We arrived in Siem Reap ready to tour the temples of Angkor! Since we were too lazy to apply for an e-visa for Cambodia, we had to wait in line for a visa on arrival after landing in Siem Reap airport. The line went quickly, about ten minutes, though it got longer after we arrived. The visa costs $30 USD per person, plus an extra $2 if you don’t bring a passport photo for them to use. From the airport we got a complementary tuk-tuk ride to our hotel, the Nagara Angkor Boutique Hotel. The Nagara is amazing, far better than any other hotel we’ve had on this trip (except for the Aloft, but that was thanks to SPG points). It’s a luxury hotel, but it only cost us $28 USD/night including tax. It’s in a great location, quiet but under ten minutes walking to the main part of downtown. They have a free breakfast, though it starts after sunrise so we didn’t take advantage of it.
A note about our style of touring Angkor; after our first temple (which we loved), we realized that spending the entire day seeing temple after temple (as per our tuk-tuk driver’s standard itinerary) was not for us. Instead, we decided to take it slow. We saw three temples each day (plus two small ones the first day) and only spent around half of each day touring temples, and spent the rest of the time exploring Siem Reap, which we enjoyed far more than we expected. I guess this depends on who you are, but this style was perfect for us. We don’t regret missing out on the other thousand temples, even though I’m sure they’re all amazing. We really got to enjoy and take our time with every temple we saw, and we didn’t get “templed out.” We also got to spend some time in Siem Reap, instead of just crashing from exhaustion in our hotel room every night!
For our two days of touring Angkor we booked a tuk-tuk and driver online, Sopheap from siemreaptuktuk.net. The cost was $15 for the first day and $25 for the second day, when we drove to far-away Banteay Srei.
By day 4 of our trip we still hadn’t completely adjusted to the 12-hour time change so we asked him to pick us up in time for sunrise, since we’d be up anyways. We wanted to save the Angkor Wat sunrise for our second day, so Sopheap decided we should watch the sunrise over the Srah Srang reservoir. He picked us up at 5:00 am, we got to the reservoir quickly and waited 30 minutes for the sun to rise. Unfortunately the clouds moved in so it was disappointing. So off we went to our first temple, Ta Prohm – I chose it to be our first, since it seemed exciting but at the same time it wouldn’t overshadow other temples. Ta Prohm only opens at 7:30, so after driving there we had about 45 minutes to kill. We spent the time walking through the adjacent local community and admiring all of their oxen. We entered Ta Prohm as soon as they let us in, at around 7:20 am.
Ta Prohm was incredible. Like every temple in the Angkor complex, it is much more than it looks like in pictures. More than any other archeological site I have been to (Rome, Mayan ruins in Mexico, Pyramids of Egypt), you get to explore inside the ruins, walking through all the hallways and rooms, rather than just looking at them from the outside.
By getting there first thing in the morning, we practically had the whole place to ourselves. It was an amazing experience being all alone in these magnificent ancient ruins. The crowds didn’t really bother us at any of the other temples, but I would definitely recommend that you seek out a “crowd-free” experience at least once while you’re in Angkor.
I should also add that while inside, an unofficial tour guide started giving us unsolicited information. I didn’t want to have to pay any tips and was going to wave him away, but he actually had lots of interesting tidbits, and possessed surprisingly amazing photography skills. He followed us around for about 20-30 minutes, before saying he had to go (I gave him a well-deserved $7).
Our second temple was Banteay Kdei, across from the Srah Srang reservoir. According to our driver, it served as a library for those who had crossed the king, where they would read and learn the error of their ways before they were drowned in the reservoir. I can’t seem to find any evidence of this story, but we’ll choose to believe that he wasn’t making it up – it was interesting walking through all the chambers, approaching the reservoir. Overall, Banteay Kdei was fine but not a must-see.
Next up was Bayon, with a quick photo op at Victory Gate. On the way we made an impromptu stop to observe and photograph some monkeys on the side of the road. We don’t see monkeys every day back home in Canada, so this was a pretty big deal for us.
Bayon was very impressive, as expected, albeit crowded. Either way, it’s a must-see. The giant faces are the big selling points, but I hadn’t realized that there would be so many smaller carvings, both here and at all the other temples. The temples all look impressive from afar, but they’re even more so when you realize that almost every square foot of the walls is covered with detailed carvings.
