There's a lot more to Siem Reap than temples
I often get the question from people about all the other things there are to do in Siem Reap. Here are some suggestions if you want a break from the temples or if you have the time and the desire to really experience Cambodia, it's wonderful people and the challenges the country and the people face. This list is in no way complete. If you have other suggestions from your own experience please let me know via our 'CONTACT' page.
* TONLE SAP
There is of course Tonle Sap which offers several things to do. There are three communities you can visit - the floating villages at Chong Khneas, the stilted village and flooded forest at Kompong Phluk, the stilted village at Kompong Khleang - and at certain times of the year the unusual and important (for birds) Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary. If you would like, use our CONTACT PAGE to request my 3-page brochure about visiting Tonle Sap with some good links to background information about this unique and valuable ecosystem.
* GIVE AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE
One can spend a half day (or more) making a difference and visiting some small and innovative NGOs (my favorites: The Ponheary Ly Foundation; Journeys Within Our Community; Shinta Mani Community Support Projects) or see the alternative tours run by Beyond Unique Escapes - "Day in the Life," and "Treak Village Walk & Talk;" Here's another traveler's great first-person account of the 'Day in a Life' tour).
Please be advised: when visiting an NGO project it is a very nice thing to do to make at least a small contribution. You may find, as I have, that you will want to become a regular supporter of an organization after seeing first-hand the great work they are doing. The ones I have listed here are all ones you can feel comfortable making a donation to as they are all honest, transparent and doing very good work. With the tours from Beyond Unique Escapes a good portion of the fee goes to the organizations involved.
SIGHTS AROUND TOWN
Tour some of the local sights of interest like the pagodas Wat Preah Prom Rath (small but lovely with colorful wall to wall murals of religious artwork); the large Wat Damnak complex which is beautiful and peaceful for a walk-about; also Wat Bo and the busy and important holy shrines near the Royal Palace (Shrine to Preah Ang Chek & Preah Ang Chorm and Shrine to Ya Tep). There is also Wat Thmei which has a small skulls memorial dedicated to the memory of the Khmer Rouge victims in the area. If you enjoy the kinds of markets where locals do their shopping then a visit to the sprawling and varied Phsar Leu (pronounced Sa'loe) is a must. Its a colorful collection of stands selling food, gold, housewares and other stuff. Its also a photographer's dream with so much interesting wares and people to see. And some tourists who don't have the chance in the evening will sometimes want to visit the tourist Old Market with a lot of booths selling souvenirs and other things tourists like. And something I found incredibly entertaining was visiting the large Wat Bo primary school when the school session lets out (one session ends around noon and the second around 5 PM). When the school which has several hundred students lets out there is a wonderful and photogenic organized chaos of all the kids leaving in waves. The first wave is kids on foot whose relatives are waiting on motorbikes to pick them up, followed by a huge wave of kids emerging on bikes that are in many cases much bigger than the kids themselves, followed by a wave of those being transported home by minibus. * KHMER ARTISANS HANDICRAFTS
You may also want to visit Artisans d'Angkor silk farm and artisans workshop and training center. The silk farm and silk workshop are 12 km out of town. They also have an artisans workshop, training facility and boutique right in town which can fit nicely into touring some of the local sights as described above. The in-town workshop and tour is geared towards highlighting the wood and stone carving artisans while the silk farm is all about the silk process. At both locations they have a very interesting and educational 30 - 40 minute free guided tour and boutique where all their products can be purchased.
Another good place for genuine Khmer artisan handicrafts is the Angkor Handicraft Association (AHA) showroom just a bit out of the town. They have a lot of interesting and creative handicraft articles that are all produced by Khmer artisans under fair trade conditions which can not be said with 100% certainty of many of the "Cambodian" handicrafts and souvenirs being sold in the night markets. And don't forget the now daily Made in Cambodia Market at King's Road in the center for Khmer made fair trade crafts and other souvenirs.
* AND THE WHEEL GOES ROUND AND ROUND
You might also enjoy a visit or participating in one of the various hands-on workshops offered by the Khmer Ceramics Center. You can try your hand on the potter's wheel taking home your fired creation. The center offers workshops for adults and for children so this may be a great family activity if you are traveling with your children. As of November 1, 2009, the center has a new location on the road to Angkor Wat. There's also now the Angkor Pottery Center run by the fantastic Ms Paruth Han where you can have a great experience.
