Siem Reap literally means Siam Defeated, referring to the Khmer sacking of the great Thai city of Ayutthaya in the 17th century. Until recently, this French Indochinese town with its Colonial buildings and tree-lined boulevards was little more than a staging post for visitors on their way to the temples of Angkor and the Roluos Group. Today, however, it is fast becoming a destination in its own right, with quality restaurants serving excellent French-influenced cuisine, upscale boutique hotels, and a new airport. The locals have been quick to ride the tourist wave with souvenir shops selling silk kramas (scarves), and tour agencies and massage vendors cropping up.
Angkor National Museum
Opened to the public in 2007, the Angkor National Museum is housed in a sprawling building with well-manicured lawns. The museum comprises eight individual galleries, each containing a wealth of ancient Angkorian artifacts. On arrival, visitors first head to the screen- ing of a documentary on the marvels of Angkor entitled Story Behind The Legend. The next stop is Gallery 1, with its stunning exhibition of 1,000 Buddha images in wood, stone, and precious jewels. The subsequent galleries focus exclusively on subjects such as the pre-Angkorian period, Khmer kings, and Angkor Wat. A mall with a shopping center is attached to the museum.
Psar Chaa and Around
Once the mainstay of the town’s vendors, today Psar Chaa today faces serious competition from swanky new malls and supermarkets. Nevertheless, the market continues to be a popular stop for both locals and foreign visitors who are drawn to its cool corridors not only because of the reason able prices, but also for the sheer variety of goods on offer. Stalls stock everything from Khmer silk kramas to lacquer ware and silverware, as well as groceries.
Nearby is the carefully restored old French Quarter and the atmospheric Pub Street. This lively area, aptly named for the numerous restaurants and pubs lining its length, comes alive at night with loud music, apsara dance performances, and crowds of visitors sauntering up and down the street.
Les Chantiers Écoles
A school set up in the early 1990s for under-privileged children, Les Chantiers Écoles is located down a tiny side street. Here, children are taught stone carving, lacquer- making, silk painting, and wood sculpting. Visitors can walk through the workshops with a guide who explains the stages of each intricate craft; the tour takes about an hour. Artisans d’Angkor, the school’s shop, is also located in the same complex and sells products made by the students.
Those keen to see the process of silk farming can head for the Les Chantiers Écoles silk farm, 10 miles (16 km) northwest of Siem Reap. The tour takes three hours. Bus rides from Les Chantiers Écoles are available.
National Centre for Khmer Ceramics
A non-profit, non-government organization, the National Centre for Khmer Ceramics was established to re-introduce Khmer’s ancient pottery techniques to the country. The center also provides valuable job opportunities to the people of Siem Reap province, which, despite the consider- able wealth accrued from visitors to nearby Angkor Wat, is still the poorest in Cambodia. Students are taught for free and are encouraged to set up their own studios on completion of the course. They learn to work with clay and master the potter’s wheel, and kilns faithfully modeled on an ancient Khmer design. Guided tours of the center are generally given by one of the trainees, and those interested can also try their hand at the potter’s wheel. The center also has a lovely souvenir shop, which sells some of the finished ceramics made on-site. Shoppers can pick up some good bargains here. Afterwards, visitors can relax in the center’s charming, shady tropical gardens.
Tonlé Sap Exhibition
Krousay Thmey, an NGO that supports orphans, has set up the informative Tonlé Sap Exhibition in the outskirts of Siem Reap. This exhibition offers an insight into the ecology of the Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The lake and its marine-rich waters feed over 3 million people and provide 75 percent of the country’s annual fish stocks. The displays, which feature models, nets, illustrations, and a range of fishing equipment, focus on the varied wildlife of the lake, as well as its floating villages and the people who live in them. Visitors can pamper their tired muscles at the end of the day by opting for a traditional mas- sage at the adjoining NGO, Seeing Hands, which has been set up to help the blind.
Cambodian Cultural Village
Hugely popular with the Cambodians, the Cambodian Cultural Village is an interest- ing hour’s diversion for inter- national visitors who want to learn about Cambodia’s diverse demography, religion, and architecture. There are Cham (Muslim), Khmer (Buddhist), and Phnong and Kroueng (animist) houses, as well as floating villages in the complex. There are also miniature replicas of famous contemporary buildings in Cambodia and wax renderings of national historical figures. A variety of shows, such as apsara dances, fishing ceremonies, and a lion dance, provide a brilliant insight into the country’s ancient traditions. This place is worth a visit, especially for those traveling with children.