Known as one of the most significant archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, the huge forested area of Angkor Archeological Park is covered with ancient temples, featuring detailed bas reliefs that illustrate everyday life of the Angkorian era. This UNESCO World Heritage Site gives visitors the feeling of stepping into an Indiana Jones movie; and therefore has sky-rocketed up the chart on traveler’s bucket lists. Unfortunately, most people travel across the world and miss out on some of its hidden gems; not to mention, never take the time to understand what they are actually looking at. Travelers often don’t venture out into local communities that lie beyond the typical tourist track either. Let’s delve into how to best visit the Archaeological Park and ways to leave Angkor with a better understanding of Cambodia’s history and local life.
For serious trekkers, visiting the temples could take a full week, but to catch the highlights (plus a few hidden spots), I recommend the following:
DAY 1 – Angkor Wat + Hidden Temples + Museums
Begin the first morning in the Park watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat Temple. An early departure from your hotel at around 5:00am is painful… but the orange hues that cause a reflection on the moat provide a fabulous photo opportunity and set the tone for the rest of your day. It would be shame to miss seeing Angkor in its splendor simply for the sake of a few more hours of snooze time.
After sunrise, leave the crowds who are naturally drawn straight into Angkor Wat Temple and take a trek to Srah Srang, then on to Ta Prohm Temple. This hidden temple is covered with massive banyan tree roots and mature fig trees.
From here, it is a 20-minute trek further through an eerie, ancient forest to the little known temple of Ta Nei that few travelers reach. Emerging from the forest onto the ruins of this concealed temple is a highlight. You may be lucky enough to have the temple all to yourself with only the sound of song birds amidst the trees.
Head back to the legendary Angkor Wat Temple for a late morning visit once the crowds have passed. Enter through the East Gate to avoid crowds. Angkor Wat’s walls are covered with stone carvings and bas-reliefs depicting Hindu mythology and the wars of Suryavarman II. In fact, more than 2,000 Apsara dancers decorate the structure. Take in the detail and marvel at the extraordinary craftsmanship that scholars believe took nearly 30 years to complete.
Quick Tip: Even in Winter, Cambodia’s heat is intense in mid-day. So take a hint from the locals and head back to your hotel of choice during the hot part of the afternoon for a quick nap and lunch. You will be happy you did.
Afternoon Break at Museums
If you are one of those crazy people who either hate naps or can’t sleep with the fear of missing out (you know you are!). I would recommend visiting the Angkor Wat Museum in Siem Reap or the Cambodian Land Mine Museum (just outside Siem Reap) during the hot part of the day.
Angkor National Museum
The museum offers eight chronologically-ordered galleries of Angkorian-era artifacts and multi-media presentations of Angkorian history and culture. It’s a fantastic way to actually understand what you are viewing in the Archaelogical Park. If you want a little more insight than the signage’s provide, the museum has a curator that can be pre-booked for tours through their website.
Cambodian Land Mine Museum
The Cambodian Landmine Museum is an NGO run by Cambodians, for Cambodians. The small, but excellent museum explains the impact of the country’s past and remaining landmines through the story of founder Aki Ra, who was forced into the Khmer Rouge Army as a child soldier and spent 35 years fighting wars that shattered his country. The NGO is not only a museum, but also a relief facility for victims of landmines and at-risk youth. They also support a demining campaign that clears mines from small villages.
DAY 2 – Angkor Thom + Outlying Temples + Lake Villages
On day 2, return to the Park to the ancient city of Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Great Khmer Empire under the reign of Jayavarman VII. The towering city wall creates a perfect square and is still surrounded by its original moat. Stand under the stone South Gate and admire its carved elephants and giant carved faces before entering the city, passed sculptures that line the pathway. Once in the center of the ancient structure, you will approach Bayon Temple – a 12th century masterpiece with 54 towers each representing the Great Khmer Empire’s 54 providences. Before you leave, stop by the Terrace of Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King, which have intricate bas-reliefs that should not be missed!
