This once sleepy backwater in northwest Cambodia has undergone one of the fastest periods of growth in Southeast Asia due to its close proximity to the world-famous temples of Angkor. The town has a sophisticated air along with an array of fine hotels and a flourishing dining scene however, much of the towns traditions and culture have been conserved, creating a wonderful blend of the ancient and modern.
Situated around 3 miles from Siem Reap, the staggering temple complex of Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia and the highlight of any visit to Cambodia. Dating back to the 9th century and scattered throughout a huge area of forest, together the temples comprise one of the world's greatest man-made wonders.
The centrepiece is the superbly preserved and visually entrancing Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument, built to replicate the heavens on earth. The sheer scale of this vast moated temple is hard to grasp – the entire site takes in nearly 500 acres and features five imposing lotus-shaped towers, sweeping courtyards, mysterious passageways and intricate carvings on the temple walls.
The huge walled city of Angkor Thom also forms part of the complex and encompasses many fine temples and palaces. There are five gateways into Angkor Thom each approached by a causeway built across the moat and lined with statues of gods and spirits. Within Angkor Thom is the famous Bayon Temple with its giant stone faces, possibly the most celebrated structure at Angkor after Angkor Wat. Other highlights within Angkor Thom include the pyramid of Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the royal viewing stands of the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King.
Another must see is Ta Phrom, which featured in the Tomb Raider film. Still covered in jungle as well as gigantic roots that intertwine with temple walls and corridors, creating a truly magical sight. If time allows you may also wish to see Preah Khan, which literally translates as 'Sacred Sword'; Banteay Srei; East Mebon; Pre Rup; Srah Srang or Ta Som.
Temples aside, no visit to Siem Reap is complete without exploring the fascinating string of floating and stilted villages on the nearby Tonle Sap lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in Southeast Asia. In the wet season it swells to more than five times its size in the dry season flooding the surrounding plains and forests, creating an incredibly diverse and rich eco-system. The lake is also home to numerous species of waterbird, many of which can be seen at the Prek Toal Biosphere Reserve.
As the days draw to a close and you want to sit back and relax, Siem Reap has a surprisingly diverse range of places to eat and drink. Eateries, from hawker stalls to five star venues, are scattered across the town, although many are concentrated in the Pub Street and Old Market areas. You may also like to take in a show highlighting the ancient art of Aspara dance, as depicted on the walls of the Angkor temples.