Described by Frenchman Francis Garnier as "the masterpiece of an unknown Michelangelo", Angkor Wat, or the city that became a pagoda, is the single largest religious monument in the world.
Built from 1113 during the reign of King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat took well over 30 years to complete and was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. In size alone Angkor Wat is breathtaking. The outer walls stretch for 1.5km east to west and 1.3km north to south, and the walls are encircled by a beautiful moat almost 200m wide — the entire site takes in some 200 hectares.
Heavily advertised throughout Siem Reap, the Tara Riverboat is a floating bar and restaurant anchored in the waters of Tonle Sap. It has two advertised packages -- a day and a sunset tour. While the tour includes visits to Chong Khneas and to the Gecko Environmental Centre, it's worth noting these tours are not done on the Tara Riverboat itself, but rather smaller boats with a guide. If you're planning on seeing Chong Khneas or the Gecko Centre anyway, it makes sense to bundle these together and roll them up in a Tara package, but if your main interest is seeing a floating village, then you're better off heading to one of the other, less-touristed villages, like Kompong Phluk or Kompong Khleang.
Once little more than a humble shack, Aki Ra's Land Mine Museum has been reincarnated into the Cambodia Land Mine Museum & Relief Facility -- a registered Canadian-based organisation -- which opened in April 2007 with the aim of building and developing the original museum's vision. The new centre includes an expanded museum, a dormitory residence for up to 30 amputee children and a school.
Tonle Sap Lake
If you came to Siem Reap on the boat -- either from Phnom Penh or Battambang -- the great body of water you travelled across is the Tonle Sap lake. The name means large freshwater river and it's a combined lake and river system of vital importance to Cambodia's agriculture and biodiversity. For much of the year the lake is quite small, but during monsoon season, the Tonle Sap River (connecting the lake to the far larger and more powerful Mekong River) reverses flow and water from the Mekong River flows up the Tonle Sap river, filling the lake and the floodplain that surrounds it. In the process masses of sediment is dumped, and with the forests flooded an ideal breeding ground for fish is created. This remarkable water system is the reason why the ancient Angkor civilisation was able to thrive here and grow enough crops to support such a dense population. Today, the lake remains the lifeblood of the region.
The lake is home to a number of floating and stilted villages, some of which are well worth visiting, others far less so. While it may be tempting to lump all the villages together, they're not the same, and the general rule is the further you go from Siem Reap, the more interesting and less corrupted by tourism, they are. The most commonly visited (in order of popularity) are Chong Khneas, Kompong Phluk and Kompong Khleang, with the first being the most frequently visited and so the most aggressive toward tourists.
Just about every guesthouse, restaurant, shop and tuk tuk driver will happily set you up with an evening of Apsara dancing. Though seemingly ubiquitous, the dancers are often talented and the apsara dance is still very much a part of modern Khmer culture -- it's not just a tourism invention. Most shows include a few sets of dancing, including Apsara, classical and folk dancing, and many of the shows include a buffet dinner and some drinks. .
Siem reap butterflygarden
This tourist trap boasts supposed lush gardens and 1,500 butterflies. When we visited, we spotted one butterfly the entire time we were there. The gardens and the koi pond were so moldy and overgrown that they stank. The staff were inattentive and the Khmer and international cuisine served bland and overpriced. Tourist trap for sure.
The two main spots for riding elephants are both out near Angkor, one running in the morning and the other in the late afternoon. Morning sessions are held near the South Gate of Angkor Thom, afternoon sessions run up to near the summit of Bakheng. Elephant riding gets uncomfortable quickly, so many opt for the morning session, which doesn't involve climbing a hill.
Angkor from the air
It's possible to see Angkor Wat from a tethered balloon or a helicopter. The balloon is set to the west of Angkor Wat on the road to the airport. The balloon rises about 200m into the air and offers good views of both Angkor, Phnom Bakheng and other nearby monuments. There are at least two operations offering helicopter tours, though we're not sure how popular they are as we've never, ever seen one in action. The two main operators are Helicopters Cambodia and Sokha Helicopters