Siem Reap is so abundantly blessed with boutique hotels, alluring restaurants, cafés, bars, wellness salons, and galleries that it’s tempting to surrender to their comforts and simply spend your city stay lounging around in these cosy temples of pleasure. But venturing outside the city—in a tuk-tuk, or for longer journeys, a private car—amply rewards the intrepid traveller, as this list of spectacular treasures illustrates.
The second-largest city in the north of Cambodia, Battambang, is three hours away, and this popular weekend trip from Siem Reap is explored in a separate article, but for the purposes of this rundown we’re focusing on the more accessible treks lying within easy driving distance of the city.
Ninety minutes’ drive from Siem Reap, amid the frequently gorgeous countryside of Banteay Srei district (បន្ទាយស្រី), lies this national park (entry US $20), which contains a plethora of intriguing sights for the day traveller. Literally translating to “Mountain of the Lychees”, Phnom Kulen’s historic setting was the birthplace of the Angkorean empire, the ruins of the ancient hilltop city of Mahendraparvata (មហេន្ទ្របវ៌ត).
It also showcases the country’s largest reclining Buddha, Preah Ang Thom (វត្តព្រះអង្គធំ), an eight-metre figure carved into sandstone inspiring great reverence among Khmer visitors, in an elevated setting above a maze of temples and huge boulders. Amid the parched russet ground of the nearby Kbal Spean (ក្បាលស្ពាន) archaeological site, also known as the “Valley of a Thousand Lingas,” the shallow river waters host hundreds of fertility reliefs cut into the riverbed rocks that date back a millennium.
But the show-stopping attraction is the large waterfall at the summit of the mountain that even in dry season cascades over the valley below, easily accessed by descending steps from the casual restaurants near the entrance. As monks make this a regular excursion, it’s not hard to capture dreamlike photos which juxtapose their orange capes against the gushing waters, neither is it difficult to strip down and enjoy the cooling pool beneath the falls, a particular blessing in the humid weather of April or May.
Connect with your wild side at this remote sanctuary only an hour from Siem Reap, which lies within forested terrain and is accessed by a narrow dirt path that’s best negotiated in a hardy 4x4. It’s just a short distance from the national park, in the district of Sout Nikom (ស្រុកសូទ្រនិគម), and the elephants here were in their previous life employed to carry tourists at Angkor Wat (ប្រាសាទអង្គរវត្ត).
The rugged road approach is all part of the adventure—after driving slowly through the trees, you finally arrive at a clearing where a footbridge leads to the handsome central pavilion. Here, you catch your first glimpse of the 13 inhabitants and their team of mahouts (elephant carer). Now free of destructive practices that deprive the elephants of their natural behaviours, they are free to roam around their dusty new sylvan home.
Guests are taken on a tour, which includes watching the elephants feed on sugarcane and bananas, and following the giant creatures on a winding footpath through the forest, before arriving back at the pavilion and seeing the pachyderms trumpet with pleasure as they immerse themselves in the rearside pool.
The picturesque village of Preah Dak, one of 518 communes in Banteay Srei, has been chosen as a model village to be replicated throughout this seductive rural district. Over the last year, its landscape has been rapidly transformed thanks to a raft of innovations introduced by the district mayor, from solar-panel street lighting to anti-litter campaigns, making this an attractive day out from densely concentrated Siem Reap, from which it lies only 25 minutes away by remorque transport.
Stop at the temple of Wat Preah Dak (វត្តព្រៈដាក់) and take in its beautiful colours, then venture through the lotus-filled ponds and fields, and down the main street of Road 67. Until recently, the road was the centre of an impoverished village, but it’s now alive with alluring artisanal craft stores selling baskets, bowls, and trays, alongside impeccable country houses, and restaurants purveying sumptuous chicken-rice plates with spicy side dishes.
