The Kingdom of Wonder has so much to offer every type of backpacker and traveller. Cambodia is home to ancient sights, a thriving nightlife, unique food, and probably the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. When backpacking around Southeast Asia, many people tend to skip over Cambodia or only allocate a few days to see the temples and end up missing out on the rich culture this country has to offer. Siem Reap is the heart of Cambodia and should be on every backpacker itinerary. Read on to discover our favourite things to do in Temple Town!
Monks-in-training at the Angkor temples © Courtesy of Kirsten Muolic/Mad Monkey
1. VISIT THE TEMPLES, OF COURSE
Touring the temples is number one on most people’s lists, and rightfully so. These incredible temples date back to the 12th century and many have since been taken over by the jungles of Cambodia. Witness sunrise at the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat, but expect the crowds, as this is one of the most popular tourist activities in the country. Bring out your inner-Tomb-Raider and traipse through the ruins of Ta Prohm, and meander through the vast Bayon Temple where you can admire 216 enormous stone faces jutting out of the towers. Visit these three most popular temples, spend an entire day exploring more (there are plenty to choose from!), or take your time learning about the history whilst on a 3-day tour.
The gate to Angkor Thom and the famous Bayon temple © Courtesy of Kirsten Muolic/Mad Monkey
2. PARTY ON PUB STREET
For a small town, Siem Reap packs quite a punch, and most of the action can be found on Pub Street and its adjoining roads. Dance the night away at various bars and clubs, most offering discounted drinks, live DJs, and hordes of other travelers looking for an equally awesome night most won’t remember. Sample Cambodian street food (if you wanted to see what those deep-fried scorpions are all about, here’s your chance!), get a $3 massage, find some fabulous souvenirs, and end your night with some fried ice cream as you walk back home under the twinkling lights of Pub Street.
The lights of Pub Street © Courtesy of Kirsten Muolic/Mad Monkey
3. LEARN ABOUT CAMBODIA’S HISTORY
Learning about the history of any country you travel to is always a good idea, but it’s particularly important in Cambodia, whose past is complex and tragic. Learn about the wars that have torn this country apart very recently at the biggest war museum in Cambodia. A free local guide can bring you around the War Museum to view tanks, fighter jets and a collection of other war machines, weapons and other war relics. Some of the guides are landmine victims or veterans, so this is a unique opportunity to hear a first-hand account of surviving war in Cambodia.
Landmine Museum in Siem Reap © Courtesy of Shutterstock
4. UNDERSTAND CAMBODIA’S LANDMINE PROBLEM
Recently a war-torn country, Cambodia is still hurting from both the Vietnam War and the Cambodian Civil War. The countryside in Cambodia is littered with landmines and unexploded ordnance today — four to six million, actually — that continue to affect the lives of locals in these areas. Not only are people, including children, at risk of setting off landmines, but they are unable to use a lot of the land around them to cultivate or build basic infrastructure like schools and hospitals.
There are multiple ways to learn about landmines and the effect they have on Cambodians. Check out the Landmine museum, which was founded by a Khmer (Cambodian) man, a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge. He began clearing landmines on his own, using only a stick, and has since destroyed over 50,000 landmines. This museum has four galleries that show visitors the aftermath of war and how it continues to endanger the lives of innocent people, decades later.
War Museum in Siem Reap © Courtesy of Shutterstock
If you’re an animal lover who is also interested in history, check out Apopo or NPA Explosive Detection Dogs. Apopo is an organization that trains “HeroRATs” (African giant pouched rats) to detect landmines. Because they have a highly-developed sense of smell, are incredibly intelligent, and actually detect the explosive powder rather than metal, HeroRATs are much more efficient than humans at clearing landmines. These adorable rats have cleared more than one million square meters in the last 20 years.
A HeroRAT of Apopo working in the field © Courtesy of Apopo
NPA is a similar organization that trains Belgian Malinois dogs to detect landmines. Both rats and dogs are too light to set off landmines (which eliminates most risks for accidental detonation) and are easily trainable. If you go to these visitor centres, you can pay a small amount (around $5) to watch a demonstration of both animals detecting landmines. Both also have a small museum and gallery to learn more about the efforts around the world to stop the usage of landmines.
5. EAT AT A RESTAURANT OR CAFE FOR A CAUSE
There are a plethora of social enterprises in Siem Reap that aim to help the local community. Whether it be by supporting underprivileged children, or supporting local farmers and artisans, these eateries are the perfect place to learn a bit about Cambodia while enjoying a fantastic meal. Get breakfast at Sister Srey, a cafe that works with local farmers and supports sustainable initiatives in Siem Reap. On Sundays, make sure to grab a bite at New Leaf Eatery where 30% of their profits go toward educational projects in the city. As a bonus, they offer a delicious all-day brunch special for just $5. If you’re looking for something sweet, go to Bloom Cafe, a social enterprise that empowers and mentors women from abusive and exploitative backgrounds. Other eateries where you can dine for a good cause include Spoons, Haven, Project Y, and Maybe Later.
6. GO TO THE CIRCUS
As a result of the Cambodian Civil War, most artists here were either killed or fled the country. In 1994, a group of Cambodian refugees returned to their country and founded Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA) after seeing how art was a great tool for healing. What started as drawing classes, evolved into an art school where there are currently over 1,200 students and 500 in the vocational arts training programs. Phare, The Cambodian Circus, is one way they earn the funds to offer these free classes to locals. This innovative show includes acrobatics, live music, dancing, and theatre to tell a unique story.
7. VENTURE OUTSIDE TOWN
There’s plenty to explore within the small town of Siem Reap, but there’s also heaps to do just a few kilometers outside. Discover how silk is made at the traditional silk farm, where you can see the entire process from hatching silkworms to the intricate method of creating coloured patterns. Quad bike through the countryside to discover the rural side of Cambodia. Hop on a boat and cruise around Tonle Sap, or cool off at West Baray Reservoir. For the adventurous (and those willing to head a couple hours outside Siem Reap), head to Kulen National Park to visit a spectacular waterfall and some beautiful temples.
Sunset at West Baray © Courtesy of Kirsten Muolic/Mad Monkey
Learning how silk is made © Courtesy of Kirsten Muolic/Mad Monkey
8. CRUISE THE TONLE SAP
Whether you’re looking to get boozy on the water, or learn more about the history of Cambodia, a boat cruise is the perfect way to accomplish both. Explore the floating villages on the Tonle Sap and witness their unique way of life. Churches, schools, hospitals, and more are built on stilts and sit directly on the water. Cruise around, stop at a restaurant for food, feed some crocodiles, and take a dip in the water.
A floating Catholic church © Courtesy of Kirsten Muolic/Mad Monkey
Mad Monkey Booze Cruise on Tonle Sap © Courtesy of Kirsten Muolic/Mad Monkey
9. VISIT A MARKET
Markets are a great way to experience any culture, and Cambodia is no exception. In Siem Reap, the Angkor Night Market is the most popular and is the perfect place to wander around, especially at night when the stalls are lit up and lively. Whether you’re looking for a painting of the temples, a place to get a cheap massage, or that Buddha figurine you’ve meaning to buy, the Night Market has everything you need. If you’re looking for that notorious Southeast Asia market full of slogan t-shirts, souvenirs, and more cheap finds, head to the Old Market near the river. For more unique goods that are locally made, check out the Made in Cambodia Market, Kandal Village, and Genevieve’s Fair Trade Village, the latter of which sells handcrafted jewellery, clothes, art and more made by disadvantaged Cambodians.
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