It’s not all about temples! The 15 best things to do in Siem Reap for every type of backpacker
Whether you’re a backpacking couple, solo wanderer or travelling with a group of friends, you’ll find that Siem Reap is an awesome city that has more to offer than its most famous attraction, the majestic Angkor Wat. I’ve sought out 15 of the coolest things to do in Siem Reap to make your experience extra special, from hot air ballooning to swimming in waterfalls. If you’re up for discovering way more to this epic destination, I’ve got you *fist bumps*.
1. Visit Angkor Wat
The largest religious monument in the world is mostly likely the main reason you’re in town, and there’s nothing cliché about this incredible piece of history that belongs on everyone’s bucket list. Jump into a tuk-tuk with some friends and hire an expert guide at the entrance to the temples, who’ll explain the fascinating stories behind this marvellous ancient civilisation.
2. Explore the other temples too
There are many more reasons to visit the Angkor National Park… over 400 more reasons in fact! You could easily spend several days exploring these hundreds of temple ruins. One not to miss is Banteay Srey, a working monastery where monks can be heard chanting. Other popular ones include Bayon (featuring the famous smiling Buddha faces), Ta Prohm (Where Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider was shot) and Angkor Tom (the largest of all the temples).
Make sure you catch at least one sunset over the magical complex from Phnom Bakeng temple. Get there before 5:30pm when they cut off access to the sunset viewpoint at the top.
3. Get LIT on Pub Street
After soaking up the ancient architecture, history, culture and scenery, it’s time to put on your dancing shoes for a bucket-filled night at Siem Reap’s party centre, Pub Street. From 5pm onwards, the street gets closed off to traffic and becomes a backpacker’s oasis. Neon lights flash, street performers grace the road and a lot of fun is had by everyone. Head over to The Angkor What? bar and create punny graffiti all over their walls (you’ll probably end up here anyway as they’re usually the last bar to close).
4. Get dirty
Get off the beaten track, literally, on a dirt bike adventure to some of the most remote areas of Siem Reap. Whether you’re an adventure lover or an experienced rider, this activity is one of the most fun things to do in Siem Reap. Go full throttle to some rural areas that millions of travellers who visit the city will never venture to. In addition to this off-road adventure through pristine countryside, if you fancy yourself a bit of a Hell’s Angel you can also choose to tackle week-long trips through the country where you’ll camp in Cambodian jungles.
5. Visit a floating village
15km south of Siem Reap lies the Tonle Sap; the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. It’s home to long boats and three fishing villages; Chong Khneas, Kampong Phluk and Kampong Khleang. Chong Khneas is the busiest due to its proximity to Siem Reap, while Kampong Phluk is larger and consists of 3 smaller villages.
The buildings in Kampong Phluk rise as high as 10 metres from the ground to avoid lake swell during the wet season. The Tonle Sap can expand to over 7400 square metres during the wet months of June to December, with waters reaching depths of 10-40m. The fluctuation between the seasons is quite dramatic and the water subsides to around 1-3m during the dry months of December to July, making this an ideal time to visit.
6. Fly high
Let’s be honest, your flight into Siem Reap could never give you enough time to soak up the panoramic views of this bustling city from above, but a hot air balloon ride could! Glide upwards and take in a bird’s eye view from a slower, quieter, serene vantage point. The sunset ride offers a magnificent view of the city and its surrounding picturesque scenery. Flying in a hot air balloon over temples and jungle as the sun sets is the stuff dreams are made of… that’s why it should be high up on your list of things to do in Siem Reap!
7. Get a fishy pedicure
After a long day at high altitudes, head over to Temple Town to give your feet some TLC. Here you can dip your feet in a fish tank and let the little creatures rush to nibble on dead skin from your toes, while you can’t help but giggle. Getting used to this ticklish sensation may require a few attempts.
I’ve seen a video of a backpacker dunking his head (eeeew) in the tank. Don’t be that guy.
