It was a little past 4:30 AM and I was one of the first people there. It was still almost pitch black so I had to use my cellphone’s LCD display to light the way. Without it, I probably would have tripped and fallen into the moat. I set up my tripod at the edge of the lake and waited for the sun to rise from behind those iconic five spires. At that ungodly hour, I thought I’d be one of the few people crazy enough to push myself out of bed just to take a picture. I was wrong.
Within an hour, a small army of amateur photographers had camped out all along the lake’s edge. Like me, most had tripods. Many had ultra fancy lenses. There must have been several hundreds of us forming 4-5 rows of tourists hoping for that iconic sunrise shot. I guess I wasn’t that crazy after all. Such is the magic and allure of Angkor Wat.
A UNESCO World Heritage site and the world’s largest religious monument, it’s one of the few places that you absolutely must see at least once in your life. Here’s a first-timer’s travel guide that I hope can help you plan that trip.
GUIDE TABLE OF CONTENTS
WHEN TO GO
Cambodia has two seasons — wet and dry. The wet season is from May to October while the dry season is from November to April.
March-May are the hottest months with an average temperature of around 84°F (29°C). Avoid these months because the heat and dust can be oppressive. September or October aren’t ideal either because those are the wettest months. Flash flooding is a frequent occurence, making travel difficult. November to February is the most popular time to go because it’s the coolest and driest time of the year. However, it’s also the most crowded. We went in December and the crowds at times were unbearable. Prices tend to spike at this time as well.
For a good balance of weather and number of tourists, June-August is said to be the most ideal. The rain keeps things cooler and less dusty, the landscape is more green, the temple moats are filled, and there are fewer tourists. Rainy season isn’t in full swing yet, with the rain coming in it seems at a scheduled time daily — early in the afternoon and again at night.
HOW TO GET THERE
Travelers will be arriving at Siem Reap International Airport (REP). From there, you can take a tuk tuk to your hotel. We made arrangements with our hotel to have us picked up, but you can hail a tuk tuk from the airport. We paid USD 5 each way but it’ll probably be more expensive if you hired one on the spot.
HOW LONG TO STAY
Siem Reap is all about the Angkor temples. If you’re not out to see every single temple, then the 3-day Angkor pass should be enough. Unlike beach towns, Siem Reap isn’t really conducive to R&R so I’d say 3-4 nights is enough.
HOW MUCH MONEY TO BRING
Cambodia is inexpensive, even by Southeast Asian standards. It’s one of the cheapest countries we’ve visited. You can enjoy a meal at a fancy restaurant for USD 10. Ice cold draft beer can be had for just 50 cents a mug.
You can pretty much live like a king there with a budget of USD 100 per day, less if you share a room with another traveler. This includes accommodations, food and drinks, some shopping, transportation, and your Angkor pass. It’s so economical that budget travelers can probably do well with as little as USD 50 per day.
Conveniently, USD is the de facto currency in Cambodia. It’s accepted everywhere. The only time you’ll ever see Cambodian Riel is when it’s given to you as small change from USD transactions.
WHERE TO STAY: Soria Moria Boutique Hotel
Soria Moria is a Norwegian-owned boutique hotel with 38 rooms. It’s conveniently located along Wat Bo Road which is just a few minutes walk from chaotic Pub Street. Pub Street gets pretty loud and rowdy at night, so if you prefer a quieter, more relaxed atmosphere, then Soria Moria is perfect for you. It’s also close to many delicious, un-touristy restaurants.
An oasis in the sweltering heat of Siem Reap. For just USD 50 a night in December 2012, our standard room with twin beds was spacious, clean, and very comfortable. The TV had tons of channels too, along with free wi-fi for the entire building. I can’t recommend this place highly enough. You can make a reservation through Agoda or Booking.com. Be sure to check both sites to find the best deal.
Approximate Room Rate: USD 50 per night (as of Dec 2012)
WHERE TO GO
Tourists come to Siem Reap to visit the Angkor temples. For first-time visitors, it’s important to understand that there isn’t just one temple. The most famous one — Angkor Wat — is just one of many temples scattered in a large area. To visit them, you’ll need to buy an Angkor pass. Prices are as follows:
One day – USD 37
Three days – USD 62
Seven days – USD 72
If you want to see all the temples, then I suggest getting the one week pass. But if you want to visit just the major temples, then the three day pass will suffice. I’ve listed the four most notable temples below. Visiting just those four will still leave you with a fulfilling Angkor experience. Please note that multiple day passes must be used on consecutive days — ie the week-long pass will be valid for one week from the date of purchase.
