With Aqua Expeditions offering flights to Siem Reap as part and parcel of any Aqua Mekong itinerary ending in Phnom Penh, we thought we would share some of our favorite things to do in this must-visit city! While it remains most recognizably as the home of UNESCO world heritage site Angkor Wat, there are plenty of attractions other than temples that make this city an essential stop to the region. Whether it is fashion, nature, outdoor activities, shopping, or a spot of culture or dance, here is our list of distractions to keep you busy in case you are all temple-d out!
1. Play with Fashion
There is an air of French chic in Siem Reap that is undeniable. Granted, it could be the historic footprints of past colonial rule, but chances are you have stumbled upon the atelier of Madagascan-born Eric Raisina – Siem Reap’s first true couturier. Giving the dusty city a patina of glamor, Raisina swapped Lacroix for krama (a traditional Khmer garment, used as a scarf, bandana or decorative accessory) when he took a winter break in Cambodia, leading him to spend the next few years overseeing the silk farm for Artisans d’Angkor, a state run NGO. Fate decided that it was Raisina’s destiny to build four looms outside his traditional Khmer house on stilts near the ancient stone temples at Angkor Wat, training a dozen Khmer women to weave silk as well as raffia imported from Madagascar.
Soon, Raisina began designing couture ball gowns inspired by the surrounding temples, and is well known for the wraps of psychedelic hued ‘silk fur’, which are now patented and a trademark of his brand. He opened the first boutique in December 2004, attracting high profile temple trekkers and nine years later, a multi-level couture house is home to his design studio, Khmer weavers, private ateliers and an airy street front boutique filled with his tropical spectrum of dresses, menswear and accessories. Taking inspiration from Southeast Asian sartorial traditions, our staff’s uniforms aboard Aqua Mekong are a result of Raisina’s Paris-trained talents, presented in an elegant gray to black palette with details incorporating the iconic, and usually chequered Khmer krama in the most modern ways.
Where: Eric Raisina Couture House, The Aviary Hotel, Sangkat Svaydangkum 9, Preah Sangreach Tep Vong Street, Siem Reap.
What: Raisina’s love of textures inspire and shapes his clothes, so we would recommend buying pieces using natural materials such as silk, raffia, sisal, linen and cotton, as well as his patented ‘silk fur’, which have become trademarks in his designs.
2. Ride of Your Life
Some people want to relax when they go traveling. Not us. We want to see it all and do it all. Even better when we can combine them together, which is why you’ll find our itineraries jam-packed with the best things to do while in Siem Reap! While most tourists use the ubiquitous tuk-tuk, adventuring by bicycle through Angkor Wat gives you time to wonder and absorb the magic of the site. But have no fear, it is easy flat riding – perfect for clocking up the miles and burning off the calories, much like the cycling excursions you will find when you journey with us on Aqua Mekong. While having a tuk-tuk driver is no doubt convenient, think of all the flexibility and independence you will have to pull over on a whim, or beating traffic at peak hour (yes, it is at sunset, even Siem Reap is not immune).
Bicycles are easy to rent in Siem Reap, and cheap, starting from $1USD to $2USD per day, although many hotels include the use of bicycles in their rate. There are plenty of routes you can follow to explore the Angkor Wat site. It requires a small amount of planning, but mixing and matching from the Petit Circuit (17km loop) and the Grand Circuit (26km loop) will allow you to create a route that fits your schedule, endurance, mood, and choice of temples. If you are looking for a little more adventure, the ride south out of town to the Tonle Sap Lake (24km loop) offers a dirt path or resurfaced road that runs through typical Cambodian villages, past markets and pretty lotus fields, and is very close to one of the few free-entry Angkorian temple ruins at Wat Atwea.
Tip: Hire a bike guide if you feel like you might need an extra hand with communication or just an insider’s take on the temples and surrounding areas.
Where: You can overlap the Petit and Grand Circuits to cover a whole range of architectural styles from the different ages in Angkor.
3. Circus With a Purpose
If there is one thing you cannot miss in Siem Reap, it would be a performance at Phare Circus. Uniquely Cambodian, this circus is not only a highlight of Siem Reap nightlife but one of the country’s most innovative social enterprise models. Unlike any other in the world, the shows at Phare combine dance, theater, original live music and breathtaking circus arts to tell uniquely Cambodian stories from recent history, folklore and modern society.
Phare artists are graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO school and professional arts training center founded in Battambang, Cambodia almost 30 years ago by nine young Cambodian men returning home from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. The circus was unveiled in 2013, and the nightly professional shows take place all year round under a 330-person big top, garnering rave reviews by local and international press. Profits generated through ticket, refreshment, merchandise and private performance sales support the free education, professional arts training and social support programs where more than 1,200 pupils attend the public school daily and 500 attend the vocational arts training programs.
Where: Intersection, Ring Road, south of the, Sok San Rd, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia.
