The gateway to the spectacular Angkor Wat, Siem Reap is Cambodia's most popular tourist destination - but this bustling resort town has so much more to offer. With a thriving culinary scene that includes traditional Khmer food and modern, stylish restaurants, luxurious hotels and buzzing nightlife, you can spend weeks here and barely scratch the surface. After visiting Siem Reap and quickly falling in love, here are my top five reasons to visit - besides Angkor Wat.
1. A stay at the Shinta Mani Angkor
Shinta Mani Angkor is a luxury hotel with one big difference: its beating heart is the Shinta Mani Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation which has been improving the lives of locals since 2004. Guided by a philosophy of 'Open Doors, Open Hearts,' the foundation has trained many underprivileged Cambodians in hotel hospitality for free, giving them the necessary skills to seek employment - and some of the students work at Shinta Mani Angkor today.
The hotel has received international recognition for its efforts, and has expanded its programs to provide healthcare, personal family aid, and support small business start-ups. Hotel guests are welcome to participate in the Foundation's activities during their stay; from sponsoring animals to help out farmers, to providing water wells and homes, it's inspiring to learn how you can give back to the local community.
Designed by famous hotel architect Bill Bensley, the hotel itself provides a shady, incredibly stylish respite from Siem Reap's unforgiving heat. Located in the leafy French Quarter between The Royal Gardens and the Old Market Area, the rooms are modern and monochrome, and the hotel ethical but luxurious. It's the ideal base from which to explore Siem Reap.
2. Explore Ta Prohm Temple
Everyone knows about Angkor Wat, but what many people don't know is that Angkor Archaeological Park stretches over 400 square kilometres, and contains dozens of awe-inspiring remains of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th centuries. One temple that is a must-visit is Ta Prohm, known informally as "Tomb Raider temple" due to its starring role in the Angelina Jolie film. Built in 1186, the temple was swallowed up by the jungle over the centuries, and today the entire ruin is covered by the roots of a towering tree.
Looking straight out of an Indiana Jones film, visiting Ta Prohm and seeing the iconic sight of a vast tree perched on top of a temple is an otherworldly experience. Seeing the way nature has slowly encroached on the ruins gives you a powerful appreciation of just how old these temples are, as well as how they must have looked when European explorers first stumbled upon them in the 1800s.
3. Try traditional Cambodian food
Cambodian food is fresh, delicious and healthy - and also inexplicably underrated. The best place to discover the great flavours of traditional Khmer dishes is Siem Reap, and there are dozens of authentic restaurants you can choose from. Marum, Sugar Palm, Khmer Kitchen and Viroth are all excellent, and the street food is very tasty too.
Some of the best dishes to try are fish amok (a mildly spicy, flavourful curry with galangal, lemongrass and ginger), Khmer curry (a red coconut curry), lok lak, (beef stir-fry), lap Khmer (beef salad) and somlor macho youn (Cambodian sour soup). Vegetarians won't have to miss out as tofu features heavily in Cambodian cuisine - the best veggie restaurant in Siem Reap is Banlle.
4. A meal at The Steakhouse
Once you've had your fill of traditional Cambodian food, it's time to check out the modern side to Siem Reap's culinary scene. The newest and hottest restaurant in town is The Steakhouse, which is located on the town's famous Pub Street. Meat lovers will obviously be in heaven here, but the restaurant has an extensive menu: choose from seafood pasta, fried mozzarella and salsa, pan fried raisin bread stuffed with gorgonzola, and - of course - a wide range of beef cuts.
What the Steakhouse lacks in Khmer tradition it makes up in elegant ambiance and faultless service: the smiling staff here provide the best service in Siem Reap, and seem genuinely thrilled to be working there. Most importantly, the restaurant has the most complete wine list in town, so if you're craving a glass of Malbec, this is the place to come.
5. Learn about Cambodia's tumultuous history
For visitors to Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, visiting the Killing Fields and learning about the country's heart-wrenching experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime is essential, but Siem Reap also gives visitors a unique insight into Cambodia's past. The Landmine Museum is a sobering but fascinating glimpse into the Khmer Rouge regime, and the War Museum also is worth a visit.
If you have time, hire a certified guide to educate you about Cambodia's tumultuous history over the past half century. The guides are extremely passionate about telling their story and helping you learn about their country and culture. Pay a visit to the floating village on Tonle Sap Lake, where you can discover traditional Cambodian fisherman culture and chat to locals.
Selene Nelson is a U.K.-based journalist who is travelling the world and reporting on her experiences in each country she visits.
Images by Selene Nelson.
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