* GETTING TO KNOW LOCAL LIFE
Many of our guests also spend some time visiting Savuth's village and sharing a meal and/or visiting his childrens' rural primary school. Or you can invite Savuth and his family to join you in the evening at the Siem Reap fun fair where you can see how the locals entertain themselves and really enjoy seeing the kids have a great time. Another possibility is to invite the family to one of the affordable dinner buffets with traditional Apsara dance shows which can also be a great deal of fun and which only cost about $5 per person for Cambodian guests ($10 - $12 p.p. for foreigners). A company like Beyond Unique Escapes offers some interesting tours which provide close up insights into village life. These are all ways to add a totally different dimension to your trip, deepen your experience and make some personal contacts with the wonderful Cambodian people. Many drivers and guides are often anxious and happy to give you a glimpse into how they and their families live so if that interests you, just ask.
* YUMMY YUMMY
Khmer cooking classes have become very popular and many places now offer them. Here are a few to check out: Le Tigre de Papier, another experience from the great folks at Beyond Unique Escapes, and you've got Alliance Angkor and The River Garden. By the way, here's a recent first-hand article about the cooking class from Beyond Unique Escapes. And for those with a particular interest in vegetarian cooking, you should check out the vegetarian cooking class at The Peace Cafe
* BIKING AROUND
You can rent bikes very easily and many hotels and guesthouses will have bikes available. The neighborhoods just off the tourist path on the periphery of the center can be fascinating to explore.
* THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT
Siem Riep has become another non-temple attraction richer with the opening of the Angkor Butterfly Centre. Situated on the road to Banteay Srei it can now be part of a varied day of touring where one can do Kbal Spean, Banteay Srei, the Landmine Museum and the new Butterfly Centre.
* THE LANDMINE MUSEUM
Any visitor to Cambodia will know of the country's tortured and tragic modern history and how the country suffered from the Khmer Rouge and the 2nd Indochina war, better known as the war in Vietnam. During that period Cambodia become the world's most landmined country. On your visits to the temples you will likely come across Khmer musicians who are missing limbs as the reult of landmine accidents. On the road to the Banteay Srei temple and near to the Angkor Butterfly Center, you will find the Cambodian Landmine Museum. This small museum is well worth a visit to deepen your understanding of the country's recent history.
* GITTY UP HORSIE (OR OXEN)
One can also do horseback trail rides and horse cart rides with The Happy Ranch. Another company, Buffalo Trails also offers oxen cart rides through the countryside plus a few other alternative experiences including homestays.
There are several companies I know of that offer off-road 'adventure' activities by dirt bikes, scooters and/or quads: Cambodia Trails, Khmer Ways, Hidden Cambodia, Dancing Roads and Quad Adventure Cambodia. One of our past guests enjoyed his experience with Dancing Roads. Beyond that I have no idea if these off-road adventures are environmentally responsible or sensitive to the rural communities they ride through. The quad bikes which run through local communities on a daily basis are not without controversy as you can see by reading entry numbers 9 to 12 on a recent Tripadvisor discussion.
* THE INNER YOU
Those who may like to give some attention to the inner self can check out the yoga, meditation, pilates or a chat with a Buddhist monk all offered at the Peace Cafe. There are also several other places that offer yoga and/or meditation: Navutu Dreams; Angkor Bodhi Tree; Angkor Zen; Hariharalaya Yoga and Meditation Retreat Center and The Siem Reap Hostel offers yoga and Pilates classes. For those with a deep interest in Buddhism who would like to experience and learn the life of a monk or nun, you should check out this article, Monk for a Week, about just such an opportunity offered by Angkor Bodhi Tree. And depending on your hotel or guesthouse, no vacation is complete without some relaxed downtime at the pool or enjoying one of the many fine spas the city has to offer.
* SOAR LIKE AN EAGLE
Feel like flying more than what the tethered balloon near Angkor Wat can offer? There are commercial helicopter tours that you can enjoy. And the long awaited return of the exciting and stunning microlight flights is finally here! Microlight Cambodia