Header image courtesy of Peter Borter (via Unsplash)
As tourist destinations go, Siem Reap’s reputation among regional and global visitors has grown tenfold in recent years, thanks in no small part to Angelina Jolie and her penchant for tomb raiding. And while temple trekking on the city’s outskirts is more than worthy of an excursion, the dynamic city offers much more than initially meets the eye. At just under three hours flight time, Siem Reap is the perfect destination for a weekend away, and here are our favourite things to see and do there.
Set up in 2013 by Phare Ponleu Selpak – a non-governmental organisation that supports education and performing arts initiatives in Cambodia’s Battambang province – Phare, The Cambodian Circus is a visual experience like no other. Cast aside any notions you may have of animals in cages or bearded ladies, because Phare bears little resemblance to the circuses of times gone by. Produced, choreographed, and performed by former graduates of the Phare Ponleu Selpak school, there are several storylines performed on rotation, each as enticing as the other.
With boutiques in Phnom Penh, Paris, and Siem Reap, Madagascan-born textile designer Eric Raisina and his eponymous couture house have developed an international reputation. Raisina worked for globally renowned brands Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Lacroix before setting up his own fashion house, with a focus on the vibrant colours and textures of his hometown and the quality and craftsmanship involved in the production of Cambodian silk.
Siem Reap is famed for its temples, and for good reason. No trip to the city is complete without a visit to the Angkor Archaeological Park, which lies just six kilometres from the city centre. This is home to Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider temple), and a plethora of lesser-known, smaller-scale temples. Tickets and guided tours can be purchased at the entrance to the park, but be warned, with more than 50 percent of Cambodia’s tourists passing through here, the crowds have been known to soar, particularly later in the day.
Siem Reap is near-synonymous with its many and varied temples, and while a day on the ground getting up close and personal is an essential experience for any culture vulture, there’s something to be said for seeing the sights at a distance, too. Angkor Hot Air Balloon offer just that – hot air balloon rides over the 9th-century sandstone structures that make up Bakong Temple. Balloon rides typically last half an hour, with sunrise and sunset excursions on offer between the months of December and March. Tickets cost USD$115 per person, and private balloon rides are also available on request.
Lim Muy Theam is a Cambodian artist who has dedicated his life to highlighting the country’s rich and diverse cultural heritage. One of the many who fled to France during the Vietnamese occupation in the late 1970s, Theam returned in 1995 and has been working tirelessly to promote Cambodian arts and crafts ever since. His residence, Theam’s House, is now open to the public, with each wing dedicated to an era and craft, filled with Theam’s paintings, sculpture, and more.
Kandal Village – also known as Hap Guan Street – is an up-and-coming cultural district that is home to boutique stores, cafes, and spas. It boasts a distinctly different (and more laid-back) atmosphere to many of Siem Reap’s more popular tourist attractions, making it the perfect place to unwind after a day at one of the city’s many temples. Those looking to source some unique souvenirs can head to jewellery boutique Garden of Desire, concept store Trunkh, and lifestyle and homeware brand Louise Loubatieres Gallery, among others.
The Lane is a quiet alley hidden behind popular haunt Pub Street, and is home to a number of hidden gems. One such hideaway is Miss Wong Cocktail Bar, which is modelled on the Shanghai speakeasies of the 1920s, and comes complete with red walls, dark wooden furnishings, and a comfortable, quiet ambience for both expats and visitors. It’s been featured in CN Traveller and the New York Times, so we’d advise paying a visit sooner rather than later, when the secret will well and truly be out.
Situated in a quaint, traditional Cambodian wooden house and helmed by a team led by chef Joannes Riviere, Cuisine Wat Damnak is a fusion restaurant unlike any other. Its six-course tasting menu changes on a fortnightly basis, and is inspired by chef Joannes’ market finds and seasonal, locally grown produce. Heed our warning and be sure to book ahead, as the restaurant can get fully booked up to one month in advance, during peak season.
Apsaras are the mythical female figures that are seen on many a monument and temple façade throughout Cambodia. With both Hindu and Buddhist origins, the Apsara are thought to serve as temple custodians. Today, their significance is kept alive in the medium of dance, which is performed widely across the country by the Cambodian royal ballet. The Angkor Village Hotel hosts performances on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings. Tickets are inclusive of dinner and the traditional Apsara performance, and dancers and singers are accompanied by a traditional pinpeat orchestra and percussionists.
Situated in the Angkor Archaeological Park (home to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, among others), Angkor Zipline is the only adventure park of its kind to be situated on UNESCO World Heritage grounds. Its focus on environmental responsibility and conscientiousness allows adventure seekers to soar to great heights, with activities ranging from biking to ATV rides, and shooting across 300-metres of zipline.