Siem Reap is the gateway to the ruins of Angkor; the epicenter of the Khmer kingdom that ruled from the 9th to 15th century in Cambodia. Regarded as one of the most important archeological sites in South East Asia and indeed the world, the city of Angkor stretches over a vast 250 miles and contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire. UNESCO has made it their priority to set down a strict regime to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings.
But you didn’t want a history lesson – you already know the importance of Angkor and what it meant for the Khmer regime, that’s why it’s on your BUCKiTDREAM list! But over 250 miles of dense forest and interconnecting temples and ruins? That’s a lot of ground to cover and this is why we’ve put together a little guide covering the highlights of Angkor and a few tips on how to make the most out of your stay in Siem Reap.
Angkor’s Main Temples
Angkor Wat The most iconic of Angkor’s temples and a great symbol for Khmer tradition, history and pride. This awe-inspiring temple is certain to drop jaws at first glance and leave them hanging upon closer inspection of the incredible level of detail throughout. It didn’t make it onto the Cambodian flag for nothing…
Prasat Bayon Colloquially known as the ‘Temple of the Face Towers’, Prasat Bayon is a richly decorated temple inside of Angkor that served as the state temple of King Jayavarman VII and was built in the late 12th or early 13th century. It’s best known for the large number of serene faces that have been sculpted onto its towers; there are 49 towers in total and nearly 200 faces.
Ta Prohm Unlike most of the other Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm is in much the same condition as when it was found. Over the years the jungle has reclaimed the temple, which has created an atmospheric and particularly photogenic space with trees and vines growing out of the ruins. Today, Ta Prohm is one of the most popular complexes in the Angkor region and was added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 1992. You may also recognize this setting from Angelina Jolie’s movie, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Locals now call it the “Angelina Jolie Temple” since many tourists actually refer to it as that when they ask to be taken there.
Angkor Thom The last great capital of the Khmer empire spans over 5 miles and takes the word ‘monumental’ to a whole new level. Although Angkor Wat’s beauty is breathtaking, when you take into consideration the sheer magnitude of Angkor Thom your mind expands with it. Make sure you take a full day to properly explore these ruins.
How To Get Around
Tuktuk One of the best ways to see the temples is with a tuktuk guide. Arrange a time, itinerary of what you’d like to see and a price before jumping in, in order to make sure you’re getting exactly what you want without any nasty surprises. The guides will tell you a little about the grounds, different temples, their history and importance within Angkor and the Khmer culture. Prices range from around $10-15 USD per day for two people.
Bike Rent a bike for around $2 USD per day and have complete freedom to explore the temples at your own pace. We would definitely recommend taking a tuktuk guide on either day one or two of your trip in order to understand what you’re looking at and its significance to Angkor’s timeline, but bike it for the remaining days as you’ll be able to explore more of the grounds and get a better sense of adventure. Did I hear somebody say Indiana Jones?
Taxi If you can’t stand the heat and want to travel from temple to temple with plush seats and aircon, then taxis are another option for transportation around Angkor. However, we think that cruising around in a modern car would detract from the authentic experience more than a little bit. Price for a 4-seat taxi/day ~$30 USD.
Bus Tour Would NOT recommend. The temples are crowded enough without stuffing yourself into one with another 50 people. If you’d like a guide then definitely go for the tuktuk option; the price difference is minimal and you’ll get a lot more out of your trip.
What To Do In Siem Reap
Siem Reap isn’t all Angkor Wat and temples; its colonial architecture, artistic flare, charitable backbone and burgeoning food scene make it worth a visit in its own right. Take a day off from temple hopping and enjoy one of the many other attractions that Siem Reap has to offer, such as pottery classes, rice wine tastings, a spot of shopping in the Old Market, a history lesson at the Landmine Museum or a cooking class to better understand the lesser known Khmer cooking traditions.
See the Floating Village and Market
Chong Khneas is the name of famous floating village at the edge of the Tonle lake. It is located at Southern part of Siem Reap town about 8 miles out and takes only 30 minutes by vehicles to the boat dock where there are always boats waiting for visitors. The boat trip through the floating village takes approximately two hours. You will explore the different of Khmer, Muslim and Vietnamese floating households and the floating markets, fisheries, clinics, schools, basketball course, pigsty and other boatloads of tourists.
