It would be a shame to come all the way to South East Asia and not visit Siem Reap. Home to Angkor Wat, the awe-inspiring and mind-blowing collection of ancient temple ruins, a visit to Siem Reap might just be the highlight of your trip.
Outside of the mystifying temple tours, this northern city has a lot to offer in terms of culture, history, and wild holiday antics. Dive into cooking classes and pottery-making lessons, visit war museums to learn about the areas affected by landmines, and then mingle with other travelers at some local pubs where you can find amazing Western food and low-priced draft beer.
Siem Reap offers extremely comfortable accommodation options spanning from new budget hostels to luxurious hotels with pristine pools. It is easy to spend a week or so just exploring all of the prized features that Siem Reap has to offer.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Siem Reap:
1. Tour Angkor Wat
Magical, mysterious, and absolutely mesmerizing, Angkor Wat is one of those bucket list places that every human should experience before they die. Here is the largest Buddhist temple on earth, which took 30 years to build during the 12th century (113-5BC) and spans over 208 hectares (500 acres).
It is said that Angkor Wat was built as funereal temple for King Suryavarman II, with each structure representing phases of life, death, and beyond. As you stroll through one of history’s lost civilizations, climbing marble stairs and ducking through stone-structured archways, you’ll get an architectural glimpse into a world long forgotten.
It is highly recommended to get an English-speaking guide to walk with you from temple to temple explaining each one and it’s purpose as you go. You can find these guides freelancing at the entrance to the temples or you can go on an organized tour, which offers 1-day, 3-day, and even 1-week tours to cover as much ground as you please.
Recommended tour: Angkor Wat Full-Day Small-Group Sunrise Tour
2. Dirtbike or Quad
Whether you’re looking for a half-day tour on the red dirt roads of Siem Reap, or want to go on a 2-day all or 7-day dirt bike excursion around Cambodia, there’s lots of available tours that can make it happen.
There are tours like the 1-day trip to Phnom Kulen, which is a sacred mountain with hidden waterfalls, lush jungle forest, and long stretches of open dirt road to tear up, as well as tours like the 6-day excursion that takes you in a massive loop around the country and includes accommodation and fuel.
The bikes are finely tuned, totally gassed up, and ready to be your adrenaline-pumping companion in Cambodia.
Available tour: Siem Reap Quad Bike Countryside Tour
3. Eat Red Ants
When in Cambodia, you should eat as the locals eat. We’re not talking about going all out with spiders or larva. Start small with yummy dishes like beef and ants. The flavor of the ants is bitter and the crunch is reminiscent of eating caviar. The balance of beef and gravy compliments each spoonful of ants quite well, especially with a beer on the side.
Order this plate at a snazzy restaurant like Marum where dishes (and experiences) are meant to be shared or try Mie Café whose in-house chef makes the most gourmet red ant dishes in the whole city.
4. The Old Market
Get the local experience at The Old Market, or as the locals call it “Psar Chaa”. Built in the 1920’s, here is where residents of Siem Reap come to get their produce, grains, and meat for homecooked meals.
The market is divided into small sections selling different goods. Go to the fruit section where you can get organic fruit like mangosteens and dragon fruit at local prices, walk down the dim alleyways of the meat section where you’ll find freshly made sausages hanging on strings, or walk through the rows of vendors sitting on straw floor mats selling dried seafood.
Of course, there are sections selling clothes, handcrafts, and seasonings- which all make for great gifts to send home.
5. Cambodia Landmine Museum
Decades have passed since both the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge regime, but life-threatening reminders still remain hidden in the fields of Cambodia; 6 million reminders to be exact. The Cambodia Landmine Museum is the best place in Siem Reap to educate yourself on the whos, whats, and whys regarding landmines in Cambodia.
In addition to a history lesson and an up-to-date briefing on the landmine situation, you’ll all get to see some active and detonated landmines up close. You’ll learn about how it has affected locals and see what efforts are being made to rid the region of these hidden dangers.
6. Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity
Here’s your chance to have an intimate experience with animals native to Cambodia while also contributing to a great cause.
Right here in Siem Reap is one of the most vital wildlife conservation centers in the north of Cambodia. The Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity works towards the advancement of species and habitat preservation through several channels including species breeding, animal rehabilitation, community education, and conservation and research.
The biodiversity center offers two tours during the day: one a 9am and one at 1pm. On these tours, the knowledgeable and passionate guides will explain how they rehabilitate otters, porcupines, birds and other animals so that they can be reintroduced into the wild.
7. Have a Spa Day
When you want the total spa treatment but don’t want to spend half of your travel budget on getting it, that’s when you come to Lemongrass Garden. Just a couple dollars more than the common sub-par massage shops that you pass in the touristy areas, Lemongrass Garden is a professional experience that will leave you feeling positively pampered.
For a lavish experience, try out the 4-Hands Massage offered in the form of full-body, legs, Khmer massage and more. They also offer manicures, body scrubs, facials, and waxing.
You can relax even deeper knowing that all of their staff are expertly trained while being treated with the utmost respect and value as employees.
8. Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre
Butterfly enthusiasts, nature lovers, and families with kids- here is an experience that you don’t want to pass up while in Cambodia. This butterfly sanctuary and conservation center is the perfect opportunity to get up close and personal with your favorite insects.
Come walk around with dozens species of free flying Cambodian butterflies in this interactive butterfly exhibit. The enclosed garden is built like a rainforest to mimic the butterflies’ natural habitat. Sit still and some are sure to land on you for a little rest.
You can take an educational tour with a guide who will show the various stages of the butterfly lifecycle. Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre is open every day of the week from 9am to 5pm.
9. Get a Fish Spa Pedicure
You might have seen them before- those clear aquariums full of fish with cozy chairs attached. But what are they for? The strangest pedicure of your life.
Stick your feet into the tank filled with fish that just love the taste of dead skin. They’ll swarm your feet and nibble off those calluses you get from traveling and trim your dry cuticles in a matter of 20 minutes. It doesn’t hurt but it totally tickles.
Have a wander on Walking Street where you’ll find a handful of spas offering this service for around $3.
10. Angkor Pottery Center
Learn the basics of pottery making techniques just like the ancient Cambodians from Angkorian times. Spend the day at the Angkor Pottery Center with English-speaking pottery teachers where you’ll learn to make pots, vases, and bowls. Get ready to get your hands messy while you sit at the pottery wheel and spin wet clay to form beautiful and functional pieces. You’ll fire them in a ceramic oven where they harden and become the best souvenirs to take home. This is a fantastic cultural experience and an all-around fun time in Siem Reap.
The pottery class is a great activity for groups, couples, solo travelers, and even children. Classes are just 30 minutes so consider grouping this activity into your day of Angkor Wat sight seeing.
Related class: Siem Reap: Cambodian Pottery Class
11. Kulen Nature Trails
Talk to a tuk tuk driver to help you find a guide for the Kulen Nature Trails. These rainforest trails offer hidden gems in the rainforest such as ancient temples, respected monasteries, and rushing waterfalls. You’ll walk along a gorgeous river and under cool, shady trees making for a much-needed escape from the heat.
Once you reach the waterfall, there will be vendors selling snacks and beverages. Stock up and have a picnic under one of the pagodas next to the waterfall.
It’s best to visit the trails during dry season. If you visit during rainy season then your hike will be met with murky and muddy paths that just are no fun. Also, get a head start in the morning so that you don’t run into other groups of tourists.
Recommended tour: Phnom Kulen Waterfall Day Tour
12. Cycling Tour
One of the best ways to see the true Cambodia is on a cycling tour in the countryside. Take the “Off the Beaten Track” tour with Butterfly Tours Asia where you’ll ride through the villages of Siem Reap, gaining insight into how rural Cambodians live their day-to-day life.
You’ll embark on a 20-kilometer adventure over 4 hours with an English-speaking guide. You’ll pass rice fields, lazy cows, Khmer villages and busy farmers. The locals who you’ll meet along the way are very friendly and the children will be very excited to see you.
Butterfly Tours also offer cycling tours through Angkor Wat and the trails that run between the temples. Take your pick.
Suggested tour: Full Day Angkor Temples of Siem Reap Bike Tour
13. Take a Cooking Class
What better way to learn about the traditions of Cambodia than through your stomach? Visit Lily’s Secret Garden, a hygienic kitchen in an authentic teakwood style Cambodian house on stilts surrounded by a lush tropical garden. The setting is perfect for a tranquil morning or afternoon of culinary creation.
During your hour and a half cooking class, you’ll be guided through a 3-course menu of traditional Khmer dishes using organic ingredients. You’ll make appetizers like spring rolls with chicken, main dishes such as Amok curry or stir fried chicken and noodles, and for dessert you’ll have pumpkin in coconut cream. Every step is led by a friendly English-speaking chef who will teach you step-by-step cooking skills that you can take home as a lifelong souvenir.
When the cooking is finished, sit down to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Recommended class: Half-Day Cambodian Cooking Class
14. Aspara Dance Performance
A mixture between Cirque du Soleil and a Native American Pow Wow, the Aspara Dance performance is absolutely mesmerizing.
Aspara, meaning “beautiful girls” in Khmer, was historically performed by girls who were believed to have supernatural powers. The dance stems all the way back to Angkorian times when Suryavarman II was in power. Back then, these goddess-like women only danced for the royal family.
These days, you can be royalty when you snag a ticket for the evening performance. The show is a full on production with captivating dancers, intricate costumes, professional lighting, and intense backdrops that lasts for over an hour.
15. Wander Pub Street
With so much culture, history, and ancient architecture to take in during the day, you might just want to let off some mindless steam at night. For a relaxed evening of western food and a wild night of Angkor beers on tap, head to Pub Street.
This long walking road surrounded by neon signs, bars touting bucket drink specials, and groups of social travelers every where you turn, Pub Street has become the official backpacker’s oasis in the middle of Siem Reap.
You’ll find plenty of clubs and watering holes that are open late, as well as, lots of budget hostels in the area making for a convenient place to crash.