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Siem Reap lies on the northern shores of the Tonle Sap Lake. It's the main access city for Angkor's magnificent temples, and a popular launching pad for further travel into Cambodia and Thailand. Not just a headquarters for exploring neighbouring regions, it also boasts popular markets, craft shops, museums and Apsara dance performances.
The Temple of Angkor Wat is Siem Reap's most famous feature. Situated just outside the city centre, the UNESCO World Heritage Site dates from the 12th century and is the largest religious monument in the world. Within the city, the Angkor National Museum provides a useful cultural and historical background for the Angkor Temples and the ancient Khmer civilisation. The Aki Ra Landmine Museum is also worthwhile as it gives tourists an understanding of the ongoing war Cambodia is still fighting against these buried weapons.
Siem Reap has budget- and luxury guesthouses, and a host of fun bars and excellent restaurants. With so much in the way of amenities and attractions, the city is a great base from which to venture into other parts of this fascinating country. Visitors will find silk farms, rice paddies and fishing villages in the surrounding countryside, as well as a bird sanctuary near Tonle Sap Lake - one of Asia's largest freshwater lakes. The area is home to charming villages on stilts, built to accommodate monsoon flooding.
The magnificent Temples of Angkor are iconic symbols of Cambodia, the spectacular complex a vivid vestige of the ancient Khmer Empire. Built between the 9th and 13th centuries, more than 100 temples have been uncovered as evidence of this impressive ancient civilisation and one of the biggest cities of its time. The complex's ancient ruins, well-preserved temples and stone monuments take a few days to explore in its entirety.
An impressive Hindu temple surrounded by a moat, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument ever built and acknowledged as one among the greatest marvels of humankind. The walled Royal City of Angkor Thom is home to the Bayon Temple and its huge stone faces, another fascinating attraction.
If budget allows, visitors can see Angkor from the air in a hot air balloon or helicopter. It is particularly special to see the temple complex at sunrise and sunset, and it is best to avoid going during the midday heat. Also note that visitors are expected to dress respectfully and ticket vendors may refuse entry to those showing too much skin.
The Aki Ra Museum provides a jarring counterpoint to the ancient Khmer glories on display at Angkor Wat, instead showcasing the more recent horrors of Cambodia's political and social upheavals. Founded by a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, the museum provides a clear and compelling account of this troubled time, and the appalling legacy of landmines and unexploded ordinance that remain a blight on the lives of Cambodian people. Despite ongoing efforts to find and defuse these sleeping weapons, it is estimated that about five million still remain. The museum teaches visitors how to recognise mines and what to do should they encounter them.
Psar Chaa, the Old Market, is Siem Reap's most popular shopping experience for visitors. Stalls sell all kinds of souvenirs including silk, carvings, stoneware and paintings, while fresh produce and seafood stalls can be found inside. In fact, the market presents an excellent opportunity to sample all kinds of authentic Khmer food, invariably served with the distinctive local prahok, a type of fermented fish paste. A good accompaniment is coconut milk drunk directly from the fruit. The ubiquity of baguettes and frog legs is a delicious legacy of the French colonial era. Haggling is normal. So be patient, good-natured and maintain your sense of humour and you can get wonderful deals. The Old Market is central and conveniently located close to the river and the popular Pub Street.
The Angkor National Museum is an archaeological institution dedicated to the preservation and presentation of the Angkorian articles. A source of rich insight, it provides important historical, cultural and mythological context to the temple complex. Its fascinating treasures include the lion and demon heads missing from statues, Khmer artefacts predating the Angkor period and an enthralling collection of ancient Khmer and Sanskrit stone tablets. The museum also uses multimedia displays and various artefacts to evoke the golden age of Khmer culture. In addition to the entrance fee, and the optional extra cost for taking in a camera, visitors can pay for an educational audio tour.
Siem Reap's climate is typical for Cambodia, and can be described as tropical with seasonal monsoons. The weather is warm year-round and temperatures do not range drastically.
There are two distinct seasons: the rainy season and the dry season. Temperatures during the rainy season (June to October) average at about 93°F (34°C). Dry season high temperatures, from November to May, average slightly higher at 97°F (36°C).
Visitors should bear in mind that roads can get very muddy and rain showers can disrupt activities during the rainy season. The city can be dusty and very hot when it's dry. The cooler winter months running from November to February may be the best time to visit Siem Reap.
Siem Reap's variety of restaurants cater to every taste. Visitors will find traditional Cambodian (or Khmer) food as well as Western staples.
The Old Market area boasts a wonderful assortment of restaurants, as do Wat Bo Road and Sivatha Street. Pub Street is a great favourite among tourists. Psar Chaa (Old Market) is home to a group of restaurants selling local food for foreign palates. Most restaurants stay open late and it's easy to find reasonable prices. Local markets, like the Old Market, are also exciting and wallet-friendly places to sample local cuisine.
Regarding Khmer cuisine, visitors must try the national dish, Fish Amok, which is cooked with chillies, onion, spinach and coconut milk, and served with rice in banana leaves. The more adventurous should try exotic Khmer staples, like red tree ants and fried tarantulas.
