Siem Reap is one of the most popular spots in all of Southeast Asia. And while there are many things to do in Siem Reap, the activity that gets all the buzz is Angkor Wat. But there’s a lot more to Siem Reap than just the temples of Angkor.
Of course, if you’re coming to Siem Reap, Cambodia, you’re going to want to explore Angkor Wat (and here’s everything you need to know before you visit Angkor!). If you missed it, that would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower, except worse because Angkor Wat is incredible and there’s so much to explore. But when temple burnout sets in, what else is there to do in Siem Reap?
Here are ten activities and things to do in Siem Reap that aren’t temple hopping!
Watch the Phare Circus
One of our best days in Cambodia ended with a show by Phare, The Cambodian Circus. Phare is a creative arts social enterprise, and one of the coolest organizations I have ever heard of. They put on shows that not only combine theatre, circus, acrobatics, music, dancing and singing, but that tell Cambodian stories, both from history and modern day. All of the performers and artists are graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO school and professional arts training center in Battambang, Cambodia.
So not only is Phare creating opportunities for disadvantaged Cambodian people to pursue careers in the arts and for Cambodians to tell their own stories through the arts, but they’re also putting on one hell of an impressive and entertaining show. We had an amazing time at the show and were totally blown away by the talent.
I would highly recommend booking tickets to whatever show Phare is putting on while you’re in Siem Reap. You can book your tickets online and shows are at 5:00 or 8:00 PM nightly. This works out great as you can still spend your day exploring the temples, and then your night at the circus! We went with the cheaper tickets and open seating; if you do the same, make sure to get there early to claim good seats.
Take a cooking class
A cooking class is one of the best ways to learn more about a culture and eat some delicious food. Colin and I were really excited about doing a cooking class in Siem Reap and had heard great things about Paper Tiger’s Khmer Cooking Class.
We arrived at Paper Tiger, which is also a restaurant, and found out we’d be the only two in the class. Score! With our instructor/chef, we walked over to the market where she showed us the different ingredients we would be cooking with and what to buy if we wanted to make the dishes at home (spoiler alert: we haven’t made them back home yet. Whoops!). We then went back to the restaurant and upstairs to the private open kitchen. We had each selected a starter, a main and a dessert to make.
Even though I’m not so great in the kitchen (Colin and the instructor had to help me catch up on my vegetable chopping), it was so fun to learn how the dishes are made. And everything we made was delicious! We made fresh salad rolls, fried spring rolls, fish curry, a beef dish and fried bananas with passion fruit for dessert.
To book, we signed up through their website just the day before and received email confirmation. We booked the evening class, starting at 5:00 PM, so we could still temple hop in the morning and relax in the afternoon. There is also a morning class and an early afternoon class. The class was $21 USD per person, which, considering it was a private class and included all the food, was a total steal! I would highly recommend this class as a great thing to do in Siem Reap.
Visit the Cambodia Landmine Museum
The museum was opened in 1997 by Aki Ra, an ex-child soldier, who has made it his life mission to clear landmines from Cambodia. In addition to clearing mines and raising awareness about landmines through the museum, Aki Ra also started an orphanage/shelter to care for children who were impacted by landmines. The program still exists today, with the children’s homes and school buildings located right behind the museum.
Cambodia is one of the most affected countries in the world when it comes to landmines – between four and six million landmines are said to still be in Cambodia today. These mines were placed in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime, American bombing of Vietnam and Vietnamese occupation, yet have impacted the people of Cambodia long after these events. The museum walks you through these parts of Cambodia’s history as well as the efforts to clear landmines.
Colin was the one who found this museum online and suggested we visit. I am so glad he did. It made our visit to Cambodia so much more than just pretty photos of temples. It gave us context and really impacted our trip. I would highly recommend a visit to the Cambodia Landmine Museum. I believe entrance was only $5 USD. The museum is a little out of Siem Reap, but it’s very close to Banteay Srey, an Angkor temple that is also worth a visit.
Visit a spa
Who could say no to a spa in Southeast Asia? This region is possibly most well-known for their inexpensive massages and spa treatments. We actually didn’t take part in any spa treatments in Cambodia, but we did get our fill in Thailand. But if you are looking for something to do in Siem Reap, a trip to the spa would be a great idea. It won’t cost you a lot of money and it will be a nice way to relax between temple visits.
Relax at the pool
One of the best things to do in Siem Reap? Cool off in the pool! Many hotels and guest houses in Siem Reap will have pools, which is the perfect place to relax after a busy, hot and tiring morning of temple hopping.
I loved the pool that was at our hotel, Bayon Boutique. It was super cute and very rarely crowded. We went down to the pool twice and had it to ourselves for most of our visit. As well, because I burn like a lobster, I loved that our pool got some shade in the afternoon – though it did make the water very cold! But you can’t really complain about being cold in Southeast Asia!
