Last Update: November 2019
The star of Siem Reap in the Northwest of Cambodia is shining bright. And yes, it has everything to do with nearby tourist magnet Angkor Wat. Of course you came here to see the temples, but there are more things to do in Siem Reap. In fact, there’s enough to keep you busy for at least a week.
Unfortunately, not every activity qualifies as worth the travelers while. I already did the leg work for you, so you don’t have to fall into the same tourist traps that I have. That’s why next to this list of 11 things to do in Siem Reap, I’m giving you 5 things to skip as well.
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Do #1 – Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat (City of Temples) is the largest religious monument in the world. The total site measures a staggering 1,626,000 m2, that’s almost 230 soccer fields people! With over 2 million international visitors each year (and counting) it’s also one of the most visited UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world.
For the record, Angkor Wat might be the most significant temple, but the Angkor Archeological Park houses numerous other temples that are also worth visiting. Next to Angkor Wat the main highlights are Angkor Thom (Bayon), Ta Prohm, Phnom Bakheng and Baphuon.
It’s perfectly possible to visit all of these highlights in one day, so a $37, 1-day ticket to the park should be sufficient for the average visitor. If you have a special interest in archeology/history or you just can’t get enough, there are 3-day ($62) and weeklong ($72) tickets as well.
Grab a tuk-tuk for the day with some friends and for $15-$20 it will take you to the ticket center and to the highlights of the archeological park. If aircon transport is more your thing you can also opt for a tour. Prices start at $18 p/p for a full day tour in an airconditioned minivan. It includes lunch and a trustworthy English speaking guide. Book your recommended tour here.
The cheapest option is to rent a bicycle, but make sure that you’re ready for exercise, because it will be a full day of pedaling!
Read: Angkor Wat – Overrated! The pros and cons of a visit to Angkor Wat.
Do #2 – Museums
Siem Reap has plenty of museums and although most of them are but small, some of them are unique and interesting. From the list, two of them are a must-see.
Angkor National Museum
Dedicated to the Khmer era from the 9th to the 14th century and displaying many Angkorian artifacts and sculptures. Most ideal would be to visit the museum before you go to see the temples. The context provided will truly add value to your temples visit.
If you’re at peace with the rather high $12 entrance fee, I do recommend forking out an extra $5 for the excellent audio guided tour. The Angkor National Museum opens daily from 8:30am to 6pm.
Impressive initiative by a former child soldier that had to plant landmines himself during the Khmer Rouge reign. After decades of conflict there are still numerous amounts of UXO in Cambodia claiming new victims on a regular basis. This museum tells the story of Cambodias recent violent past. Proceeds of the museum go towards the landmine clearing, the funding of a new school and a relief center for child victims. Even without the admirable cause this is a place worth visiting for the history lesson it provides.
The landmine museum opens daily from 7:30am to 5:50pm. Admission is $5, free for children under 12.
For flights to Siem Reap airport, check the Skyscanner website. For bus tickets from Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City or within Cambodia use the Bookmebus.com tool. Skip the lines at the bus station and secure your seat.
Do #3 – Markets
Old Market – Psar Chas
Wherever there’s a market, there are tourists, However, the Siem Reap Old Market (7am-8pm) is still very much a locals market. They shop here for fish, meat, vegetables and household items. There’s also a large section where they sell jewelry, clothes, shoes and trinkets. In the center are a few food stalls where locals come for breakfast and tourists come for snacks.
Angkor Night Market
There are several night markets in Siem Reap, which all seem to target tourists. Most notable is the Angkor night market (5pm-12am) near Pub street, with t-shirts, souvenirs and street food. Another market is the Art Center night market (4pm-11pm) over the bridge at Makara street, offering local handicrafts and art objects.
Do #4 – Pub Street
This street deserves its own chapter. There’s nothing like it, or even close to it, anywhere else in Cambodia. The street is completely dedicated to drinking, dining and party. If you came looking for a peaceful retreat in one of Cambodias provincial towns, well….this ain’t it, and that’s an understatement if ever there was one.
Clearly Pub street is not for everyone, but it serves a purpose. The abundance of flashy neon lights and the cacophony of loud blaring stereos can certainly have a disorienting effect. But why not surrender yourself to a night (or two) of unrestrained partying. For the record, I don’t advocate excessive alcohol consumption, but if ever you wanted to let your hair down, do it here since beers are as low as fifty cents during happy hour. Just saying.
