What to do in Siem Reap apart from Angkor Wat - 11 things to see when you're templed out
Watching the sun rise over the towers of Angkor Wat is quite rightly near the top of bucket lists of travellers around the world. In fact the spectacular UNESCO World Heritage listed ancient temples are the most visited attraction in Cambodia, and the chief reason for most tourists coming to the country! So you've booked a few days in Siem Reap, the gateway town about 5.5km from Angkor Wat, you're looking forward to hiring a tuk tuk driver, taking some epic Lara Croft style photos of jungle trees reclaiming the 1000 year old temple walls and getting your mind blown by the sheer scale of these epic archaeological ruins. But while you're there, what else is there to do in Siem Reap apart from Angkor Wat?
If you start your Angkor Wat day at 4:30am with a sunrise, whether you then take the small or grand circuit, your temple tour will typically wrap up by 12pm. After nearly 8 hours of jaw dropping temple hopping, the early start and the blazing heat (it was pushing 30 degrees by 9am on our February visit), you'll be pretty templed out. We'd recommend spreading your Angkor Wat experience over 2 or 3 days in order to avoid getting burned out, and exploring some of Siem Reap's other attractions for the other half of the days.
So what is there to do in Siem Reap besides temples? We've listed 11 top things to add to your Siem Reap itinerary, plus some useful tips.
1. Visit the APOPO Hero Rats
While visiting Angkor's awe inspiring temples, it's easy to forget about Cambodia's brutal recent history. From being bombed by the USA during the Vietnam War to an 8 year civil war, 4 years under Pol Pot's genocidal Khmer Rouge regime and 10 years of occupation by Vietnam, Cambodia is absolutely full of landmines and unexploded ordnance left over from the conflicts. Tragically, people are still being injured and killed by these devices decades later - in fact Cambodia has the highest ratio of mine amputees per capita in the world.
APOPO, founded in Belgium in the 90s, trains giant African pouched rats to detect landmines through sniffing out the TNT. Being too light to set off the mines, the "Hero Rats" can cover large areas of ground safely and far faster than a human with a metal detector. By only detecting the scent of explosives, time isn't wasted by checking pieces of scrap metal - one rat can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes, something that would take a human 4 days to achieve! This means that villages and farms can get their land back as quickly as possible.
A mine clearer and her rat at work in the field, an enjoying a cuddle with Sophie
Visiting APOPO's Siem Reap visitor centre you will join a group tour with lots of information about the NGO's projects (they're also training the rats to detect TB!), plus a demonstration by a resident rat, and you can even have a cuddle! It's an amazing cause and is on the way back to Siem Reap from Angkor Wat, so easy to add onto your day after visiting the temples.
Read more about APOPO's HeroRATS
Entry is $8, the visitor centre is open from 8am - 5pm with the last tour starting at 4:30.
The visitor centre requests that you make a free reservation in advance by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Feed and walk with the elephants at Kulen Elephant Forest
Another worthy cause that we loved visiting while in Siem Reap is Kulen Elephant Forest. We are very careful about only visiting ethical wildlife companies as far too many end up exploiting the creatures they claim to protect for tourist dollars. Kulen Elephant forest is wonderful.
Founded in 2018 as a sanctuary for the elephants that once gave tourists rides at the Angkor temples, Kulen Elephant Forest works with the local community to give these beautiful animals a dignified retirement in 400 hectares of secondary forest. Here they can walk freely, eat natural plants and swim in their pool, and the centre hopes to establish a breeding programme.
Cambodia has one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world, and this loss of habitat has been disastrous for the country's small wild elephant population as they are forced into unwanted run-ins with rural communities and farmers. Kulen Elephant Forest aims to educate so that elephants are seen as a beautiful and precious endangered species rather than a pest or tourism commodity.
We did the morning session along with about 22 other people (we were divided into 2 groups). After about an hour's drive out of Siem Reap we helped to make morning snacks for the elephants from bananas, sticky rice and bran, before heading outside to feed them to the gorgeous animals. A real highlight of the tour was accompanying the elephants on their morning walk, following them as they wandered freely through the forest for an hour. Back at the centre, the elephants plunged into their swimming pool and we had a wonderful 45 minutes watching them splash and play, before heading inside for our lunch. It was a magical way to spend a morning with some of our favourite animals!
Visit Kulen Elephant Forest's website
A morning (8am - 2pm) or afternoon session (12pm - 6pm) is $80 per person and includes transport to and from Siem Reap plus a delicious Khmer lunch (morning) or picnic (afternoon). You will leave from and return to KEF's office at 52, Street 26.
3. Phare Cambodian Circus
Phare Ponleu Selpak was founded in Battambang in 1994 by 8 young refugees to provide opportunities for underprivileged children after the horrors of Pol Pot's regime. Circus has been a vibrant part of Khmer culture for centuries (acrobats can be seen in the carvings of ancient Cambodia's temples) until the Khmer Rouge banned art and culture in 1975.