TIP: You may want to buy your pass at 5 PM the day before you intend to use it. You’ll be allowed free entry into the park to watch the sunset from Phnom Bakheng Temple. Check out my post on the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap for more pictures and information.
1. Ta Phrom
Home to giant roots reclaiming the ruins, Ta Phrom is where Tomb Raider was actually filmed. These massive roots enveloping the temples was a spectacular sight. Definitely a must-see.
Suggested Length of Visit: 2-3 hrs
2. Angkor Thom & Bayon Temple
The largest temple in the complex, Angkor Thom is the second most visited temple after Angkor Wat. Covering an area of 9 sq km, at the center of Angkor Thom is Bayon Temple, which is home to these massive, carved stone heads. Pictured borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.
Suggested Length of Visit: 4-5 hrs
3. Angkor Wat
The jewel of the Angkor complex. The largest Hindu temple complex in the world, Angkor Wat is a massive structure surrounded on all sides by a moat. How they managed to build this in the 12th century is mind-blowing. I visited Angkor Wat twice — once during the day and another early in the morning to get my sunrise shot.
Suggested Length of Visit: 3-4 hrs
4. Bantaey Srei
Around an hour away by tuk tuk from the main temple complex, Bantaey Srei is one of the smaller temples but also one of the most unique. The only temple made from pink sandstone, it boasts the best, most intricate temple carvings of all. I paid USD 22 and left at 6:30 AM to go there, but it was worth it. It’s definitely worth a visit.
Suggested Length of Visit: 2-3 hrs
5. Landmine Museum
The landmine museum is along the way to Bantaey Srei so it’s a frequent stop on the return trip back to town. It tells the story of landmines in Cambodia and their sobering impact on the country’s past, present, and future. Entrance to the museum is USD 5.
Check out my post on the Landmine Museum in Siem Reap for more pictures and information.
Suggested Length of Visit: 1-1 1/2 hrs / Admission: USD 5
WHERE TO EAT
1. Pub Street
A neon-lit network of streets and alleys teeming with restaurants, bars, and clubs, Pub Street is the heart of Siem Reap. It’s where all the action is, so it can get pretty loud and boisterous. Many of the restaurants here feel touristy and a little “same same”, but it’s a great place to hang out and enjoy a few beers.
Many restaurants in and around Pub Street offer Phnom Pleung, or “Cambodian BBQ.” Similar to Korean BBQ, you have a small burner on your table where you cook the meat yourself. Ren and I are adventurous eaters so we opted for the most exotic set meal consisting of kangaroo, crocodile, snake, beef, and shrimp, all for just USD 13. Most of the proteins were pretty tough but we enjoyed the experience nonetheless. It was fun.
Check out my post on Phnom Pleung or Cambodian BBQ for more pictures and information.
Expect to Pay: USD 8 per person with drinks
2. Soria Moria Boutique Hotel (Wednesdays)
Lucky for us, Soria Moria offers Dollar Wednesdays where every item on their tapas menu and bar list can be had for just one US dollar. I suggest going early for dinner because it’s very popular. We had the bruschetta among a few other things.
Expect to Pay: USD 5 per person with drinks
A TripAdvisor awardee, Viroth’s is a beautiful restaurant that’s perfect for quiet, candlelit dinners. It’s just a stone’s throw away from Soria Moria along Wat Bo Road. Despite its elegant ambiance and terrific Cambodian food, it’s still relatively inexpensive, with dinner for two amounting to just USD 20. If you prefer a quieter atmosphere away from the chaos that is Pub Street, then Viroth’s is for you.
Check out my post on Viroth’s in Siem Reap for more pictures and information.
Expect to Pay: USD 12 per person with drinks
4. The Square 24 St.
Like Viroth’s, the Square 24 St. is another beautifully decorated restaurant just minutes from Soria Moria. We shared the “Passionately Khmer” set menu which is a five-course meal that amounted to just USD 18. The Square 24 St. is also a TripAdvisor awardee and a local favorite. It’s a refreshing alternative to the loud, touristy atmosphere of Pub Street.
Check out my post on The Square 24 St. in Siem Reap for more pictures and information.
Expect to Pay: USD 11 per person with drinks
5. Happy Herb Pizza
If you haven’t already heard, Cambodia is known for this phenomenon called “happy pizza”. It’s basically a pizza dusted with a special herb – cannabis. Yes, you read that right. Cannabis. Despite the subpar pizza, we ate here twice.