A Cambodian event not to be missed is the Chaul Chnam Thmey (Khmer New Year), a three day festival held in April each year featuring colourful processions, music, dancing... and a lot of water and talcum powder bombs! People douse each other with water as a blessing, with coloured water signifying the wish for a colourful future. The local Khmer people make offerings and exchange gifts at the end of the harvesting season. Traditionally, houses are cleaned and decorated with flowers, streamers, and balloons and an altar is set up to welcome the spirit of new year. People wear new clothes for the celebrations and children give gifts of money, fruit, or other foods to their elders as a sign of respect. Many children also wash the feet of their parents or other elders to show their devotion and respect. Cambodians have many traditional games and these are played enthusiastically over the Cambodian New Year on street corners and in homes.
Chaul Chnam Thmey marks the beginning of the new year but also the end of the busy harvesting season, when farmers give thanks and celebrate the fruits of their labour. It is a fun and exhilarating time to visit the country, particularly the Angkor Wat Temple complex, where celebrations reach their peak.
The Angkor International Half Marathon attracts more than 8,000 runners annually, with nearly 78 countries represented in recent years. This 21km race through the magnificent Angkor temples has become increasingly popular.
All funds raised are devoted to victims of landmine explosions and a number of other pressing issues in Cambodia including the education and prevention of HIV Aids. There is also an Angkor bike race which has three categories: the 100km race, the 30km race, and a fun family race event.
The bike race usually takes place the day before the marathon. Participants can also choose to attend a number of related celebrations and events including a Gala Dinner Party at the Prasat Bei Temple which includes a traditional dance show.
Siem Reap is small enough for most of its attractions to be within walking distance. Otherwise, visitors can choose between taxis, tuk-tuks, rental cars, and motorcycle taxis to get around the city. Scooter or bicycle rentals are also options, though motorcycle accidents involving tourists are common enough for Siem Reap's authorities to periodically ban rental outlets from servicing foreigners.
The roads in and around Siem Reap are generally poor and Cambodia has one of the highest rates of traffic accidents in Southeast Asia. Wearing a helmet on scooters and motorcycles is compulsory (there are spot fines).
Tourists mostly use tuk-tuks for travel within the city. Indeed, English-speaking tuk-tuk drivers can double as very effective and informative guides. It's important to negotiate rates with them before setting off.
Though there are plenty of things to experience in Siem Reap, many top attractions lie just outside the city. The famous Angkor Archaeological Park is the most notable sightseeing destination. Stretching over 150 square miles (400 sq km), it houses some of the most important archaeological sites in Asia. More specifically, the park contains the magnificent remains of several buildings and monuments from the ancient Khmer Empire (9th to 15th century). The most famous sites include the Temple of Angkor Wat and the Bayon Temple. Adventurous travellers may want to visit temples like Beng Mealea, which nestles in the jungle. The Angkor temples can easily occupy visitors for several days, particularly as the Angkor Archaeological Park's landscapes are magnificent in and of themselves.
There are several notable tourist attractions within Siem Reap, including the Angkor National Museum, which is a useful complement to the archaeological wonders of the Angkor Temples. This modern museum is home to impressive galleries of artefacts taken from the temple complex. Another not-to-be-missed museum in Siem Reap is rather a different experience. Aki Ra's Landmine Museum lays out the modern strife of a country still struggling with landmines.
Visitors must be sure to visit Psar Chaa (the Old Market), a bustling collection of merchant stalls. This is a good venue for shopping and experiencing daily life in Siem Reap.
Most tuk-tuk and moto drivers in Siem Reap will be only too happy to take you on a tour of one of the area's famous 'villages on stilts'. Many of the houses lining Tonle Sap Lake are built on ten foot (3m) poles, so that when the water rises - as it does every year during the monsoon - the homes are not flooded or washed away. There are three main floating villages around Siem Reap located around the Tonle Sap Lank. The closest floating village is situated in Chong Khneas, just an hour's drive from Siem Reap. Villages closer to Siem Reap tend to be touristy, while those further away are far more picturesque and authentic.
A two-hour boat trip through Chong Khneas village costs about $8 per person or around $20 for a boatload. While the stilted homes are at their most practical during the wet season, the villages are most visually spectacular during the dry season, when their long stilts rise up eerily out of the mud or shallow water. Be aware that there have been tourist scams in the villages and that the poverty witnessed can be disturbing.
Boeung Tonlé Sap is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia. Containing a rich and diverse ecosystem, it's home to a wide array of fauna such as crocodiles, turtles, macaques and otters. Villagers live in stilted or floating houses. The Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary in the Tonlé Sap Biosphere Reserve is home to ibis, stork, pelicans and fish eagles, all best viewed during the dry season. There is also a Tonlé Sap Exhibition in Siem Reap, showcasing Khmer heritage through a display of the local people's culture and environment. Boat tours on the lake are popular and an enthralling way to see the riverside villages and interact with the locals. It usually costs well under $20 to hire a boat and you can share it between a few people. Tips for the guides are also expected.
For those charmed by Ta Prom's jungle-clad stones within the Angkor Wat temple complex, it's well worth making the five-hour round trip to visit Beng Mealea, the ruins of an ancient town centre. This little-visited sandstone temple, whose name means 'lotus pond', has now almost completely fused with the surrounding jungle. Built in the 12th century as a Hindu temple but long since abandoned, this sprawling complex is built in a similar style and scale to Angkor Wat. If you prefer to travel off the beaten track then Beng Mealea, overgrown and largely unrestored, will captivate you with its mystique and the relative freedom to explore its nooks and crannies.
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