Watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat is a must-do, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We headed to Siem Reap for one main attraction - Angor Wat and the temples - with a few anticipated side benefits: gain a deeper understanding of the Cambodian culture and people, sample its cuisine (yes, it’s quiet good!), and venture out to see a smidget more of Cambodia than just the “temple loop”. We enjoyed our time in Siem Reap and found the temples more magical and impressive than we could have imagined. Pub Street, a strip of streets lined with restaurant and bars turned pedestrian friendly at night, exuded a charm that makes it a fun destination. A family trying to pound out a power tour of SE Asia could limit their stay to just a night (or two), but I recommend spending at least several nights in the town to go a bit deeper and have some real fun, soaking in why the city has been a backpacker favorite for some time now.
We spent 4 days in Siem Reap because we are purposefully traveling at a slower rate (our trip is a marathon, not a sprint, and we need to balance everyone’s needs). But if time was precious and we only really wanted to see the temples, Siem Reap could be done in 1 or 2 overnights, though it would be exhausting. To do it in a day, you would need to arrive evening before, leave your hotel at about 4:30am to experience sunrise at Angor Wat (a can’t miss opportunity!), pound the remaining temples all day, and either head out that night or enjoy Pub Street in downtown Siem Reap with a deserved massage and then depart following morning.
I hadn't flown in a prop plane in years, but this is what awaited us in Vietnam as we headed to Siem Reap. Needless to say, some of our (and other fellow backpackers' larger bags) didn't fit into the ultra-small overhead bins.
Arrival in Siem Reap is easy. We chose to fly because while we’re touring SE Asia for a month, time is more precious than money and our tickets from Veitnam to Siem Reap cost around $100 one way. That saved us loads of travel time versus a bus or train. Siem Reap’s airport is very small and manageable. Getting our tourist visa took less than 5 minutes upon arrival (once we filled out the paperwork) and taxis were readily available at the airport exit. A large van to our hotel cost about $15. Tuk Tuks, the primary means of transport in Siem Reap, weren't available at the airport entrance, but I’m sure if we would’ve walked off the airport grounds we could’ve gotten one (or two for our family with our luggage – each tuk tuk holds 4 people comfortably without bags) and saved a few dollars on the entire trip. But seriously. The van was $15 so I don’t think any savings would have been worth the hassle. (Note: it is common for a lot of travelers to try to bargain absolutely everything down while in South East Asia. We chose to only selectively bargain because unless something seemed ridiculously overpriced, it was all mostly dirt cheap anyway so big deal if we saved a dollar or two. That dollar or two was worth much more to the local Cambodian that it was to us.)
We went everywhere by Tuk-Tuk. They were fun, the breeze helped us cool off, and the ride is cheap. We met our driver on our first day on a one-way ride and ended up booking him for full days on future excursions. He was the best!
To ensure you’re paying a fair price from any tuk tuk driver (or a taxi if you’re so inclined), comparison prices can be checked on the “GRAB” app. GRAB in parts of SE Asia is like Uber in the U.S., except you can choose everything from a 4 person car to a 7 person car (like the U.S. Uber XL), and in Siem Reap GRAB has an option for a one-way tuk tuk ride or full day hire. We used that as our base comparison when negotiating if we were out of wifi and couldn't book one directly on GRAB. GRAB was always cheaper than anything right off the street and easy to use. Most “GRABs” picked us up within 1 minute of requesting a ride and we liked one of our GRAB drivers so much we hired him for a full-day excursion later in our trip!
Another interesting and convenient thing about Siem Reap is that everything can be bought with your US Dollars. There is no need to exchange money into Cambodia Riel and face either exchange rate commissions or bank ATM withdrawal fees. Most change you’ll get from vendors is also in dollars as well. In the rare case you do get some change in Cambodian Riel, it’s easy to spend on your next Tuk Tuk ride. If you need to use an ATM, which were abundant throughout the city, you are even given a choice for cash withdrawals in Riel or Dollars!
Most people come to Siem Reap for one major purpose: the see the temples, or most particularly, Agnkor Wat. Tickets are sold as a 1 day pass ($37), 3 day pass ($62), or longer. Kids under 12 are free so long as you carry their passports with you. There are ticket checkpoints throughout your visit in Angkor and you will need the passports on you to show proof of age, otherwise you’ll be denied admittance or forced to buy a ticket.
