While two or three days might have been an adequate amount of time to spend in Cambodia's Siem Reap five years ago, you’ll be doing the town and yourself a disservice if that's all you spend here these days. We could fill your time for a month, given half a chance. So whether you're into nature, culture, adventure or shopping, here are some ideas for why you should definitely be adding a couple of more days to your trip.
We’re guessing you’ve got a couple of cultural activities, like an Apsara dance show or shadow puppet theatre nailed down, and the “big three” temples (Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Bayon) on your list of things you have to do. But starting with the temples, the Angkor Archaeological Park is actually home to more than 400 temple sites, some of which are no more than a bump in the ground, and some of which are just as impressive, but most of which are nowhere near as crowded as those jewels in the Khmer Empire’s crown.
Close at hand, you’ll find Preah Khan, a temple built on a similar model to its better-known sister Ta Prohm, though on a much grander scale. It too features those magnificent silk cotton and strangler fig trees that have made the “Tomb Raider” temple so famous, but it also boasts far fewer crowds, much more open space in which to explore, and it is not one giant building site as Ta Prohm seems to be much of the time.
Other lovely temples that are worth extending your itinerary for include Beng Mealea, located about 70 kilometres northeast of Siem Reap. This is a wonderful tumbledown temple, where you can climb through ancient fallen galleries, and step above the ruins on specially constructed walkways. It has an adventurous feel that is guaranteed to give any budding Indiana Joneses a real kick.
If you want to go even further afield, then Banteay Chhmar is worth an overnight trip. This lovely, remote temple was also built by Jayavarman VII, the ferocious warrior and prolific builder behind Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and many more. No-one yet knows why it was built where it is, and few make the journey, meaning you should be able explore the whole temple in relative isolation. Here, man and nature give it their best and combine in a way that is truly awe-inspiring. There is a very well-run homestay here too, so you can sample a little of village life.
Back in Siem Reap, we’re still aiming to get you out of town as much as possible, and one of the best ways to do that is by motorscooter. Two companies, Khmer Ways and Vespa Adventures, offer you the chance to accelerate your experience of Siem Reap. Khmer Ways have a small fleet of Honda Dreams that they’ve kitted out with knobbly tyres to help you get into that “off-road” feeling. There aren’t many roads these guys behind this don’t know about around Cambodia, let alone Siem Reap, and they have developed some fantastic itineraries. Their signature tour takes in a swim in a reservoir, a visit to the very remote Chau Say Vibol temple, barbecue, climb up Phnom Bok for some awesome views, and more, for $70 ($60 per person if two people). If you’ve never riden a scooter before, they’ll give you lessons.
If that seems a little too much, and you like to do things with a little more style, then Vespa Adventures are calling. Their fleet of Vespas is ready to take you on heritage, food and cultural tours, with prices starting at $60 per person.
For a real challenge, take one of Khmer Ways’ trips to Phnom Kulen. The mountain range to the northeast of Siem Reap is home to a forest rich with wildlife and plant life, including silver langurs, whose presence here was only formally recorded last year, and hundreds of birds, butterflies, bats and many more. With a full-day tour, you motorscooter approximately 70 kilometres to the mountain range, then take off for a three-hour hike through specially cleared trails. The hike is part of an ecotourism/conservation initiative aimed at protecting the forest on which these animals all depend.
If adventure is your thing, then you might want to test your flying skills with Flight Of The Gibbon. A thrilling, 10-strong string of ziplines will zoom you over the canopy to the north of Angkor Wat at heights of up to 50 metres. It’s a stunning way to enjoy the forests, and you may even catch a glimpse of the gibbons that the company released into the forests as part of a conservation programme they run in cooperation with the Wildlife Alliance. A three-hour treetop tour is $109 per person.
Taking a cycling tour — Grasshopper Adventures or Beyond Unique Escapes have good reputations — is another option, or hire a bicycle in town (read up on safety here first) and strike out on your own (thanks to the gods of Google Maps, though don’t forget to bring water, and note that a lot of places out of town are also out of mobile and 3G range).