Quick Tip: Elephant rides are available in the mornings from Angkor Thom’s South Gate to Bayon Temple for around $15 USD per person and takes around 20 minutes.
To make your trip full of variety and local immersion, I suggest fitting in a visit to West Baray on the morning of day two. This reservoir is a true engineering feet from the 11th century, used for rice production. The lake is located just west of Angkor Thom and features a picture-perfect temple sitting on a man-made island directly in the center. Depending on the tide, there are small wooden boats available to take you around the reservoir and through its floating villages, providing an immersion into life, past the glam of Siem Reap.
With over two million visitors per year, Angkor Archeological Park can easily lose its wander as crowds annoyingly fill your camera lens, while trying to capture that amazing stone-carved face! For an adventurous and authentic temple experience, make the trip out to Beng Mealea in the afternoon. Hidden deep within a Cambodian forest, it was left undiscovered for centuries and is still in disrepair, forcing you to actually climb through the complex ruins. Huge roots web the walls and piles of rubble create a mystical atmosphere around the decay.
Quick Tip: The road was only recently revived allowing entry into the temple so travelers are still few, but traffic is sure to increase in future years. A few tour buses arrive in the mornings, so it’s better to visit in the afternoons. The gate is an hour-drive out from Siem Reap. Unfortunately, your main Park Pass does not cover entry, so you will need to purchase this separately… certainly worth it though!
Passes are available from the main entrance on the road to Angkor Wat (kids under 12 enter for free!)
1 Day Pass – $20 USD (single visit)
3 Day Pass – $40 USD (3 days or occasions in a one week period)
7 Day Pass – $60 USD (7 days or occasions in a one month period)
Regular admission tickets do not include access to Phnom Kulen ($20 USD), Koh Ker ($10 USD) and Beng Mealea ($5 USD). Keep your admission ticket with you as it will be checked upon each park entry and at major temples.
There are several ways to get around the park’s main roads to break up the amount of trekking required:
Two-passenger motorcycle trailers (‘moto-romauk’); car taxis; motorcycle taxis (‘motodup’), and bicycles are all available.
The social enterprise project of Artisans d’Angkor is dedicated to preserving traditional Khmer skills in silk-making, stone and wood carving, lacquering and painting. By providing 1,300 artists excellent working conditions, as well as professional educational and medical welfare, the company promotes the development of rural villages one craftsman at a time. They have several workshops around Siem Reap in small villages, as well as a silk farm, but I would certainly suggest stopping by their Siem Reap Workshop and Main Showroom if you are strolling around town. It’s only two minutes from the Old Market on Stung Thmey Street. You can ask the shop for help arranging a visit to their silk farm as well if you have time.
Are you an adventurous foodie who loves exotic cuisines? Using only locally-sourced ingredients, Senteurs d’Angkor creates delicious Khmer food products. The shop provides regular work to over 200 locals, mostly women from rural areas, 10% of which are handicapped. Check out their Khmer recipe webpage!
Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles
Traditional Khmer culture in Cambodia was disrupted during the 1970’s and not permitted again until the reformation of transitional government in 1993, causing several art forms to become lost with the genocide. The old Cambodian art of woven cloth is one of these dying trades, with only a minority of elders still living after the conflict to pass down their skills to younger citizens. The Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles works to engage these generations to rebuild lost cottage industries necessary for a thriving textile industry, such as silkworm raising and weaving. You can visit their shop, gallery and workshops located just outside Siem Reap toward Tonle Sap Lake. Click here for directions.
HAVEN is a training restaurant that has been adapted from the Swiss model for vulnerable young adults from orphanages and safe shelters, as well as underprivileged young adults from very rural poor areas around Siem Reap. By teaching them the needed proficiencies for professional work as waiters and cooks, as well as important life skills, Haven works to break the cycle of poverty for young Cambodians. Not only do they provide restaurant training programs, they also support shared housing for their students, as well as computer and English lessons. Stop in for dinner at Haven to enjoy western and Cambodian dishes. The restaurant is located in a tranquil lush garden, a world away from the crowds of nearby Pub Street.
