Cambodia was one of our last stops on our journey before arriving in Vietnam, our new home for six months. I had travelled through Cambodia 7 years ago with a school trip (I know right, jammy school trip) but Glen had never been, which made a change as many of the countries we had visited before Glen had been to already. I was excited to be back in Siem Reap and see if it was still as I remembered it, and to lay my eyes back on the mighty beauty that is Angkor Wat.
why visit siem reap?
Simple, a chance to explore the largest religious monument in the world. If that’s not enough, the markets are awesome, the food is amazing and the beer is cheaper than water. Angkor Wat is the main pull of tourists to Siem Reap but this little town has a lot of life in to too.
Getting there & Visas
We took a bus from Bangkok, it took us 6 hours, the border was really smooth and I can’t recommend Giant Ibis Buses enough – they were great! The VOA (visa on arrival) for Cambodia is $35 for 30 days but be prepared to pay $40 if going through the border with a bus company. Trust me, the extra $5 is completely worth it when you don’t have to fill out a single form and the guy whizzes you through the passport controls like you are special cargo. Make sure when you get your dollars, either before you go away or in another country, that you get them in small denominations so that you don’t have to risk them ‘not having change’.
Tuk tuks are your friend here, unlike Vietnam where it’s all moto taxis, here you will rely on tuk tuks and boy, do they let you know they’re around. You won’t be able to walk down the street in Siem Reap without ‘tuk tuk?’ being called at you from all directions around 20 times a minute – you get used to it, trust me. If you are going to a specific place, have a little Google before hand to see what you should be paying.
pLANNING YOUR TEMPLE TOUR
I had read up on various blogs and travel sites about the best way to see the temples. Whizz around in one day then go back the next day to your favourites? See them over the space of 3 days? Or pick a highlights tour to do in one day? We had the time so after researching I decided we should go for a 3 day tour which had many advantages. One being we could negotiate a good fee with the same tuk tuk driver to take us around all the temples every day; two the entrance fee is slightly cheaper if you do 3 days; and three we have 3 whole days to soak up the magnificence of this complex without feeling rushed. The complex is so vast that a highlights tour can be done in one day but if you want to see the temples further afield you may need to dedicate an extra day and tuk tuks will require a bigger fee for petrol.
what to spend on a tuk tuk tour?
I had read that anything between $15-20 dollars (depending on your circuit) was a good fee per day for a tuk tuk to pick you up, take you around the complex, wait for you, hopefully give a little information about each temple and drop you home at the end of the day. We arrived at lunchtime in Siem Reap and once checked in, we decided we would start our temple tour the following day so set out into town to find ourselves a tuk tuk man we liked. It didn’t take long, about 50 metres from our hotel we were in conversations with a lovely man named ‘T’ about our 3 day tour. After consulting the map and agreeing he could cover everywhere we wanted to go each day, we started to negotiate. Eventually, we agreed on $52 dollars for 3 days which I felt was reasonable but may have been too much. But this didn’t really matter because on day two, I got talking to T whilst Glen was in the toilet and it got deep. He told me all about his wife and family, his work, how some days he won’t make any money, his kids names/ages, their schools etc, which all may have been a ploy to get a tip but it worked and in the end we paid him $65 at the end of 3 days and I couldn’t stop thinking about his 7 month old baby. Well played T, well played.
Temple tour: Day 1 (grand loop)
MUSEUM: We had a leisurely morning, T picked us up around 9.30am and took us to one of his friend’s places for breakfast then we wanted to go to the Museum to read up a little about the temples before entering the complex. This was a good idea but I’d say you could pretty much do it at any point over the 3 days, it was nice to get some background though. We were able to understand why some were shaped this way and that and what it meant and were able to identify this when we were visiting the temples later that day.
TICKETS: Next, he took us to get a ticket which was $62 for a 3 day pass ($37 for 1 day and $72 for 7 days), which has your photo on it and is important you have it on you at all times. There are countless checkpoints which will hole punch your ticket as you go so keep it handy.
*I’ll add here that although we thought it was great having a leisurely morning, I wouldn’t have done it this way again, as it meant we reached the temples in the hottest part of the day and it was very fatiguing*
TEMPLES: We decided to tackle the ‘grand loop’ as it’s known taking in Ta Som, Neak Pean, Phrak Khan, and Preah Khan Poan before watching the sunset top the top of a temple known as Phnom Bakheng (it gets busy so get there early and grab a beer). I could tell you little bit more about each of these temples but my knowledge is limited and the heat of that day fuzzed my brain so consult a good guide book or hire an authorised guide at the bigger temples, they will be in uniform and make sure negotiate their initial price. We didn’t take a guide apart from on our last day around Angkor Wat, mostly due to out budget but T was good at telling us a little about each one before heading in.
temple tour: day 2 (sunrise & small loop)
SUNRISE: Regardless of how many days you are going to spend at the complex, whether it be one, three or seven, seeing the sunrise over Angkor Wat is definitely something you have to experience. Having not done it before, I was really excited to see it, plus it was our first proper look at Angkor Wat since we had just whizzed past it on the way to the grand loop the day before. T picked us up from the hotel at 5am and we passed several people making the journey from town to the temples on bicycles, this is a common thing to do for sunrise but I couldn’t bear the thought of riding back in the midday heat (electric bikes are available for a bigger fee).