A word of caution. Though these are legal establishments, marijuana is technically illegal in Cambodia so it’s best to be discrete. In fact, I heard that they don’t lace every pizza with cannabis. You have to ask them to make yours “extra happy” to get the good stuff. You’re welcome.
Check out my post on Cambodian Happy Pizza for more happy.
Expect to Pay: USD 5 per person with drinks
WHERE TO BUY GIFTS & SOUVENIRS
1. Old Market
With various wares like dried packaged fruit, spices, shirts, silver, scarves, and so on, the Old Market is undoubtedly the best place to buy souvenirs in Siem Reap. Check out all these awesome spices!
2. Night Market
Located a few short blocks from the Old Market, the Night Market is similar though slightly more upscale and without any food items. Here you’ll find more modern nicknacks, Cambodian folk art, jewelry, even fake Beats by Dr. Dre stuff that may have fallen off the back of a tuk tuk.
1. Check for Discount Passes
I recently discovered Klook and have been using them to find discounts on activities and services. They offer deals in multiple cities throughout Asia including Siem Reap. If you’re looking for deals on tours and activities, then you can search through this list of Siem Reap attractions on Klook.
2. Get Travel Insurance
To be honest, it was only recently when we started buying travel insurance. Back when we traveled just once or twice a year, it felt like an added expense, one we didn’t need. But now that we travel more, I understand how important it is to have it. Fact is, you never know what can happen. It’s one of those things that you hope you never have to use, but if you do wind up needing it, then you’ll be thanking the gods that you had it. Or cursing them if you didn’t.
Though I do find it more necessary now, it’s still up to you if you think you need it. A 3-day food trip to Hong Kong may not really call for insurance but if you plan on doing more active things like bungee jumping, kayaking, or even going on a city bike tour, then I’d say travel insurance is a good idea.
We buy travel insurance from World Nomads because every long-term traveler I know recommends it. From the sound of it, they’re the best in the industry by a mile. Not only do they provide a high coverage limit for medical expenses (up to USD 5 million with the Standard package), they also cover things like trip delays, missed flight connections, theft/loss of passport and luggage, etc. Follow this link to learn more and get a free travel insurance quote from World Nomads. It’s super quick and easy.
3. Pack Well
What you should bring on trips is highly subjective, but these are some of the things we brought with us on our trip to Hong Kong. If you’d like to see what other gear we use, then you can check out our “What’s in Our Backpack?” post. (NOTE: The following links are Amazon affiliate links.)
HOW TO GET AROUND
Tuk tuk. Unless you rent a bicycle or hire a car, then a tuk tuk will be your primary means of transportation in Siem Reap. The breeze from the ride feels a lot like airconditioning after a hot, exhausting day exploring temples.
Be warned that though harmless, many tuk tuk drivers around town are agressive and will try to get you to hire them. To avoid being taken for a ride, arrange trips through your hotel as much as possible. Prices may vary slightly between hotels, but here’s what we paid for all our trips (in December 2012). Unless otherwise indicated, prices listed are for two people round trip.
Angkor Wat (sunrise or sunset, just one temple) – USD 5
Angkor circuit (several temples) – USD 14
Bantaey Srei – USD 22
To airport (one-way) – USD 5
Regarding visas, Filipinos don’t need tourist visas to visit Cambodia for stays no longer than 21 days.
HOW TO GET CHEAP AIRLINE TICKETS
Ever since I scored my first piso fare from Cebu Pacific, I’ve been hopelessly addicted to cheap airline tickets. These piso fare tickets are limited and sell fast, so you have to be quick. To give yourself an advantage, I suggest liking their Facebook page and following them on Twitter to quickly find out about these seat sales. If you check off “Get notifications” on Facebook, then you’ll receive instant alerts every time they post something new.
As far as I know, only Cebu Pacific has direct flights from Manila to Seam Reap. As of this writing, they have four flights a week — on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday — departing Manila at 7:35 PM and arriving in Siem Reap at 9:30 PM.
I’m not an expert on Siem Reap but I do hope that you find this post useful. I’m only sharing some of the things that I learned from our trip. If you have any suggestions or simply want to share your own experiences, then please feel free to do so in the comments section below. You’re welcome to join our Facebook Travel Group as well. We’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for stopping by and enjoy your time playing tomb raider at Angkor Archaeological Park!
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