The village’s real culinary speciality, though, is num banh chok (នំបញ្ចុក), a Cambodian stalwart of rice noodles topped with a fishy green gravy, and garnished with vegetables. Preah Dak is also a shortcut away from Pre Rup (ពីមុន), a “temple mountain” in Angkor Archeological Park known for its sunset views, and is a gateway to the remainder of the sleepy, lake-strewn district.
This impeccable escape in the village of Kok Tnout, a stone’s throw from the vast West Baray reservoir (បារាយណ៍ខាងលិច), is a scene of incomparable rustic beauty designed by the ever-tasteful curators behind the dinner-excursions company DineBeyond.
A traditional two-storey wooden house, a refurbished former home, stands at the heart of the outdoor enterprise, with a table playing host to alfresco diners enjoying a multi-course, fine-dining experience cooked by esteemed chefs. At one point, the lights are turned off and diners are invited to simply sit back and gaze at the bright stars overhead. While the gourmet offerings are impeccable, it’s really about the whole experience at Villa Chandara.
After a 45-minute journey from Siem Reap and an off-road excursion to West Baray, there’s an enchanting pre-sunset ferry crossing of the reservoir followed by a short stroll through the village, where farmers work with their oxen beside ponds, and cows low in the distant fields. Arriving at the villa, you’ll be greeted with a cocktail from an on-site bartender, the ululating strains of traditional Cambodian music from local instrumentalists, and even a masseuse who kneads aching joints in a special tent. Bring friends and prepare for a special evening, because here’s an authentic dining event that is as unique as it is unforgettable.
Many of the most famous temples in the Angkor complex are contained within one site, the enormous Archaeological Park. For those that aren’t, but are also within striking distance of Siem Reap, the Angkor Pass also covers many sites which lie outside the park but richly reward investigation.
The closest is Phnom Krom (ប្រាសាទភ្នំក្រោម), a temple atop a steep hill which offers imperious views over Tonlé Sap (ទន្លេសាប), Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. Further towards the outskirts of Siem Reap, Phnom Bakheng (ប្រាសាទភ្នំបាខែង) is one of Angkor’s oldest religious settlements, a 1,200-year-old collection of temples and relics with a direct view towards the spires of Angkor Wat, offering particular appeal for lovers of sunsets.
Around an hour’s remorque ride through the unspoilt countryside of the neighbouring district, Banteay Srei remains one of Angkor’s most popular sites for its discreet rural location and finely preserved collection of murals dating back a millennium. But perhaps the most rewarding of all the Angkor Pass-accessed temple complexes is Koh Ker (ប្រាសាទកោះកេរ្ដិ៍), two hours by car from Siem Reap, a richly diverse selection of ancient landmarks which briefly served as the capital of the Angkorean empire.
In this far-flung otherworld scattered with temples, relics and shrines, the standout sight seems transposed from ancient Egypt rather than Cambodia. Prang (ប្រាង្គ), a seven-storey pyramid that can be scaled by visitors hungry for spectacular countryside views. Its sheer scale leaves you breathless—how on earth did it ever get here? On the way back to Siem Reap, make a pit-stop at Beng Mealea (ប្រាសាទបឹងមាលា), an impressive vision particularly in wet season, as its collapsed stone heaps blend scenically with the surrounding grasslands, and trees whose roots are entrenched into its remaining walls.
Around three hours from Siem Reap, near the southern city of Kampong Thom (ខេត្តកំពង់ធំ), lies another archaeological park which has been ordained as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, yet enjoys little of the renown of Angkor. Sambor Prei Kuk (ប្រាសាទសំបូរព្រៃគុក) in fact predates its northern counterpart by several centuries, but if its scale, overall spectacle and general upkeep are somewhat less breathtaking, then the complex remains remarkable for its sheer antiquity.
The site was established in the late sixth century—making it at least 200 years older than any Angkorean structure—and was designed across three distinct areas of forest, divided by walls, as the capital and royal sanctuary of the ancient Chenla kingdom (ចេនឡា). While sandstone is used in certain areas, the predominant construction material is brick, with many temples shaped like large chimneys.
