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Siem Reap is the obvious choice to make as a home base for touring the world-famous, UNESCO-listed Temples of Angkor. While Angkor Wat and a multitude of other ancient places of worship will always take first place, Siem Reap is a welcoming city that can stand on its own as a destination. We stayed for 1 week in Siem Reap – and only spent two and a half days at Siem Reap Temples – leaving plenty of time for us to discover the best things to do in Siem Reap besides temples!
Best Things To Do in Siem Reap, Cambodia
During our stay, we witnessed a grand melting pot of local customs and Siem Reap tourist attractions, traditional Cambodian life and modernization. The old is giving way to the new as Western tourists with money continue to flood the city and residents aren’t blind to the opportunities and possibilities of a better life.
#1 Converse with Siem Reap Locals
Forget about Siem Reap sightseeing; the top Siem Reap, Cambodia point of interest is the people. Cambodian people are full of life…and smiles. We loved watching locals as they went about their day – whatever work they were doing, they were likely to be flashing a wide smile. People work long hours, often away from their families, for little money and yet they are still quick to smile, engage in conversation and have a laugh.
English is widely spoken – especially by the younger generations – and they are eager to practice speaking it. Most conversations started by locals are an attempt to sell something. Being approached by a young Cambodian woman, a typical conversation would go something like this:
“Where you from?”
“Ooohhhh. The United States of America. Washington D.C. your capital. Barack Obama was your president.”
Yes, that’s right.
“And before him George Bush and before him George Washington.”
Uh huh. Well, close enough.
“Buy a book from me. I use money to pay English lessons. Buy bracelet; my mother made it. She is sick. Ten bracelets for one dollar (pronounced onnnee daaahhhh-la). You buy from me.”
Everybody wants a dollar – and tourism is definitely what makes the dollar go ‘round. (And, an interesting fact, the currency is actually the US Dollar; accepted – and preferred – everywhere.) We really don’t know if the young girls who approached us were seriously just trying to pay for an education or if their mothers are really sick, but we wished we could have given them all a dollar…or more.
Other people that we engaged in conversation – restaurant workers, hotel staff, shop owners – were open and honest with us, willing to share their stories and their future aspirations. They told us where they were from and showed us pictures of their kids. They tugged on our heart-strings and made us feel like welcome friends in their country.
#2 Shop at Siem Reap Markets
Some of our favorite places to visit in Siem Reap were the markets – and the city has multiple: the Old Market, the Day Market, the Night Market. While the Day and Night Markets have turned into Siem Reap tourists’ spots, the Old Market remains an authentic experience. We think it’s one of the top places to go in Siem Reap to get a glimpse of local life. The vast building is packed with vendors sell fresh produce, dried fish and pantry items. At the Old Market, visitors can also find creepy-crawling things to eat in Siem Reap, like crispy crickets and deep-fried spiders.
Shopping in Siem Reap for tourist items – such as printed temple pants, an elephant tank top, magnets, postcards and other souvenirs – is done at the Day and Night Markets. It is also common to see children – some as young at four or five years old – peddling merchandise, ready to haggle the price of souvenirs, books and bracelets that they carry with them through the streets.
#3 Eat and Drink on Siem Reap Pub Street
Siem Reap at night is completely different than by day. Tourists return from Siem Reap temple tours in the late afternoon and by nightfall the bars are hopping. One of the top things to do in Siem Reap at night is go to Pub Street; besides the temples, it’s one of the most famous Siem Reap places to visit.
Attractive for its large concentration of late night pubs and clubs – including Angkor What? And The Temple Bar – partying the night away at Siem Reap bars on Pub Street is one of the fun things to do in Siem Reap. Fifty cent draught beers and $1.50 strong cocktails entice travelers to abandon their early morning temple schedule (but don’t, because Angkor Wat sunrise is amazing!).
The people-watching on Pub Street alone is worth the trip – think Bourbon Street in New Orleans…minus the beads. If you are looking for what to do in Siem Reap besides temples, Pub Street should top your list.
#4 Get a Fishy Cambodian Pedicure
I had heard stories about pedicures involving fish, but I had never seen it…until visiting Siem Reap. Large fish tanks surrounded by bench-seating and filled with two-inch long fish can be found throughout the Siem Reap city center. For only $3 we were allowed to immerse our feet into the water for a half hour and let the fish nibbled away the dead skin from our feet and toes. After the initial ticklish shock, we relaxed as the fish went to work. A fish pedicure just might be the best cheap massage in Siem Reap!
Looking for a massage that doesn’t include fish? A traditional Khmer massage is a perfect way to relax after long days of touring temples. Hour massages are inexpensive – like this Khmer massage for $20 USD.
#5 Ride in a Siem Reap Tuk Tuk
It would be impossible to walk along the street in Siem Reap and not hear the questions, “You need tuk-tuk, sir?” The motorcycles with attached carriages are waiting outside every hotel, restaurant, bar, market and temple in the city. A few drivers – those with an entrepreneurial spirit – have named their tuk tuks and offer premium services, such as custom music playlists. But, one thing is the same, the going rate for a short ride is just one dollar.
