Siem Reap: Angkor Wat’s Active Neighbor
Don’t miss out on Siem Reap, the big town near Angkor Wat
When people hear Cambodia, the first image that pops into mind is of course, the incredible Angkor Wat. Without a doubt, the temples should be recognized, but what about their host city? For many years, Siem Reap has just been the place to drop your bags before heading out to the ruins. Today, it is a bustling metropolis, mixing foreign influence with tradition Khmer design, past, present, and future all in one place. Don’t right off Siem Reap as just a ‘gateway’ yet, there’s plenty to experience here.
After a day in the long hot Cambodian sun, sometimes an ice cold beer is exactly what you need. Pub Street is definitely catered to a more Western clientele, with food choices ranging from Mexican to Khmer to Italian, and everything in between. Perhaps you’re feeling a bit more adventurous in your food choices, then you can sample grilled snakes, sauteed crickets and cooked duck embryos still in the shell off many food trucks circling the market.
If you want to bypass dinner and head straight to the party, you’ll have plenty of options. Angkor What? is a backpacker favorite, where it’s clever name is matched by tasty, affordable drinks. Don’t forget to try a Tomb Raider cocktail, in honor of Lara Croft’s adventures in the area.
Apsara Traditional Dances
Taking in a bit of the local arts culture is usually a great experience wherever you are. In Siem Reap, taking in an Apsara dance show is sure to be a treat. It’s believed that the movements, costumes, and stories were based on the female figures on the bas-reliefs throughout Angkor Wat. The gentle, graceful routines reenact ancient folk tales or ways of life.
Cambodia’s Royal Ballet first made this dance style popular, and UNESCO stated in 2003 that it was to be considered a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” Now, you don’t necessarily have to spend a night at the ballet; restaurants throughout Siem Reap have followed suit. At many performances, you’ll also be treated to a delicious Khmer dinner and a round trip ride from your hotel with the price of admission.
Angkor National Museum
Some may see this as a good way to escape the heat for a bit, but this museum is way more than that. This archaeological center is dedicated to preserving, explaining and sharing the ancient roots of Cambodia’s culture. Most artifacts on display range from the 9th-14th centuries, with many coming from nearby sites. It’s best to check out the exhibits here before making your way to the temples. With a particularly good audio tour as your guide, the information provided gives a much deeper understanding to what you’ll see in the temple complexes. A notable highlight is the Gallery of 1000 Buddhas, with statues and relics in every direction.
Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei, the Bayon…with 39 different sites, the list goes on and on. It’s impossible to not be enthralled by their ancient splendor, spending days on end weaving through endless corridors and monuments built to honor the gods. It is the main reason travelers come to Siem Reap, and you’ll quickly learn why.
The Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Facility
Thanks to overflow from the Vietnam War, as well as the decades long rule of the Khmer Rouge, rural Cambodia is littered with millions of UXOs and landmines. Founded by Aki Ra, once a child soldier for the KR, he has dedicated his life to disarming the ones he can find, and helping children whose lives have been rocked by their explosions.
Even though many years have passed, hundreds are still injured or killed each year. A remarkable man with an incredible story, Aki Ra founded this museum inform the public about some of the more unsavory aspects of Cambodian history, but also to help support his demining projects. It’s worth the trip to learn a lot, and to help a genuinely good cause.