Providing free food, education, training and jobs, Phare Ponleu Selpak has well over 1000 students and and Phare Cambodian Circus now has a second venue in Siem Reap where students and graduates perform a combination of acrobatics, comedy, dance and circus skills reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil.
Shows start at 8pm nightly, with street food available to buy from 5:30pm. Tickets start from $18 and can be booked here.
4. Relax by the pool
One of the main things we looked for when booking our Siem Reap hotel was a decent pool to flop by - we knew that we'd have some free time after visiting Angkor Wat, and with temperatures soaring by midday, the last thing we wanted to do after 8 hours of amazing temples was go pavement pounding in Siem Reap.
To keep yourself from being to exhausted, especially after a sunrise start and a hot morning exploring temples where you have very little shade, permit yourself a cool off and afternoon snooze by your hotel swimming pool.
Hotel booking sites like Booking.com or Hotels.com will have filters where you can narrow your search to only include properties with pools. You can read more about the hotel we chose, Villa Um Theara, at the end of this blog.
5. Angkor National Museum
A good way to escape the afternoon heat, the Angkor National Museum is home to thousands of artefacts and carvings from Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. Opened in 2007, this archaeology museum gives context to the temples you will visit, laying out the history of the rise and fall of the Khmer Empire across 8 galleries. You can learn about the ancient kings that built the mighty complexes, the religion and beliefs of the Angkorian temples as they flipped from Hindu to Buddhist and back again, and enjoy exhibitions focussing on the most famous sites: Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.
Angkor National Museum is open 8:30am - 6pm daily, tickets cost $12.
6. Blow off steam at Pub Street
Bear in mind when we visited in February 2023, tourist numbers were still recovering post COVID and Chinese tourists weren't currently able to visit Siem Reap, so maybe things were deceptively quiet, but Pub Street felt much more low key and chilled than Bangkok's Khao San Road or Saigon's Bui Vien. Live bands and plenty of promoters trying to get you into their bar, but no pounding speakers and go go dancers.
Here you'll find plenty of places to buy food, cheap drinks, good priced souvenirs in the nearby Old Market (get your haggling hat on!) and massage parlours. You could even try a fish spa where you immerse your feet into a tank and have little fish nibble the dead skin for $3. Some even include a beer in the cost!
Worth an explore, but drink-wise we preferred the other side of the river. More relaxed, more locals and less touts with plastic menus trying to drag you in! Plus we found lots of places advertising beers for $0.60 - $1, much cheaper than even the happy hour deals on Pub Street.
7. Hit up the souvenir shops at Siem Reap's markets
We really enjoyed shopping at Psah Chas, the Old Market tucked between the river and Pub Street. Here you'll find every souvenir you need from magnets to art to those ubiquitous elephant print temple pants. Haggling is the game here, so always be prepared to walk away if you're not happy with the price, the original ask will be well above what it should be, and buying multiples will get you further discount. That being said, it's easy to get carried away and argue over pence - while you're quibbling over an extra 20p that means nothing to you, rather than needing to win, consider how that little bit more money might actually be a big deal to the shopkeeper.
While the Old Market admittedly stocks a lot of products made in Vietnam and China, the Made in Cambodia market sells handicrafts and jewellery made by Khmer artists. Open from 12pm - 8pm, it's a 10 minute walk away from Pub Street on Oum Khun Street.
8. $1.50 Cocktails at The Brothers
Our favourite bar in Siem Reap is in the Wat Bo neighbourhood on the opposite side of the river to Pub Street. The Brothers is open plan, relaxed and usually busy with locals as well as tourists. Set within a Khmer style wooden stilt house, it's open from 5pm and you can enjoy $0.68 pints of Anchor beer and an extensive list of $1.50 cocktails! They also have a good, cheap food menu with a wide range of Khmer dishes and some decent attempts at western food like spaghetti bolognese. Upstairs has a chilled lounge space, while the ground floor bar has tables.
You'll find The Brothers tucked near the top of Street 27, just round the corner from the river.
9. Visit the Cambodian Landmine Museum
Like the APOPO HeroRATS, the Cambodian Landmine Museum seeks to educate and inform about the landmines and unexploded ordnance left over from 20th century wars that maim and kill Cambodians to this day. Opened in 2007 by Aki Ra, a former conscripted Khmer Rouge child soldier who helped to demine his country with the UN in the 90s, and Canadian NGO the Cambodia Landmine Museum Relief Fund, you can see thousands of decommissioned landmines and other explosive devices found in Cambodia and learn more about the decades of conflict that still affect the local people.
