The primary focus of pretty much any trip to Siem Reap is Angkor Wat, the vast temple complex that has made this region of Cambodia famous. That’s as it should be—there is amazing diversity among the many ancient ruins here. But while Angkor Wat easily deserves a place on any bucket list, there’s much more to Siem Reap than ambling around historic debris.
Balance those temple visits with a dose of the following activities, and you’ll come home with a more complete understanding of contemporary Siem Reap, from the early civilization that once ruled this land to the local villagers who plow it today, and from the astounding relics built by human hands to the natural beauty provided by Mother Nature.
A Khmer Cooking Class. The Khmer are the ethnic group who built an enormous empire in Southeast Asia, and with it the great temples of Angkor. Their cuisine lives on, highlighting fresh fish, lemongrass, chilies, and curry paste. During this class, you’ll stroll Siem Reap’s Old Market with a local chef, then bring your purchases back to the kitchen to learn how to prepare amok—perhaps the country’s most famous dish—and other Khmer specialties. The result? A tasty lunch for you and your fellow students.
A Boat Tour on Tonle Sap Lake. Ten miles south of Siem Reap lies Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest lake and the center of the country’s fishing industry. The stilted houses of floating villages dot the lake’s shoreline; you’ll visit one of these settlements before gliding in your private boat through a flooded forest, where streets turn into rivers at certain times of year. Just before dusk, you’ll board a larger boat to enjoy dinner and drinks as the lake lights up in the sunset.
A Mountain Bike Ride. Tour buses and tuk tuks clog the roads around Siem Reap. But on a bike, you can leave the exhaust fumes behind and travel via unpaved paths through rice fields and Cambodian villages—a part of the country that few tourists ever see. Following your guide, stop along the 18-mile route to sample local delicacies. Families are welcome: Kids’ bikes, trailers, and child seats are available.
The Angkor National Museum. All that’s left at the temple sites are mostly the ruins of stones walls. This museum houses an impressive collection of smaller artifacts and descriptions of the Khmer civilization, lending valuable context to your temple visits. The design of the museum’s interior is striking in its own right—particularly the Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas, where religious statues perch inside lighted notches that cover all four walls. Besides, the $12 price of admission might be worth it just for the air-conditioning. While the museum’s displays include English, a guide can answer your specific questions so that you get more out of your visit; this private city tour starts here and includes stops at a local market, the Royal Residence and Garden, and the War Museum for an understanding of life under the Khmer Rouge.
A Zipline Adventure. If all this history has you feeling a bit drowsy, get a jolt of adrenaline on the Flight of the Gibbon canopy tour. You’ll traverse four bridges and ten ziplines high up in the rainforest inside the Angkor Archaeological Park (though not in view of the ruins). At the end, rappel more than 150 feet down to the ground as your guides teach you about the local flora and fauna, including the three gibbons who currently live in the park, part of a reintroduction program that the company supports. The tour includes a Khmer-style lunch.