Siem Reap, most widely known for the Angkor Archaeological Park, is a cheerful city that embraces travellers like old friends. The ruins, located on a 150-square-mile complex, include the famous Angkor Wat Temple, Siem Reap’s biggest tourist draw. This region was the site of successive capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th centuries. But in recent years, this ancient yet dynamic destination has been attracting travellers to explore its other facets.
A few days in this Cambodian city show that Siem Reap straddles the best of both worlds: a glorious past and a vivid present. The best way to get to know it is to explore it slowly, one story at a time. Embark on this journey with us as we discover the true pleasure of nourishment through food, the power of prayer and the inner peace and balance of true love in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Fall in Love with the Mesmerising Sights of Angkor Wat
“Wat” means temple in Khmer, the language spoken in Cambodia, and Angkor Wat is translated as “the City which is a Temple”. It is the main temple complex of Khmer megalopolis and it is still today the largest single religious monument in the world. Originally built as a Hindu temple by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, it was transformed into a Buddhist temple with the adoption of Theravada Buddhism by the Khmer people. To witness the sun’s rays gently illuminating the temple is magical. Inside, the walls come alive with gorgeous carvings of scenes from the Battle of Lanka and Battle of Kurukshetra. You’ll also find many tourists lining up for a spiritual moment with the orange-robed monks who recite Buddhist prayers, bless people with holy water and tie yarn around tourists’ wrists.
There is a plethora of temples to check out within the park. If you are a fan of Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider you should add the mystic temple of Ta Phrom to your list; it is known for the massive fig tree and silk-cotton tree roots growing out of the ruins that you see in the movies. From below, Bayon looks like a conglomerate of stones, but as you make your way up to the 3rd level, the beauty of the enigmatic smiling faces are revealed. While a bit more remote from the main complex, Banteay Srei, the pink temple or the Citadel of Women, boasts some of the most exquisite 3D carvings in pink sandstone.
We also recommend hopping on a helicopter by Helistar Cambodia at the end of your trip to reflect on a country that is juggling massive outside demand to experience its beauty while struggling to preserve its own priceless culture.
Praying for a Landmine-Free Cambodia
The Cambodian Landmine Museum is a 15-minute drive from the Angkor temples. Its founder, Aki Ra, was a child soldier during the Cambodian genocide. Cambodia remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world as a result of decades of conflict, including a civil war, the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and genocide, American bombings, and Vietnamese occupation.
Dozens of civilians are still injured or killed every year by landmines and other unexploded ordnance that have been leftover from the fighting. Landmines and UXOs are found in backyards, in the rice fields where people work and on the roads where children walk to school. Millions of the country’s landmines have now been cleared, but there is still a lot of work to be done; it is estimated Cambodia will not be entirely free of landmines for several decades to come.
The museum’s exhibits display the landmines Aki Ra dismantled – a chilling reminder of the ones still buried beneath the Cambodian countryside. Various disarmed grenades and unexploded aerial bombs are stark evidence of a dark chapter in history. The museum also supports and provides education to children affected by landmines.
Feasting on a DIY Khmer Lunch and Theatrical Japanese Dinner
A trip to Siem Reap wouldn’t be complete without having the chance to try an authentic Khmer meal. So, we figured what better way than checking into a cooking class for this rewarding meal? Start the day with Chef Mongkol of Changkran Khmer and the local market to get fresh ingredients, including tropical fruits, lotus roots, edible flowers, water lilies, and local herbs.
Back at the restaurant’s kitchen, Chef Mongkol uncovers the secrets of his traditional cooking style while sharing Cambodia’s unique stories and culture.
Our best dish turned out to be the Fish Amok, also a local favorite, that’s made with freshwater fish covered in coconut milk, eggs, fish sauce, palm sugar and Khmer paste called Kroeung.
For dinner, head to Hashi, complete with a fish-shaped sushi bar. Order the likes of spicy tuna volcano rolls, lightly seared salmon rolls with hints of yuzu, chirashi sushi bowls or, for the fish averse, wagyu beef tenderloin. This huge, bright and boisterous sushi parlour where chefs also dish up amazing teppanyaki is an absolute theatrical delight! On the other hand, Shabu-shabu fans who enjoy swishing their meats in simmering broth won’t be disappointed either.
Whether you’re into channeling your inner Lara Croft by striking a pose at the atmospheric Angkor Wat, curious to attempt to locate deactivated mines at the mock minefield or ready to try your hand at preparing the traditional Khmer fish amok, you’ll be drawn to the irresistible lure of Siem Reap.