8. Zipline past Angkor Wat
The only canopy tour in Cambodia is located inside the Angkor National Park, and you’ll need the Angkor Pass Ticket to access it. You’ll get to soar through the jungle tree tops, maybe even spotting gibbons as they swing into the jungle. The course is about 2.5 hours long with 10 ziplines and 21 platform stations to let you absorb the views. I’m talking suspension bridges, abseiling and insurance included in the price, need I say more?
9. Visit the Cambodia Landmine Museum
With an estimated 4-6 million land mines and other unexploded remnants left behind after three decades of conflict, it’s important to take care when exploring rural Cambodia. Former child soldier Aki Ra founded the Cambodia Landmine Museum after he returned to the villages where he had planted thousands of mines as a soldier. Aki cleared thousands of mines by hand, defusing them with homemade tools before adopting safer methods. The museum is a sad but important place to witness how landmines have affected millions of Cambodians, especially children.
10. Take a dip on Kulen
Some 50km from the city centre is Cambodia’s most sacred mountain: the Kulen Mountain, or Phnom Kulen. This holy site welcomes lots of locals who come to pray, leave offerings or take casual strolls through the park. Escape the Siem Reap heat and rest beside one of Kulen’s gushing waterfalls. The area is home to a national park, in which lies The River of a Thousand Lingas, engraved with carvings of Hindu gods and symbols. Be a respectful backpacker and remember to cover your shoulders and knees when you come here.
11. Take a cooking class
Bring out your inner chef at a traditional cooking class and let your taste buds do the exploring. A great man once said that food will tell you a lot about people… or something like that. Don an apron and immerse yourself in a Khmer culinary experience, the best part being that you get to Reap the fruits of your labour . The classes are kept small and while the chef will teach you cooking techniques and ingredient usage, you’ll do the actual cooking. Over a few hours, you’ll whip up a 3-course gourmet meal. This is usually accompanied by a village tour.
12. Watch an Aspara Dance
Back in the Angkorian days, goddess-like girls who were said to have supernatural powers used to perform the Aspara (meaning beautiful girls) Dance for the royal family only. Now, you’re probably not royalty, but you can and certainly should see this mesmerising performance. The show lasts for over an hour and the incredible costumes, dancers and lighting make the ticket worthwhile. A true one of a kind experience that you can only have in Siem Reap!
13. Wander the Old Market
Locally known as “Psah Chas” (good luck trying to pronounce that) and located in the heart of the city, the Old Market was built in the 1920’s and is where hungry locals buy their fresh produce and meat. The market is open to everyone and divided into different sections selling clothes, handcrafts and fruits. Expand your fruit palette by trying mangosteen, a native Southeast Asian fruit that’s absolutely delicious. If crispy fried tarantulas tickle your fancy, they’re up for grabs too.
14. Stroll through the Angkor Night Market
Eat street food, grab a drink and take a walk through the stalls (huts) at Cambodia’s oldest night market, which opens daily from 4pm until midnight. The huts selling goods are of a traditional Khmer style and are built from natural materials like bamboo. There’s loads to choose from, including clothing, silk, paintings, spices and jewellery. Watch as the market lights up the night and treat yourself to some unique souvenirs.
15. Stay at White Rabbit Hostel
Crawl down the rabbit hole to a funky Alice in Wonderland themed hostel. Every room in this artsy spot has a different theme. Take a cooling dip or play beer pong in the shallow end of the pool, before taking part in the daily activities like regular pub crawls, Trivia Thursdays and BBQ Saturdays. And what’s more, The White Rabbit Hostel will be hosting an intergalactic Farewell Pluto bash as part of The World’s Biggest Hostel Party on 8th August. Book now to secure your invite for a night of fancy dress, crazy challenges, exciting prizes and free drinks. See you there!
These are my favourite things to do in Siem Reap – why don’t you tell us about yours in the comments below?
About the author:
Afrika Mdolomba is an adventure backpacker from South Africa. He’s swum with whale sharks, camped on the Great Wall of China, learned Mandarin and dipped into the Devil’s Pool at Victoria Falls. You can follow him on Instagram: @afrika_insta
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