For creative local cuisine served tapas-style, head to Marum. It’s the newest addition to the acclaimed TREE Alliance group of restaurants, run by their partner NGO Kaliyan Mith – a leading social enterprise helping to build futures for the most marginalized street children and communities. Their projects are internationally recognized, with accolades such as the Skoll Award for Social Enterprise 2007, and Schwab Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2009.
Created in 2002 by the French NGO Agir Pour Le Cambodge, Sala Baï is a free hotel school based in Siem Reap. Each year the school trains 100 young Cambodians in four key areas of the hospitality industry as waiters, cooks, receptionists & housekeepers. Their restaurant serves Asian and western cuisines, which helps to support their vocational training. They also have a training hotel if you are looking for a place to stay, while supporting the community.
Downtown Siem Reap is certainly not the place to feel the “real Cambodia.” Lined with hotel chains and restaurants catered to foreigners, it’s a far cry from the genuine experience you are after. For an authentic evening out, I suggest wandering down Pub Street to enjoy Cambodian beer with the locals and the backpacker-types. The beer gardens on this row range from small wooden hole-in-the-wall places to larger restaurants. Most of them are good, so take a stroll and peek in a few until the atmosphere feels right for you.
Old Market “Psa Chas”
Siem Reap is teaming with markets, but perhaps the most well-known and most centrally located is the Old Market or Psa Chas. It’s houses everything from clothes and souvenirs, to rat traps and jewelry. I know I don’t usually list the common markets that can be cluttered with tourists, but I have to make mention of Psa Chas for one particular reason – the food market at Psa Chas is fantastic during bustling mornings. Local women’s chatter and negotiations swirls around crowded stalls, displaying everything from colorful fruits to freshly-plucked chickens. It is local immersion at its best…but not for the faint of heart. The smell of fish and meat in close quarters may just send some folks right back out the way they came in. For dedicated foodies and those with a taste for authentic, rustic life (like me!) – It’s the crème de la crème.
Grasshopper Adventures Bicycle Tours
This small, boutique company offers cycling trips throughout Asia. I am fond of Grasshopper because they share my love of sustainable, socially responsible and adventurous travel. They take their cyclers to cultural enriching sites and present them in a profound way, so travelers can experience the country in its true form. They also focus on out-of-the-way places where tourists are few. Around Angkor, they offer a day-trip out to Beng Mealea Temple through back roads, past rural landscapes; a combination program with kayaking on Tonle Sap; a short half-day countryside ride for the casual biker; as well as longer trips – like a 14-day journey from Siem Reap, crossing over into the ancient city of Hoi An, Vietnam…now that’s an adventure!
Siem Reap Food Tours
Although not run by Cambodians, I like to think of these two souls as “locals”. Expats Lina Goldberg (food and travel writer, most known for her blog Move to Cambodia) and Steven Halcrow (a Scottish chef with a passion for Khmer ingredients), take small groups through the heart of Siem Reap and Pradak Village, sampling authentic dishes along the way from food stalls, local markets and cozy restaurants. You will come away with a newfound love of Cambodian cuisine and perhaps two new friends. These passionate Khmer foodies explain their culinary tour best on their website – so check it out.
Osmose – Conservation, Education, Ecotourism
It’s a mouth-full, but Osmose does exactly what their name states – all in an effort to protect the endangered bird life of Tonle Sap Lake and Prek Toal. These environments hold the last stronghold of large breeding waterbirds in Southeast Asia. In an effort to stop poaching and the over-harvesting of eggs and chicks, Osmose creates alternative income-sources for these workers through ecotourism, and continues their initiatives through education. They have three different itinerary choices, which take you out to floating villages and the bird sanctuary by boat along with a ranger. It’s a great way to learn about these local villages while supporting a sustainable industry for them.
