Two Amazing Community-Based Tours in Siem Reap
Most people visiting Siem Reap spend the bulk of their time exploring the temples of Angkor. The Archaeological complex is incredible and there are so many temples that it takes a few days to work your way around them. But Siem Reap is not just about Angkor Wat. There are some fantastic areas to explore just outside the city and it’s totally worth adding a few days to your trip to check them out.
During our week in Siem Reap, we took two day trips to nearby areas. We thoroughly enjoyed both day trips, not only because we had a great time and learnt a lot but because both of the tour companies we used were not-for-profits that are focused on helping the local community.
1- Spend the day in Kulen Mountain
While in Siem Reap we took a day trip to Phnom Kulen National Park with Kulen Revealed. Kulen Revealed is a not-for-profit tour company that donates its proceeds to Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) that are based in Kulen. These NGOs provide a range of services such as providing free education to residents and helping to preserve endangered wildlife.
We were picked up first thing in the morning from our hotel. Our guide for the day was Soriya. All Kulen Revealed guides are English speaking and Soriya spoke excellent English. Along the way to Kulen National Park, he told us about some of the struggles the Cambodians face today.
One of those struggles is with education. The Khmer Rouge killed many of the educated people in Cambodia, setting back the country’s development enormously. These days many Cambodians still have large numbers of children, making it difficult for them to afford education. That’s why the NGOs that Kulen Revealed supports are so important.
Here’s what the trip normally includes (Kulen Revealed can also customise your trip if you’re doing their private tour).
Along the way to Kulen Mountain, we stopped at one of the street vendors lining the side of the road to try out a traditional Cambodian snack of bananas in sticky rice. Normally we’re not a fan of eating too much sticky rice but the banana lends it some sweetness. It was pretty tasty! The banana and rice are cooked together in a banana leaf to keep in the moisture.
Kbal Spean, otherwise known as the Valley or River of the 1000 Lingas, is named after the Lingas and Yonis that are carved into the stone on the river bed. They date back to the 11th century and because they are considered holy, people believe that the water from the Siem Reap river that flows over them and down into Angkor is blessed with magical powers. They are best seen during the dry season when the water level is lower.
These natural springs seep up from a sandy hole in the ground and flow down into the nearby river. The water in these springs is amazingly clear, so much so that you can see the water bubbling up from the sandy floor of the hole which is almost a metre deep. Again the water is rumoured to have special powers of healing.
Wat Preah Ang Thom and the Reclining Buddha
Wat Preah Ang Thom is an impressive Buddhist temple that you reach by climbing a long but reasonably easy to climb set of stairs. Parts of the temple sit underneath large sandstone boulders.
One of those boulders has a large reclining Buddha carved into the top of it. You can climb a set of stairs to take a closer look at the Buddha who is now enclosed in a wooden hut for protection. From outside this hut, you have a really nice view over the surrounding jungle canopy.
The waterfall is quite spectacular and is set over two levels. You can climb down a set of metal stairs to get to the bottom of the waterfall where you can go for a refreshing swim. Even when we visited during the dry season the waterfall had plenty of water and was quite spectacular.
There’s a changing room you can use for 50 cents and safe boxes to put your belongings in while swimming (these cost one dollar).
There are lots of little fish swimming in the pond at the base of the waterfall so don’t be surprised if you get an impromptu fish body massage!
After visiting the waterfall you can have lunch at one of the restaurants at the top and then you head back to Siem Reap. On the way back we stopped to see where our guide lived which was in a Buddhist compound where novice monks lived and studied.
There is a stupa there built by a wealthy Cambodian which houses the ashes of people who are too poor to afford their own stupa. We learnt that Cambodians used to use one of three burial options – cremation, floating the body down the river or leaving the body in the forest to be eaten by animals! But these days bodies are either cremated or buried in the ground.
At the end of the day, you are dropped off back at your hotel or anywhere else in town that you want to go (e.g. Pub Street).
2 – Visit Kompong Khleang and Tonle Sap lake
Not far outside the Siem Reap is the Tonle Sap lake. This huge freshwater lake provides a livelihood for the many people who live around it or on it. While in Siem Reap, you can take a day trip to the lake to learn about their way of life and the challenges they face.
We took our tour with Community First: Kompong Khleang Floating Tours and we had a great time. Just as with Kulen Revealed, the cost of your tour goes directly towards supporting work that benefits the local community in Kompong Khleang and surrounds. This work is done through the not-for-profit organisation Bridge of Life which provides such valuable services as pre-elementary school education, sewing and computer skills classes and water filters.
