If you’re looking for a quintessential backpacker destination, then look no further than Siem Reap. There are party hostels, cracking nights out, and great drinks deals. But its not all seediness and debauchery. In fact, Siem Reap is one of the culture capitals of South East Asia, and stakes a very strong claim for our favourite city in Asia. The reasons that make Siem Reap such a great place to visit are numerous. As the city has been on the Banana-Pancake trail for many years, the tourism infrastructure here is well established. This means that there is plenty for the budget backpacker to sink his or her teeth into. Here are our suggestions if you’re looking for things to do in Siem Reap; the city of Angkor.
6. WAR MUSEUM
If you’ve done your research before setting off on your trip, you will know that Cambodia and its beautiful people were embroiled in a civil war, from 1967 – 1975, which ripped the country apart. Cambodia is peppered with relics of this period, and the War Museum in Siem Reap is host to its fair share.
The War Museum was the first time we learnt about the devastation of Cambodia’s genocide in which two-thirds of the population were killed. First, we saw a variety of wrecked tanks, planes, and helicopters as well as a line up of disused and disarmed weapons such as AK-47s and rocket launchers. We then reached a sobering exhibit which told us about the amputee victims of landmines; ubiquitous and unwelcome remnants of the war.
Two things really stayed with us after our visit:
- Perhaps naively, we still cannot understand how easily the world forgets such suffering. How did we get to this stage in life and not know anything about this conflict which was so detrimental to Cambodia? In UK schools, we simply aren’t taught about this part of the world.
- Our guide’s personal stories of how his family was affected by the war were deeply moving. We were honoured to have received such openness and honesty and we left feeling introspective and thoughtful. If you go, you really need to speak to one of the local guides – their personal insight is invaluable.
The museum is located about 4kms from Siem Reap’s centre, only a short tuk tuk ride away. You don’t need to bother with tours from agencies though; simply approach one of the many tuk tuk drivers in the city and ask for a price to the museum. Usually, they will quote you a package which also includes a visit to the Silk Farm, and Siem Reap’s ‘Killing Fields’ exhibit (a town square with infoboards and locals hoping to sell you things.)
5. SILK FARM
A Silk Farm is perhaps not something that would normally feature on a pressed-for-time itinerary. However, you can visit Siem Reap’s Silk Farm on the same day as the War Museum and is surprisingly interesting. Upon entry, we were greeted by tour guides employed by the social enterprise, Artisans Angkor who showed us around the farm. Our guide took us through each room on a step-by-step tour of the ways Angkor silk is made.
It turns out that the three of us, including our friend David, knew very little. It’s a laborious process, and would you believe that silk comes from silk worms? Sam certainly didn’t, much to his embarrassment. We wandered through rooms to the sound of wooden looms clacking to pre-determined patterns. The loom operators were so focused on their intricate work that they barely even noticed us.
On the way out, you exit through the gift shop (duh!) but instead of the usual tacky souvenirs Asia has to offer, Artisans Angkor has a wide selection of luxurious silk products which are all made on site. Let’s not beat around the bush, the products are expensive, but they are so beautifully made that they are worth it.
If you didn’t know, here’s a quick rundown of the basics of silk production:
- The artisans cultivate the silk worms to eat from the Mulberry bush
- Then they grow and eat, and eat and grow until they start to make a cocoon.
- This cocoon is then harvested and unwound to make rough and fine silk.
So ultimately, silk comes from the cocoons of these gross wormy-grubs. Think about that next time you put on your silk scarf.
4. SIEM REAP NIGHT MARKET
Siem Reap’s Night Market is split over three locations: Siem Reap Night Market, Angkor Night Market, and Siem Reap Art Centre Night Market. It is a sprawling shanty of stalls, shops, and restaurants that offers a wide variety of products for sale. Some are handmade locally, and some are undoubtedly mass-produced, but whatever your souvenir fancy, you are sure to find something here.
It is a delight to walk through the crowded streets of the market (especially after four $0.50USD Angkor beers!) Locals, vendors, and travellers scoff Cambodian cuisine in the restaurants that run adjacent to each other along the winding streets. It’s an extremely vibrant place and its only a short walk through an alley to Pub Street, the next stop on our Top 6 tour.
3. VISIT PUB STREET
It’s Bangkok’s Khao San Road on a slightly smaller, ladyboy-less scale. The two main bars, Temple Bar and Angkor What? lay opposite each other in the middle of the street and blast out western-Asian hybrid anthems. As you push through wasted revellers, the bass beats in your chest and suddenly its fun to stay at the YMCA! The music is inescapable and the drinks are disgustingly cheap. As a budget backpacker, you frankly can’t afford to miss out on what goes on here. It’s loud, it’s dirty, it’s colourful, and like the rest of Asia, we love it right?
2. HORSE RIDING AROUND SIEM REAP
Riding on horseback around villages on the outskirts of Siem Reap is one of our fondest memories. With Happy Ranch Horse Farm, we clip-clopped around the streets and trotted our way along wet, sandy tracks. It wasn’t a sunny day, in fact it was raining relentlessly all morning. That was never going to stop us though. We had the pleasure of seeing what we felt was more like the ‘real’ Cambodia, the rural areas with their rice paddies, cattle, and humble housing. Local children appeared out of nowhere smiling, calling, and waving at us and then giggling when we responded.
Katherine often used to ride horses when she as younger, but it was only the second time that Sam had ever been on a horse. It gave him quite the shock when Katherine cantered off in the most composed way possible, and his horse trotted off after her. He wasn’t even taught how! However, some saddle sores, white knuckles, and huge grins later, and we trotted back to the ranch. This ride is something a little out of the ordinary, and makes number two on our list purely because it gave us such great memories. It was a really wonderful and unique way to see Siem Reap.
1. ANGKOR WAT COMPLEX
The largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat is simply something that you would be a fool to miss. An absolute, crazy, mad fool. Is that clear?
It’s one of the oldest buildings in the world, has incredible religious significance to the people of Cambodia, and even made the final 21 entries to the New 7 Wonders of the World. Angkor Wat and the surrounding area is the most breathtaking set of temples you will see in Asia. The main reasons we were so set on visiting was because Angkor Wat is a monument of Cambodia and is of such cultural significance to the whole region. The feeling we got from being in place of such history was unforgettable; particularly as the sun rises over the temple’s central dome.
We decided to go as early as we could to get one of those amazing photographs of the sun casting Angkor Wat’s silhouette on the man-made lake in front. Despite the tuk-tuk driver not turning up, we were there early enough to take the shot, the only problem was the two thousand others that woke early to do the same. We spent the day running around the temples, exploring the shadows and climbing staircases. The age of the ancient temple made us feel like kids acting out scenes from Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider movies. The complex has many other temples which are all worth the look in their own ways, but that’s another story.
Do you have anything to add to this list? What did you get up to in Siem Reap?
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