One of the many entrances in Angkor Thom. Note the carving of Buddha above the entrance.
We bought 3-day tickets for those of us planning to hit a lot of temples, and a one day pass for those we were lucky to drag to just a few. In hindsight, the multi-day pass wasn’t worth it. For $87 we hired a tour guide (they’re specially licensed but easy to find and book prior to arriving) and driver for the day and saw just about every major temple and area. We started with the hotel pick-up at 4:30am and were one of the first groups to Angkor Wat to line up for the sunrise. Right after us came all the pros (and wanna-bes) with fancy tripod set-ups. The sunrise was magical. I am so glad we did it. Being in Angkor and slowly seeing the details of the temple come to life was a surreal experience. Right after sunrise we went right into the temple, which meant we would be seeing it during the coolest temps of the day and before the throngs of crowds hit. By 7:15 we were back to our hotel for breakfast and a quick break before our guide would pick us back up again in an hour. I felt like at that point we’d already put in a full day. The day, however, was just getting started. Our guide gave us a detailed history of Angkor and the construction of the temples. On each site he showed us the most important elements of the temples or other buildings, and took us to the most picture-worthy spots. By about 11am we felt like we lost gallons of fluid from our bodies. It was so hot and so humid our kids started to beg to stay in the air-conditioned van while the rest of us marched on. No dice. They saw it all, mostly willing, and started to play games like “I spy the sweatiest tourist”. It was a tough call. It basically looked like one ugly wet t-shirt contest everywhere you went. The heat aside (and our driver had a large cooler full of ice waters for every stop), the buildings were magnificent. Each of us left with a different favorite temple. I’m not sure I was totally prepared for what we would see. I thought it would be cool and all, but it was truly awesome. I left Siem Reap with a complete appreciation and respect for the Angkor Empire. We were back to the hotel by 2:30pm and basically just laid in our air conditioned rooms for the next two hours.
One of the really cool temples. This one was used in the original "Tomb Raider" film.
The next day 3 of us headed out with our multi-day ticket and went to Banteay Srei, sometimes known as the “ladies” or “women’s temple”. We heard it was unique because, unlike the carvings at the temples we saw on day 1, apparently the carvings on this temple were extraordinarily detailed. We had to see it. Plus, we already bought a multi-day ticket so why not! To save some money, this time we hired, Lay Hok Lee, a tuk tuk driver we met on an earlier ride for the day. He charged us $25 and ferried us around all day and night.
The drive in the tuk-tuk took us through the Siem Reap countryside, so we got to see beyond what was just in the city proper. We saw many of the locals and how they lived their daily lives, from school children biking and walking to school (many riding two on a bike and many more walking without shoes) to parents working their roadside stand. The breeze rolling through the tuk tuk felt wonderful and after about 45+ minutes we arrived at the temple. It didn’t disappoint. Being more remote than Angkor Wat there were only a handful of other people there, so we could enjoy the template for as long as we wanted without massive crowds (but not as long as the day prior since we weren’t guided and moved at a quicker pace). The red sandstone that was used for its construction gave it an unusual pink glow compared to all the other temples that looked similar in color. And because sandstone is easier to carve than materials used for other temples in Angkor, the carvings in the stone were much more detailed (and beautiful). Upon leaving we ranked that as one of our top ones from the trip right onto the “Mount Rushmore” of Cambodian temples.
Our favorite temple: Banteay Srei (above, below). The detailed stone carvings and its pinkish hue makes it stand out from all the others.
If we had to do it all over again, we probably would have done this temple on our first day with all the other temples as well. Granted cramming even more temples is a one-day tour makes remembering them all a bit challenging, but it would save the multi-day admission ticket that, in hindsight, we found unnecessary. It would have been better to save money and just buy the one-day pass, and then leverage the driver you’ve already booked for the day instead of needing to hire a driver for a full second day.
After visiting Banteay Srei we stopped at the Cambodian Landmine Museum, which is just off the side of the road on the way back to Siem Reap. It was cool little stop to learn about the history of UXO removal throughout Cambodia and one man’s attempt at clearing the post-war explosives that puts so many children and other civilians in everyday danger. The museum could be viewed in 15-30 minutes if you felt pressed for time, but the admission fee that goes to the further removal of the UXOs is worth every penny.
