Look around at the beautifully crumbling temples and meet the friendly people in Siem Reap, and it’s hard to imagine that just 25 years ago the entire country was practically leveled by decades of war. As the country rebuilds itself after the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam and Cold Wars, tourists are again flocking to admire Cambodia’s ancient past, taste the colorful food and shop local artisan goods.
See the iconic Angkor Wat
The two main ancient temple complexes in Siem Reap are Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Angkor Wat is perhaps the better known of the two, thanks to its iconic quincunx silhouette which you will also see on the Cambodia flag and Angkor beer label. The largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat was built during the 12th century for the Khmer Empire and still has incredibly intricate engravings throughout its corridors. A few dozen stairs up to the temple’s third level and you’ll get a stunning view across the jungles.
Take a tour of Angkor Thom
Meanwhile, sprawling Angkor Thom was actually the largest ancient city in the 12th century during the Khmer Empire—and historians think that between 80,000 and 150,000 people lived there. You could wander around the ruins for hours, but if you’re pressed for time then hit up the highlights: Terrace of the Elephant Terrace features, as you might expect, a series of elephant carvings. King Jayavarman VII used to stand atop the platform to view sporting games and watch his army return from battle. Another not-to-miss experience is the incredibly mystical Bayon, where 216 solemn stone buddha heads look out in every direction.
Walk through Ta Prohm
Okay, fine. A trip to Siem Reap would feel totally incomplete if you didn’t pose for a picture a la Lara Croft in “Tomb Raider.” The movie was shot at Ta Prohm, where relentless strangler fig trees and Kapok trees are literally strangling the temples. The weight from the tenacious tree roots destroys the temple walls and rooftops, but you have to admit that they make for gorgeous photographs. Head to Ta Prohm in the early morning, around 7am, for a chance to have the whole magical place to yourselves.
Enjoy some privacy with AboutAsia
For many people, visiting the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom is a once-in-a-lifetime experience — a journey easily blemished by the thousands of tourists also visiting every day. If you want to get a more peaceful and off-the-beaten experience, we highly recommend AboutAsia: not only does the travel specialist offer tailor-made tours—think sunrise bike tours through the lesser known temples, river cruises and luxury dinners in the countryside—but the outfit also donates 100 percent of its profits to AboutAsia Schools. The nonprofit arm runs 110 schools and educates over 50,000 Cambodians.
Tours from US$145 ($1,124) per person, including guide, transport and five-star accommodation.
Watch Phare, The Cambodian Circus
A trip to the circus may not be on the top of your bucket list, but the wonderful storytelling and charisma at Phare makes more a great addition to any itinerary. Most of the circus performers and musicians in the show have actually graduated from Phare Ponleu Selpak Association Artistic and Social Center—an NGO that was founded after the Khmer Rouge regime to expose disadvantaged youth to art, music and theater. Since its beginning in 1994, over 1,200 students have passed through the academy and many have gone on to become professional artists.
Shop at the Well Made in Cambodia Market
Forget the touristy Old Market area, where all the bags and souvenirs look the same. On Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesday you can shop ’til you drop at the Well Made in Cambodia Market. Taking place outside the Shanti Mani Hotel, the market is a great display of local craftsmanship, featuring everything from home-baked banana chips to jewelry, flavored rum to handbags.
For great, creative meal that simultaneously gives back to the community, head over to Marum Restaurant. A training center for young disadvantaged youth, Marum Restaurant is part of the Kaliyan Mith NGO as well as the Tree Alliance, with locations all over Cambodia. Most of the staff here, from the servers to the chefs, are actually in high school and learning to run the restaurant on top of their education. But don’t be put off by their young age, the food is great—including creative takes on traditional Khmer cuisine, like Khmer pork salad with fresh mint, stir-fried red tree ants and absolutely delicious fresh fruit smoothies. Every penny you spend goes back into supporting the trainees, their educations, and their families.
#8A, B Phum Slokram, Siem Reap, Cambodia, (+855) 17-363-284.
Another cafe that works for a cause, Sister Srey was founded in 2012 by two sisters who wanted to not only serve the best coffee in the city, but also give back to the community. The homey, eclectic open-air cafe sends 20 percent of its properties to Hearts to Harmony Foundation, which focuses on three pillars: education, health and hygiene. Meanwhile, Sister Srey also employs and trains young Cambodians to work in the dining industry and provide them a better future.
200 Pokambor St., Riverside, Old Market Area, Siem Reap, Cambodia, (+855) 97-723-800.
A hidden gem tucked down a quiet street north of town, Mie Cafe has a breezy outdoor garden dining area as well as upstairs seating. Expect contemporary European and Khmer cuisine, including the likes of avocado-topped crab salad, grilled local “snakehead” fish and a refreshing frozen lime pie.
Sangkat Sla Kram, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia, (+855) 12-791-371.
A longtime favorite in the Old Town area, Miss Wong’s combines a chic atmosphere with great Shanghai-inspired food and creative cocktails. Pair one of the fruit-infused G&Ts or a lemongrass Collins with the har gow dumplings or a bowl of veggie-packed noodles and relax on the big leather booths. There’s no exact address, but the little lanes are quite easy to navigate around the Old Market area. Look for the bright red Chinese lanterns.
The Lane, Siem Reap, Cambodia, (+855) 92-428-332.
Sitting between Old Town and the entrance to Angkor Wat, Shinta Mani is one of the best hotels in Siem Reap–if not the world. The Bill Bensley-designed property is all classy, contemporary interiors and friendly staff who will make your feel at home right away. From the five-star breakfast to the sun-streaked pools, this hotel knows how to perfectly mix casual comfort and luxury. Shinta Mani is part of the broader Shinta Mani Foundation, which invests in education, small business start-ups and health care. Every hotel stay donates US$5 to the foundation and you can give back more by shopping at the Well Made in Cambodia Market.
From US$162 ($1,256). Shinta Mani Club, Junction of Oum Khun and 14th Street, Siem Reap, Cambodia, (+855) 63-761-998.