For a few more dollars, you can hire a driver for city Siem Reap tours by tuk tuk. Let the driver take you to the top places of interest in Siem Reap and enjoy the ride!
#6 Take a Self-Guided City Tour Siem Reap
Siem Reap is not a flashy city. It’s smaller than we thought it would be and is completely walkable – which makes exploring the city on foot one of the best free things to do in Siem Reap. When we were exploring Siem Reap, we stuck to the city center, but opted to take alleys and side-streets. Discovering the hidden lanes is one of the things to do in Siem Reap town that provides a bit of insight into local life. The streets are filled with scooters and family restaurants occupy sidewalk space. Buildings are low-rise and red-roofed. Many streets are unpaved and trash seems to be deposited (and collected!) just about everywhere.
Want a guide to show you to the best spots in Siem Reap city? Learn the history and gain a better understanding of Siem Reap on a private city tour.
More Siem Reap Things To Do
We visited Siem Reap on a small budget Cambodian Itinerary – but we wished we would have splurged on one – or more! – of these top-rated Siem Reap activities:
Cruise the Tonle Sap Lake – Join one of the top tours from Siem Reap on this small-group Tonle Sap Lake Cruise and see a Siem Reap floating village and Buddhist Monastery.
Siem Reap Street Food Tour – Experience the unique gastronomy of Cambodia on a guided Cambodian cuisine tour.
Cambodian Dance Show – Watch a Phare performance that combines theater, folk music and Cambodian folklore.
Cambodian Pottery Class – Get your hands dirty and spin a pottery wheel to create traditional Cambodian ceramics.
Cambodian Village Cooking Class – Learn the secrets of Cambodian cooking from a local chef…and enjoy the 3-course meal you prepared!
How Many Days in Siem Reap?
When determining how long to stay in Siem Reap, there are several factors to consider. Although there are things to do in Siem Reap apart from temples, the Angkor Wat complex will most likely be the focus of your trip. How many days you need in Siem Reap will depend on how many temples you want to see…and how much time you want to spend seeing them.
Personally, we think one day in Siem Reap is not enough. A single day would only allow enough time see Angkor Wat…and zero time for experiencing things to do in Siem Reap other than temples. You need at least 2 days in Siem Reap, but – to be honest – 3 days in Siem Reap is ideal. It allows for enough time to see the temples and the top things to do in Siem Reap besides Angkor Wat. Here’s a quick outline of what to do in Siem Reap in 3 days:
- Day 1: Tour the best temples in Siem Reap with a guide (and stay for sunset), go to the Siem Reap Night Market
- Day 2: Sunrise at Angkor Wat, visit a few more temples, spend most of the day at Siem Reap, Cambodia tourist spots in the city (markets, city exploration by tuk tuk or on foot, fish pedicure, swim in your hotel pool) and end the day on Pub Street.
- Day 3: Tour more temples (see our list of temples in Siem Reap to visit) and enjoy a nice dinner on your last night in Siem Reap.
This is just a suggestion of things to do in Siem Reap in 3 days based on our time in Siem Reap, but read on for a few more ideas of what to do in Siem Reap beside temples. If visiting Phnom Penh is also part of your trip to Cambodia, be sure to read our guide for the Best Things To Do In Phnom Penh!
Cambodia Temples Siem Reap
Of course, the Temples of Angkor are the top places to see in Siem Reap, but deciding which to visit can be a little overwhelming. Read our Siem Reap Temples Guide to help plan your Angkor Temple Tour.
Where To Stay in Siem Reap, Cambodia
There is an incredible number of places to stay in Siem Reap – from Siem Reap hotels to guesthouses to hostels. During our visit, we stayed at The Villa Siem Reap, which truly enhanced our time in the city. From the moment we walked in and were greeted by Mr. Phally to our morning breakfasts with our waitress, Peep, to our final farewell, we felt like honored guests. We were always addressed by name and with a smile. It was a bonus that the air con was like an ice box, the pool was a refreshing respite from the hot days and the food was delicious. And, the room was priced well within our budget. We wouldn’t stay anywhere else!
Before You Go To Cambodia
- Siem Reap is a walkable city…but only if you pack the right travel shoes! Don’t forget to pack a pair of lightweight and comfortable walking shoes for your trip. I (Sarah) have always packed these shoes by Columbia, Skechers and Reef. Kris prefers wearing these shoes by Merrell and Sanuk.
- We’re certain you’ll be snapping tons of photos during your trip. Rather than relying on your mobile phone to capture the sights, upgrade to an actual camera for higher quality photos. We travel with a Canon Rebel (which takes amazing photos, but can be a bit clunky) and a Canon PowerShot ELPH (which takes beautiful pictures and is a slim and lightweight budget camera).
- To better understand the history of Siem Reap and the Angkor Wat temples, a guidebook is essential!
- Whether you travel with a backpack or a suitcase, you will also want a great day pack to organize and secure all of your everyday essential travel items.
- If you haven’t already obtained travel insurance for your trip, consider traveling protected with World Nomads.
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