Siem Reap Overview
Few places can boast a history as long and storied as Siem Reap. The area was first settled in the 9th century, when ancient Khmers took control of the region they named the realm of gold (Suvarnabhumi).
Until recently a mere staging post for visitors to Angkor Wat, today's Siem Reap is a relaxed and confident city boasting a fine bevy of boutique hotels, cosy cafés, chic bars and restaurants. It also hosts a vibrant arts scene including its own film and photography festivals. That said, the ruins are still the main draw and with good reason. They're magnificent beyond description.
The devaraja, or god kings as the rulers of Angkor styled themselves, built a huge city with a massive complex of temples. Half a millennium later the empire waned following relentless attacks by neighbouring kingdoms, and the capital moved south to Phnom Penh. The mighty city and temple complex was swallowed up by the jungle and remained lost until discovered by French explorers in the 1800s.
Though unmistakably infused with the ambiance of Angkor, today's Siem Reap is now also a hip place with all the amenities a modern traveller needs and a rich variety of things to see and do.
City slickers can enjoy browsing markets and art galleries, shop for silks at boutiques and take courses in anything from Khmer cuisine, dancing and massage to pottery and jewellery making.
Outdoor buffs can enjoy everything from horseback riding through the paddy fields to high-octane forest canopy adventures to cruising the lake to watch birds or view the panorama of waterborne life in the floating markets and stilted houses.
Should you be in Siem Reap during one of the many festivals, you'll be in for a special treat. As a Buddhist country, special days abound. Some are real fiestas. Come in April to join in the aquatic high jinks of Cambodian New Year or witness the Cambodian Water Festival in November to glimpse the true spirit of this lovely country.
Things to Do
Make the most of the Angkor temple complex; it's one of the wonders of the world. But be sure to save plenty of time for the other attractions of Siem Reap to make your visit complete.
Roaming the Ruins
Siem Reap is not called Temple Town for nothing and the Angkor Architectural Park will always be the main reason for visiting.
Other than Angkor Wat itself, the area offers the vast temple city of Angkor Thom, home to the Bayon with its enigmatic giant stone faces gazing into eternity.
Nearby is Ta Prohm. With its great stones under perennial siege from massive trees, this hauntingly primitive spot is where parts of the blockbuster film Tombraider were filmed.
Another must-visit site is Banteay Srei, which features exquisite sandstone carvings of the celestial dancing nymphs known as apsaras.
To fully explore the 400-square-kilometre temple complex requires many days. To make the most of your experience, be sure to choose a guide who really knows his stuff.
Messing about in boats
Taking a trip on the life-giving Tonle Sap is the ideal way to view traditional Cambodian life and enjoy the surrounding countryside. Boats take you past lotus fields, country temples, stilted houses and floating markets and schools for a unique glimpse into the country's culture. Those so inclined can also visit crocodile, duck and fish farms or simply indulge in a floating picnic out on the cool waters.
Nights on the town
Siem Reap may not have the happening nightlife of the capital Phnom Penh, but you're always guaranteed a fun night out. Pub Street is one place not to miss and you'll find that local bartenders can mix up a potent Khmer cocktail using zesty ingredients such as wild ginger, turmeric and coconut.
To get a taste of ancient culture, catch an apasara dancing performance. It may be put on for the tourists but there's no denying the beauty, craft and sincerity of the performers.
Shopping Khmer style
For an authentic atmosphere, visit the Old Market District (Psar Chaa) to shop for silks, gems, fruit, spices and other exotica. The area is well served with eateries for sustenance and massages to revive tired feet. The nearby Night Market is another more upmarket option and a great place to shop for handicrafts and art.
One especially lovely local tradition is that of silk weaving. All the city's boutiques sell silk garments with traditional motifs and colours, and you can also take a tour to see silk being woven in surrounding villages. At places such as the Golden Silk Farm, you can view the whole process from rearing the worms to spinning the lustrous threads on the looms.
Calendar of Events
As a Buddhist kingdom with a rich and ancient culture, Cambodia is very big on pomp, ceremony and festivity.
Khmer New Year. Known locally as Chaul Chnam Thmey, this three-day extravaganza takes place in mid-April and is celebrated with gusto throughout Cambodia. For locals it's a time of spring cleaning and reconnecting with family, while for younger revellers it's the perfect excuse for some serious water throwing. As it's the hottest time of the year, being doused with water is a real pleasure, but it pays to be prepared.
Angkor Photo Festival. Held each December, the region's longest-running photo festival features exhibitions and workshops to promote the art of photography in Asia. Entry photographs are pinned up around the city so they can be judged by experts. No prizes are given nor winners picked; the purpose of the festival is to offer exposure and encouragement and to allow photographers to join up in a lovely setting.
Giant Puppet Parade. Unique to Siem Reap, this annual event is a joy for children. Organised by a group of expats, the event involves training local kids in the art of crafting Chinese dragon puppets which can be up to 15 feet tall. They are paraded through the streets on one magical evening.
Bon Om Touk(Cambodian Water Festival). Commencing on the last day of the full moon in October, this 3-day event celebrates the reversing flow of the massive Tonle Sap River and the end of the monsoon. The event is lively with fireworks, boat races and draws huge crowds.