After Bayon, Sopheap’s plan was to keep pressing on, seeing a bunch of smaller temples before visiting Angkor Wat in the afternoon. This would take up the entire day, save for a short lunch break near Bayon. This didn’t sound like fun to us, so after multiple deliberations and rearrangements of the itinerary, we decided to head back to Siem Reap for a 2 hour lunch break before heading back for a short tour of a couple of small temples in the afternoon. But we were a little delayed, because on the way back we came across a big troop of monkeys, including a baby! Luckily, I got a pretty good video.
Lunch was at Cafe Central, which we had read about online. We ordered breakfast meals, which were delicious although expensive for Siem Reap (about $5 each). Very worth it though.
My meal wasn’t that filling, so I topped it up with some street food nearby. I got a bahn-mi style (we don’t have much Cambodian food back home, so this is the best comparison I can think of) sandwich served on a baguette, and it was incredible – I’m still thinking about it and craving another one. It was fascinating to learn that baguettes play a central role in Cambodian cuisine – and every kid I saw walking around was eating a baguette!
From Cafe Central we walked back to our hotel (getting our first experience with dodging motorcycles – they should really build sidewalks in Seam Reap, considering how much pedestrian traffic they get) for an hour break. Sopheap picked us up again at around 2:30 pm and we spent about 2-3 hours total (including driving time) at two smaller temples, Pre Rup and East Mebon. Both were very peaceful, unique (it’s amazing how every temple seems very unique, even after visiting several), and uncrowded. Pre Rup was our favourite of the two – it reminded me a lot of the Forum in Rome.
East Mebon’s star attractions are the elephant sculptures guarding the temple.
After getting back to our hotel we headed straight to dinner. We went to Chamkar House, a vegetarian restaurant, which was good but not great (and too expensive, a little over $5 per meal). After dinner we were pretty tired from our long day so we went straight to sleep. We decided that we would finish touring by 1:00 pm the next day, leaving time to explore Siem Reap.
Day 5: Today we were again picked up by Sopheap at 5:00 am, in order to make it to Angkor Wat for Sunrise. I was expecting Angkor Wat to be mobbed, but it was surprisingly quiet and peaceful. Sunrise was ok but not the greatest thanks to the clouds.
Once the sun was out we spent around 90 minutes walking around Angkor Wat. Angkor was of course the most grand of all the temples, although not our favourite. My favourite part was walking through the hallway that surrounds the temple. The walls are covered with carvings that tell stories – we overheard a guide say that one level is a story of heaven, another of Nirvana, and another a story of hell.
We had a late breakfast at one of the restaurant stalls next to Angkor Wat. Somehow, they are able to offer every type of breakfast imaginable: Cambodian, Western, Chinese, Japanese, German, etc. We were expecting a tourist trap, but the food was surprisingly good. The official price is $5 for most meals, but if you resist they will offer you a “special discount” of $3. Not too bad for a nice breakfast with a view of Angkor Wat!
Next up was Banteay Srei, a 30-40 minute drive away (by tuk-tuk, quicker by car). I neglected to bring a sweater and this morning was pretty cold, so I was freezing the whole way there. Banteay Srei, the “pink temple” was an interesting temple, very different than the rest. It was also one of the busiest temples we visited (especially with Chinese tour groups), but it was still worth the long drive.
Last but not least was Preah Khan. Surprisingly, this ended up being one of our favourites. It’s a big complex, with lots of rooms and hallways emanating from the centre. Lots of fun to explore, and few people.
After Preah Khan we headed back to our hotel, ending our tour of Angkor. Our favourite temple was our first, Ta Prohm, and our last temple, Preah Khan, gets second place. But it’s very subjective and all were amazing, so you won’t know what your favourite will be until you get there. We enjoyed it a lot and would definitely recommend it as a must-see to anyone visiting SE Asia. I would also recommend you give it more than two days, so you can have a relaxed visit and have time to explore Siem Reap and maybe some surrounding areas. The $40 3-day pass is valid on non-consecutive days of the same week, so you can spread out your temple viewing.
Once back at the hotel, we took a small break before taking a tuk-tuk to Lilypop for lunch. It turned out to be closed, so we instead ate at “The Little Cafe” nearby, which was very good and cheap (about $2/meal). We spent the rest of the afternoon and night walking around Siem Reap. We had dinner at an Indian place downtown (I don’t remember the name, but it was high-end and really good, about $5-6 per meal) and walked around the various night markets. We also got $3 30-minute foot massages, which were good but not by professionals. Siem Reap is a really good tourist town – cheap, convenient, lots of good food, lots to do, and compact.
Next time we’ll have to come back for longer. Instead, we’re off to Chiang Mai early the next morning, for even more good cheap food!