Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap in northwest Cambodia is the gateway to Angor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to those nearby ancient temples, there are plenty of things to see and do in the Old Town of Siem Reap. This gallery showcases some of the highlights.

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1 Introduction to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap in northwest Cambodia was virtually unknown to Western cultures until Henri Mouhot, a French naturalist, explored the ruins of the Angkor region in 1860. This triggered an influx of curiosity seekers. Today, more than two million tourists visit this fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site. They all stay at “Temple Town,” a nickname given to Siem Reap. Its actual name translates to “Defeat of Siam,” a reference to the 16th century battles between the Khmer and Siamese Empires. This city of about 250,000 residents is worth an extra day or two to explore for its own merits.

Art Market Bridge, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
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2 Wat Preah Prohm Rath in Siem Reap, Cambodia

The origin of Wat Preah Prohm Rath dates back to the 16th century. The monastery was built in honor of Preah Ang Chang-han Hoy. This monk lived from 1358 until 1456. According to legend, when his boat was cut in half by a Siamese crocodile on Tonlé Sap Lake, he safely came to shore here. An ornate replica of his watercraft is displayed outside of the pagoda. Inside the Ordination Hall called Preah Vihear is a reclining Buddha crafted from the original wooden boat.

Wat Preah Prom Rath Pokambor Ave, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
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3 University at Wat Preah Prohm Rath in Siem Reap, Cambodia

This university building is one of the magnificent structures at Wat Preah Prohm Rath. The architectural delights of Siem Reap’s oldest pagoda begin at the 14th century temple gate. You can explore a Buddhist prayer hall, the monastery and an ordination hall. Take time to also appreciate the gallery of painted panels depicting Khmer historical events.

Wat Preah Prom Rath Pokambor Ave, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
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4 Garuda Sculpture in Siem Reap, Cambodia

The bas-relief in the center of this fan-like sculpture is Garuda. This Buddhist, mythological deva (or tep in Khmer) has the crowned head of a predatory bird (similar to an eagle) and a human body with extraordinary strength and power. According to legend, their golden wingspan stretched for miles. The parents for this “king of the birds” were Kashyap and Vinata. Also called a Suparna, this supernatural deity is the mortal enemy of the nāga (half snake and half human). They were born by his stepmother, Kadru.

Crn. River Road & Samdech Tep Vong Street, Samdech Tep Vong, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
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5 Royal Palace in Siem Reap, Cambodia

People familiar with the lavish Royal Palace in the capital city of Phnom Penh will be disappointed when they see the modest version in Siem Reap. This walled-in complex adjacent to the Siem Reap River was constructed in 1913. It is the official residence for the royal family when visiting the town. It housed Norodom Sihanouk during his first reign as the King of Cambodia from 1941 until 1955. Known as Samdech Euv (father prince), he also was the country’s prime minister and head of state before reclaiming his monarch title in 1993 until 2004.

NR6 & Charles De Gaulle, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
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6 Royal Gardens in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Adjacent to the Royal Palace are the Royal Crusade for Independence Gardens. They are named after King Norodom Sihanouk’s successful campaign in 1953 for freedom from French rule. This collection of tree-lined, public parks – also called the Royal Gardens – offer a delightful respite from the busy Old Town. Look closely at the trees. You will discover fruit bats hanging from the branches.

Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm NR6, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
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7 Ya Tep Shrine in Siem Reap, Cambodia

For millenniums, many Cambodians have believed in a Neak Ta. This is an earthly spirit who protects their land and belongings. In return, they must receive proper homage. The image is typically enshrined in a simple spirit house or hut under a large tree. This one, named the Ya Tep Shrine, is in the center of a traffic roundabout. Most communities have their own version of this supernatural figure. Interestingly, families often have a different spirit shrine to guard their house called a Tevada.

Preah Ang Chek & Ang Chom Shrine, Siem Reap, Cambodia
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8 Mother and Calf Elephant Statue in Siem Reap, Cambodia

The elephant was important during the Khmer Empire evidenced by ancient stone carvings at nearby Angkor. Their primary roles were transportation and heavy labor. They were also used during battles. The cultural reverence of this magnificent animal is still reflected by modern statues like this one in Siem Reap. Unfortunately, Cambodia’s population of Asian elephants is now very small. This decline has occurred despite protection laws signed since the 1990’s preventing their capture or harvesting. It is estimated only 200 to 600 live in the wild across the country. And because they are rarely bred in captivity, the domestic population is also dying out.