See the rats in action at APOPO
This was one thing we didn’t get to do in Siem Reap and I’m sad we missed out on it. APOPO is a non-profit organization that trains African giant pouched rats to save lives by detecting landmines and tuberculosis. How cool is that?
Now usually, I’m not a fan of anything to do with rats. Especially giant rats (seriously, these ones are like 15 inches long – not including another 15 inches of tail!). But the HeroRATs of APOPO are special. Because of their increased sense of smell and light weight, these animals are able to detect landmines and tuberculosis, making the demining and clearing process safer and faster.
You can go on a tour of the APOPO Visitor Centre in Siem Reap to learn more about the rats, landmines and to see the rats in action. Sadly, the hours didn’t work out for our schedule, but whenever we find ourselves back in Siem Reap, I definitely want to make it here.
Meet the NPA Explosive Detection Dogs
It’s not only rats who can help sniff out and detect explosives – dogs can do it too! We visited the NPA Explosive Detection Dogs for their afternoon demonstration and it was one of the cooler things we did in Siem Reap.
The demonstration starts off with a history of landmines in Cambodia and how the dogs are trained. The Belgian Malinois is the breed of dog used as they are best fit for the job. We learned a lot such as the fact that NPA supports female empowerment by hiring mostly local females to work as their dog trainers and with the dogs in the field. We also learned that no dogs have lost their lives in the field (also interesting to note that no rats from APOPO have been killed in the field either).
And then it was time for the demo! A few of the dogs were brought out and did a series of demonstrations for us, showing off their ability to find pieces of TNT or even a rubber ball. It was so impressive! Seriously, we want to sign Ellie up for this training program. And then at the end, we got a chance to meet the dogs, which was so much fun.
I would highly recommend visiting and watching a demonstration of these dogs in action. It was very cool to see! We showed up for the afternoon show and just bought our tickets ($7/person) as we walked in (actually, we were late so we bought our tickets after the demonstration). There were less than 10 of us at the training centre, so it was very intimate with lots of time for questions and to interact with the dogs.
Visit a floating village
Here’s another thing to do in Siem Reap that, sadly, didn’t fit into our four day itinerary. This might actually be one of the more popular activities, as a few tuk tuk drivers offered to take us to a floating village.
I like the idea of seeing a floating village. I think it would be very cool to see how the structures and houses on stilts look and to see daily life. But I do struggle a with activities like this that are often marketed and formatted like human zoos. I think it’s dehumanizing to go to a place just to stare and take photos of people who live differently than we do, especially in situations where it’s clear the people have been told to “perform” for visiting tourists.
But I do think there is a way to visit some of these floating villages that shows respect and interest for the people and their culture. That way may not be with a group tour. I’ve also heard that some of the villages are more authentic than others that may just be set up for tourists. I’ve been told to visit Kompong Khleang instead of Chong Khneas or Kompong Phlouk, and will do so whenever we make it back to Siem Reap.
Walk the Angkor Night Market
Our hotel was just a few minutes away from the Angkor Night Market. I really liked the night market as I found the aisles to be spacious and the wares to be pretty interesting. Of course, the sellers are a little pushy, but that’s just the way things work in SE Asia. Unfortunately, we were flying carry-on only and on airlines with weight restrictions – which meant we couldn’t buy anything. But it was fun to window shop! And we did buy some rolled ice cream at the market.
There’s also the Old Market and the Angkor Handicraft Association Fair Trade Village. I have heard great things about both but didn’t make it to either this time.
Watch an Apsara dance show
Apsara is a Khmer classical dance that is performed by women in traditional clothing, doing graceful movements to narrate a story. The clothing is very elaborate, involving ornate headdresses, and the movement of the hands and fingers seems to be very precise.
I was interested in booking tickets for us to see an Apsara dance show, but never ended up booking something in advance. Luckily, as we were walking back to our hotel after dinner one night, we overheard some music from the hotel next door. We wandered in and got to watch their Apsara dance show!
I’ll be honest: I don’t think Apsara dance is quite the style for me. I’m not a dancer, so often need the dancing to be more fast-paced or set to music I know in order to capture my attention. Apsara is definitely a slower and more fluid style of dance. So I’m glad we didn’t sign ourselves up for an entire evening of Apsara dancing. But I am glad we got to catch a number or two, and would suggest giving it a try while you’re in Siem Reap.
See? There’s so much to do in Siem Reap besides the mandatory visit to the temples of Angkor. If you’ve been to Siem Reap, I’d love to know what you got up to when you weren’t temple hopping. What did I miss from my list? Or if you haven’t been yet, let me know what activities you’d be interested in.
PS: Heading to Angkor Wat? Check out my complete guide with everything you need to know before you go to Angkor Wat!
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