Visiting Siem Reap was like nothing I’d encountered at other tourist hot spots, even smaller ones like Chiang Mai. It is literally a bunch of temples in the middle of a jungle with a small town nearby. Flying in on our tiny plane at night, I struggled to see any streetlights or other signs of life. Even the taxi drivers out front were using flashlights.
I managed to lose the passport photo I brought with me to secure a visa, but it appeared to be unnecessary. The most important thing you need in Cambodia is U.S. dollars. I just had to pay a higher fee and still they didn’t bother to take a replacement picture. But be warned that the visa is a full page and glued into the passport. While it looks cool, I know some people try to save space and would find it more annoying.
Trip Report Index
- Trip Report Introduction: Taking My Sister to Asia for Two Weeks
- Review: Cathay Pacific First Class SFO-HKG (Last of the 747s)
- Review: Grand Hyatt Hong Kong (after Renovations)
- Revisiting the Old, and Finding New Favorite Activities in Hong Kong
- Review: Dragonair Economy Class to Chiang Mai (HKG-CNX)
- Review: Le Meridien Chiang Mai
- Visiting the Baanchang Elephant Park in Chiang Mai
- Chiang Mai: Like Bangkok without the Crowds
- Review: Flying Bangkok Airways to Siem Reap and the Best Free Airport Lounge
- Review: Park Hyatt Siem Reap
- Touring Siem Reap: Angkor Archaeological Park
Our chatty taxi driver managed to persuade us by the end of the ride to have him pick us up the next day at our hotel for a tour of the temples. I don’t know if it was a good deal or not, but he wanted only $30 for him and a separate tour guide. It was certainly less than what the hotel wanted and seemed reasonable for a full day. Our guides showed up right on time the next morning, and we were given a brief overview of the temple complex and our itinerary as we headed to the park entrance to buy some tourist passes.
These passes aren’t expensive — only $20 for a single day, and cheaper if you want to visit longer (you will). Fortunately the process is very efficient. We just waited in line, smiled for the camera, and were given a paper ID badge to show to anyone who asked.
By the way, “complex” is exactly the right word. Angkor Wat is actually just one small part of a much larger park with dozens of temples scattered throughout. We visited maybe five or six during our day with a tour guide. I think that was a great way to start, but I would have loved to return for another one or two days and wandered around on my own with a bicycle.
On our tour, we started at the back side of the most famous temple, Angkor Wat. It didn’t seem like much, but it was kind of cool to be taking a side entrance. By the time you see pictures of the front you’ll know why we came this way. I definitely recommend it.
Once past the outer buildings we reached the famous towers that everyone recognizes. It was still hard to tell that this was Angkor Wat — since we were looking at it from the other side — but it was interesting nonetheless. Our guide took us through the outer walkways, showing us the intricate carvings and explaining their meanings.
Eventually we entered the central courtyard and were able to climb a staircase to the top. There was quite a view, as well as some surprisingly large open spaces considering how much had to be built underneath to support them.
At the front of Angkor Wat, as we walked away from the temple, there was a large boulevard with stalls selling food, art, and trinkets. I don’t think the visit would have been nearly as enjoyable had we arrived this way. A bit further on there was an even larger paved road where most of the tourist buses seemed to arrive.
As you can see from the photo above, it rained during our visit. The weather was mostly good but still temperamental. Our guide hurried us to this smaller building to the side of the walkway — I think he called it a library — so we could wait out the flash storm. We explored for about 15 minutes before we were able to exit and continue our tour. One benefit of having a separate guide and driver is that the car was already waiting for us out front.
We continued on to Angkor Thom, crossing a large bridge as we did. You can see where ages of neglect (and possibly warfare or pillaging) have resulted in damage to these monuments. In some cases they’ve been repaired. In other cases, the missing pieces are still noticeable.
Many different governments have been contributing to the repair and restoration of different temples in the Angkor Wat complex. However, it didn’t really impede our access. Our passes were checked by police at this temple, but otherwise we were still able to explore wherever we wished. That was great because Angkor Wat turned out to be the least impressive of all the temples we visited. The smaller temples that sit in its shadow see fewer crowds and have more nooks and crannies to explore.
We continued on and found this temple in the middle of a vast field. One of the coolest features was the elevated walkway leading to it. And nearby was a large wall carved with dozens of elephants.
We stopped for lunch at a popular restaurant across from a nearby lake. I’m not sure exactly where it was, but it looked like it attracted a lot of tourists, probably referred by their guides. Although there were air conditioned rooms upstairs and down, we opted to sit on the patio. (Our behavior throughout the trip seemed to confuse our guide. It was extremely hot, but we passed on air conditioning. Go figure.) Fortunately the food was still quite good. I would recommend it if I knew the name.
Our last stop was the “Tomb Raider” temple, more accurately known as Ta Prohm. It was very dilapidated and fairly small, with fallen walls, rubble, and trees growing all around it. But I can see the appeal. It was fairly busy — second only to Angkor Wat — and if you want to get some good photos without so many other tourists I recommend you ask your guide to bring you here first.
If you have only one day, I think these temples do a great job of summarizing everything there is to see in Siem Reap. But there’s so much more out there. I really don’t think we did justice to the site by spending only one day. Unfortunately there wasn’t much time for more, but on a future trip I’d like to spend a week — perhaps the first day spent with a car and driver but future days spent exploring at a more leisurely pace with a bicycle. There were so many things we passed, and with no fences or signs there really wasn’t any reason we couldn’t stop except for lack of time. At the very least, if you go to Siem Reap make sure you take the time to explore the carvings. Everything is covered with them. The closest you’ll get anywhere else is two feet behind a rope in a museum.