Off the beaten track
Discover Siem Reap beyond its magnificent temples; this northwestern Cambodian town is slowly gaining the world’s attention for its diverse offering that combines adventure, culture, shopping and dining
The gateway to some of the world’s most magnificent temple ruins, Siem Reap is a portal to the past. Every corner of this colourful city tells the tale of the region’s rich history, dating back to the Khmer Empire of the ninth century. The ruins stretch for miles, with the famous Angkor Wat temple complex as the biggest tourist draw. Visitors from all around the world come here for a glimpse into its ancient altars.
In recent years, the destination has been luring travellers to stay longer, thanks to its eclectic offering that straddles the best of both worlds – a storied past and a dynamic present. Siem Reap has reinvented itself as the heart of Cambodia, bustling with adventure, culture, shopping and dining. With so much to offer, it’s easy to understand why a trip here should be savoured and not rushed.
There’s no better way to begin a Siem Reap experience than to rise well before dawn to explore the Angkor Archaeological Park. While a tuk-tuk will take you around in 20 minutes, the most interesting way to explore is either on foot or by bicycle, pounding around the uneven roads, running up the hills between sites and exploring the lesser trodden paths.
We set out on our morning adventure at 5am to beat the daunting crowds. Against the backdrop of the rising sun and the pinkorange sky, the silhouetted temples looked sublime. We covered around 17 kilometres through the complex, visiting the major temples that sit on this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, made famous by the movie Tomb Raider, are popular among tourists, but they are just a handful among more than 70 others dotted around the old city. Many are tucked away on hilltops with ancient carvings, sculptures and spectacular views. As these are lesser explored, they make for wonderful spots to find tranquillity away from the crowds.
If you’re not sure where to begin, Siem Reap expatriate Jay Sapphire, an Australian runner in the region, organises private trips and offers some fascinating local insights not available elsewhere. Our second day in Cambodia took us to one of the smallest floating villages in the country. With just 300 homes in Mechrey, it offers calm amidst the chaos of Siem Reap and showcases the unique way of life that prevails in these water communities. Our local tour guides suggested a kayaking expedition through the village for an up-close glimpse into this neighbourhood that highlights the simplicity of life on the water.
It was fascinating to learn how those living on the lake build their own mobile raft homes with bamboo and oil barrels, and rely on solar-powered car batteries for electricity. During the dry season, they move upstream and return back by monsoon. Once we cleared the village, we headed towards the north of Tonle Sap lake that opens out to an expanse of green. The lake is truly magnificent and extraordinarily peaceful, providing a magical experience for those looking to get in sync with nature.
It’s also remarkably calm so it makes for the perfect place to kayak without battling currents. Closer to sundown, we hopped onto a local dhow boat in the village with our tour guide, where snacks and drinks were served at sunset. It’s amazing how even on rainy days in Siem Reap, watching the sunset is awe-inspiring. When in Cambodia, it’s worth waking up before sunrise to catch some of the city’s most impressive sites. The following morning at 5am, we started on our cycles to see lotus flower fields dotted around the surrounding villages.
Beginning our journey from the nearest hilltop to catch the sun creeping up from below the horizon, we watched the sleepy town come to life. Then, continuing on our journey, we rode close to 24 kilometres for roughly an hour to get to the magnificent lotus fields. The ride, which was mostly through flat terrain, unlike other villages along Cambodia’s tired roads, was a wonderful way to experience life away from the buzz.
If you prefer something closer to the city, several lotus farms are operational and you’ll also find lotus ponds near Angkor. Besides being simply beautiful, the flower also has a special meaning for the Cambodian people and is considered sacred. According to locals, it symbolises enlightenment, purity and creativity.
The next stop on our packed itinerary involved a bit of retail therapy in Kandal Village. With its busy winding streets and French colonial-inspired architecture, it has become Siem Reap’s boutique capital. A beautiful place to wander with plenty of stops to refuel with local treats at quaint cafés, the town is dotted with around 30 shops, selling everything from handcrafted jewellery to spices. The once-sleepy town is now slowly gaining international recognition as a hub for homegrown designers and artisans.
Designer Sirivan Chak-Dumas runs her own clothing boutique, Maison Sirivan, in Kandal Village. She is one of several Cambodian designers who trained in France and has now returned to help promote the local market. Many others are also supporting local enterprise. The Soieries du Mekong has around 70 rural Cambodian women who use traditional looming techniques to weave silk scarves in a process that takes more than 16 hours. Each weaver’s portrait appears on the tag. Other favourites include Garden of Desire, a beautiful jewellery boutique owned by designer Ly Pisith, who uses local sandstone as the basis of his collection.
There is a burgeoning art scene in Siem Reap, a total 180-degree shift from the harsh times of the Khmer Rouge rule, when art, music and performance were banned. We had the chance to check out Tribe by the river (which also doubles as a café), Open Studio Cambodia, Theam’s House, Mirage Contemporary Art Space and Batia Sarem Gallery. Expressions of colour and culture abound in the galleries, with everything from paintings to sculpture, modern art to high tech installations.
The performing arts are also slowly gaining impetus on Cambodia’s creative scene. Siem Reap’s answer to Cirque du Soleil, Phare Ponleu Selpak is so much more than a conventional circus. While the emphasis is on entertainment, every production highlights a subtle yet striking social message and makes for a must-see when in the city. This humble 450-seat big top started as a few plastic seats in a small corner of Siem Reap. Today, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in town.
The performers come from a multidisciplinary arts school, which was started in the wake of the civil war to offer art therapy to war victims. The young circus artists perform daredevil stunts, from aerial feats to acrobatics, across four shows performed in rotation. Give yourself time before or after the show to browse the boutique which supports its artists and others in the community, and spend some time in the garden to enjoy a bite to eat.
The stunning scenery aside, what makes a trip to Cambodia an experience of a lifetime is the friendly local encounters. And during our last morning, we had the chance to learn more about life in Cambodia at Tang Mouy Coffee. The café started as a humble street hut on Makara Road back in 1986, and has become the go-to spot for coffee lovers in the city.
Owner Tang visits the café every morning at 4am to roast the beans on the fire himself and to chat with customers. Gathered from Cambodia’s Mondulikri Mountains, Laos and Vietnam, the coffee gets its robust flavour from Tang’s very own roasting method. He explained the intricate process to us, highlighting that just a few seconds’ delay can ruin the whole batch.
He roasts more than a tonne of coffee beans every month, and luckily, you can buy your own to take some home with you, either already grounded or as whole beans. When in Siem Reap, make the café a must-visit on your list, where you can pull up a seat opposite the temple and watch the world go by.
Emirates offers daily flights from Dubai to Siem Reap with a connection onto Bangkok Airways in the Thai capital.
Anantara Angkor is far enough from the city centre that you have a little respite but it’s also just a 15-minute tuk-tuk ride away from the airport, which makes it easily accessible. The hotel offers complimentary tuk-tuk services to guests and a local phone to help you find your way back easily. Coffee is delivered to the room at 4.30am every morning to ensure guests are well fuelled before heading off for sunrise adventures.
- Try traditional old Khmer recipes at Malis, where the setting is as magical as its hearty food. Curries and seafood feature heavily on the menu.
- Embassy has gained quite the reputation as a destination for fine dining, with its beautiful modern design by the Siem Reap river.
- Chi restaurant at Anantara Angkor is one of the more luxurious restaurants in town offering a fusion of Western and Khmer cuisine.
To plan your escape 800-CONCIERGE