Siem Reap is a cheerful city that embraces travelers like old friends. This region was the site of successive capitals of the Khmer Empire from the ninth to the 15th centuries. The ruins, collectively known as the Angkor Archaeological Park, are located about four miles north of the city center. The 150-square-mile complex, which includes the famous Angkor Wat Temple, is Siem Reap’s biggest tourist draw. But in recent years, this ancient yet dynamic destination has been attracting travelers to stay longer and explore its other facets. A few days in this Cambodian city shows that Siem Reap straddles the best of both worlds—a glorious past and a vivid present. The best way to get to know it is to explore it slowly, one story at a time.
Day 1: Temples galore
There’s no better way to begin a trip to Siem Reap than to rise well before dawn to explore the Angkor Archaeological Park. A tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) will get you there in 20 minutes, but you can also reach the complex by bicycle, riding down wide roads flanked by lush forest. Pack your breakfast and give the UNESCO World Heritage site at least four to five hours. Despite the daunting crowds outside, the temples look sublime silhouetted against the rising sun and pink-orange sky.
Spread over a vast area, the site has jaw-dropping remains of sandstone temples, canals, and reservoirs built by the Khmers between the ninth and 14th centuries. Angkor Wat, the most popular temple, is the largest religious monument in the world, covering nearly one square mile. It was built as a Hindu temple by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. In the 14th or 15th century it was converted into a Buddhist site and continues to be an important place for Theravada Buddhists. Inside, the walls come alive with gorgeous carvings of scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. On another wall, 88 carved Asuras and 92 devas seem to grunt with effort in an illustration of the Hindu legend of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Nearby, carved apsaras smile mysteriously as they flaunt elaborate hairdos.
Near Angkor Wat is Angkor Thom, the sprawling 3.5-square-mile complex that was the last capital of the Khmer Empire. Its most splendid remaining structure is the Buddhist Bayon Temple, the towers of which are carved with 216 gigantic, beatifically smiling faces.
From Angkor Thom, venture east on the Little Circuit of stunning monastic complexes and smaller temples. Ta Prohm temple, featured in the 2001 movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, is a tourist favorite. The colossal banyan tree roots that embrace the ruins are the main draw. Big Circuit, a cluster of temples further northeast of Angkor Thom, has the Preah Khan and Pre Rup temples, each wonderful in its own way.
Wind down on Pub Street, Siem Reap’s center of cool, for a hearty lunch at French bakery and café Blue Pumpkin, a large, sunny joint known for cakes, sorbets, and ice creams. Try the Cambodian kuthiew, a traditional white noodle soup with pork or chicken, as you lounge on couches on the upper floor. Blue Pumpkin also serves delicious steaks, burgers, and pastas.
Grab a coffee at the nearby New Leaf Book Café and dive into Cambodia’s history. This non-profit bookstore carries a vast collection of books in various languages. Powerful memoirs offer insight into the Khmer Rouge genocide, such as First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung and When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge by Chanrithy Him.