Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument and a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a must-see for many travelers. This iconic temple complex in the Siem Reap province of Cambodia attracts nearly 2.5 million foreign visitors annually—a number that is growing by about 15 percent each year. Yet the province remains one of the poorest in the country.
Travelers can do their part to spread the tourism wealth by staying a few extra days to explore beyond Angkor Wat and contribute to the local economy, conservation projects, and social enterprises that are paving the way toward a brighter future for locals and creating meaningful experiences for visitors. Here are five ways to make the most of your time and dime in Siem Reap.
Snag a snack, support a cause
Then lunch on local flavors in the eco-friendly bamboo structure of Spoons. This open-air restaurant serves up more than Khmer dishes with a creative twist. It’s also a hospitality and leadership skills training facility for underprivileged youth.
Sample fish amok—Cambodia’s national dish—at social enterprise eatery New Leaf. This little restaurant is doing big things for people and the planet. It was one of the first places in Siem Reap to introduce biodegradable takeaway containers, bamboo straws, and recycled glasses, and a large percentage of its proceeds go to the staff and to local projects aimed at improving the community.
Go behind the scenes
Follow in the footsteps of Hollywood filmmakers and travel company Hanuman’s location scouts with a tour that offers insider information on local sites where films like Tomb Raider and Transformers were shot. You’ll see Siem Reap through the unique lens of filmmaking combined with local lore.
If you’re hungry for more, join Hanuman’s Celebrity Chef Cooking Class and head to the quiet Cambodian countryside to gather ingredients from local markets. You will learn how to cook stuffed frog with kroeung paste at the same place where Gordon Ramsay did and prepare spring rolls like Anthony Bourdain did on No Reservations.
Take a hike, bike, or boat
Trade the honking car horns for melodic sounds of nature on a Cambodia Bird Guide Association (CBGA) trek to the paddy fields, marshlands, or forests outside the city. Or board a boat to the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary with the Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation for a chance to spot painted storks and black-headed ibis. If you prefer to explore closer to the city and temples, both CBGA and Sam Veasna can arrange guided bird tours combined with heritage and history near the city and sites. Hanuman offers a playful and engaging Angkor Thom photo scavenger hunt perfect for family fun.
And for the true foodies and adventurers, Khiri Travel’s Biking for a Bite culinary cycling tour is an eco-friendly way to sample Siem Reap’s street foods, including snails, lotus buds, and fish curry soup.
Immerse in the arts
Sit down with a local expert and learn traditional Khmer skills to craft your own jewelry, make stone and wood carvings, or weave a silk scarf on a traditional loom at Artisans Angkor. This long-standing social enterprise perpetuates Cambodian arts and provides high-quality handcrafted products while creating economic opportunities and professional skills training to rural youth.
Spend an evening enjoying the arts in motion at Phare, the Cambodian Circus. Don’t let the name deter you; you won’t see a single animal or ringmaster at this show. What you’ll find is a highly skilled, high-energy team of young acrobats and performers sharing Cambodian stories through dance, theater, music, and circus arts. Phare Ponleu Selpak (meaning “the brightness of the arts”) provides training and a living wage for these youth and an unforgettable night of entertainment for those fortunate enough to catch the performance.
Buyer beware: Estimates for souvenirs imported to Siem Reap run as high as 80 percent. But you can find quality locally crafted gifts if you know where to look. The open-air Made in Cambodia Market is a great place to start. Grab a bite to eat, strike up a conversation with a local artisan, and enjoy live entertainment while perusing souvenir options.
Angkor Handicraft Association (AHA) Fair Trade Village also offers a variety of locally made products such as silks, statues, and ceramics all under one roof. For those who prefer to shop-hop, AHA provides a map that identifies Siem Reap stores that sell authentic Cambodian goods.