Siem Reap in Cambodia is in every traveler’s bucket list, and it really should be!
The Angkor Archeological Complex is one of the oldest and most important in the region, not to mention one of the most majestic, too. Who doesn’t want to be awed by the grandeur that is the Angkor temple? Or marvel at the gigantic trees eating up the ancient structures in Ta Prohm?
Back when there was no direct flight to Siem Reap from the Philippines, one had to fly or take the bus from Vietnam or Thailand, a mind-numbing ride that’s only relieved when one finally arrives at this charming little city in the northwestern part of Cambodia.
It was my second time to give a week-long training in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and given only a free weekend, I took it to pay a visit to one of the oldest temples in Asia.
My travel time took two days; one full day going there, and one day going back. That only left me one day to go around in Angkor Wat.
If you’ll only be there for a short time, just as I was, here are some things you can do to maximize your time in Siem Reap.
Watch the Sunrise in Angkor Wat
Once you arrive in your hotel (see my recommendation below), immediately ask for assistance regarding hiring a tuktuk to go to the Angkor Archeological Park.
It’s around 10km from the city, so if you want to watch the sun rise over the temple (which you should really do!), you’d have to leave the hotel sometime around 4am. The charge for the private ride would be around US$12-17.
The one-day pass to the Angkor complex is USD$20. Once you’re inside, you’ll be immediately be taken by your tuktuk driver to Angkor Wat.
Most people would wait for the sunrise sitting on red plastic chairs by the lake; don’t! A better alternative would be to sit on the library steps behind the crowd. It has a great vantage view of the sunrise.
Once the sun has fully risen, get inside Angkor Wat. Be prepared to marvel at the richness of the Khmer empire. The huge stones piled perfectly on top of one another highlight the artistry of their people, and the details in the numerous bas relief friezes which depict stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are amazing.
Prasat Kravan, The Cardamon Sanctuary
From Angkor Wat, ask to be taken to Prasat Kravan next. It was named after the huge trees that used to be planted in the area. It’s not as grand as the Angkor temple; it’s actually just a small complex. However, the wonderful brick masonry and unique stone carvings are a sight to see.
There are five towers in Prasat Kravan facing east, but only two have remaining superstructures. Even though they’re not that high, the way they’re built give an illusion of height. All the bricks in Prasat Kravan have been joined not by mortar or cement, but by a vegetable gum commonly used in the ancient times.
Pay Homage to the Gigantic Trees at Ta Prohm
If you’ve seen the Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie, you will certainly want to go to Ta Prohm from Prasat Kravan! The sight of cardamon trees growing in, around, and on the centuries-old structures can certainly take your breath away.
Most of the buildings in Ta Prohm have been overrun by huge strangler figs that are bigger than the temples themselves.
Buy some food before entering Ta Prohm. It was almost lunchtime when I arrived there, and tired by my walking around and enervated by the heat, I found myself a spot in one of the ruins and took a nap. Around an hour later, I woke up refreshed, undisturbed by man, beast, or tree alike.
Meet the Bayon Stone Faces in the Angkor Thom complex
Aside from the Angkor temple and Ta Prohm, the Angkor Thom is also one of the park’s most popular site. The Bayon features more than 200 gigantic smiling stone faces carved in the 54 towers compressed in a very small area, and most of them resemble the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII.
Experts conclude that those faces must represent the king (ya think?).
To go to Angkor Thom, make sure to tell your tuktuk driver to use the Victory Gate.
It is one of the most popular entrances into the complex, and like the other gateways of Angkor Thom, it is also topped by giant stone faces facing the four cardinal points. (Now, imagine yourself entering this on an elephant. Wouldn’t that be something?)
Watch the Sun Set in Phnom Bakheng
Phnom Bakheng is the place to be to watch the sun set, so there could be a number of tourists converging in this small structure at the same time. A bit of hiking is required as the temple is situated on a hill. If you want to feel like royalty, have a quick ride up the hill on the back of an elephant for US$20.
The steps of Phnom Bakheng, like the other temples in the archeological park, are also quite steep, but the view at the top is worth it. It overlooks most of the Angkor area and Siem Reap. Care must be taken though once the sun sets. It can be dangerous to take on the steep steps in the low light of the setting sun.
After you have freshened up in your hotel, head on to Pub Street for a bottle of beer or simply to have dinner. There are restaurants with free Apsara performances like the Temple Bar, but as a budget traveler, I just ate at one of the numerous sidewalk eateries.
Cambodian food, while not as memorable as the Vietnamese or Thai, is delicious enough.
Before you head on back to the hotel, make sure to visit the Old Market. A shopper’s haven, you can buy anything here, from the ubiquitous keychains and ref magnets, to beautiful bags, sculptures, silk cloths, and books.
For the best bargains, go there before closing at 11pm, as vendors are usually more amenable to give discounts around this time.
Tips in Going Around the Angkor Archeological Park
- If you want to appreciate the temples better, read up on them first before you go. It can be quite overwhelming when you’re already there. You can download Mauric Glaize’s The Monuments of the Angkor Group and a mini-guide with map from The Angkor Guide, but for other downloadable stuff, check out their downloads page.
- Always, always bring a bottle or two of water! The climate in Cambodia can be quite hot during the summer season, and it can be draining to go around, even for someone like me who’s from the tropics.
- The chanting of the children (“One dollar, please, just one dollar. One dollar, just one dollar,” ad infinitum) can get quite annoying, but take the time to talk to them, if only to break the monologue. A lot of them are fluent in English and they are mostly trained to talk to tourists. Say what country you’re from, and they’d immediately tell you the capital! One girl I talked to outside Prasat Kravan gave me the Mickey Mouse earrings she got from another tourist, in exchange for the earrings I was wearing that day. (And no, she wouldn’t accept it without the barter!)
- Bring a flashlight if you plan to watch the sunset at Phnom Bakheng. It can go dark quite quickly there.
Where to Stay in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Most hotel accommodation in Siem Reap are cheap, so when you’re presented with several options, choose one that’s both budget friendly and accessible. I recommend the Ponloue Angkor Siem Reap Villa.
For US$8 per day, you get your own room with toilet and bath plus A LOT of freebies: pick-up, wifi, breakfast and unlimited tea and coffee, and use of their bicycles.
They’re very near Old Market and Pub Street, too! I just walked there and it only took a few minutes. I walked back (alone, of course) to the hotel around midnight, and I never felt unsafe on the road.
Have you been to Siem Reap? If people had more time there, what would you recommend seeing?