This list of the best things to do in Siem Reap proves that there’s more to this quaint town besides the iconic Angkor Wat temple ruins. As Cambodia’s unofficial tourism capital, Siem Reap boasts hundreds of natural and manmade attractions such as breathtaking temples, well-preserved colonial buildings, unique museums, cultural theme parks, expansive lakes and verdant mountains. History buffs will delight in the many well-preserved stone carvings found at Buddhist and Hindu temples while nature lovers can enjoy a wide range of activities, such as hiking, bird-watching, picnicking and swimming. If you’re looking to experience the local lifestyle, there’s a wide range of cultural dances and traditional performances within central Siem Reap. Catering to just about any type of traveller, read on to discover Siem Reap’s most popular attractions.
Angkor Wat is the most famous ancient temple site in Cambodia. Visiting the ancient Angkorian temples is the reason most visitors come to Siem Reap. With its five lotus-like towers rising 65 metres into the sky, it is an awe-inspiring sight. This UNESCO World Heritage site was once the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It remains one of the world’s ancient wonders and is a must-see for any visitor to Cambodia. The ruins of Angkor Wat are at the centre of the vast Angkor Archaeological Park. It is best to arrange your tour of the park with a reputable agency and guide. They can help with buying the admission pass and will arrange your transport. Some can also explain the history of the temples, but taking a guidebook is also helpful.
History of Angkor Wat The temple ruins are what remains of the ancient Khmer Empire. The empire encompassed much of Southeast Asia from the 9th to the 13th century. It dominated the area of present day Cambodia, as well as a lot of Thailand, southern Vietnam and Laos. At its zenith, more than a million people lived in the capital city at Angkor. King Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat in the early 12th century, at the height of the Khmer Empire’s power. Scholars disagree on whether it was meant as a state temple or a funerary one. The name translates as “City Temple” and it reportedly took some 50,000 artisans, workers and slaves to complete. It is still the world’s largest religious building, covering 162.6 hectares. It was first dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, but became a Buddhist temple in the 14th century.
Getting To Angkor Wat There are two main ways visitors get to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. One way is on an organised tour and the other way is a do-it-yourself tour. Depending on the size of the group, transport can be by bus, minivan or tuk-tuk. For the really independent types, you can visit the temples on a motorbike. Cycling to and around the temples has become increasingly popular. Be sure to carry plenty of water, though. It may not look like it on the map, but the temples are a bit too far apart to comfortably visit them on foot.
Highlights and Features of Angkor Wat The temple is about 1 km square and consists of three levels. The exterior wall surrounding Angkor Wat measures 1,300 metres x 1,500 metres. Bas-reliefs and carvings cover almost every wall of the temple. Those on the exterior walls of the lower level are especially remarkable. There are carvings of almost 2,000 Apsaras (celestial dancers). These inspired the revival of the Apsaras Dance in Cambodian culture. Other carvings show scenes of wars, everyday life and Hindu legends. The south wall shows scenes of heaven and hell. Depictions of the Hindu ‘Churning of the Ocean Milk’ are on the east wall. The main tower on the third level contains four Buddha statues. Each statue faces a different point on the compass. Paying respect to these statues is said to bring good luck. The stone structures seen today are only part of what used to exist at Angkor. There was also an enormous city of wooden houses, markets, shops, palaces and public buildings. Angkor was abandoned after being sacked by Siam (now Thailand) in 1431. The French government established the Angkor Conservancy in 1908. They were first to restore the temples of Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm.
Photographing Angkor Wat The amazing structure as a whole is best viewed and photographed in soft light. The best lighting conditions are after 14:00. The light is worst in the morning, but a visit at sunrise can be magical. A popular location for sunrise viewing is the northern reflecting pool. You should get there early, before sunrise starts. You see the most beautiful colours just before the sun breaks over the horizon. When the sun comes up behind Angkor Wat, the temple’s distinctive shape forms a silhouette against the colourful sky. You get a good overview of the temple complex from the nearby Bakheng Hill. The view is at its best around sunset, but be sure to bring a zoom lens. Guided tours of the temple usually start with the bas-reliefs that cover the first level exterior wall. These are are perhaps the most beautifully done. You can then follow them around the temple in a counterclockwise direction.
What to Bring & How to Dress Exploring Angkor Wat involves a lot of walking around in Cambodia’s tropical climate. Light and comfortable clothing is strongly recommended, as is sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses. In the rainy season, a raincoat and/or umbrella will be very helpful. If you go to watch the sun rise or set, you should bring some mosquito repellent. As you’ll be walking over rough terrain and climbing up and down steep steps, sturdy footwear is essential. Walking shoes are best, but open-toed sandals are acceptable, if they are the type that fasten around the heel. Flip-flops and high heels will cause you a lot of discomfort. For the sake of cultural sensitivity, signs around the temples ask you to dress respectfully. This includes wearing clothes which cover your shoulders and knees. While this is mostly aimed at female travellers, it also applies to males. There are many vendors, stalls and restaurants in the Angkor Archaeological Park, especially near temple entrances. They sell items such as guidebooks, snacks, souvenirs and postcards. Some of their prices are a little inflated, especially for drinks. We recommend bringing an ample supply of water with you.
Angkor Wat Guides A guide is not required to visit Angkor Wat, or any of the other ancient sites. You can do a self-guided tour using a good guidebook. However, you’ll get much more out of your visit with a competent guide. They can point out and explain the most significant and interesting of the temple’s many features. Some guides are multi-lingual, and can speak English, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, German and French, among other languages. Guides will approach you by the entrance to Angkor Wat, but some are not properly trained or registered. It is generally better to book a guide in advance.
Angkor Wat Admission Passes You need a valid admission pass (called an ‘Angkor Pass’) to enter the Angkor Archaeological Park. These are usually bought at the main entrance, on the road from Siem Reap. You can get a one-day pass from the secondary entrance, on the road from the airport. A one-day pass costs US$20. You can also get a three-day pass for US$40 or a seven-day pass for US$60. With the multi-day passes, you don’t have to visit temples on consecutive days. A three-day pass is valid for any three days within a one week period and a seven-day pass is valid for any seven days within a one month period. You’ll need a passport-sized photo when buying a multi-day pass. If you don’t bring one, they will take your photo for free. This slows the process down a lot, though, especially on busy days. You’ll need to carry your temple pass with you at all times. You have to show it each time you enter the park and when entering major temples, including Angkor Wat. If you don’t have a valid pass while inside the park, or when visiting a temple, you may get fined.