VOLUNTEERING NEAR SIEM REAP
Although I am not one to pick favorites, I am focusing today on NGO’s for Cambodian children – as 65% of the country’s population is under 25 years of age, many of which were born into poverty as a result of the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970’s.
Although I do have one caveat before diving in…
The Global Commute is committed to sustainable NGO’s that empower people to lift themselves out of poverty by providing them with opportunity and tools. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of donating a negligent amount of your time or money to charity because you want to help out. Children especially tug on the heart strings of travelers as they pass through on vacation. However, passerby’s who donate to charities without learning of their values and practices may be growing the business of exploiting children. If you’re on vacation in Cambodia – please, please, please use your time in the country to learn about the needs of the Cambodian people and their struggles with NGO’s before giving. Even better, do some homework on charities before you travel. You can set up time with those organizations that are doing things the right way to see their projects on the ground.
I would also suggest reading these two articles which share two balanced perspectives on volunteering in Cambodia. The authors of these articles could not have said it any better – thank you!
How Much Good to International Volunteers Actually Do – by Linsday Denny
Voluntourism: What Could Go Wrong When Trying to Do Right – By Daniela Papi
All of these charities listed below require long-term commitments from volunteers (for good reason!), but welcome day visitors to learn about their projects. Most likely, you won’t enter classrooms or interact directly with children… would you want strangers coming in off the streets to spend time with your kids at school?
The below are just two organizations that are doing things right. This post would be way too long if I mentioned all of them, although I hate to leave good causes and movements out! Feel free to leave your recommended charity or volunteer opportunity (of any type!) in Cambodia below in the comments section or just shoot me an email and I will add it to this post as a Reader Recommendation if it meets The Global Commute’s standards.
Cambodian Child’s Dream Organization (CCDO)
CCDO works to create healthy, educated, sustainable villages in rural areas of Siem Reap. Their mission is to promote sustainable village development in partnership with Cambodian people by helping to provide clean water, sanitation, educational opportunities, healthcare, improved nutrition, and economic empowerment.
You can volunteer in Cambodia for CCDO for a minimum of two months to one year, but they do welcome day visitors to learn more about their projects. I recently got the privilege of speaking with Founder, Jenni Lipa who shared the remarkable story about how CCDO was born and the amazing things they have accomplished for Cambodian children. Click here to view our full conversation – How Ordinary People Can Achieve Extraordinary Things with Jenni Lipa.
Spitler School Foundation
Danny and Pam Spitler’s story is the type of fairytale that The Global Commute loves! – they were two typical tourists traveling through Cambodia in 2015, when their local guide Sarin took them to tour his village and touched their hearts so tremendously that they donated $400 to build a well. This bond led to an ongoing partnership that is now known as the Spitler School Foundation, responsible for two full educational compounds in that village that provide daily learning, English lessons, computer training, annual medical services and scholarships for over 900 children every year. Sarin and the Spitlers have been honored by the Cambodian government and invited to the White House where they received the Champions of Change award.
The Spitler School Foundation welcomes qualified volunteers for a minimum of one month in order to maintain the professional stature of the enterprise. They do welcome the opportunity to provide a guided tour to visitors who make advance arrangements as well, in order to tell the Spitler School story. These tours to not interrupt their school, in efforts to maintain their vision of providing their students and teachers with privacy, safety and dignity.
Website: www.spitlerschool.org ; www.razoo.com/SSF (donation site)
So that wraps it up! I hope this curated little list will help you get closer to your Journey Beyond the Bucket List! No matter what you chose do to in Angkor or elsewhere, I hope it expands your knowledge of the place and deepens your compassion for its people.
…and just in case you missed it, make sure you check out my guide to Phnom Penh, where I share my top 20 must see and do items.
Feature Photo Credit: David Davis/Hermera/Thinkstock
Sunrise of Angkor Wat: Copyright Rene, Flickr – Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Tonle Sap Lake: Copyright Collin Key – Flickr, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Siem Reap Market: Copyright totalitarism – Flickr, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Smiling Girls: Copyright Trey Ratcliff – Flickr, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic