Thousands of travellers flock to Cambodia each year; most of them ensuring they stop in spectacular Siem Reap and spend at least a few days whizzing around the famous Angkor Wat. The largest religious monument in the world, there’s no surprise it attracts this much attention; this rediscovered temple complex has fascinated us for decades and even became part of popular culture, through the acclaimed Tomb Raider movie and gaming series.
But, what else is there to do in Siem Reap other than take a tuk tuk around the temples? Actually, the answer will surprise you! Siem Reap is more than just temples and offers a buzzing art, culture, shopping and food scene.
Sampling Khmer cuisine
First up, the food. Khmer food has come of age, offering exotic spices and pairings that will delight many a palate; even a very discerning one. There is a huge burgeoning food scene in Siem Reap and you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised at the calibre of high-end restaurants and tastings on offer.
Wild offers you relaxed, patio style dining or you could head over for delicious cocktails amidst contemporary art at Tribe. Try the more traditional lok lak at the New Leaf Eatery or go sustainable by visiting one of the many homegrown cafes dotted around the city centre. Pick of the bunch for lunch is Footprints Cafe, a project to bring disadvantaged youths into the culinary scene and also give back to the community through donating any profits.
If it’s bar culture that you’re after, you could head to the achingly trendy Village Café, which boasts an extensive cocktail and wine list plus absolutely divine tapas (try the croquettes!) and often a live DJ, or creative cocktail institution, Miss Wongs, which will remind you more of a roaring 1920’s speakeasy than a bar in central Siem Reap.
Our suggestion? Do a food tour while there. Taste Siem Reap is a bespoke, premium operator in the city which offers different options including fine dining, hidden gems, or fusing art and cocktails. They also have a community dining tour, to see some of the sustainable cafes in action.
Go shopping (and coffee slurping) in Kandal Village
Blink and you might miss it, but Siem Reap has an eclectic ‘new’ street called Kandal Village (actually Hap Guan Street) that it undoubtedly worth a turn. Modelled on the London suburb of Hackney, you’ll find gorgeous boutiques, small art galleries and amazing coffee shops all jostling for space on this street, which is literally one street over from the busier Pub Street.
Kandal Village is the perfect place to spend an afternoon, browsing the local fashion, buying premium trinkets or just drinking a flat white on the balcony at the Red Fox Espresso Café and watching the world go by below.
Definitely pop your head in at hipster giftware store, Trunkh and Louise Loubatiere, which offers gorgeous homewares and silky textiles.
Take in more recent history, at the Apopo Hero Rats
It’s not a museum exactly, but the Apopo Hero Rats Centre gives you a fascinating glimpse into Cambodia’s more recent history and, if you ask us, it’s a must-visit location in Siem Reap. You’ll probably know that Cambodia was hugely set back by the Vietnam War, where the country was badly bombed as it was part of the Ho Chi Minh trails. Coupled with the later barbaric Khmer Rouge regime where a large number of landmines were planted, today Cambodia still has between 1.9 to 5.9 million unexploded munitions.
It’s a behemoth of a task to clear them (and an extremely dangerous one too). So, enter *drumroll please* The Apopo Hero Rats. These are literally specially trained rats that are trained for 9 full months to sniff out bombs (well, technically the explosive material in bombs)! The rats are far better than any human or man made invention and the little critters can clear a football field of mines every 30 minutes; a feat that would take a human a full day. Because they’re not heavy enough to spark the ammunition, it is totally safe to use them and they have saved countless lives, and limbs.
The tour is 45 minutes and you’ll see a live demonstration of the rats – make sure you book it online beforehand though since it can fill up!
Cost: 5 USD per person
Address: Koumai Road, Trapeang Ses Village, Kouk Chauk Commune, Krong Siem Reap
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday, 8:30am – 5:30pm
If you do want to learn more about this history, we highly recommend you head down on a bus or shuttle from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, the country’s capital. Here you have both the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museums which, while both very sombre, are absolutely worth the trek.
Amble through the art scene
Just like the food scene is exploding, so is the Cambodian cultural and art scene in Siem Reap. You’ll probably notice while walking through the city centre that there are a number of high-end street art or graffiti pieces worth mentioning. Artists like FinDAC and Pure Evil have found their way onto the walls of Siem Reap and it’s great seeing this calibre of street art in a smaller country like Cambodia.
The city also has a full board of great galleries to frequent. If you’re in Kandal Village as we suggested, you could head to Tribe, a small art gallery founded by two London-born curators passionate about the street art scene and its effect on contemporary art.
Address: 655 Central Market St, Krong Siem Reap 17252
Opening hours: Tuesdays to Sundays, 10:00am – 6:00pm
Probably one of the more prominent galleries in town is One Eleven, which showcases a wide collection of work as well as fantastic rotating exhibitions. This is Siem Reap’s only ‘international’ gallery but it definitely promotes local Khmer artists with as much passion as international visiting artists.
Address: 7 Makara St, Krong Siem Reap 17252
Opening hours: Mondays to Saturdays, 10:00am – 10:00pm
Another gallery to check out that is a little further out of town is Theam’s House which was founded by a Cambodian artist, Lim Muy Theam. Theam has a compelling story, after he fled Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime and pursued his passion for art in Paris. This gallery is not just a gallery but also his home and workshop, as well as a place which fully focusses on ‘homegrown’ Cambodian talent.
Address: Veal Village, Phum Kokchack district, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Opening hours: Daily, 8:00am – 6:00pm
Convinced that Siem Reap is more than just the temples of the Khmer empire? Even if you are there to take in sunrise at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Wat (remember, go early to snag a spot!), or act like Angelina Jolie at Ta Prohm temple, you should still definitely give the rest of Siem Reap a fair chance as part of your Cambodia itinerary. This captivating city has far more to offer than meets the eye and should keep even the more fervent culture buffs happy.