Food is cheap and there is plenty of choice, although standards are not very high. It’s tasty though, so it will do the trick. Relax to digest your food in one of the lounge areas outside the bars or else, dance the night away in one of the many clubs.
Beware, beware, to enjoy yourself while partying is nice, but do behave! The local authorities are wary of tourists demonstrating misconduct. This includes a lack of respect towards locals and Buddhist religion.
Do #5 – Floating Villages
If Angkor Wat has left you templed out, visiting a floating village at the nearby Tonle lake is a nice way to see more of local Cambodia. The lake is the largest in South East Asia and harbors several floating and stilted fishing villages where you can observe daily rural life.
You can join a tour or you can venture on your own. Just note that at one point you will have to make use of a rented boat and it won’t be cheap. Also note that not all villages guarantee a satisfactory experience. Scammers are on the prowl!
Read: “Outrageous Cambodia Scam” Prepare yourself to avoid being scammed at the floating villages!.
Chhong Khneas village is to be avoided at all times, even if it is closest to Siem Reap. Kompong Phluk and Mey Chrey are also dubious. Prek Toal is a good choice, but also the furthest and most expensive to get to. Maybe Prek Toal is only interesting when combined with the nearby biosphere and bird sanctuary (see Do #10 – Prek Toal). That leaves Kompong Kleang as your best option for visiting a floating village.
Do #6 – Wat Thmei Memorial
Before or after your visit to the Angkor temples make a stop at the Wat Thmei memorial. It’s conveniently located near the Angkor Wat ticket office. This is where the killing fields of Siem Reap used to be. The place is quite sober with a temple, a few stupas and a glass monument filled with the skulls of Khmer Rouge victims.
There’s not a lot of information on site, but take some time to pay your respects and reflect on this dark page in Cambodian history. I guarantee that you will see Cambodia from a different perspective and with a whole new appreciation of the locals’ resilience.
Opening hours are daily from 8am-4pm and admission is free. There is no real dresscode, but please dress respectful.
Do #7 – Food Tour
I love food tours. There’s so much to learn about a country’s culture through their food and it’s a great way to get your bearings of the local culinary scene. Moreover, food tours are fun, informative and you’ll get to try delicious food. Need I say more?
There are many food tour operators in Siem Reap. Too bad that some of them are trying to monetize on travelers wanting to try authentic Cambodian cuisine, without actually addressing just that.
Joining a high quality food tour in Siem Reap is not a cheap affair. There are a few low cost food tours, but what you pay is what you get. Hey, everyone can grab a few barbecued skewers from a random street food stall and claim it’s genuine local food. Technically it’s true, but you could do that on your own, don’t need a tour for that.
Some of the more expensive tours justify their steep rates by adding a twist. A driver on a Vespa motorbike will take you through Siem Reap for a food tour with you as a passenger. Sounds like fun, but definitely not worth $78.
What you need is a food tour that offers authentic Khmer flavors made up of high quality ingredients. Furthermore, a professional English speaking guide with a culinary background and a real passion for Cambodian culture to provide some meaningful context. A good food tour should not just be a random series of dishes to stuff yourself with. It should tell you an interesting and delicious story. And yes, it comes with a price.
In my opinion Siem Reap Food Tours is the only food tour operator in Siem Reap that meets the above criteria. You should go with them, or not at all.
Do #8 – Cooking Class
Let’s stay with food for a while. I know that Cambodian food is often thought to be a copy of Thai and/or Vietnamese food, but that’s really selling it short. Cambodia has a very distinctive cuisine of its own. Sure, there are similarities, but if there’s any copying it’s more likely that the Thai and Vietnamese copied dishes from Cambodia than the other way around.
Why not try a cooking class in Siem Reap to learn about Khmer flavors, cooking techniques, taste some delicious food and having a lot of fun while you’re at it? Siem Reap hosts a few good cooking schools and I think I found the best one for you.
For just $26, learn how to cook 3-Khmer dishes at a lovely outdoor location in a rural village outside Siem Reap. Besides cooking there is time to walk through the village and interact with the local population. You are even invited into a locals home to see how the family lives.
Read: “13 Must eat Cambodian foods”. Know your Khmer food, order with confidence.
Do #9 – Phare Cambodian Circus
I bet that visiting a circus wasn’t the first thing on your mind when you set off for Cambodia. Still, you might want to reconsider for “Phare Cambodian Circus”. I mean, you can’t go to Pub Street every night and the circus is actually very impressive and entertaining. Don’t worry, Pub Street will still be there after the show.