In parts they resemble Ta Prohm or Koh Ker, with strangler trees interspersing the brickwork, becoming an intrinsic part of the structure. Ancient inscriptions can still be made out on certain key structures, while the site also contains numerous towers, ponds, reservoirs, and lion sculptures.
Another short excursion from Siem Reap that’s easily accessible by remorque or tuk-tuk is Tonlé Sap, the vast inland lake that sustains communities living around it, and is also a Unesco-designated Biosphere Reserve on account of its unusual array of ecosystems and rich biodiversity.
On the way, two essential stops are the Lotus Farm, a scenic collection of floating huts in the waterways by the roadside, and Phnom Krom, a somewhat desolate but richly coloured temple which can be reached by a strenuous walk up the hill from the village below.
Phnom Krom is a rewarding destination in itself, but its real unique selling point is the incredible vistas all around over the aquatic settlements and vast waterscapes below, stretching as far as the eye can see. The stilt-house communities making a livelihood from the lake are easily discernible from this lofty vantage point, and one such colourful commune, Kampong Phluk (កំពង់ភ្លុក)—which is actually a collection of three villages—has become a popular day trip, around one hour from dry land (boats can be chartered at Chong Khneas terminal).
The inhabitants largely depends on fishing for survival, so the rainy season is spent collecting fish during the daytime in their thin wooden boats, while they retire to their tall, three-storey stilt homes at night. During the dry season, many of the residents turn to farming to supplement their income, as the river water recedes in the months from November to April, while others work as guides to the growing number of tourists. Visitors can take boat trips around the nearby “flooded forest” whose 200-year-old trees have become largely submerged, lending the waterscape a dreamlike, mystical quality.
A real oddity among Siem Reap’s cityscape of traditional Buddhist temples and monasteries, this small complex located down a turning near the airport—also known as Wat Kauk Pa Tri (វតតគកបទរ)—more closely resembles the religious buildings of Myanmar or Thailand than the golden-red pagodas that are common in Cambodia.
A dreamy white temple with a checker-board flooring and 13 spires reaching to the skies forms the centrepiece, 13 being an auspicious number in Buddhist lore, while its rooftop can be accessed by a side staircase. A working pagoda, its resident monks are happy to show guests around the complex on an impromptu tour. Often overlooked due to its hidden location, this architectural curio can be reached in a remorque or tuk-tuk within just 10 minutes’ ride from the centre of the city.
The simplest way to explore Angkor Archaeological Park—without having to pay to enter any of its larger structures—is by taking a direct 45-minute bike ride from the city centre. The journey is best taken around 3 pm, which allows you to negotiate the roads before rush hour and takes you through some of the city’s outlying attractions, such as the private housing project Charming City, with its smart Khmer-European hybrid apartments, markets, and secluded coffee shops.
Arriving in the park’s outer forest area at around 4 pm allows plenty of time to take a backroads tour through the oft-unseen fields and moats of the complex, with the relatively unpopulated pathways offering little in the way of disturbance save a few wayward brambles—and virtually zero tourists. These routes are a distinctly different way to experience the exterior environment of the fêted archaeological area—a trek which zips past a lake frequently used by Cambodians for recreation in swan-shaped pedal boats or for wedding shoots, and ends at Tonle Om (ស្ពានក្លោងទ្វាខាងត្បូង), the southern gate of the giant temple site of Angkor Thom (អង្គរធំ).
Another, somewhat more relaxing, way to navigate a similar route is care of the motorbike-excursions company Vespa Adventures, which offers guests a comfortable back-seat ride alongside temples like Bayon (ប្រាសាទបាយ័ន) and Angkor Thom to provide alternative perspectives on these familiar landmarks. Vespa’s rides include the cost of an Angkor Pass, as well as copious snacks and drinks to keep you sated on the journey.