Siem Reap, Cambodia, was my first solo trip to a non-western country. I was nervous about traveling as a girl in a country that had limited English. To ensure that I would have a good time and be safe, I had a guide and/or a driver with me at all time. I was not bothered by the locals peddling goods. Additionally, the guide/driver also provided translations and enjoyable conversations to learn more about local life in Cambodia.
Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
A. I recommend getting a tour guide for Angkor Wat on Day 2 (approximately $45 + tip) and hiring your own driver for Day 2 to Day 4 to make the most of your time there. I hired a private car which was approximately $45 for Day 2, $80 for Day 3 and $100 for Day 4. The rates depend on your distance. It was very hot and dusty in Siem Reap in November so I was happy to splurge on an air conditioned car.
B. I would also recommend visiting Siem Reap during the week as it is less crowded than the weekends.
C. Remember to bring a fan, face wipes, tissues, water and sunscreen with you as the sun is very strong. The fan was a life saver and I went through 2 packs of tissues from constantly wiping away sweat. The face wipes will help you feel refreshed since there are a lot of dusts flying around.
D. When visiting the temples at Angkor Wat (Day 2) and the sunset at Phnom Bakheng (Day 3), you will need to make sure your shoulders and knees are covered, otherwise you will not be allowed to go up to the top of temples.
E. Cambodia is on cash basis and the preferred currency is USD. Make sure to carry enough each day.
F. Cambodia requires a tourist visa. Don’t worry if you do not have one prior to arrival as you can get it at the airport simply by filling out a tourist visa form. There is an extra charge if you also need to have your picture taken for the visa. I was one of the first to get off the plane so I had my visa completed in 15 minutes.
Day 1: Angkor National Museum and Siem Reap City Center
Most of the flights arrive in Siem Reap around noon. Once you have checked in to your hotel, ask the concierge to hire a tut tut for the day. Head to the Angkor National Museum to learn about the history of Cambodia and Angkor Wat. You will need 2 hours for the museum and I would recommend getting an audio guide to make the most of your visit.
Angkor National Museum website: http://www.angkornationalmuseum.com/
After the museum, you can head to the Siem Reap Old Market where vendors sell clothes, knick knacks and food. It is nice to walk through to see a mixture of tourists and locals weaving their way through the market.
On the outskirt of the market, you will find two local food stalls that serve delicious Cambodian food. One is called Rina Rino Restaurant. My tut tut driver took me there to eat with him and I saw many locals buying food to go from this place. You pick out the food you want from the cart and they will serve it at the table. We had this popular Cambodian dish resembling an egg and pork omelet. We also had a fish soup with the stem of the banana leaves and a plate of fried fish with rice. The food was delicious and cheap at approximately $2-3 per dish.
Afterward we headed to Blue Pumpkin, a nearby bakery and desert place that served delicious ice cream. This place is very popular with tourists and locals.
We then walked to nearby Pub Street where all the tourists hang out. It is a fun street to walk around populated with numerous bars, shops and massage parlors.
We also checked out Angkor Night Market and Angkor Art Market which were clean and very touristy. If you want to get some souvenirs, this place is not a bad spot to do so. Siem Reap is very small so there is not much to do at night.
Day 2: Angkor Wat
*You will need to have your knees and shoulders covered for the temples if you want to reach the top level of Angkor.
Leave the hotel at 5:00am for sunrise at Angkor Wat via a tut tut or car arranged by your hotel. You will arrive with the hordes of tourists. You will need a flashlight as it is pitch black. Follow the tourists to the pond in front of the Angkor Wat. Go to the south left side of the pond for the best pictures. A secret spot that my guide showed me later is a tiny sand bar right by the left side of the pond that gives you the best reflection photo as shown in the first photo of the article.
The sunrise will take place around 6am. You will see that a lot of the tour groups will immediately head inside the temple. Resist the urge to follow because you will now have the best view of the sunrise for pictures with a lot less people. Once you have had enough of the scenery, head back to the hotel to freshen up and eat a hearty breakfast for the long day ahead.
Head to Angkor Thom at 9:00 am with a tour guide through the monumental south gate called the Avenues of Gods. Angkor Thom is comprised of Bayon Temple, Baphoun, Elephant Terrace and Terrace of the Leper King. This is when the tour guide will make the most of the experience by explaining the history of the stone carvings and various temples. As a bonus, the guide is usually the best photographer as well. Mine knew exactly where the best spot to take pictures as well as the best angles.
- The Bayon or State temple of Javavarman VII is one of the most enigmatic and powerful religious structure in the world. It is a unique mass of “face towers” which created a stone mountain of ascending peaks. There were originally 54 towers of which 37 are still standing today. Most are carved with four faces on each cardinal joint. This is my favorite part of the Angkor complex as there is a magical quality about this particular temple that is just majestic.
- Baphoun is a vast temple situated in the mountain near the center of Angkor Thom. It’s currently under restoration. There is a huge reclining Buddha on the west side of the temple. We decided not to climb to the top as it was a hot day, and we just came from the Bayon.
- The Elephant Terrace is the heart of Angkor Thom and looks out over the Royal Square. It marks the entrance to the Royal Palace and was the focal point for royal receptions. The carvings of elephants along its wall give its modern name. We made a quick stop to check out the elephant carvings. Beyond that, there was nothing else interesting to see.
- Terrace of the Leper King is a massive terrace named after the 15th century sculpture that was discovered on top of it. It is likely dated back to the reign of Jayavarman VII. We did not go inside as my guide did not think it was worth our time, and it was very hot that day.
Next we headed over to my favorite temple, Ta Phrom, also known as the Tomb Raider temple. Ta Phrom was built in the 12th century by Jayavarman VII as a royal monastery. It was dedicated to the King’s mother. This temple was chosen to be left in its natural state as an example of how most of Angkor looked, upon its rediscovery in the 18th century. This is a temple where nature took over as you can see the parasitic trees slowly swallowing the temple complex. It is a marvel of nature beauty and violence. After you have completed the tour of Ta Phrom, it should be around 1pm and a good time to take a break for lunch and from the heat.
Head to Angkor Wat around 2:30pm. Angkor Wat was built between the 9th and 14th century, the temples of Angkor are among the grandest monuments ever constructed. The entire complex covers approximately 164 square miles with over 200 temples. Angkor Wat is the largest Hindu temple in the world. Conceived by Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat took an estimated 37 years to build. Unlike most other Khmer Temples, it faces west. The most likely reason is that the temple was dedicated to Vishnu, who is sometimes associated with the West.
Angkor Wat is the most touristic place of the whole complex. We were constantly jostling for space and trying unsuccessfully to avoid the giant groups of tourists. There are not that many interesting architecture details in the temple itself. It is still a magnificent place to visit and be in awe of history.
My driver, Sophal, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for his chauffeur services.
My English speaking tour guide, Phiarom Chhuong, can be reached at email@example.com or (855) 92 41 43 41
Link for part 2 of my adventures in Siem Reap and the surrounding area.
For related articles, visit the Travel page.
*Special thanks to Lotus Blanc Resort for the very comprehensive itinerary that became the basis of this article.
Author: Chau Hoang