The Cambodian city of Siem Reap is indisputably most famous for the Angkor Wat temple complex. Millions of visitors travel there every year to explore the ancient sites of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Phrom. But get off the main tourist trail and you’ll find there’s far more to this picturesque, laidback destination.
If you’re in the mood for exploring a different ancient site, any insider tour to Cambodia should include Phnom Kulen. This mountain 45 minutes from Siem Reap is where you’ll find the ‘lost city’ of Mahendraparvata. The site is relatively new to researchers, having been fully uncovered in 2013 by archaeologists using Lidar technology. It comprises an expansive network of roads, canals and temples (five in all), but is largely consumed by the jungle, with select ruins, statues and relics discoverable within the undergrowth. Considered the birthplace of the Khmer Empire, it predates Angkor Wat by about 350 years. Take one of our experienced guides, don some hiking boots and see what the mountain presents you with.
What better way to learn about the techniques, ingredients and essential flavors of Cambodian cuisine than with a private cooking lesson? For a trip with a culinary angle, local chef and restaurateur Kethana Dunnet provides a traditional Khmer dining experience. Owner of Palm Sugar restaurants in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Kethana hosts lessons in her home near Banteay Srei, revealing how to recreate Khmer dishes using substitute ingredients that may not be available in her students’ home countries.
Another authentic travel experience in Siem Reap we love to recommend comes courtesy of the performance group Phare Cambodia. Their dynamic circus show features breathtaking acrobatics, contemporary dance, song and live music in a vibrant depiction of modern Cambodian life. For a truly memorable experience, if you time your visit right, you can even get ‘back-stage’ access while the performers are warming up for the show. The circus is supported by Phare Ponleu Selpak NGO school – founded by former Khmer Rouge refugees wanting to provide young disadvantaged Cambodians with employment, training and a creative outlet.
Another inspiring cultural exchange lies in the rural outskirts of Siem Reap. The Golden Silk Pheach Preservation Center is one of the few places you can see the process of traditional Khmer silk-making in action. The silks produced here are woven using a combination of different methods – revealed only to those who visit the center. The intricately woven textiles crafted here are inspired by the patterns and symbols found on ancient royal silks held at the palace in Phnom Penh.