1.Tonle Sap Lake
The real heart of Siem Reap’s agriculture is the Tonle Sap Lake – the largest lake in all of Southeast Asia that can encompass nearly 10% of Cambodia’s landmass during rainy season. Needless to say, Tonle Sap is a cultural experience in and of itself, since it is given rise to communities that live with the rhythms of the Tonle Sap. Fed by the mighty Mekong, Tonle Sap’s water level and water flow is dictated by the yearly flood pulses. That means that homes here are stilted to deal with the ever-changing water level, and local families often live meters above the water level in homes precariously balanced upon bamboo or wood stilts.
A full day exploring Tonle Sap Lake by boat is one of the best ways to see Siem Reap’s less ancient elements. If you are really looking to experience the Lake at its most vibrant, you should head to Siem Reap during the city’s yearly Bon Om Touk Festival (usually in November) that takes place just as the lake’s tide shifts and the waters change direction.
2. Kulen Mountain
Kulen Mountain is most often considered the city’s (and the country’s) most holy place. Buddhists and Hindus in the country regularly travel to the summit of the hill on pilgrimage, thanks to its particularly spiritual history. But beyond just religious significance, Phnom Kulen is also a significant place of the Khmer people, since this is where most locals would claim was the birthplace of the mighty Khmer Empire.
The best sights to see at Kulen Mountain are the two magnificent waterfalls near its base. Between bouts of exploring the falls, there are even some temple ruins and spiritual relics here – Preah Ang Thom even houses an enormous Buddha statue.
It would be a bit of a waste to leave Siem Reap without spending some serious energy exploring the city’s incredible collection of souvenirs and handmade handicrafts. While a wander through the night market is a bit of a hit-and-miss experience, the best places to find souvenirs that are both high quality and sustainably produced is by heading to the school that helps keep Khmer art alive – Artisans Angkor. Established in the mid-90s, Artisans Angkor played an integral part in keeping Khmer traditional handicrafts alive following the Khmer Rouge, which nearly wiped out Cambodia’s beautiful cultural arts, like wood carving, lacquer and silk weaving.
At Artisans, you will have the rare opportunity to see how these handicrafts are made from scratch, since a guided walk through the area’s small “workshops” is the first thing you will do after hopping off of your tuk tuk. After getting close enough to see just how delicate and intricate the processes behind some of Cambodia’s most beautiful handicrafts really are, you will find yourself in a showroom to buy your favourite souvenirs to take home. All of the proceeds made from purchases go back toward funding the training and support of local artisans who created them.
4. Chansor Village It is hard to get a real taste of what rural Cambodia is really like in tourist-centric cities like Siem Reap, but authentic countryside is not that far away. Getting there, though, is a bit more difficult – and finding a way to visit these kinds of places safely and respectfully is quite the challenge. Thankfully, there are a few villages not far out of Siem Reap where a day-in-the-life trip could mean the difference between a standard Siem Reap Temples experience and a truly extraordinary cultural experience.
At nearby community villages like Chansor Village, visitors have a chance to see what rural Khmer lifestyles are like while supporting those communities in the process. Don’t show up not expecting to get your hands dirty, though – these villages are all about rolling up your sleeves and taking part in what locals here do on a daily basis to survive. That includes planting, cooking, farming, feeding livestock and cleaning – just to name a few. At the end of all of it, you will be rewarded with a home-cooked meal with a local family that is well worth the elbow grease.