Take a break from the temples and see a different side of Khmer life with an array of fun things to do in Siem Reap, from extreme cuisine to quirky culture.
So it’s your third day of gazing at Apsara dancers, traipsing up ancient stairs and pondering four-faced Buddha heads, when you think, ‘Maybe I’ll find different things to do in Siem Reap tomorrow.’ Don’t get us wrong, we think the temples of Angkor Wat are unlike-anything-else-on-earth astonishing, but even the best of us get a dose of temple fatigue sometimes. Contrary to what you may think, Siem Reap is actually a fantastic choice for a relaxing getaway and there are oodles of things to do in Siem Reap besides temples. A crop of well-priced small hotels, a buzzing art scene, cultural activities, plus a laid-back, faintly colonial atmosphere come together to make it the perfect weekend destination.
It’s a compact enough urban centre so getting the lowdown on what’s on in Siem Reap and then getting around town to experience it all is a breeze. From evening cultural happenings to hedonistic party time, things to do in Siem Reap at night are all neatly bunched together amid cool bars and buzzing night markets.
Despite the inevitable headlong rush upmarket, Siem Reap’s soul is still a laidback traveller’s hub. With the lure of the temples on the doorstep, Siem Reap or simply ‘Temple Town,’ has grown side by side the headlong rush towards mass tourism but you can be out on the back roads and cycling past rice paddies in minutes. Check out our top 10 alternative experiences beyond the temples and you’ll never have to worry about what to do at Siem Reap, Cambodia.
You know how to drink them, now learn how to make them! Impress your friends back home by learning to create cocktails using exotic Cambodian ingredients. There are ample tasting opportunities while you get creative at Siem Reap’s original mixology masterclass in the garden house of Asana Bar. The traditional Khmer wooden period features on show add to the ambience as you get a crash course in fusing fresh galangal, peppers, kaffir lime and sundry other exotic herbs with rice wine.
Once you get the hang of making Ginger Mojito, Tamarind Sauce or the signature Asana Sling, there are further options to experiment with customised concoctions. There is usually a diverse mix of budding cocktail masters so you have a convivial vibe in which to learn. Asana is only staggering distance away from Pub Street so you can seamlessly dive into Siem Reap Cambodia nightlife with a spot of bar hopping.
Roll up, roll up and save one evening on your trip to watch the fantastic PHARE Cambodian Circus, performed by talented young Khmer talents in an open-air setting. It is definitely one of the most enjoyable things to do in Siem Reap at night. The shows change regularly and you quite never know what you’re getting next, but we promise you’ll enjoy every crazy moment. It’s the Khmer version of Cirque du Soleil, all daring feats, eye-popping stunts and crazy choreographed dance numbers to the beat of Khmer rock, hip hop and even folk music.
It’s an edgy mix of mind- boggling contortion, tightrope walking, a little fire dancing, juggling, dance, and comedy, performed with a distinctly Cambodian flavour. Behind each performance is a colourful story giving opening a window into the Khmer experience. Trust me, you’ll learn more here about long forgotten Khmer folk tales and contemporary culture than any amount of time on a mainstream city tour or sinking a few beers on Pub Street.
After a short bout of shopping in Siem Reap, you’ll soon come to the realisation than Siem Reap has become Cambodia’s artistic and cultural hub in the post-Khmer Rouge era. Leading this arty renaissance is shopping and social enterprise outfit Artisans d’Angkor. It is brimming with youthful endeavour across several workshops devoted to stone carving, wood carving and lacquering and silk weaving, providing rural kids with an artistic trade to break out of the poverty cycle.
Free guided tours get a glimpse of the artisans to be in action learning their craft by hand and you get to see the complete journey from raw material to finished article for sale. They also have a duty-free boutique selling the wares at Siem Reap Airport. This artisanal movement has been instrumental in preserving age-old rural crafts which had all but died out during the dark days of the Pol Pot dictatorship.
Rainforest Zip Lining
Time to head back to Angkor Archaeological Park but this time you won’t be fighting for every inch of space with a thousand other people trying to get the best temple selfies. This is temple-free fun high up in the rainforest canopy taking flight from platforms up in the towering trees. It features a comprehensive zip lining course made up of 10 precariously perched zip lines and three vertigo inducing sky bridges.
Previously called ‘Flight of the Gibbon’ Angkor Zipline is still home to the cuddly resident primates, who may just start performing their own impromptu sideshow as zip liners crisscross the rainforest canopy. Throw in a spot of abseiling and a leisurely guided trek along meandering nature trails, it’s makes for a fabulous eco-escape when temple fatigue kicks in. Angkor Zipline is also arguably the best option of all in Siem Reap for hyperactive kids to let off some steam.