Phare is a modern circus with lot’s of acrobatics, theater, music, dance and aerial arts. The project provides an opportunity for disadvantaged Cambodian youngsters to express themselves and their story through performance art. They are not professional, but their talent and energy is clearly visible and enjoyable.
Don’t overthink it too long, just go, I’m sure sure you will enjoy it. The show starts at 8pm every night, but extra shows are at 5pm (only November-March on Mon-Thu-Sat). Ticket price starts at $18, but reserved seating and vip tickets are extra. Book your tickets and secure your seat here.
Do #10 – Prek toal bird/wildlife sanctuary
If you’re into bird watching, this is for you. If you’re not into bird watching, this is also for you. Experts say that the Prek Toal biosphere is the single most important breeding ground in South East Asia for globally threatened large water birds.
I’m actually not into bird watching, but spotting these rare animals in their natural habitat was a magical experience. It gave me an adrenaline rush while calming me down at the same time. Makes any sense? Anyway, it’s home to, amongst others, the black-headed Ibis, painted Stork, milky Stork, spot-billed Pelican, grey-headed fish eagle and many more bird species.
Prek Toal also hosts a floating village in the Tonle lake and it’s the only one where the local community isn’t exploited by large tour companies and greedy government officials. Community based eco tourism is the deal here and that makes it perfect for excursions to experience Cambodian culture and nature.
Tours to Prek Toal are not cheap, but do include a full package. $165 will get you aircon taxi transport, full boat trip fees, meal and drinks, as well as all entrance fees. Also included are the multiple English guided tours of the floating village, crocodile/fish farm, Tonle lake and the bird sanctuary in the biosphere reserve. Book your full Prek Toal experience here.
Where to stay in Siem Reap
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Do #11 – Bicycle the surroundings
Foreigners are prohibited to rent a motorbike in Siem Reap. In the rest of Cambodia it’s perfectly legal, but here the local taxi
mafia lobby was successful in banning it. So, if your idea was to go “easy rider” in the Siem Reap surroundings, this will probably be disappointing.
As an alternative, why not go around on a push bike. The terrain around Siem Reap is as flat as a pancake so pedaling is easy. Slow pace, no noise, be one with your surroundings, you can have it all.
If you worry about finding your way along an interesting enough route, you can also opt to join a tour. There are several bicycle tour outfits in Siem Reap, but I highly recommend the tour from the experts at Grasshopper.
Physical exercise not your thing? Green e-bike rents out e-bikes for $11 per day. A hefty price indeed, but no physical effort from your side needed and good for the environment. They do tours as well, but I haven’t tried them.
Skip #1 – Ballooning
There are two ways to go ballooning in Siem Reap, either with a hot air balloon or a tethered, helium filled balloon. I did neither of them, but I’m still saying you should skip at least the hot air balloon. Here is why:
Hot Air Balloon
We are thoroughly enjoying our bicycle ride in the surroundings of Siem Reap as suddenly we see it. A hot air balloon is floating through the sky.
Apparently they are about to land. The balloon sets course towards an open field not far from us. We see a few cars and local children cheering and crying out to the sky. The balloon is coming down, too fast, then goes up again a few meters only to come down again hard.
The basket hits the ground, but the balloon is being dragged by the wind scraping the basket behind her over the soil. We hear a high pitched shriek and a woman falls out while the basket continues to be dragged along the field. A few youngsters are trying to stop the drag by holding on to a rope hanging from the side.
Finally, the balloon stops. The whole incident couldn’t have been more than 10 seconds, but it seemed like forever. Nobody was hurt as far as we could see, although one or two passengers were slightly limping. As we approach to see if we can offer any assistance we are shooed away by two aggressive characters from the ballooning crew.
I did some research afterwards and there have been several incidents in 2015 and 2016. There seem to be no recent reports so maybe they’ve improved their protocols. In any case, this is a Chinese operation and knowing Cambodia there aren’t any real regulations. If there are, they are most likely not enforced.
The price isn’t that bad at $115. I remember that ballooning in Myanmar was triple this price. However, considering that a ride is only 30min and you won’t see Angkor Wat, just another small temple and some villages, I wonder if it’s really worth it.
The other option is a tethered balloon filled with helium that will bring you up to 150m above the ground. For $15 for 15min this sounds like a perfectly good alternative. Even more so, since it offers views and photo opportunities of the Angkor Wat complex.
