Siem Reap Province, located in north-west Cambodia is famous for its legendary temple, Angkor Wat. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) listed Angkor Wat as a World Heritage Site in 2004.
Angkor Wat Spans more than 10,000 square kilometres. The area is blessed by an abundance of natural beauty. The landscape is composed of lakes, rice fields, blooming lotus flowers, deep green jungle, waterfalls and breathtaking sunsets.
The provincial capital, also named Siem Reap is located on the banks of the Tonle Sap River. Siem Reap has cordially acquired the nickname of Temple Town.
Khmer traditions in Siem Reap are still closely followed today. Fortunately, for tourists, many locals now speak English as a second language. The people are friendly and welcoming.
The art and music scenes are ever-increasing and there is an abundance of restaurants and local markets. Not to mention, a buzzing nightlife.
Many of the main attractions are slightly outside the city centre. So, having a local guide to show you around is the best way to discover places of interest you may possibly miss on your own.
The streets are lined with wooden houses and French provincial style buildings that date back to the colonial period (1887-1953).
Siem Reap has a tropical climate, enjoying warm to hot weather all year round. The climate is generally broken down into three seasons, (hot, cool and rainy) through what is considered cool by local standards may differ to that of foreigners.
All things considered, Siem Reap is great to visit any time of year, as each season has its own benefits.
Cool Season – Nov – March (23c – 29c)
Arguably the best time to visit Siem Reap, temperature wise. The slightly cooler temperatures make it easier to navigate the temples of Angkor Wat and stroll through the streets or browse the local markets without becoming too sweaty.
Hot Season – March-May (27c-37c)
This season coincides with Khmer New Year. Though hot, it nearly never rains so it’s a great time for warm weather lovers to visit and there are an abundance of pools and watering holes to cool off in. It’s important to keep hydrated at this time, and locals recommend fresh coconut water to keep your fluids up.
Rainy season: May – October (24c-33c)
Many try to avoid the rainy season (which generally peaks around June-September) however for nature lovers this is one of the best times to visit.
Rice fields are at their greenest and the mountain and jungle areas are at their freshest. Of course, things can get a little bit muddy but that’s all part of the adventure. There’s always a chance for a foot massage or to sample some local Khmer food while you wait for the shower to pass.
Siem Reap is one of the best provinces in Cambodia for visitors as it is still rich in culture but easily adaptable for non-locals.
Because of the tourist industry, local Khmer are incredibly welcoming and eager to introduce visitors to their Cambodian culture.
Outside of the tourist area, locals still follow Khmer traditions closely and women are more modest than in city areas, so it’s always best to follow the lead of a local Khmer in order to avoid disrespect and to get the best out of your cultural experience.
There are many pagodas’s (Wat’s) in Siem Reap that are easily accessible and welcoming to foreigners. Wat Atveah is one of the most popular and Wat Chourk is one of the most colourful.
Aside from pagoda’s and temples, there are many other sacred and traditionally significant areas such as Phnom Kulen.
Things to do
You don’t have to go too far afield in Siem Reap to experience the real Cambodia.
Within 3kms from the city centre are rice fields and traditional Khmer villages where you can view farming activities, fishing and cottage industries such as weaving, tailoring and traditional Khmer cooking.
Many homes are constructed out of simple bamboo and palm leaves and you’ll get a taste of poverty which can be hard to swallow, though you will soon discover many are happy with their simple farming life.
Angkor Archaeological Park
Of course, a visit to Cambodia wouldn’t be right without visiting the Angkor Archaeological Park. Stories of legends are carved intricately into the stone and to get the best experience a guide is highly recommended.
Though Angkor Wat is the most famous temple, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei and many others are equally captivating, and more and more temples and culturally significant ruins are being discovered due to new technology, so it’s an exciting time to visit.
Angkor Wat and its surrounds are a photographers dream. The locals can give you the best tips on what time of the day to snap the best shots. Comfortable walking shoes are a must, and culturally appropriate clothing is expected (shoulders and knees must be covered).
Phnom Kulen & Kbal Spean
The mountain ranges of Phnom Kulen (which translates to “mountain of lychees”) are located around 30km north of Angkor Wat.
Believed to be the birthplace of the Khmer empire, it is now a protected National Park, acting as a sanctuary in order to preserve the ecology and culturally significant ruins.
Formed of sandstone, it functioned as a quarry during the construction of Angkor temples. Kbal Spean is located within Phnom Kulen national park. Set deep in the jungle, it’s famous for its intricate riverbed carvings.
Kbal Spean translates to “river of a thousand linga’s” and contains strong symbolism of fertility. The water is considered sacred, and under the surface, there are over 1000 small lingas are carved into the riverbed.
At the end of the riverbed are a spectacular waterfall and natural pool. If you visit Phnom Kulen and Kbal Spean, it’s well worth making the effort to visit nearby Preah Ang Thom, a Buddhist monastery dating back to the 16 century and home of Cambodia’s largest reclining Buddha statue.
Tonle Sap Lake
Tonle Sap Lake is home to an abundance of wildlife and in particular many species of birds. Some of South East Asia’s most endangered species live within the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary.
To tour the sanctuary’s marshes, a boat tour is available, and there is the opportunity to spend the night on the lake at the research station.
Tonle Sap is also home to the flooded forest of Kampong Phluk. This fishing village is located in the flooded mangrove forest on the Tonle Sap and the residents live in stilted wooden houses.
The village is still relatively untouched by tourism and gives a great insight into traditional Khmer way of life.
Kampong Phluk is about 25km from the more tourist saturated Chong Kneas floating village and a great alternative.
Trekking & Bicycle Tours
Though there are many options to explore the surrounding countryside of Siem Reap such as quad bike tours, a bicycle or trekking tour is less disruptive to the everyday life of the locals and less damaging to the natural environment.
Khmer for Khmer Organization, a local NGO, is home to Off-Track Tours, who offer full day and half day guided tours.
Options include Angkor Wat, Countryside and Sunset tours. A donation is expected and proceeds are returned to KKO’s many communities and education programs helping the underprivileged in Siem Reap.
Other popular attractions include the Landmine Museum, National Museum, Cambodian Village cooking classes, Phare the Cambodian Circus, Lotus Farm and Monk blessing at a local pagoda. Massage and Spa’s offer some pampering for temple weary visitors, and the many markets offer a full-on sensory experience.
For food and dining options, Siem Reap is a culinary delight with many local and foreign offerings predominately centred around Pub street, Wat Bo and Sok San road.
Keep your eye out for restaurants that are associated with local NGO’s or training programs, they offer quality dining with proceeds going to a good cause.