It’s not Siem Reap if it’s not afternoon tea at the Raffles. Of course, you could also go to any one of the less lavish hotels in town for your tea fix, but history and hotel lovers should not miss the chance to enjoy a cuppa in the Grand Dame. The Raffles Hotel Grand d’Angkor, to give it its full aristocratic moniker is the place to go luxe in the flawless colonial-style Conservatory Bar for a choice of Khmer, Western or tropical afternoon tea. You get the polished silver three-tiered tray loaded with classic goodies such as dainty pastries and scones and a selection of little savoury works of art to nibble on with your brew.
There are few more graceful spots to escape the constant Seam Reap din, especially with the lovely view of the palms and swimming pool to take your mind off the gridlock. Come for the high tea and stay awhile for an evening cocktail or two before dinner.
Khmer Cooking Class
Don’t write this one off just because you haven’t learned to boil water. In Siem Reap, under the watchful eyes of a patient chef, you can learn to whip up mango salad, boil amok fish curry, and make coconut desserts. Cooking classes often include lots of information about local produce and even visits to the market — plus, you’ll get to eat everything later on! At Lily’s Secret Garden you’ll learn from the pros. You’ll learn about the intricacies of perfecting Cambodian chicken red curry and banana in coconut cream in a quaint traditional country house, just outside the city limits. It’s all hands-on in a homely atmosphere, with a market visit to kick it off, followed by a slow burner of a cookery class, getting to grips with both the art of cooking Khmer style and the culture behind it too.
Give the tuk-tuk drivers a break and set out on your own two wheels. Siem Reap’s tree-lined boulevards and bridges are perfect for cycling. Before long you’ll find yourself on traffic-free back roads passing serene temples, markets and buffaloes working the paddy fields.
The landscape is almost completely flat so it’s ideal for everyone, even lazy, infrequent cyclists like me. There is a ton of different options for cycle tours – either independently or as a guided group, comprising the obligatory sunrise cycling around the Angkor temples or to lesser known temple ruins out in the sticks, plantation visits, cycling and cookery tours, and more adventurous bike treks through the jungle.
Kayak on the Lake
You’ve done the temple hopping thing and now the big question is what else to do in Siem Reap in 3 days. You’ve got a full day or more to spare and the awesome Tonlé Sap Lake is sure to be the top dog on the bucket list beyond the temples. The lake is an easy drive from town and a lazy day kayaking is the best way to escape the inevitable pleasure cruise boat hordes.
Two wheels unlocks the beauty of Cambodia’s lush hinterland.
Street Food Tour
Hop on the back of a Vespa and get up close with the idiosyncratic world of Cambodian cuisine. The After Dark Foodie Tour gives a well-rounded picture of Khmer culinary culture, including bites from the night market vendors and sips of potent rice wine. After a refreshing beer or two to kick it off, you’ll scoot around hidden backstreets that only locals in the know frequent to seek out the aromas and buzz of street food life.
That means being assailed by rows of stinky durian fruit, eating frog and various other ‘extreme cuisine’ on the side of the road. Choose your poison from crunchy fried tarantulas in chilli, barbecued snake or silk worms. There are plenty of pit stops for copious glasses of rice wine to wash it all down.
It’s a whirlwind journey through Khmer cuisine without the unnecessary frills but with more of the intoxicating street vibe and local flavour, plus steaming bowls of Samlor soup and gorgeous glutinous rice dumplings. Between mouthfuls, there are also stops to a local temple and the opportunity to browse and bargain for traditional Khmer gifts.
Sunset from the Sky
What really is the best way to view Angkor’s awesome temples? You could do the usual scurrying around seeking out the best sunset spot with a million other people on the same mission, or splurge on your very own sky-high vantage point by hot air balloon in Siem Reap. Climb into the basket and check out the views from an altogether different perspective. Angkor balloons take off for sunrise and sunset flights (the latter are extremely popular so absolutely book in advance).
You get awesome bird’s eye views as light breezes and orange and red hues fill the air as the sun sinks below the horizon. If you have deep enough pockets and a head for heights, there is definitely no more cultured way to do Angkor. An even more extreme option is to take to the skies on a thrill a minute tandem microlight flight – if you dare.
In Conclusion –
Of course, the temples are what everyone’s here for, and they definitely don’t disappoint. Yet it’s also the gateway to a wealth of fun attractions, quirky tours for foodies and adventurers, and a large dose of cool Khmer culture. Those two days trawling around the temples is not nearly enough time to really do Siem Reap properly. It is a town best savoured at a leisurely pace where it’s still possible to soak up the original small-town charm and beyond the urban sprawl, the bucolic beauty of floating villages and sleepy farming communities await. A town which throws up plenty of quirky surprises in addition to the picturesque ruins, it would be a crime not to experience it all in Siem Reap.
Thinking of taking another look at Siem Reap? Score the best last-minute hotel deals on the HotelQuickly app, and make a spontaneous Siem Reap getaway a reality.
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Ray Montgomery is a seasoned travel copywriter and journalist based for more than a dozen years in Southeast Asia. Ray’s big passions are eating, tweeting and constantly seeking the next perfect ocean sunset.