Contrary to popular belief, Siem Reap is far more than a gateway to the majestic Angkor Wat. We recommend what to do in this Cambodian cultural gem, including where to shop, eat and sightsee
You might think that Angkor Wat is the most impressive thing about Siem Reap, but here’s a newsflash: The Cambodian city is far more than a temple town. I would know – two months ago, my knowledge of it was limited to its ancient ruins. But my stay and tailored itinerary with Shinta Mani Club opened my eyes to the real world, where Siem Reap is a cultural wonderland worth exploring beyond its temples.
Widely known as the gateway to Angkor Wat, Siem Reap’s a historical marvel – dig deeper and I promise you’ll be fascinated by tales of its Golden Age and dark days. Today, visitors regularly flood its ancient temple ruins, but there are tonnes of other, alternative things to do (which doesn’t involve fighting for space amongst the hordes of tourists). Keep reading for my suggestions on how to best experience this charming Cambodian town in all its humble glory…
Hop on a Vespa for a real adventure
Experience Siem Reap the way the locals do – on the back of a Vespa. Organised by Vespa Adventures, a motorbike tour is the best way to explore Angkor. Not only will you visit the main temples, but also the hidden gems of the complex rarely accessible to tourists. Or to experience true Khmer culture, visit the countryside; highlights include seeing a temple restoration outside the main temple complex, receiving spiritual monks’ blessings, Khmer fortune telling, visiting a bustling local market and a farmside picnic overlooking scenic rice paddies.
The beauty of Siem Reap’s shopping scene lies in its emphasis on Cambodian craftsmanship. Be sure to tick the newly opened Kandall Village off your list. Located just minutes from Shinta Mani, the leafy shopping precinct houses a mini hipster street of indie stores hawking handmade homeware, jewellery and clothing, as well as cafes and galleries.
Next on your list of shopping haunts should be the Made in Cambodia market, a bazaar which brings together the best of Cambodia’s craftsmen. I spotted bags decorated with bottle caps and recycled brass bullets, jewellery made of saga seeds and long dresses crafted from traditional textiles.
For homewares and interior shopping, head to Khmer Ceramics Fine Arts Centre, which offers rustic (and totally Insta-worthy) handmade bowls and plates. This centre-slash-store has got plenty of heart – it channels all of its profits into training, educating and employing the disadvantaged and disabled and aims to revive the art of high-fired Khmer ceramics.
Want something a little more upscale? While there aren’t luxury labels easily found in Siem Reap, your dollars would be better appreciated at the small yet unique boutiques scattered across the central town. I personally fell in love with Eric Raisina‘s handmade clothes and bags, which are meticulously made from natural fibres. Click through the gallery for a preview.
Spend a night downtown
For blowing off steam after a day of temple exploring, Downtown Siem Reap is where all the action’s at. The Steakhouse at Pub Street served up some of the finest nosh I had on this trip. While its menu of classic American grub and contemporary Khmer cuisine may be bizarre to some, it was a winning combination for me – think melt-in-your-mouth steaks alongside delicious traditional dishes like Beef Loc Lak. For more fusion cuisine, head to Hot Rod, which melds Thai and Khmer cuisine into tantalising tapas. To end the night, bars with cheap tipples are aplenty here, but you can’t go wrong with the hole-in-the-wall Long Bar or kitschy Chinese-inspired Miss Wong’s Cocktail Bar.
But for a truly local experience…
Prepare your stomachs for a night of feasting at Route 60. Reminiscent of a huge pasar malam (a local term for a night market), the stretch of food stalls here are never-ending, and feature everything from local desserts and grilled meats to steaming hot soup. Here’s where all the locals hang out – you’ll see them stretching out on plastic mats by the road and picnicking on street food.
Learn to cook Khmer-style
If Khmer cuisine has won your heart, replicate it at home by taking a cooking class. While there are many cooking schools in Siem Reap, Shinta Mani’s Kroya has a leg up on its competitors. Instead of heading straight for the kitchen, you’ll tour the traditional Old Market with the restaurant’s chef and shop for your ingredients. With the help of Kroya’s Executive and Sous Chef, I whipped up four courses, including a zesty green mango salad with prawns, the famed Khmer dish of Amok (steamed curried fish in banana leaf baskets), a beef stew and two desserts, including Num Plae Ai: sticky rice balls filled with cubes of palm sugar and covered in crisp coconut.
Want your own tailored itinerary of Siem Reap? Book a stay through the luxurious Shinta Mani Siem Reap – read here for our full review of the five-star boutique hotel.