Skip #2 – Visit an Orphanage
You may have the best of intentions, wanting to make a difference for the needy and less fortunate. However, visiting an orphanage in Cambodia is not a good idea. Many orphanages are purposely set up near to tourist areas with the sole purpose of raking in money.
It’s a well known fact that many of the children there aren’t orphans at all. Parents are paid to house their children in orphanages where they are willingly kept in bad conditions just to up donations. This must be the worst of money making schemes there is, exploiting small children out of greed. Sadly, it’s reality. Please do not play into the hands of these lowlife monsters and stay away from Cambodian orphanages.
Skip #3 – Eat a Tarantula
Some say that eating spiders originated during the Khmer Rouge reign when people were starving and welcomed anything edible. Others say that spider snacking is as old as the ancient Khmer empire.
In any case, fact is that nowadays tarantulas, or “a-ping” in Khmer, are a delicacy in Cambodia. Next to street stalls, many restaurants also have them on the regular menu. Fried with chili and garlic the tarantula is crispy on the outside and soft warm, almost liquid inside. Yum!
Or not so yum? Tarantulas are getting scarcer by the day. Rapid deforestation is undoubtedly the main reason of the large arachnid’s disappearance. However, the growing demand from tourists wanting to try an instagrammable deep fried tarantula merely as a gimmick is not exactly helping.
Skip #4 – Guided Walking Tour
We did this tour with Adventure Travel Co. Maybe their other tours are worth it, but this one certainly wasn’t. Not even for the low price of $5. Let’s face it, there just isn’t that much worth seeing in Siem Reap. Party, ok. Sightseeing, nay.
We just quickly passed by the Preah Prom Rath temple and the Old Market, with just a few words from the guide to address them. Same thing with the Royal gardens and Residence, as well as the artisanal arts market. All in all, 90 minutes badly spent.
If it’s sightseeing in Siem Reap that you want, just go it your own. Bring a map, or download one on your phone and start walking. For some more context, read up on the attractions before or after your walk.
Skip #5 – Cambodian Cultural Village
On the road from the airport to town you will find this theme park-like attraction. It has sculptures, buildings and shows that depict Cambodia throughout history. We found the whole a bit on the cheesy side. Not really a tourist trap, but definitely a Cambodian style Disney ripoff that went terribly wrong.
The place is in a terrible state of maintenance and the entertainment is just not….well, entertaining. A waxmuseum with famous Cambodian characters that you don’t know. A terrible zoo with a few animals in horrible conditions. What about a haunted house with staff from the park grabbing your ankles in the dark…ugh.
There are many shows indeed with acrobatics, folklore dance and a Khmer wedding ceremony to name a few. While I admire the energy of the performers, it’s also very corny and amateurishly executed. Ok, let’s just say that it’s not for me.
In short, spend your $15 for the admission elsewhere and leave this park to the busloads of Chinese, Koreans and Japanese that seemed to like it a lot. I absolutely mean no disrespect, but it seems that appreciating this style of entertainment is culturally decided, and that’s fine.
No, no, no, do not skip this part, even if you think that travel insurance is boring. Just realize that healthcare in Cambodia is hopelessly underdeveloped. Any serious ailments or injuries will most likely result in expensive medical transport to Bangkok or Singapore. Hospital beds in Bangkok are $500 per night and without proper insurance you will have to pay upfront.
Make sure you travel with insurance that covers medical costs abroad, evacuation, repatriation and adventurous activities. Read more about travel insurance here or get an instant, non-committal quote here.
More things to do in Siem Reap
Of course there are many more things to do in Siem Reap, but unfortunately we couldn’t do it all. All the more reason to return!
More entertainment is available with an Apsara dance show. This traditional dance is recognized by Unesco and is performed in several restaurants and theaters
There are all sorts of Cambodian craft classes, like pottery class, ceramics painting and making copper wire bracelets.
You can have some relaxing moments while getting a massage in one of the many cheap massage shops around town or let yourself be pampered in a professional spa.
If you need a little more action, there’s an excellent ziplining outfit in Siem Reap. It is said to be very professional and fun. Or maybe go horseback riding on a tourist free temple trail. Don’t know how to ride a horse? What about touring the countryside on a quad bike?
Can’t get enough of temples? Visit the outer zone of the Angkor archeological park to discover Banteay Srey or Beng Mealea. Almost as impressive as Angkor Wat, but without the large crowds.
What do you think? Are there any activities in here that you want to give a try? Or maybe there is something missing on the list that you feel should be on there. Let us know in the comments below.