I’m no stranger to Siem Reap. I’m lucky enough to be able to say I’ve had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of walking amongst the temples of Angkor not once, but twice.
On my third visit to Siem Reap this summer, I was determined to detour off the beaten track and find out what makes Cambodia’s second-largest city tick. When I was invited to join Ayana Journeys‘ Secrets of Siem Reap tour, I knew it would be a great chance to venture beyond Angkor into the heart of the city.
Ayana is not your average tour company. In their own words: “We craft engaging, ethical learning journeys that support open-minded travellers keen to develop an appreciation for other cultures, learn about different ways of life, explore international issues, deepen their own sense of empathy, and reflect on themselves as global citizens.”
Over the course of a single morning, I learned more about Cambodia than I did in my entire year living in the country. I got to see corners of Siem Reap I never knew existed. Most of all, I saw how Ayana Journeys is inspiring visitors to shift focus to more responsible, ethical forms of tourism. It’s no longer just about ticking Angkor off your bucket list – Siem Reap can be a gateway to gaining a deeper, more fulfilling understanding of Cambodia, its people, history, and traditions.
This post recounts my experience with Ayana Journeys and some of the things I learned on the day. Before I start, I’d like to thank Ayana for covering the cost of my tour. As always, all opinions and recommendations expressed here are my own.
Sunrise over Siem Reap
The first thing to note about this tour is that it starts bright and early, between 6 and 7am. Yes, the weather is mild and the streets are quiet – perfect cycling conditions. But that’s only half the story. The main advantage to getting up before dawn in Siem Reap is being able to watch the city wake up.
While most tourists head straight to Angkor for sunrise, little do they know there’s a whole ecosystem of markets, temples and businesses coming to life back in town.
We assembled on a Monday morning at the Ayana Journeys office, where we were outfitted with mountain bikes and helmets. After a brief safety demonstration from our guide, Yut, it was time to hit the streets. Ayana tries to keep all groups small. On the day of my tour, I was joined by five hoteliers and tourism professionals – Siem Reap locals who came along to learn something new about the city they call home.
Right from the get go I could tell we were in for an interesting morning. Our path took us out of town, along bumpy back roads and unpaved clay alleys to villages deep in Siem Reap’s interior. Roosters crowing, monks chanting, women silently sweeping – these were our first impressions of early morning Siem Reap.
Find more fantastic things to do in Siem Reap – my guide to the best Siem Reap tours.
Hidden villages & secret temples
Siem Reap is synonymous with Angkor. I was surprised to learn just how many temples and pagodas there outside the main complex, including right in the city centre. Our first order of business was to visit a couple of these lesser-known religious sites.
We started at Wat Polanka, a striking white and gold pagoda nestled in the brush behind a small village on the outskirts of the city. As we slowly walked around the exterior of the main pagoda, Yut narrated the anatomy of a Cambodian pagoda, explaining the significance of each architectural element and how everything fits together. Every piece of the puzzle – every motif, every stone carefully placed, the choice of colours for the flags – reflects an aspect of Cambodian spirituality.
The chance to walk around a temple with a former monk (Yut spent years living in a monastery before he entered the tourism industry) was very special indeed.
The highlight of the morning for me was the next temple we visited, Wat Preah Enkosai. Funnily enough, this pagoda happened to be right behind the hotel where I was staying. I had heard the chanting over breakfast each morning, yet I had no idea what lay inside.
One of my tour companions who had lived in Siem Reap for many years had a similar experience. When we arrived, he told the group he drives past Wat Enkosai almost on a daily basis, but had never once stopped to look around.
At first glance, Wat Enkosai resembles a standard contemporary pagoda. It’s only when you venture to the back of the complex that you see what makes this site particularly special. Hidden by tall, leafy trees, a set of Hindu shrines made from brick actually pre-date the temples at Angkor. After a brief introduction from Yut, we were given free reign to walk around at our leisure.
We all craned our necks to examine the stone carvings on the stupas. Some are just as impressive as anything I’ve seen up the road.
At this point in the tour, groups usually get a chance to speak with an elderly nun. Since it was festival time, everyone was busy getting ready for the upcoming Pchum Ben celebrations. We were lucky enough to briefly shake hands with the pagoda’s matriarch before she had to duck back inside to resume her preparations.
Later in the morning, we visited a third temple, Wat Thmei. Here, we were invited to confront a disturbing chapter of Cambodian history. Wat Thmei is located on the site of Siem Reap’s Killing Fields, where many hundreds of people lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge period. As we walked around the grounds, Yut spoke with such honesty and candor about the events. The beauty of the pagoda today compared with the deep horror of the past was a sharp contrast that made us all pause for thought.
Pchum Ben festivities were in full swing here as well. As we were leaving, we passed a group of young monks assembled to lead a prayer. The robed MC briefly stopped proceedings to strike up a conversation with us through the microphone.
Visiting a local market
There are dozens of small markets all over Siem Reap. One that I’d never heard of – it’s not even marked on Google Maps – is Phsar Polanka. We pulled up at the market and parked our bicycles, inserting ourselves carefully into the crush. By this time it was mid-morning – peak time for locals to come down and pick up their fruit and veg for the day.
We walked a few laps through the market’s brightly lit aisles, past chefs busy whipping up hot breakfasts for groups of eager shoppers, and women fervently sorting through piles of colourful vegetables. As we went, Yut took the time to point out a few of the more curious-looking ingredients.
On the way out, we filled up our tiffin box with a range of yummy desserts. We each had a chance to pick a favourite – having no clue what anything was, I went with the most colourful option, a slab of green jelly (it turned out to be pandan – yum!). As a company, Ayana is committed to lightening their environmental impact, and I noticed they put this into practice at every turn. Tours are plastic-free (hence the use of the tiffin box instead of a bag). During the tour, guests get their own reusable water bottle to use for the day.
We cycled on to a small local coffee shop. Yut broke out the tiffin box and we devoured the sticky desserts over a tall glass of iced coffee. The cafe was one of two small businesses we got to support during the tour – later, we ate breakfast at Nyum Nyum (Let’s Eat!), a wonderful little noodle shop run by a team of local women.
A heritage of craftsmanship
It’s difficult to imagine now, but before Siem Reap started booming as a tourist destination, it was a small provincial town of fishermen and craftspeople. Cycling through the backstreets, past clusters of stilted houses and wide patches of fallow land set aside for farming, we got a taste of what the city centre must have looked like back then.
On one of the main streets closer to town, we made our final stop of the morning to visit a blacksmith. He showed us how he makes farm tools the traditional way, by heating and bending molten metal into rice sickles and other shapes.
Secrets of Siem Reap tour details
The Secrets of Siem Reap tour departs daily between 6am and 7am. The price includes tuk tuk pick up from your hotel in Siem Reap, mountain bike and helmet hire, drinking water, breakfast, and snacks. The tour can be done by tuk tuk rather than bike if you prefer.
As with all Ayana Journeys tours, fair wages are paid to everyone involved, and every effort is made to ensure local business people benefit from the proceeds. Read more about Ayana’s responsible tourism philosophy and impact here.
For more information or to make a booking, head to the Ayana Journeys website.