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Villages on Stilts
Most tuk-tuk and moto drivers in Siem Reap will be only too happy to take you on a tour of one of the area's famous 'villages on stilts'. The houses lining Tonle Sap Lake are built on ten foot (3m) poles, so that when the water rises, as it does every year during the monsoon, the homes are not flooded or washed away. The closest floating village is situated in Chong Khneas, just an hour's drive from Siem Reap, though there are a number of these floating villages located along the Tonle Sap Lake should you wish to make a real trip out of it. Villages closer to Siem Reap tend to be touristy, while those further away are far more picturesque. A two-hour boat trip through Chong Kneas village costs about $6 per person or around $20 for a boatload. Although during the wet season the stilted homes come into their own from a practical point of view the villages are most visually spectacular during the dry season, when their long stilts rise up eerily out of the mud or shallow water. Be aware that there have been tourist scams in the villages and that the poverty witnessed can be disturbing.
Tonl� Sap Lake
Boeung Tonlé Sap (Tonlé Sap Lake) is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia, and boasts a rich and diverse eco-system. Inhabitants include multiple bird and fish species, crocodiles, turtles, macaques and otters, as well as villagers living in stilted or floating houses. The Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary in the Tonlé Sap Biosphere Reserve is home to ibis, stork, pelicans and fish eagles; the best time to view these birds is in the dry season. There is also a Tonlé Sap Exhibition in Siem Reap, showcasing Khmer heritage through a display of the local people's culture and environment. Boat tours on the lake are popular and an enthralling way to see the riverside villages and interact with the locals. Be aware, however, that while the majority of guides are friendly and competent there have been reports of some trying to scam tourists and charge ridiculous rates for boat trips. It usually costs about $15 to hire a boat and you can share it between a few people. Tips for the guides are also expected.
Temples of Angkor
The magnificent Temples of Angkor are a sightseeing must on any trip to Cambodia, taking the visitor into the heart of the ancient Khmer Empire. Built between the 9th and 13th centuries, more than 100 temples have been uncovered as evidence of this impressive ancient civilisation and one of the biggest cities of its time. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument ever built, an impressive Hindu temple surrounded by a moat, and acknowledged as one of the wonders of the world. The walled Royal City of Angkor Thom is home to the Bayon Temple and its huge stone faces, another fascinating attraction. Khmer architecture is unique and although it evolved from that of the Indian subcontinent, and borrowed from neighbouring traditions, Angkor Wat stands as testament to the power and individuality of the Khmer's ancient oriental art form. The complex includes ancient ruins, well-preserved temples, religious sites, monuments and lots of stone work and will take you a few days to explore in entirety. If your budget allows, you can see Angkor from the air in a hot air balloon or helicopter. It is particularly special to see the temple complex at sunrise and sunset, and it is best to avoid going during the midday heat. Don't forget hats and drinking water and wear comfortable walking shoes.
Aki Ra's Landmine Museum
The Aki Ra museum, often simply called the Cambodian Landmine Museum, provides a jarring counterpoint to the ancient Khmer glories on display at Angkor Wat by showcasing the more recent horrors of Cambodia's political and social upheavals. This museum, founded by Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, provides a clear and compelling account of this troubled time, and the appalling legacy of landmines and unexploded ordinance that are still a blight on the lives of Cambodian people today. Despite ongoing efforts to find and defuse these sleeping weapons, it is estimated that less than half have been cleared. Aki Ra himself deactivated over 50,000 of them, many on his own initiative. The museum contains hundreds of these landmines, and many other weapons, and provides a useful service by teaching visitors and locals how to recognise these devices and what to do should they encounter them. The museum exists to tell Aki Ra's facinating story, and to gain exposure for the Cambodian struggle with landmines, but it is also home to a number of children adopted by Aki Ra, who are all victims either of landmines, disease or simply poverty.
Psar Chaa - Old Market
Psar Chaa is Siem Reap's most popular shopping experience for visitors. The outside stalls sell souvenirs such as silk, carvings, stoneware, faux vintage items, clothes, and paintings and photos of Angkor Wat temples. You can even get very reasonably priced hair cuts at the market. Further inside are fresh produce and seafood stalls. The food stalls are an excellent opportunity to sample authentic Khmer food, invariably served with the distinctive local Prahok, a type of fermented fish paste. A good accompaniment is coconut milk drunk directly from the fruit. The ubiquity of baguettes and frog legs is a clear, and delicious legacy of the French colonial era. Be aware that some merchants have learnt to exploit naive tourists; you are expected to bargain and can get up to 75 percent off the asking price if you do so well. Be patient and good-natured and maintain your sense of humour and you can get wonderful deals. The Old Market is very central and conveniently located close to the river and the popular Pub Street.
For those visitors especially charmed by Tah Prom's jungle clad stones within the Angkor Wat complex, it is well worth making the five hour round trip to visit Beng Mealea, a little-visited sandstone temple, now fused with the surrounding jungle. Built in the 12th century as a Hindu temple, and long since abandoned, this sprawling complex is on a similar scale, and built in a very similar style, to Angkor Wat, and closely approximates what the first western visitors there must have experienced when stumbling upon these forgotten wonders. Little is known about the temple's history but it was probably once the centre of a town long ago overtaken by the dense Cambodian jungle. If you prefer to travel off the beaten track then Beng Mealea, overgrown and largely unrestored, will captivate you with its mystery and the relative freedom of the experience of exploring it. You are allowed to climb and investigate and the peaceful atmosphere encourages many visitors to spend time reading, writing or relaxing in a chosen spot amongst the ruins. Many of the carvings have been desecrated by earlier souvenir hunters, but in other ways the integrity and atmosphere of the structure has benefitted from the small number of visitors and lack of commerciality.
Angkor National Museum
This museum is a convenient and useful stop-over en route to the temples of Angkor. It allows visitors to gain some insight into the centuries of history, culture, rich symbolism, and myth associated with the temple area which often remains hidden when viewing the Angkor temples without a guide. The museum's main attractions are its archeological treasures, including the lion and demon heads missing from the temple statues, Khmer artefacts predating the Angkor period, and a facinating collection of ancient Khmer and Sanscrit inscriptions on stone tablets. There is a striking gallery dedicated solely to images of Buddha and a gallery featuring the ancient costume of the Angkor period, including jewellery and headdresses. The museum uses multimedia displays and various artefacts to evoke the golden age of Khmer culture and to give insight into its history. Displays are colourful and vibrant and the information is informative and accessible. The building itself is very new (opened in 2007) and is ultra-modern, lavishly air-conditioned, and enormous, with over 20,000 square metres of floor space and some dramatic fountains. There is also a museum gift shop for souvenirs. Allow at least an hour for a visit. In addition to the entrance fee, and the optional extra cost for taking in a camera, visitors can pay $3 for an educational headset.