Give Siem Reap your undivided attention and you'll unearth a dozen different dimensions to this famed city besides its status as a gateway to Angkor Wat. Busy fruit, veg and handicraft stalls in the Psar Chaa old market sit within sight of the chic French Quarter’s fine dining restaurants. Take a stroll through streets hung with lanterns, trying local dishes at street corner stalls, before wandering through art galleries and artisan workshops. Drive just outside the city and find unexpected tranquility in quiet rural villages on the shores of Tonle Sap Lake.
Obviously there's a lot more, this is just to get you started...
As soon as Siem Reap stops, you're in the countryside, where farming communities surround marketplaces and the aromas of cooking and woodsmoke fill the air. One village, Kampong Phluk (on the river running from Tonle Sap Lake) is particularly striking, as its 3,000 or so Khmer residents live in stilted huts built on the floodplain. A sunken forest that surrounds the area has become a haven for wildlife, including the fascinating crab eating macaques. Getting out of Siem Reap doesn't take long, but a boat ride across Tonle Sap Lake is about as different from the crowds of Angkor Wat as you could hope to imagine.
Travel about 50km north of Siem Reap and you'll discover the creeper-shrouded Beng Mealea temple, en route to the ancient Khmer capital of Phnom Kulen. This huge, jungle-covered hillside has become a pilgrimage site for Hindus and Buddhists, and many locals will walk beside you on the worn stone steps to Kulen's summit. On the way up you'll pass several precariously placed pagodas, including Prohm Teus and Preah Ang Chup, as well as the giant carved Buddha of Preah Ang Thom, before finally reaching the high plateau for all-encompassing views across the surrounding plains. Once you’ve soaked up the views, you can spend time hiking, cycling and walking to waterfalls between exploring ancient archaeological sites.
Sometimes Siem Reap is seen as just a transit area for visitors heading in and out of Angkor Wat, which is a shame. It seems bizarre that so many visitors stay in Siem Reap but rarely get to enjoy it. Build some downtime into your trip to stroll around the Colonial-style properties in the Old French Quarter, browse the boutique art galleries and artisan workshops, or simply set off to sample street food in the Psar Chas market, before settling down to fine dining in a choice of Khmer-French fusion restaurants. Alternatively, simply take extra time to relax and enjoy the facilities, space and spa treatments at a high-end hotel - you are on holiday, after all!
Discover the true breadth of Cambodian culture by exploring the Angkor Temples, bustling Phnom Pehn before heading to the Cardamon Mountains and rounding up with a few days on Cambodia’s islands.