When you have had your fill of the popular temples and crowds near the Angkor Wat Temples, you can head further afield to see some of the Cambodian countryside, and learn how the villagers live by visiting Tonle Sap Lake or try Temples of Angkor which is less crowded. And you will find some great photo opportunities as well!
If you have only limited time in Siem Reap and for visiting the Temple of Angkor, I would spend it on the more popular temples including Angkor Wat, Ta Phrom, Angkor Thom, Bayon Temple and Bantay Srei. You can find out more about these temples and organizing your visit to the Temples of Angkor in Part 1 of this 3 part series on Angkor Wat and Siem Reap. The total itinerary covered in part 1 and 2 of this series will take you at least two days depending on weather, crowds, and your own stamina!
But if you have a bit more time, I would definitely recommend for a third day in the Siem Reap area. And honestly if you have gone all that way, try to find an extra day, you will be glad you did.
Visiting Preah Khan and Neak Pean
These less crowded Temples of Angkor provide the opportunity to explore the temples without some of the larger crowds providing excellent photo opportunities.
Preah Khan was originally a Buddhist monastery housing over 1000 monks. For a short period King Jayavarman VII lived here while constructing Angkor Thom. The architecture of this temple is similar to Ta Prohm
Neak Pean is a temple surrounded by a large pool. This was a “hospital” and the pools serve medicinal purposes with the waters “balancing” the elements in the bather, thus curing disease. It is based on the ancient Hindu belief of balance. The four connected pools represent Water, Wind, Fire and Earth. It is interesting to note we saw similar ancient temples using water to heal in Turkey at Asklepion and Pamukkale. If you doubt the ability of mineral springs to heal, maybe we should look to the wisdom of the ancients.
Visiting Beng Mealea Temple
This temple is the one you have been waiting for, at Beng Mealea you can climb all over this temple! No sticking to the official walkways. Adults and kids alike are welcome to climb to their heart’s content.
Beng Mealea is located about 80 km east of Siem Reap. Due to its location combining a trip to Beng Mealea and Tonle Sap Lake will take most of the day.
Like, Ta Phrom, (the temple in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), the Temple of Beng Mealea has not been restored and very few of the trees have been removed. This has created a large pile of rocks from the original temple structure which you can climb over as your explore. The trees growing through windows, doors and over rocks make for some great photos as well. And if you are not keen on climbing, wooden walkways allow you to explore the site. The walkways also offer an aerial perspective which you don’t get climbing across the rocks.
Make this your first stop, as it will get hot!
Visiting Tonle Sap Lake
The next stop after visiting Ben Mealea is Tonle Sap Lake (Boeung Tonle Sap). During wet season this lake is 12,000 square kilometers and it shrinks to only 2500 sq kilometers in dry season. For those of you familiar with miles, it is a massive lake during the wet season- one of the largest in all of Asia.
Tonle Sap Lake drains into the Tonle Sap River, which eventually joins the Mekong River near Phnom Penh. During the wet season as the Mekong River fills to overflowing, the water flow reverses filling the Tonle Sap Lake. This huge difference in water levels and size of the lake has necessitated a lot of ingenuity from those who live near the lake, and it is fascinating to see.
Villages of Tonle Sap Lake
Some people live on permanent floating villages (much like we saw in Halong Bay in Vietnam). Their houses are built on floating platforms. The schools and shops are the same. This allows the village to move around the lake as the water levels change. Many people own a boat and their main source of income is from fishing. More than 50% of all fish consumed in Cambodia is from this lake.
Stilted Houses on the Banks of Tonle Sap Lake
The other type of housing is from villages built on the banks of the lake. People build their homes on stilts up to 10 meters tall. For part of the year their house is suspended in the air (there is usually a walkway from the front out onto the road or land) during dry season. Then in wet season the water levels rise so that a boat is required to leave the house. Which is hard to believe looking at the picture of this house in dry season!
There are several villages you can visit along the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake to see how they live. Chong Khneas is the closest to Siem Reap and consequently quite touristy. Kampong Phluk is another option, this village has an estimated 3000 inhabitants. Or Kompong Khleang village is a bit further afield, about 35 kilometers from Siem Reap.
The Floating Villages of Tonle Sap Lake
We visited Kompong Khleang village. It is the largest village along the shores of Tonle Sap Lake. Visiting during dry season we drove to the village where we then took a boat ride on the lake. The boat ride provides a view of the stilted houses from the lake, a chance to see the floating villages and also to see the farming occurring along the banks of the lake during the dry season.
The floating villages move around the Tonle Sap Lake as the seasons change. The village contains everything a land-based village would contain- floating stores, schools, and homes. Not surprisingly fishing is the primary economic activity. Car batteries are the source of electricity for most residents and you can see the battery charging station- a large floating platform, full of you guessed it, car batteries.
Farming on the Shores of the Tonle Sap Lake and in Cambodia
During dry season farming takes place on the fertile ground along the shores of the Tonle Sap Lake. Much of the farm equipment is rudimentary (although we did actually see some equipment, as opposed to hand plows pulled by water buffalo in Vietnam).
One of Cambodia’s challenges is to improve their agricultural yields. Many people spend at least part of the year in their traditional village farming. We met quite a few Cambodians that worked in tourism for part of the year, but when things slowed down, they returned to their village to assist with farming.
Farming in Cambodia vs. Vietnam
A lot of farming in Cambodia is sustenance farming (growing what they use). There is not much irrigation. This point became quite obvious when we crossed the land border between Cambodia and Vietnam near Kep. On the Cambodian side of the border it is dry and dusty, the primary agricultural activity growing Kampot pepper and harvesting salt from the salt fields.
Cross into Vietnam and you enter the Mekong Delta, one of the most fertile agricultural areas of the country and home to most of the country’s food production. The difference is the Vietnamese side has irrigation. A project was undertaken by the Vietnamese government after the end of the American War (as the Vietnam War is known in Vietnam) to dig irrigation channels. Each family was responsible for contributing a certain distance of the irrigation channel. The choice was to dig it yourself or pay someone to labor on your behalf. The results are startling compared to Cambodia where there is no irrigation.
Economic Development Opportunities for Cambodia
Tourism and agriculture, both of which you will observe on this trip, both present opportunities for Cambodia.
It is interesting to note that in Lonely Planet’s book the Ultimate Travelist, which is “the 500 best places on the planet ranked”, readers which voted for the locations, voted Angkor Wat the number 1 site by a wide margin. It beat out the number 2 site by over 35%!!
Siem Reap certainly has a lot of construction and infrastructure being undertaken to support tourism, including a new airport.
Getting to Tonle Sap Lake and the Less Crowded Temples of Angkor
Visiting Tonle Sap Lake and Beng Mealea were part of our 3 day guided tour. You can find all the details of our recommendation for a guide and how to organize your own private tour in Part 1 of this series on Angkor Wat and Part 3 of the series is what to see and do in Siem Reap. You can find advice on bars and restaurants in The Best Restaurants, Happy Hours, and Hotels in Siem Reap.
Where possible we do recommend using a local tourism operator as more of your money will stay in the community. (We also have a great recommendation for a local guide for Machu Picchu.)