Choose from 23 Fun Things to Do in Siem Reap
This great lake covering 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers) is not only the largest body of fresh water in Southeast Asia, it’s also a UNESCO-designated biosphere due to its remarkable natural features. The flow of water in Tonlé Sap changes direction twice during the course of the year, expanding and contracting with the seasons.
Most travelers choose to experience Tonlé Sap by boat, whether en route between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh or during a daytime or sunset dinner cruise. Depending on the option chosen, a sightseeing boat ride might include a visit to Chong Khneas floating village of stilted houses, a fish and crocodile farm, and a meal at a traditional Khmer floating restaurant.
Those with an interest in the lake’s biodiversity can opt for a day trip to Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, a biosphere reserve that’s home to more than 150 bird species.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Tonlé Sap is a must-see for adventure travelers and first-time visitors.
- Don’t forget to bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat when cruising the lake.
- Many boat tours on the lake include hotel pickup and drop-off.
- Tonlé Sap day trips can last anywhere from four to nine hours, depending on the option chosen.
How to Get There
Most tours of the lake depart from Chong Khneas, located 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) south of Siem Reap. The easiest way to get to the lake is on a guided tour.
When to Get There
From November to May—the country’s dry season—Tonlé Sap empties into the Mekong River, making the lake’s natural features much less spectacular. If you want to get out on the lake when it’s at its largest, plan to visit during the rainy season (August and September) when the waters reverse and the enormous lake forms. Water levels are at their lowest between April and June. The best bird viewing happens between December and April.
The People of Tonlé Sap
Spend some time on the lake, and you’ll quickly realize that most residents of the stilted houses and floating villages are fishermen. Many of these families are ethnic Vietnamese who’ve been in the trade for decades. For the most authentic view of life on the lake, head farther afield to the villages near Kampong Chhnang and Pursat.
The Bayon temple forms a square at the center of the much larger square of the vast Angkor Thom, and is the architectural highlight of the complex. This was considered by the Khmers to be the conjunction of heaven and earth, though the auspicious site was covered in jungle for centuries.
Like much in the area it dates to the 12th-century reign of King Jayavarman VII, and is particularly noted for its magnificent carved stone faces with their beatific smiles. They depict either the king himself or a bodhisattva; the confusion was probably deliberate.
The bas relief carvings on the temple’s outer walls are a riot of scenes depicting everything from celestial beings and mighty battles to humble village life.
Bayon is within Angkor Thom, which lies 4.5 miles (7 kilometers) north of Siem Reap, past Angkor Wat.
The 3 main temples of Roluos stand apart from the main attractions around Siem Reap, lying to the west of the town rather than on the main northern axis. They’re also significantly older, dating from the 9th century when this area was known as Hariharalaya.
Preah Ko, the oldest, is arranged as two rows of three “prasats” (towers) each, and boasts stunning stone carvings and plasterwork. After that comes the intricate 5-tiered Bakong, and finally Lolei, which dates from 893. This last temple resembles Preah Ko but with 4 instead of 6 towers, once stood on its own island, and is noted for its fine examples of Khmer calligraphy.
The Roluos temples are off National Highway 6 which heads west out of Siem Reap. Get there in a tuk-tuk or hire a bicycle (take good care in the unpredictable traffic).
- Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s most popular attraction, which makes for large crowds. Book your tour in advance to save time.
- Angkor Wat is a sacred site for Khmer people, and visitors should dress modestly. To visit the top tier, you must have your upper arms and thighs covered.
- At any given time, a limited number of visitors are allowed to ascend to the top tier for views of the surrounding landscape.
- A lawn in the outer ring has two free-standing roofless libraries that serve as peaceful places to escape the inevitable crowds.
The last capital of the Khmers is a stupendous complex on a stupefying scale; established in the 12th century on the site of an earlier capital, Angkor Thom dwarfs even nearby Angkor Wat. The city’s 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) of wall is ringed by a moat (which no longer holds water or – thankfully – crocodiles). Each of the five enormous gates is a monument in itself, approached by avenues lined with 108 divinities (good on the left, evil on the right).
Some elevation will help you make sense of the layout; head for the Terrace of the Elephants or nearby Terrace of the Leper King with their intricate carvings, or the hilltop Phnom Bakheng, particularly popular at sunset. Among the myriad other points of interest are the temples of East Mebon and Pre Rup, built in the same “temple-mountain” style as Angkor Wat.
The southern gate to Angkor Thom lies 4.5 miles (7 kilometers) north of Siem Reap, past Angkor Wat. Baphuon and Bayon are also within the complex while much-photographed Ta Prohm lies to the east, an evocative ruin where trees force their way through intricately carved stone.