Billed as Cambodia’s only war museum, this is a basic yet fascinating open-air attraction, with an array of military artefacts displayed in the heart of a serene forest. Tanks, rifles, landmines and artillery guns are sobering remnants of the country’s long civil war.
Apart from two staff members, I was alone when I visited. Few tourists make it here as it’s tucked away off the main road west out of Siem Reap, and most travellers venture north from this city to Angkor Wat. After buying a ticket for $5, I was transported to a dark era in Cambodian history by a series of information boards and historical photo galleries.
They reveal the carnage and legacy of civil conflicts from the 1970s through to 1998, when the nation eventually entered comparative peace. At the ghastly core of this era was the Khmer Rouge. As the museum explains, this revolutionary party violently sought to return the nation to an agricultural society, killing 1.7 million Cambodians in the process.
I left feeling disturbed. Yet it was entirely worthwhile. My only regret was not booking the museum’s free guided tours, which are led by survivors of the war or victims of the landmines left behind from those conflicts.
Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine
They beam a forcefield over the entire city. That’s the legendary power of two revered statues that are the focal points of this pretty shrine in central Siem Reap. Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine has a prominent, shady location, opposite the Royal Residence.
Tourists pause to admire the small but ornate Buddhist building as they stroll in Siem Reap’s finest green space, the Royal Independence Gardens. When I peered into its small prayer hall, beneath a steep, tiled roof, I saw Buddhist sculptures of Cambodian princesses, Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm.
These artworks are at least 1,000 years old. More importantly, they’re said to have a supernatural ability to protect whoever owns them. As a result, these two statues for centuries have been sought after by criminals, generals and even the Khmer Rouge.
In the 1950s they were stolen by infamous nationalist Dap Chhoun, who hoped to exploit their magic. Then in the 1970s, Khmer Rouge soldiers were instructed to seize and dump them in a river, as part of the revolutionary party’s campaign to eradicate Buddhism. The following decade, the princesses were found and this shrine was built as their new home.
Angkor National Museum
Tourists visiting Angkor Wat should first discover the extraordinary stories behind this wonder. The large, well-maintained Angkor National Museum enlivened my imagination by unravelling its history through artefacts, paintings, videos and English-language displays.
It explained the 12th-century temple is merely one site within the gigantic Angkor Archaeological Park. Dozens of Buddhist and Hindu structures dot the park’s 400-square-kilometre footprint. Many of the tourists who scour this park may not realise its ancient sites are remnants of what may once have been the world’s largest city.
The museum details that, at its peak in the 14th century, the city of Angkor was the colossal, sophisticated and lavish capital of the mighty Khmer Empire. Its displays show how, after being established in the ninth century, Angkor swelled as the empire expanded north to China, south to Thailand, west to Myanmar and east to Vietnam.
Then, after dominating South-east Asia for five centuries, the kingdom faded. By the 15th century, Angkor city was abandoned before being reborn in the 20th century as Cambodia’s key tourist attraction.
In addition to absorbing this history, museum visitors can see a trove of priceless artworks recovered from the heyday of the Khmer Empire.
Phsar Leu Thom Tmey market
Siem Reap has more than a dozen bazaars, with most tourists drawn to its Old Market and night market. The latter trades on its central location and overflows with cheap souvenirs, while the former offers similar fare as well a smorgasbord of food offered by dozens of street vendors.
In a quieter area, about 2km east of the city’s tourist district, is the more low-key Phsar Leu Thom Tmey market. Catering more heavily to Cambodians than tourists, its strengths are affordable, locally made jewellery, hand-carved woodworks and porcelain products.
Phsar Leu Thom Tmey market also brims with street food and Cambodian snacks. Among the most addictive treats here are grilled Battambang sausages, fish amok curry, sour fish soup, pomelo salad, lime beef salad and bok trop pgnon aubergine dip.
Preah Prom Rath Temple
Siem Reap is a landlocked city, about 190km from the nearest ocean, which is why I was surprised to learn one of its finest temples is said to be inspired by a shark attack.
There actually are black sharks in the giant Tonle Sap lake, on the southern outskirts of Siem Reap but they’re tiny creatures, not large enough to terrorise a monk, as this temple’s story goes.
At this 16th-century Buddhist complex, I read about the unusual legend. Apparently, many centuries ago, a local monk’s boat was destroyed by sharks. Somehow, he survived and used the debris to craft an idol of Buddha, around which this temple was established.
Beyond that rollicking lore, Preah Prom Rath Temple appeals with its splendid appearance. It glimmers day or night due to its gilded decorations, while its courtyard is embellished by an array of Buddhist sculptures.
Preah Prohm Rath is a brief walk east of the city’s tourist-magnet Pub Street, which bulges with restaurants and bars.