Where To Stay
High-End The Park Hyatt Siem Reap is an art deco fantasy of clear cut bold lines and effortless grace. Located in the heart of the city center and just 8 km from Angkor Wat, this exclusive hotel boasts one of the most prestigious addresses in town. Prices start from $190 USD/night.
Mid-Range Everyone’s tastes are different and if you’re looking for a little bit of luxury at an affordable price then check out the great deals available on Agoda, where you can find 4 or 5 star hotels and guest houses at budget prices.
Hostel The Siem Reap Hostel is the perfect option for travelers who want the comfort and cleanliness of a luxury hostel on a budget. They offer private rooms ($30 USD) and mixed dorms ($8 USD) and are conveniently located just five minutes walking distance from the Old Market and Pub Street.
Where To Eat
Breakfast/Cafe Sister Srey is a social enterprise that is owned and operated by a Melbournian sister duo who serve up fantastic brunches, lunches and most importantly, perfect flat whites. Explore upstairs and you’ll find a small collection of independently sourced clothes, trinkets and jewelry. Sister Srey is perfect for when you’re aching for a good old cup o’ joe and feel like something a little more Western.
Khmer Wat Damnak is best described as ‘Cambodian food with a French sensitivity’. Often incorporating edible flowers and local fruits, this Khmer-inspired restaurant offers two set degustation menus that are locally sourced and change seasonally.
Unique Bugs Cafe specializes in insect-based dishes that are cooked into tapas-sized portions. Expect to find scorpions, crickets, grasshoppers and tarantulas featured on the menu. For those that need to work up a little courage before crunching down, the cocktails are pretty decent and, most importantly, strong!
Where To Drink
Laundry manages to feel both sleek and upscale whilst retaining a ‘divey’ sort of vibe. Here you’ll find a good range of reasonably priced drinks, friendly staff and unpredictable soul/funk music.
Asana is located in a traditional Cambodian stilt house and looks like it’s been plucked straight out of the countryside. The cocktails are moreish and the seating is cozy; bring a good book and nestle down for the afternoon in one of the comfy hanging chairs.
Angkor What? We couldn’t not mention the most infamous bar in Siem Reap. But what it may lack in atmosphere, hygiene and passable music, it makes up for by being open late, cheap and, if you can brace yourself beforehand, actually quite a fun, devil-may-care venue for a night out.
Local Customs/Insider Tips
When visiting Angkor, wear a light shirt and pants/skirt that will cover your knees and shoulders, otherwise you will not be allowed into many of the temples.
Watch your drink when out at a bar; spiking is unfortunately not uncommon in this city.
Stay away from the fish massage Whilst it may be a unique and unusual experience for wide-eyed travelers it’s really not good for the fish, as the sanitation and filtration system in the tanks is terrible. This form of carnivorous pedicure is actually banned in the US and Canada for animal welfare and sanitation reasons.
Volunteering your time or donating money to a charity is a wonderful thing to do, but if you plan to include this in your trip then make sure you do your research first as there’s a lot of knock-offs around that actually exploit the children they’re supposedly trying to ‘support’.
Do not donate any money to the street kids; buy a book or painting from one of the many adult landmine victims instead. Children begging on the street can earn more money than a dozen dedicated NGOs put together; this creates a vicious cycle whereby the children skip school to raise money for their families. Not getting an education keeps them on the streets for life, making it very difficult to transition to do anything else.
Must See Nothing quite beats seeing the sun burst out from behind Angkor Wat at sunrise. If you thought that it was magnetic during the day then prepare yourself for a whole new level of mystique and beauty when the first rays of light begin to break through the horizon and illuminate the world’s largest religious monument from behind, whilst shedding a pinky-purpley hue upon the manmade lake at its base. Bliss.
I think you’d agree that Siem Reap and Angkor deserve to be on everyone’s bucket list – so don’t just keep it to yourself! Share your dream experiences via the BUCKiTDREAM app on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; your love for this mind-blowing wonder of the world may inspire others to travel there too.