NB- the musuem is a long way out of town, 40 minutes drive from Siem Reap and 20 minutes north of the outer Grand Circle temples, so we'd recommend adding this onto the end of a temple day to avoid an expensive tuk tuk ride out and back. If you're not planning on going that far out to visit the temples, we'd recommend just visiting the APOPO centre as it's only 6 minutes by tuk tuk from central Siem Reap.
The museum is open from 8am-5pm daily and costs $5 to enter, children under 12 and Khmers are free.
You can visit the Cambodian Landmine Museum's website here
10. Bring Angkor Wat to life with beautiful Khmer dancing at Apsara Theatre.
While exploring the Angkor temples, you will have noticed hundreds of wall carvings of Apsara dancers: beautiful young women in tall pointed headdresses, their hands and feet in precise, elegant poses. There are over 1500 symbolic positions that the dancers have to learn, each with a specific meaning, and performers start their training as young as 7 years old. Favoured by the royals, it is said that King Jayavarman VII had over 3000 Apsara dancers at his court and this traditional dance form, along with much of Cambodia's artistic culture, was almost wiped out by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
Every evening, the Apsara Theatre on Street 26, Wat Bo holds performances of this centuries old dance style accompanied by a traditional orchestra and a Khmer meal.
You can enquire about reservations on their website.
11. Pay your respects to the victims of genocide at Wat Thmei.
Most people have heard of Phnom Penh's famous Choeung Ek Killing Fields where Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge brutally murdered an estimated 20,000 Cambodian men, women and children, but there are hundreds of mass graves spread across the whole country. The genocide led to a staggering 1 in 4 Cambodians being killed in less than 4 years between 1975 and 1979, and it's shocking how little we in the west know about it, considering that is less than half a century ago.
Today a modern temple stands on the grounds of this former prison and execution site, and you can see a glass sided stupa filled with the skulls and bones of victims along with information boards and a exhibition of paintings highlighting the suffering of the prisoners. If you're not planning on visiting Phnom Penh on your Cambodia itinerary, it is worth paying a short visit to Wat Thmei to better understand the atrocities that devastated Cambodia only 50 years ago. A sobering and at times upsetting part of history to confront, it is nevertheless important to learn about so that it never happens again, and to pay respects to Cambodia's innocent victims.
Wat Thmei is only 500m away from the APOPO HeroRATs visitor centre, and so could be added to your afternoon plan while heading home from the Angkor temples.
Entry is $3, the temple is open until 6pm daily.
How Long should I spend in Siem Reap?
We would recommend at least 3 days in Siem Reap. You will want a minimum of 2 days to explore the temples, with at least 1 sunrise start - we actually watched the sunrise from two different locations on consecutive days, but you also want a chance to try again if the weather isn't in your favour on your chosen morning - Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples are hot, exposed and if you're starting the day at 5am you will want to be heading back to town by lunch time before the blazing heat gets too overwhelming. Spreading your exploration over 2 or even 3 days means you can go at a comfortable pace and really appreciate what you're looking at. You can buy 1,3 or 7 day passes for the temples, starting from $37 for the 1 day ticket.
3 full days in Siem Reap allows you time to fully explore the temples in the cooler mornings, enjoy some relaxing pool time back at your hotel, learn more about Siem Reap's history at the Angkor National Museum and Wat Thmei killing fields and support worthy causes with visits to the APOPO HeroRATS and Kulen Elephant Forest.
Where to stay in Siem Reap
Siem Reap is full of places to stay for all budgets, from cheap and cheerful backpacker hostels to high end luxury hotels like the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Ankor. We stayed at Villa Um Theara which cost about $18 per night. It had good sized rooms with an ensuite bathroom and a lovely outdoor pool for flopping next to after a day at the temples. It's a 5 minute walk to the pick up location for Kulen Elephant Forest and about 10 minutes walk across the river to the bars and markets around Pub Street.
How to get to Siem Reap
Siem Reap has an international airport and can be reached from all over the world!
If this is your first port of arrival in Cambodia you'll need $30 USD in cash for a visa on arrival, but it seems that a passport photo is no longer required.
The airport is about 6km from Siem Reap town (although apparently a much larger airport is being planned which will be further out) and a tuk tuk to your hotel should cost around $6. Some hotels might include a free pickup in your booking, it's always worth checking.
Buses and mini vans run from other Cambodian cities like Battambang (about 3.5 hours) and the capital Phnom Penh (about 5.5 hours). We flew into Siem Reap but travelled with Vireak Buntham bus company to move on to Battambang and Phnom Penh and were really impressed with their clean and air conditioned vehicles.
Just double check timings before your travel day - our minibus transfer from Siem Reap to Battambang, which we had booked 4 weeks previously, had been changed from 4pm to 3pm without the company notifying us! Luckily we'd arrived at the bus depot really early and were able to catch the 3pm, but that would have been really annoying if we'd come at 3:45 and been told that the bus had left!
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