Oum Khun St & Pokambor Ave, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
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9 Siem Reap River in Siem Reap, Cambodia

The origin of the Siem Reap River is Mount Kulen. The fifty-mile flow ends at a lake called Tonlé Sap. Along the way are crumbling wooden houses, floating villages, humble farms and rice fields. The river, which defines the eastern border of Siem Reap’s Old Town, tends to be muddy, polluted and frankly not very appealing. The most attractive feature is a covered pedestrian bridge built in 2011. Three new bridges were opened in 2017.

Royal Palace Brigde, NR6, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
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10 Chatra Over Budda Statue in Siem Reap, Cambodia

There is often a parasol over the head of a Hindu or Buddhist religious sculpture. This umbrella is called a chatra. A deity frequently shown in this manner is Vishnu. Since the 13th century, the state religion of Cambodia has been Theravada Buddhism. The exception was in the late 1970’s when the Khmer Rouge attempted to eradicate all Buddhist temples and institutions.

Wat Preah Prom Rath Pokambor Ave, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
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11 Preah Ang Chek and Ang Chom Shrine in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Inside of this shrine located within the Royal Gardens are two statues. They are the sisters Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chom. The images of the Angkorean princesses originated at Angor Wat. However, to keep them safe from the Khmer Rouge, monks hide them until this temple was built in 1990. Although small, this sacred shrine is typically crowded with locals. They worship by bringing flowers, burning incense and washing the feet of the deities with holy water.

Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm NR6, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
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Bayon Style Buddha Statue in Siem Reap, Cambodia

This Buddha portrait in Siem Reap’s Old Town is a prelude to what is waiting for you at the Angkor archaeological site. The Bayon style is typical of the late 12th and early 13th centuries religious artwork during the reign of King Jayavarman VII. The sculptures often mixed Buddhist and Hindu elements. An example is the diadem. A variation of this headband was worn by Vishnu as a sign of the deity’s supreme power.

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12 Woman Shopping for Produce at Phsar Chas in Siem Reap, Cambodia

This local Cambodian woman will get a fair price from the produce vendors at Siem Reap’s Old Market called Phsar Chas. But when a foreigner tries to buy these bananas, dragon fruit or apples, the price is often higher even after extensive bargaining. The same is true when a tourist purchases trinkets and souvenirs.

Phsar Chas Street 09, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
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13 Mixed Vegetables at Phsar Chas in Siem Reap, Cambodia

On the north side of the Old Market is the food section. This is where Cambodians buy their fresh fruit and vegetables. We got the tour of this crowded, cramped and very hot market by our hotel chef. He lingered over this display of mixed vegetables for our cooking class. He expertly selected the finest cucumbers, squash, carrots, bell peppers, tomatoes, ginger and pomelos. Then he showed us how to prepare a spectacular, five-course Cambodian meal. Similar culinary experiences are offered throughout the city.

Phsar Chas Street 09, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
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14 Sundried Freshwater Clams on Push Cart in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Cambodia is blessed with abundant fresh water in the Mekong River and Tonlé Sap Lake. You will be tempted by lots of aquatic delicacies for sale. These clams were displayed on an aluminum push cart. The locals call them “liah.” These small, white shells are either sundried or boiled in oil and then graced with salt and garlic. Some street vendors add a touch of hot chili sauce. Learning how to pry them open is tricky.

Phsar Chas Street 09, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
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15 Three Skinned Pig Heads at Phsar Chas in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Life did not end well for these three little pigs displayed at the butcher section of Phsar Chas. Yet they are still smiling. Many Cambodians consider roasted pig head to be delicious. They eat the ears like a large potato chip, the brains are rumored to make you smarter and the tenderloins in the cheeks are a delicacy.

Phsar Chas Street 09, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
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16 Stupa at Wat Damnak in Siem Reap, Cambodia

The levels of this stupa represent the Great Elements of earth, water, fire and air. Called a chedi in Khmer, this one is located at Wat Damnak. It is the largest pagoda in Siem Reap yet among the least visited because it is on the east side of the river. It was the royal residence of Sisowath. He was the King of Cambodia from 1904 through 1927. From 1975 until 1979, the property was used by the Khmer Rouge as a military center during the height of the Cambodian genocide. Now it is the Centre for Khmer Studies.

Wat Damnak Wat Bo Rd, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
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17 Activities after Sunset in Siem Reap, Cambodia

As night falls over Siem Reap, many tourists who have visited the ruins at Angkor all day return to their hotel after dinner. Adventurous souls head towards the Angkor Night Market. Since it opened in 2007, this colorful and crowded tourist attraction has grown into about 250 shops and stalls. The local merchants offer a host of crafts, silk items, jewelry and other souvenirs. Its success prompted another Night Market to open in 2011. After shopping, extend your nightlife along Pub Street. The bars stay open until 4:00 a.m.

Art Market Bridge, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
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