Considered to be Cambodia’s most sacred mountain, Phnom Kulen sits about 50km from Siem Reap centre and is home to a sprawling national park. Locals flock to the holy site on weekends and during public holidays to pray, leave offerings, stroll through the jungle or picnic next to one of the waterfalls.
Phnom Kulen’s history can be traced back to 802AD when Jayavarman II was said to declare himself a devaraja – ‘god-king’ – at its peak. Within the national park sits a treasure trove of ancient religious monuments and structures that date back to that time, as well as leisurely activities and a walk alongside nature.
The park is home to the River of a Thousand Lingas, etched with carvings of Hindu gods and symbols, believed to date back to the reign of King Udayadityavarman II.
The river sits at the base of Wat Preah Ang Thom, a sacred temple. As well as offering sweeping vistas of the surroundings, the wat also houses ancient scripts and a giant, reclining Buddha.
There are also two waterfalls suitable for swimming, although they get pretty powerful during wet seasons and much less so throughout the dry months. A ninth-century temple, Prasat Krau Romeas, can also be reached from the waterfalls, with visitors permitted to wander around the ruins.
In 2016, the Visit Banteay Srei community-tourism drive was launched in a bid to attract tourists looking for something to do after exploring the temples. The district, which sits about 30km from Siem Reap centre, is packed full of activities that allow visitors to take a peek into local life.
As well as being home to the 10th-century temple of the same name, which is accessible with a pass to Angkor Archaeological Park and is much less visited than the main temples, Banteay Srei boasts a bounty of stunning landscapes and rural views.
Start the day at Preah Dak village, whose noodles are famous across Cambodia, and tuck into a traditional Cambodian breakfast of nam ben chok – noodle soup with chicken curry or fish broth – at one of the many stalls that line the main street.
Then spend the rest of the day choosing from the variety of activities like visiting the Cambodia Landmine Museum, a sobering but informative look at the efforts to clear the country of landmines left from decades of civil war and conflict, the wildlife centre called Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity, the Banteay Srei Butterfly Centre, as well as trekking and cycling, farm visits, ox cart rides through sleepy villages, and boat trips.
If you’re not templed out, then another worthwhile day trip is to the remote 10th-century temple of Koh Ker, which sits about 120km northeast of Siem Reap. Thanks to its off-the-beaten-track location, visitors often find they have the temple complex to themselves.
Serving as the capital of the Angkorian empire from 928 A.D. to 944 A.D., the remote site boasts 42 religious structures and monuments spread across a 9km by 4km area nestled among the forest.
Known for its extraordinary form, the temple complex was constructed by Jayavarman IV. The main focal point is impressive Prasat Thom, a 50 metre-wide sandstone pyramid that stretches 40 metres into the sky. If you’re not scared of heights, then climb to the top and enjoy the delightful views that lazily stretch to the horizon.
With Siem Reap being home to the mighty Tonle Sap Lake, a visit to the floating communities that call the expanse of water home is a must.
While the closer floating communities of Kampong Phluk and Chong Kneas have become a tourist trap in recent years, Kampong Khleang, for now, has retained its authenticity.
The traditional, stilted community that has a population of about 20,000 people can be explored by visitors and makes an interesting trip, as you observe the villagers living out their lives on the water. Many day tours will take visitors past the schools, shops, community centres, and restaurants that all operate from floating platforms.
Observe fisherman and boatmakers going about their daily work before visiting the centre of the village – an island that is home to a market, pagoda, and school.
Preak Toal Bird Reserve
If you’re not an avid twitcher, don’t let this put you off because Preak Toal Bird Reserve is a hive of interesting activity.
Comprised of about 22,000 hectares of protected area that forms part of the Tonle Sap UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the reserve is home to about 150 bird species – many of which are classified as endangered.
Several tour operators offer guided tours of the area, with Sam Veasna Center being the main one – and highly recommended for avid birdwatchers. Trips are led by Wildlife Conservation Society-trained rangers and usually include village cruises through the floating communities that live in this area, bird observation platforms, and an introduction to the conservation work carried out.
Osmose also runs a variety of trips throughout Preak Toal and runs a series of eco-trips and community-based tourism options.