Having stayed in Siem Reap for a month to volunteer, I was able to explore the things that the average tourist wouldn’t have time to see. We’ve all heard of the famous Angkor Wat– a UNESCO World Heritage, and as amazing as it is, going in tourist season can ruin the experience just that little bit. Here is a list of places I can highly recommend that you wouldn’t normally hear about but should seriously consider going:
Located just west of the Angkor Archaeological Park, Lake Baray is Cambodia’s largest man-made lake with measurements of approximately 8 by 2.1 kilometres. Many locals come to Baray’s surrounding beaches to relax at any given time. I went to the west side of the lake, which is just a 15 minute tuk tuk ride from Siem Reap city centre. There’s a cabana that runs along the beach on the west side, with many hammock stations that are grouped together in U-shapes. Each U-shape station costs $1USD for however long you and your friends want. There are also stalls around for you to buy food and souvenirs, or some dedicated locals will definitely walk around and offer you some local delicacies (who can forget the tarantulas!?) while you lie in your hammock and overlook the reservoir. You can also take a dip or hire a truck inner-tube (3000 riel) to bob around on the reservoir itself. For me? It was a place of reading for the whole day!
There are three main floating villages near Siem Reap, and my friend and I booked with a tour group recommended by our guesthouse (Victory Guesthouse) that went to one called Kompong Phluk. We didn’t know what to expect, as it was dry season when we visited, but to our great surprise, there was still water that running along most parts of the village. The most spectacular thing was seeing the individual buildings on stilts as high as 7 metres. Another thing that was interesting was that our boat, which we were allowed to sit ON TOP OF, drove us through the village and gave us a closer insight to what daily life in a fishing village looks like, from the kids catching fish, to the women washing clothes along the river.
While your boat takes you through any of the three floating villages, you’ll eventually reach Tonlé Sap- a combined lake and river system that is crucial for the fishing and rice industries in Cambodia. Tonlé Sap is unusual for two reasons: its water flow changes direction twice a year, and the portion that forms the lake expands and shrinks dramatically. Both facts are because of the huge difference between Cambodian climate when it comes to wet and dry seasons. My tip would be to go there in the afternoon and enjoy watching sunset over the water while eating in a floating restaurant (Keep in mind that the restaurants will be more expensive than your normal $2.50 USD meals in Siem Reap city, because of the difficulties in transporting ingredients, furniture etc.), or you can do what I did and just admire sunset on top of your boat.
Phnom Kulen National Park
Phnom Kulen National Park is about 50km north-east of Siem Reap. It’s considered by locals to be the most sacred mountain in Cambodia and is a popular place for them to visit on weekends and during festival seasons. It costs $20 for foreigners to visit (you’ll get used to the fact that admission fees differ depending on whether you’re a local or not) and has a road that leads up to the 487m hilltop. Keep in mind that you have to go up before 11am and it’s only possible to come down after midday (in order to avoid vehicles meeting on the narrow road).
Some of the highlights from this day-trip were:
1) Seeing a reclining Buddha carved out of the mountain about 1100 years ago from a single large stone. I have to admit, it was quite a walk up to see this reclining Buddha, and on the way there our tour guide told us that every visitor HAD to donate some riels to every local sitting on the steps, which was quite strange to hear, but I reluctantly agreed to do so as everyone was doing it. Nevertheless, it was still a fulfilling cultural experience to pray with incense sticks before climbing up some more steps to see the Buddha. The size of the Buddha absolute blew me away, and plus, you can enjoy a panoramic view once you’re at the top. Killing two birds with one stone here!
the MASSIVE stone that the buddha was carved from
view from top of the mountain
2) Seeing the 1000 linga in the river. It was bizarre to imagine that these intricate religious patterns somehow survived for more than 1000 years.
3) (Note: This one isn’t very well-known to foreigners, as we were the only locals here. Kudos to our very friendly local guide for this secret spot!) Seeing a waterhole that actually sinks paper. This water hole is near the 1000 linga river, but you have to walk a little further to see it. Somehow, this waterhole has its own water current and can sink our tour guide’s $1USD note from him simply throwing it into the water. This party trick also amused a lot of the locals!
4) Seeing the waterfall. This waterfall is very popular for both tourists and locals. The water is considered holy, and once you step into the water, you might be surprised to get nibbled on by some fish! The locals always say that the fish chew on your dead skin, and although I have my doubts, I couldn’t complain about a free massage.
can you spot the fish?
Here is just a very brief list of places that I loved which were a lot less quieter than Angkor War, but because Siem Reap is such a tourist hot spot, it’s very rare to find a place nearby that isn’t filled with tourists. Can you suggest some?