there's much more to this Cambodian city than meets the eye.

Woman riding on a bicycle exploring Angkor Wat in Cambodia
  • Belinda Luksic
  • May 2018

Siem Reap is more than the gateway to Angkor Wat, UNESCO’s eighth wonder of the world. It’s a thriving resort town with a less hectic pace than other Asian cities. Visit its famous temples, then take some time to enjoy its wide boulevards, green city parks and genuine people, and explore its laid back charms.

Here are eight recommendations for things to do in Siem Reap:

1. Bar crawl

Hidden down laneways and alleys, Siem Reap’s Pub Street has a surprising number of hip small bars and cosy watering holes. Miss Wong, a cocktail bar in “the lane” near popular late-night venue, Angkor What? Bar, takes its cue from old Shanghai with dark leather booths and cherry red lanterns adorning its doorway. Picasso, a tiny tapas bar that seats only 10, is located in up-and-coming Alley West. Retro-American favourite, Charlie’s, is packed with memorabilia and is a popular spot to catch a sports match. Asana Bar, also known as the wooden house, is a traditional Cambodian countryside villa found in the backstreets of the town that delivers atmosphere galore and is perfect for an early evening drink.

The floating villages at Tonle Sap, Cambodia
The floating villages at Tonle Sap, Cambodia

2. Waterways

Head to Tonlé Sap (and its adjoining river) for a fascinating glimpse into life on the water. Teeming with bird and marine life, it’s the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia and home to mangroves and the bird sanctuary, Prek Toal Biosphere Reserve. You can kayak through ghostly water hyacinths and trees half-submerged in the “flooded forest” of Kampong Phluk or witness the daily rhythms of the precarious stilted and floating villages of Kompong Khleang Village, Kampong Chhnang or far-flung Pursat.

3. Khmer massage

Originally created to reinvigorate monks after long periods of meditation, the no-oil Khmer massage is the perfect antidote to a day spent wandering the temples in 80 per cent-plus humidity. An ancestor of traditional Thai massage, it involves rigorous stretching and body alignment to deliver increased flexibility and relaxation. While you can easily get a massage on the street for around AUD $10, splurge on a night at boutique hotel Anantara Ankgor Resort and Spa opens in new window for the ultimate in luxury pampering and authentic Cambodian spa treatments.

splurge on a night at boutique hotel Anantara Ankgor Resort and Spa
Splurge on a night at boutique hotel Anantara Ankgor Resort and Spa

4. Cooking schools

At cooking schools and in some of Siem Reap’s better hotels and resorts, you can learn how to cook amok trey, Cambodia’s unofficial national dish. This fragrant coconut-based fish curry is made with a paste of galangal, turmeric, cloves, garlic, lemongrass and chilli is steamed to a mousse-like consistency in a banana leaf or served over rice as a delicious golden soup. Simple, elegant and fresh, its balance of contrasting flavours – sweet, bitter, salty and sour – is what makes Khmer one of the most delicately nuanced cuisines in the world.

Enjoying street food in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Enjoying street food in Siem Reap, Cambodia

5. Street food

While most travellers head to Angkor Night Market to buy souvenirs, those in the know make their way to locals’ market, Phsar Leu. Expect a bustling fresh food scene and be sure to stock up on kampot pepper, a staple of Khmer cuisine. For an authentic Cambodian breakfast, ask for lort cha – a fry-up of bean sprouts, vegetables and stumpy rice noodles topped with a fried egg and chilli – or sample a num pang paté, the Cambodian version of neighbouring Vietnam’s banh mi. Come evening, jump on a tuk tuk for the 15 minute journey to 60 Road, alive with street stalls and the sizzle of barbecued meats.

6. Get out of town

On the outskirts of town, Siem Reap’s rural villages offer a gentle, slow-paced life. Spaghetti-legged kids cycle too-big bikes and chickens scratch the ground beneath tall stilted homes surrounded by lush green paddy fields. Be sure to sample the local cuisine and take your visit to the next level with an overnight stay in a villa. For a taste of luxury, AboutAsia Travel offers candlelit villa dining, with proceeds used to fund a local school.

A monk exploring Angkor Wat in Cambodia
A monk exploring Angkor Wat in Cambodia

7. Exploring Angkor Wat

Hire a mountain bike and map your journey through the magnificent ruins of Angkor Archaeological Park, home to a thousand crumbling temples and the sprawling ancient city of Angkor Thom, the largest pre-industrial city in the world. Don’t miss the wildly beautiful Ta Prohm temple, made famous by the film, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, or the many enigmatic smiling faces of Bayon Thom. For the less popular but no less wondrous, ditch the crowds for temples such as Banteay Srei Preah, The Baphuon, Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda.

8. Aerial perspective

Leave the crowds at Angkor Wat behind and take to the skies in a hot air balloon at dawn. While there’s something to be said about waiting in hushed silence with a thousand other like-minded strangers for the first rays of sunlight to silhouette the temples, a hot air balloon ride really gives you a sense of the magnitude and majesty of this once thriving city. You’re also guaranteed a top snap.