There are many ways to see the Temples of Angkor. A little research before hand goes a long way toward saving you from “Temple Burnout,” heat stroke and exhaustion. Far too often we have seen the telltale signs of overwhelm in tourists who try to see it all in two or three short days. Sadly, they do not get to fully appreciate the richness of this very unique corner of the earth.
In addition to the temples, Siem Reap has many great activities to enjoy. I highly recommend mixing some of these activities into your plans. What follows are some personal tips, some of our favorite Siem Reap activities and recommendations for hotels and great restaurants.
Tips for an Enjoyable Angkor Wat Visit
Plan a minimum seven-day stay in Siem Reap. There are no hotels in the Angkor Wat Archeological Park. Visitors normally stay in Siem Reap, a 20-30 minute car or tuk tuk ride away. We initially booked seven nights and kept extending to a total of 11 nights.
Don’t bother changing money into Riel. This applies to everywhere in Cambodia. ATMs dispense U.S. dollars, often in 100 dollar bills. Everything is priced in dollars. Everyone in Cambodia takes dollars, as long as they are not torn or damaged. Do not accept damaged dollars as change, you will be stuck with them. Ignore Lonely Planet’s advice to keep a few Riel for tips. At 4,000:1 dollar even a 1,000 Riel note is rather insulting. Instead, keep some one dollar bills for tips. A buck or two tip in a restaurant is appreciated. There is no reason to tip higher than that. Tuk tuks cost $2 to go anywhere around Siem Reap so they are handy for those as well.
Get a tuk tuk to see the sights but don’t depend on the one your hotel recommends. The driver will probably speak no English and have a very rigid idea of where you should go, i.e., big circuit, little circuit, et cetera. We used the recommended tuk tuk driver that our otherwise wonderful hotel (review link below) offered for our first evening’s sunset temple outing. I could not even get him to stop to take a gorgeous sunset photograph.
After that I contacted KimSeng who was recommended by a fellow traveler. He and his brother Kim San both speak English and are very friendly. They will happily take you anywhere. They always have ice-cold water waiting when you emerge from a temple. Considering the intense heat and humidity, this is a huge deal! I cannot say enough about them. Kimseng became our one and only driver for the remainder of our stay. We even had him drive us to the floating market on Lake Tonlé Sap. They can also provide air-conditioned cars if you prefer.
Don’t try to see every temple in Cambodia. Pick the ones that appeal to you and do not try to visit too many in a single day. Most drivers will try to take you on the big and the little circuit. Both of these are day long affairs where you visit 8-10 temples or more in a day. I get exhausted just thinking about it!
Go early; end early. Avoid temple burnout and the heat. We typically started our day at 6:30 am when Kimseng would pick us up at Green Home Guest House. We would finish around 10:30 am just when the heat was reaching its upper limit. Then we would nap, swim, go for an air-conditioned lunch, whatever. This kept it fun.
Alternate temple visit days with other Siem Reap activities (some recommendations below).
Passes to visit the temples of Angkor come in three types. A one day pass costs US$20. Unless you are on the travel itinerary from hell, this is not enough. A three-day pass costs $40. You can use your three days anytime within a week. This pass works well for many people. A seven-day pass costs $60 and can be used for any seven days within a 30 day period.
This is the best value as four days is the break even point. We only used it for a total of five days and it was still a great value. Bonus tip: Get your pass around 5:00 pm and you can get a free entry for sunset your first night. This will not deduct from your other days’ visits. You will be photographed for your pass and it is non transferable. Passes are checked at all sites and fines are high if you are caught trying to sneak into a temple without one.
Do go for a sunrise to Angkor Wat one morning but have no expectations. Leave your guesthouse or hotel no later than 5:00 am for best results. It is a wonderful experience even if clouds obscure the sun. And you may just be one of the lucky ones and catch a spectacular sunrise.
Read this and other travel blogs for the most current information. Lonely Planet is useless and no longer relevant. Wikitravel is another good crowd-sourced website that is usually correct. Travelfish has good travel advice for Southeast Asia as well.
We flew from Pakse, Laos to Siem Reap. However, many take the popular overland route from Bangkok to Siem Reap by bus via the border crossing Poipet. This border is well-known for its many scams so read up ahead of time to avoid them.
Other Activities in Siem Reap
Spend an evening or three walking around town and along the river. It is cooler. Stop at a cafe or bar and relax people watching.
See Phare the Cambodian Circus. Performances are every evening at 7:30 pm. No admission after 7:35 pm. General admission is $15 and you should get there early for a better seat. However, splurge and get a VIP ticket for $35. You will have one of the best seats in the tent reserved for you and will get a bonus gift as well. We did and we were center and practically inside the ring for the show. It is amazing by any world standard and a lot less than Cirque du Soliel. The show changes every couple of weeks. Here is my Trip Advisor Review.
Take a day trip to the floating village of Kampong Khleang on Lake Tonlé Sap (“Great Lake”). The Tonlé Sap is a combined lake and river system of major importance to Cambodia. It is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and was designated as a UNESCO biosphere in 1997.
There are two floating villages closer to Siem Reap; however, Kampong Khleang is not commercialized. We had Kimseng take us there in his tuk tuk. It was a bit under one hour each way and he acted as impromptu tour guide during our time there for which he was not additionally compensated. There were several weddings underway that day as well.
The Tonlé Sap is unusual for two reasons: its flow changes direction twice a year, and the portion that forms the lake expands and shrinks dramatically with the seasons. For most of the year the lake is fairly small, around one meter deep and with an area of 2,700 square km. When water is pushed up from the Mekong into the lake, it increases its area to approximately 16,000 square kilometers, with a depth of nine meters. This expansion floods the nearby fields and forests, providing a great breeding ground for fish.
The area is home to many ethnic Vietnamese and numerous Cham communities, living in floating villages around the lake who make their living by fishing on the local waters. There are so many fish harvested from this lake that it accounts for 16 percent of Cambodia’s GDP.
Other activities: Go to the Temple Bar and catch the Apsara Dance Troupe, a show of surprisingly good (if poorly paced) traditional Khmer dance. My review.
Get a massage at Lemongrass Spa. My review.
Eating and Sleeping
There are many guesthouses in Siem Reap and costs are competitive. This is especially true if you go in low season like we did. We stayed at Green Home Guest House and absolutely loved it.
There is no shortage of restaurants from fine to funky. Many are run by NGOs and directly benefit the underserved of Cambodia such as those maimed and orphaned by the Khmer Rouge and American bombing runs during the second Indochina (Vietnam) War.
Here is a list of some of our favorites from best to almost best. Links will take you to my Trip Advisor review where you can see more detailed information.
As you can see there is no shortage of fun activities in Siem Reap. Visiting the incredible Temples of Angkor both within the archeological park and those in outlying areas is enriching and rewarding. Strolling the river and pub street and a variety of dining options are easily yours. This list is not exhaustive. If I can help you to further plan your trip to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, please contact me through this blog. Feel free to post any questions in the comment section below. All comments are answered personally.
Happy and safe travels