What: Once you’ve watched the show, support Phare Boutique, which sells original paintings, drawings and music CDs from PPSA and local products made by Cambodian NGOs.
4. Zip It
Once you’re done with exploring the temples, change your perspective to experience the beauty of the Angkor Archeological Park by going up in the air. This five-hour zipline tour takes you up seven flights of steps, then soaring across four hanging bridges and jungle treetops via 10 ziplines, sky bridges, and 21 platforms, right within the Angkor Wat heritage site.
Make no mistake, this adrenaline-filled experience is not for the faint of heart, but even if you are unaccustomed to canopy adventures, your safety is the highest priority. Groups are capped at nine participants and include two highly-trained guides, safety harness and equipment as well as a safety demonstration. You also get round-trip transportation and a meal, as well as choice of six departure times and two different packages which take four to six hours from start to finish, depending on your choice. At the last platform, you’ll abseil down to the ground before trekking an educational nature trail back, finally sating all that worked-up appetite with a traditional Khmer lunch.
Where: Angkor Zipline, Angkor Archaeological Park, Siem Reap, Cambodia
What: Expect your expert guides to point out wildlife in the Angkor jungle like the Park’s roaming gibbons, birdwatching opportunities, tips on herbs and plants, and stories about the Park’s centuries old history.
5. Breakfast with the Birds
For something a little quieter, you will not regret a tour to the fragile wetlands of the Tonle Sap Lake, where the 22,000-hectare Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary lies. It is a day trip from Siem Reap, but Aqua Expeditions offers a seasonal dawn excursion to Prek Toal as part of our Aqua Mekong itinerary. This happens when the southwest monsoon brings higher rainfall to Southeast Asia between May and October, causing the Mekong River to swell. It is this naturally occurring phenomena that causes the river to flow backwards into the Tonle Sap lake, with the water level increasing to more than four times its original depth by September, bringing in millions of fish, and as a result birds, as well as allowing river ships to enter the lake.
It is one of Southeast Asia’s last refuge for large water birds like the spot-billed pelicans, milky stork, black-headed ibis, and the elusive masked finfoot. Birders and non-birders will agree that it is a wonderful opportunity for photography and contemplation as you wind your way along the peaceful hyacinth-clogged waterways aboard our intimate skiffs. No other private tenders are permitted in these protected waterways, so you are sure to be in the exclusive company of only your fellow travelers, our expert guides and the knowledgeable Biosphere Reserve rangers. Brave the summit of a semi-permanent outpost built high up in trees to watch nesting pelicans and storks, so numerous in number it is a sight to behold.
Tip: Enjoy a light breakfast on our private skiffs with coffee, fruit and pastries while you take in the peaceful sounds of nature awakening to the light of morning.
6. Craft Work
Shopping while doing social good? Sign us up! Artisans Angkor is a Cambodian social business creating job opportunities for young people in rural areas, while reviving traditional Khmer craftsmanship that had almost been lost as a result of the war, such as stone and wood carving, painting on statues and on silk, lacquering, and silver plating.
What started out as an educational methodology by the Cambodian Ministry of Education to provide those skills to underprivileged young Cambodians with little education, has turned into a powerful tool for the economic integration of newly trained apprentices. The company is now the largest employer of the region, keeping education and training at the core of its mission. It boasts 48 workshops operating in 12 sites located in Siem Reap province and it provides employment to over 1100 people, including about 800 artisans.
Where: Artisans Angkor is located on Stung Thmey Street, two-minute walk from the Old Market in Siem Reap centre, Cambodia.
What: Their products are eco-friendly products; the silk production process, beginning with silkworms farming, is respectful of the environment at all stages. Artisans Angkor is also one of the few companies in Asia that uses water based-lacquer.
7. A Day at the Museum
You might want to do your homework before visiting the Angkor Wat complex itself, and we can think of no better place to start than the Angkor National Museum. Dedicated to preserving Angkorian artifacts, the museum does a phenomenal job of explaining art and culture in the Khmer era dating back to the 9th to14th centuries.
Displays are themed by era, religion and royalty as visitors move through the impressive galleries and cutting edge presentation. Other exhibits of note include the zen-like Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas, pre-Angkorian periods of Funan and Chenla; the great Khmer kings; Angkor Wat; Angkor Thom; and the inscriptions. Some special pieces you should look out for include a late-12th-/early-13th-century seated Buddha sheltered by a naga (mythical serpent-being); a 7th-century standing Vishnu from Sambor Prei Kuk in Kompong Thom; and a stunning 10th-century lintel from the beautiful temple of Banteay Srei.
Where: 968 Charles de Gaulle Boulevard, Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Tip: Plan your visit around noon to take shelter in the cool air-conditioned galleries.
Aqua Expeditions extends all Aqua Mekong itineraries ending in Phnom Penh with a complimentary flight to Siem Reap, featuring all-inclusive luxury car transfers from the port of disembarkation to Phnom Penh International Airport. Find out more from our reservations team at [email protected]