Pub Street has a great vibe and is THE place to go for dinner and drinks once the sun sets.
After the Landmine museum we headed back to our hotel for some late afternoon swimming before heading downtown to Pub Street for dinner, massages, and a night at the Cambodian circus. Pub Street is a great strip of streets that comes alive at night. Lights strung across the streets illuminate the various bars and restaurants and kick-off the party vibe. We all had a great time wandering the streets before settling into a dinner and massage, two of the great bargains in Siem Reap. Most meals we tried to stick to authentic Cambodian dishes and they cost between $3-5. If you go a bit off the beaten path you can find tons of options for $1, literally entire menus where everything is a buck. We went all-out with a $3 restaurant. Our favorite was Amok, which could be made with chicken, fish, or shrimp. We had the fish and chicken and both were delicious. If you venture off the local menu into the touristy stuff, like pizza or pasta, you’ll start pushing $8-10+ for each entrée. That may still seem like a bargain in some places, but the $3 meals are filling and scrumptious and paired with a 50-cent tap beer (yes, you read that right, and it’s good!) you can live like a king in Cambodia. That is, until you hit the spa and you realize how far your dollars can really go.
Nothing beats a $5 massage or facial (above) after a day of sightseeing, but it takes a little courage to get a pedicure via the fish tank!
All 6 of us got combinations of massages and facials and the total was $29. I went with a four-handed massage. I always wanted one but could never stomach the cost at a traditional American spa. But in Siem Reap that same massage cost $6, so I splurged. It was awesome. Just be prepared for some powerful stretch moves during your massage. I didn’t expect it at first, but I was quickly turned into a painful, tight pretzel (I’m not very flexible) and then the stretched parts of my body were massaged. Somehow I bent, but didn’t break, and really enjoyed it.
After dinner our tuk tuk driver brought us to the circus. We heard great reviews from other travelers and bought tickets the night before online. It was a bit spendy compared to other entertainment options, but we really wanted to check it out. Tickets cost between $18-$28, depending on where you sat. Children under 12 are half price. The mid-priced tickets were already sold out when we went to buy, so we purchased the $28 tickets. It turned out those were front row/center and included a refillable water bottle we could fill at certain restaurants around town. The circus was in a small big-top tent with fans and air conditioners, so we found it quite comfortable. It looks liked people in the upper rows and in the cheaper seats along the side (it only went 8-10 rows high) were fanning themselves pretty aggressively, so I’m guessing the A/C didn’t reach them very well. That factored in, I would call our $28 seats a bargain.
The Phare Circus (above, below) is a great evening event with big thrills and cool acrobatics to match.
Once the show started I knew we were in for a treat. It was put on by Phare, a Cambodian theatre development organization that has a deep history in working to provide an outlet and training to Cambodia youths on the street and giving them a potential career outlet and schooling they otherwise would not receive. 75% of their overall revenue goes back into the programs that support disadvantaeged Cambodia youths. The students learn the art of circus and theatre (similar to a Vegas-style Cirque show). However, I found Phare much more entertaining and, if you’ve read our prior posts on Vegas and Cirque, far less creepy. The actors did amazing stunts just feet away from us and the show’s musicians performed right on stage and were also some of the actors in the show. The circus travels around the world on tour, so if you get a chance, I highly recommend you see it. Ticket sales go back to the development company which helps many of its Cambodian citizens and students.
On our departure day we snuck in a late morning visit to the Silk Factory. It was a fascinating live-working production site that demonstrated the entire evolution of silk production from the early nurturing of the silk worms all the way through generating the silk from their cocoons and weaving the fabric. We saw some of the local workers taking the newly dyed threads and making the most detailed scarves and other linens. The guide who took us through the factory moved at a god pace so that the entire experience was complete within 45 minutes. The kids all loved it, we learned things we never knew about how silk is made. Definitely the best free activity in Siem Reap!
A batch of silk worm cocoons being converted into silk thread at the Siem Reap Silk Factory.
Siem Reap is a great destination to blend phenomenal world sights with cultural education and cheap accommodations and dining. Just be warned the touristy activities are not priced on the same scale as everything else (we found them outright spendy!). Be prepared to open your wallet a lot more when it comes to anything beyond food, accommodation, transportation, and spa services.
Leaving Siem Reap, heading off to our next adventure!