Here’s what this trip often includes (it can vary depending on the time of year and weather):
Sample some traditional Cambodian Snacks
The journey from Siem Reap to Kompong Khleang takes about an hour. However on the way there, it takes a little longer as you stop a couple of times to try some traditional Cambodian snacks.
Sticky Rice in Bamboo
Our first stop was to try some sticky rice that had been cooked in a bamboo tube. This was quite different than the sticky rice we’d tried on our Kulen Revealed tour. The rice is mixed with some black beans and some coconut milk and then sealed in a bamboo tube before being cooked over a charcoal fire.
Afterwards, the blackened outside of the tube is stripped away prior to sale. This makes it easy to peel back the bamboo and get at the rice. This actually makes a pretty big snack and Cambodians will sometimes use it as breakfast or lunch. It was pretty filling and after a big breakfast, we struggled to finish ours. It was really tasty though.
This next stop was at a shop that made Cambodia’s version of donuts. These are very similar looking to western donuts except that they are made with rice flour and palm sugar. They are also a lot smaller in size than western donuts. However, they were just as delicious. These donuts are really popular as snacks, particular at weddings and other special occasions.
This shop also makes a variety of dried fruits. We tried the dried mango rolls which were really tasty. We also had a tour of the factory and saw them making little ice cream cones covered with black sesame seeds. These are either eaten alone as snacks or topped with ice cream for kids to eat. We didn’t envy the ladies who were making these cones as the work looked pretty hot!
Visit the floating village of Kompong Khleang
Kompong Khleang is the largest floating village in the Siem Reap province. Technically the houses in the village aren’t actually floating as they are built on stilts above the ground. But at the height of the wet season, the village floods as lake Tonle Sap doubles in size, making the houses appear to be floating on the water.
Our tour guide came from Kompong Khleang and he was able to give us unique insights into life in the village and the challenges that the locals face as we took a stroll through the village.
Pre-elementary school Education
Education is a big challenge. Until the Bridge of Life School was set up in the village, it was impossible for young children to go to school in the rainy season. The village is totally surrounded by water, their parents have to work and they are too young to row themselves to school. Since the school was started these children have enjoyed year-round education that complies with the Cambodian government’s curriculum.
This is all the more important because there are large numbers of children in the village. Most families have at least five children with more than that being quite common. Making sure that those children can get a proper education is super important.
Access to Clean Drinking Water
Another problem faced by the villagers is access to clean drinking water. Bridge of Life helps poorer families in the village filter water from the river using a simple but effective filtration system. Most of the water only needs the dirt removed but if the water smells bad they also add a charcoal filter step. Again, clean drinking water is very important for the village, in particular for the health of the poorer children.
Although most children in the village complete primary education, about 30% do not go on to complete secondary education and instead return to help their families in the village. Bridge of Life has set up a room to teach these children sewing, in the same building that houses the pre-elementary school. Sewing is a valuable skill that they can use to help earn more money for their families.
Last year Bridge of Life set up a computer skills classroom in the nearby primary school where they teach skills such as Microsoft Word and Excel. We all know how important these skills are today.
Take a boat ride on lake Tonle Sap
Lake Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. It is filled by the Mekong river via one of its tributaries, the Tonle Sap river. In the rainy season, the size of the river swells to double its dry season size. Lake Tonle Sap has a huge amount of fish and bird life and in 1997 it was designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
We took a ride on one of the tourist boats out into the lake. In the dry season, the boats leave from very close to the village. But in the wet season, the boats leave from further towards Siem Reap as the village is underwater.
On the way out into the lake, you pass by a Vietnamese floating village where the residents speak Vietnamese. In the dry season, this village is also right next door to a Khmer floating village because the river shrinks in size, forcing them to move. Unlike the houses in Kompong Khleang, these are actually floating houses which can be motored around the river.
You can book your tour with Community First: Kompong Khleang Floating Tours here.
Siem Reap is More than Just Angkor Wat
So you can see that there’s plenty more to see in Siem Reap province than just Angkor Wat. The best part is that it doesn’t take too long to do either of these tours. Even if you have just two days in Siem Reap you can easily spend one day visiting the temples and take one of these tours on the final day.
If you have more time in Siem Reap, we would encourage you to do both of the tours. Not only will you visit some beautiful Cambodian countryside, but you’ll also learn about the culture and way of life of the local Cambodian people and understand some of the struggles they face. At the same time, you’ll know that the money you spend goes towards helping them overcome some of those struggles.
Disclosure: We’d like to thank both Kulen Revealed and Community First: Kompong Khleang Floating Tours for inviting us on their tours. Although we were hosted, this is our true opinion of these tours.
Accommodation in Siem Reap
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