On to more sedentary matters. Siem Reap does not at first glimpse look like it offers much for shoppers, but scratch beneath the surface and treasures are to be found — and not the type you typically find in every single market across Southeast Asia [we’re looking at you Mr Elephant Pants].
For such a relatively small town, Siem Reap is a hotbed of creativity and design, and one of the realms in which that is unfolding is jewellery. Just off Pub Street, you’ll find Garden of Desire, with Ly Piseth’s extraordinary designs in silver. These are beautiful in their own right, but if the artist is present, please do ask him about them as every single piece you see is filled with meaning, whether it is a meditation on making peace with the past, or his interpretation of humankind’s relationship with nature. This is a very special place.
Nearby, you’ll find a shop called Saomao, which is bursting with gorgeous jewellery, including Ammo, the work of Madeline Greene. Her collection of delicately turned earrings, necklaces and bracelets made from bullet casings from past wars are beautiful and unsettling all at once, and definitely unique. On The Lane, you’ll find Graines du Cambodge, where another selection of truly Cambodian pieces can be found. The collection, made from seeds, is very pretty and unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else.
On a more expensive scale, you’ll find the collection by anti-trafficking NGO, Senhoa, at the Shinta Mani Resort shop, Anakut. This dramatic collection of pieces is hand-crafted by young women who have been rescued from trafficking. These are statement pieces that are not for the shy.
If you want to match elegance and daring, then other uniquely Cambodian shopping stops include Eric Raisina’s salon in Charming City, and Ambre in Central Park, besides the Raffles Gardens. Their stunning designs have received international recognition, and you most certainly will never find yourself embarrassed to be in the same dress as someone else at a party once you get home.
Last but not least: make sure you allow time to savour the incredible dining on offer in Siem Reap. The town punches above its weight when it comes to food, whether you're talking about Cambodian cuisine with a French twist at Cuisine Wat Damnak, civilised cocktails and tapas into the wee hours, or dining with your heart at one of the many charity training restaurants that put many professional eateries elsewhere to shame. Then there's the food walks, and while in the past we've gorged our way through River Garden's food tour more recently we've also heard consistently great feedback on the offerings by Siem Reap Food Tours, run by chef Steven and an ex Travelfish writer, Lina.
And if you're all pooped out, plenty of spas offer treatments to help you unwind properly — it is a holiday, after all, right?
Ambre J7 Hotel, National Route 6, Siem Reap. T: (063) 765 440 http://www.romydaketh.net
Anakut (Inside Shinta Mani Resort) http://www.shintamani.com
Banteay Chhmar Homestay T: (097) 516 5533 http://www.visitbanteaychhmar.org/homestays/
Beyond Unique Escapes Corner of Pub Street and Sivatha Blvd., Siem Reap. T: (077) 562 165. http://www.beyonduniqueescapes.com
Eric Raisina Charming City, Siem Reap http://www.ericraisina.com
Flight of the Gibbon Street 8, Siem Reap. T: (096) 999 9101. http://www.treetopasia.com
Garden of Desire The Passage, Siem Reap http://gardenofdesire-asia.com
Graines du Cambodge The Lane, Siem Reap. T: (097) 357 7585 http://www.grainesducambodge.com
Grasshopper Adventures Street 26, Siem Reap. T: (012) 462 165. http://www.grasshopperadventures.com
Indochine Explorations T: (092) 650 096 http://www.indochineex.com
Khmer Ways http://khmerways.com
River Garden food tours West River Road, Siem Reap. T: (063) 963 400. http://therivergarden.info/activities/
Saomao Street 9, Siem Reap. T: (012) 818 130 https://saomaosocialenterprise.wordpress.com
Siem Reap Food Tours http://www.siemreapfoodtours.com/
Vespa Adventures T: (012) 861 610 http://www.vespaadventures.com
Nicky Sullivan is an Irish freelance writer (and aspiring photographer). She has lived in England, Ireland, France, Spain and India, but decided that her tribe and heart are in Cambodia, where she has lived since 2007 despite repeated attempts to leave. She dreams of being as tough as Dervla Murphy, but fears there may be a long way to go. She can’t stand whisky for starters. She was a researcher, writer and coordinator for The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion to the Temples, now one of the best-selling guidebooks to the temples.
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