Be warned it is busy, the world and his wife come every morning to watch the sunrise over this temple. Even though we were earlier than a lot of people, we still had to jostle a bit to get a good space, which we did in the end on a rock that jutted out into the water so we placed ourselves firmly there. The sunrise was magnificent and we stayed right until it was fully up, most people are gone by the time it pokes the top of its head over the temple. Then we ate the packed breakfast we had bought perched on a smaller temple overlooking Angkor Wat – there are plenty of cafes in this area to have a (slightly pricey) breakfast at but being budget conscious, we went shopping the night before and bought sandwiches, pastries and snacks.
TEMPLES: I’d read that visiting Angkor Wat after the sunrise was the busiest time to do it as everyone rushes in after so we jumped in the tuk tuk and proceeded to the following temples. First we went to Ta Keo, Banteay Kdei and royal bathing pond of Sra Srang. Next we carried on to Ta Phrom (aka the Tomb Raider temple) to see the trees growing into and out of the temple, unfortunately it was covered in scaffolding while we were there as they were trying to make it more secure as the tree roots take up more and more ownership of this ancient temple. We did have plans to visit one more temple but we called it a day here around 3am, the midday heat had gotten to us and we were exhausted from our early rise.
DAY 3: aNGKOR THOM, bayon & aNGKOR wAT
ANGKOR THOM: Angkor Thom is not a temple but rather an ancient city full of different temples. We were dropped off at the elephant terrace and left to walk from there through to woods, visiting other various temples along the way, including the Terrace of the Leper King, before reaching Bayon Temple, the grand and famous temple with the faces that look out over every direction. This walk took us about two hours and it was nice to take our time and see some of the sites on foot, rather than just jumping in and out of a tuk tuk. After Bayon, T picked us up and we headed to our final stop, Angkor Wat.
ANGKOR WAT: We wanted to see this temple in sunset light as we heard it was one of the best times to see it and they weren’t wrong. As the sun started to set, we were coming out from the temple and it was lit in orange and purple tones, it was beautiful. We arrived later than planned so meant we had a mere 50 minutes to explore the temple before it closed at 6pm so we hired a guide for $8. This guy was brilliant and if you are only going to hire one guide, hire one at this temple. It’s huge and vast and this guy knew every nook and cranny to get the best views, the best pictures and plus he was our on-stand photographer and took loads of pictures together. Totally worth the guide here, and if you can plan it so that you are walking out of this temple as the sun is setting, it’s magnificent.
WHAT TO BRING & tips for the temple tour
Generally try to pack as light as you can. Most days Glen just had stuff in his pockets or his bum bag and I had a small side bag. We also had a material water carrier we got given in Chiang mai which was so useful when all you wanted to carry was water instead of a big backpack – you can pick these up from most markets and they are so useful!
Lots to drink – temple fatigue is a thing, bring plenty of water and leave it in the tuk tuk to save carrying it and keep hydrated. We also bought a few sugary drinks from vendors outside the temples as it really takes it’s toll.
Snacks – We had nuts and seeds in our bag to stop the hunger if we were mid-temple exploration
Hat – something neither of us had but something I would have loved to have when you are exploring a temple in the midday sun
Suncream – save that burnt nose and shoulders!
Hand fan – the colourful ones you can buy from the markets make for a great picture and also help to keep you cool when there is no air!
Camera – obviously, plus a selfie stick because you just have to.
Money – I was surprised at how reasonable the clothes were being sold by the vendors and bought a pair of trousers one day outside a temple. Lunch within the grounds will cost you around $7-8 per dish in every restaurant and take some money for drinks/snacks.
What to wear for the temples
Angkor Wat has really tightened up in the last few years as some people really took the p**s so you can no longer wear a little skirt and tank top (as I did in 2010 – I was 16 and oblivious). Check out my post here about what we wore to temples throughout Southeast Asia including what we wore every day to Angkor Wat.
But is siem reap just all about the temples?
On the one hand, yes, the Angkor Wat complex is pretty much why everyone comes to Siem Reap but this little town also hosts some great bars, places to eat and markets. It’s a chance to get stuck into some Kymer food (fish curry was my favourite) and sink beers that are cheaper than water – yep, 50 cents in most places, sometimes even as low as 25 cents – madness! Pub Street is the famous street in Siem Reap that is packed full of bars, places to eat and lots of lively people; the markets all sprout off Pub Street too. One evening we went on a pub crawl with the Angkor What bar, we paid $10 for free drinks in loads of bars, games and a free t-shirt. We were having a great night until during a game, my face encountered the edge of a stage and I was left with a split nose which required medical attention – also a funny ordeal but I’ll have that for another time (but I can tell you it’s the reason why I urge you to have your own steri-strips on my packing list).
We took hundreds of photos at the temples, for more of them head to our Instagram pages and you’ll see lots more temple madness!
Many more location-based blogs like this to come so stay tuned!