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Visitors flock far and wide to Siem Reap in order to visit the Temples of Angkor. Once a small market town, the temple complex’s increasing popularity has seen it undergo one of the fastest periods of development in Southeast Asia. As a result, it has reinvented itself into a dynamic, busy town, encompassing a range of experiences that range from high-end dining to adventurous jungle trails that lead to hidden temples.

At Siem Reap’s doorstep is Asia’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Tonle Sap, and Phnom Kulen National Park, sheltering the sacred Phnom Kulen. Wash down some fried crickets with rice wine on a guided local food tour. Or chase the sunset on a quad bike on the outskirts of town. Siem Reap hosts a blooming cultural scene which includes a performance from Cambodia’s leading contemporary circus, run by a non-profit association seeking to improve the lives of rural Cambodian communities.

Despite the modern developments of Siem Reap, traditional Cambodian life still resonates throughout the town. You can experience local history and culture through daily activities such as wandering through the markets, or by trekking through luxuriant jungle to unearth a hidden temple.

Discover the Temples of Angkor

Ankor Thom Bayon TempleStrewn across over 400 sq km (150 sq mi), hidden inside twisting jungle and standing amidst open rice paddies, Angkor is a staggering collection of temples. Angkor Wat is the most well-known, with such powerful cultural significance it’s celebrated on the national flag.

There are many ways to immerse yourself in Angkor Wat and its maze of surrounding temples. Arriving at an alternative time of day, or from an unusual angle can often present the temples in a different light. Our guides know Angkor intimately, and can recount the history of each monument, carving and statue.

Photographers flock at the early-morning golden hour, snapping photos of Angkor Wat’s impressive structure and murals depicting tales of Cambodian history. We suggest following suit and visiting Angkor Wat and the Bayon’s towers just after sunrise, before tours begin for the day.

You can explore Ta Prohm, a crumbling temple which has been engulfed by the jungle. The temple is cloaked in heavy, vast roots and at dawn you might see the mist eerily rising through sun-soaked trees.

Cycling between temples allows you to reach ones which are aren’t as frequently visited. Or, you can travel by car to even more remote temples such as Beng Mealea. This temple is drowning in strangling root formations, making Ta Prohm seem relatively manicured.

Travel north of Siem Reap and you can visit the secluded Banteay Srei (the Citadel of Women), a red-sandstone temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. A knowledgeable guide explains, while ducking through the low hanging doorways, how it’s locally believed that the intricate carvings are too fine to have been done by the hand of a man.

Siem Reap Beyond the Temples

Phnom Kulen WaterfallSiem Reap is arguably Cambodia’s culinary heart, with a range of cooking and dining experiences. You can jump on the back of a Vespa for a guided after-dark food tour through local communities on the outskirts of town. You’ll get to sample freshly prepared fish amok (fish coated in coconut milk) or Khmer noodle soup. If you dare, try stir-fried beef garnished with tree ants.

Alternatively, you can learn to cook a traditional Cambodian five-course tasting menu at Kroya, a stylish restaurant near the centre of town serving authentic Khmer cuisine. Guided by a chef, you’ll wander through the morning food markets selecting your own ingredients. The day culminates in sampling your own Cambodian creations from a swinging lounger on the terrace, surrounded by gurgling water features and leafy plants.

Not far from Banteay Srei is Phnom Kulen National Park, where local people come to bathe in the allegedly holy water in the shadow of the one of Cambodia’s most sacred mountains, Phnom Kulen. Hike or cycle through the thickset jungle and you can find The River of a Thousand Lingas, decorated with intricate carvings and the giant reclining Buddha.

For something different, admire the flexible gymnasts, acrobats and talented jugglers of the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus. The shows come alive with a fanfare of traditional instruments like khims (stringed instruments) and roneats (bamboo xylophones) mixed with modern flutes and drums.

Tonle Sap’s Floating Villages

One hour outside of Siem Reap lies Tonle Sap Lake. The lake is subjected to a heavy influx of flood water between October and January, when the Mekong floods. The surrounding villages live in harmony with these seasonal floodwaters, several even shifting position along the river according to the water levels. A few stilted bamboo houses spill out onto the freshwater lake all year round.

The floating village of Kompong Kheleang offers a community-led boat tour across the lake. You’ll find gold-painted pagodas, families crammed onto a wooden boat taking their children to school and may spot a painted stork’s orange face and pink tail-feathers. You’ll gain an understanding into how these communities have adapted their ways of life to the fluctuation of the water levels.

Best time to visit

For a dry, warm climate Siem Reap is best visited between November and April. Throughout the rest of the year the humidity increases, and there are frequent showers. November is a particularly good month to visit as its less humid, and not as crowded.

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who's been there
Veronica Spann

Start planning your tailor-made trip to Siem Reap by calling one of our Cambodia specialists at 617-223-4150

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