Top 10 Tips For Visiting Angkor
Visiting the city of Siem Reap and the surrounding temple complex known as Angkor is an unforgettable experience and a requisite stop for any trip to Cambodia. The sheer size and options available in the area can be overwhelming, but try these 10 tips to make the most of your adventure.
1) Sunrise / Sunset With The Temples
There is something magical about being in Angkor in the early hours of the morning and the last few moments of daylight. Standing amidst the temples with a bit of haze, just being able to make out the structures in the limited light is the perfect moment to appreciate how King Suryavarman II’s subjects experienced the wonder of the temples in the 12th century when they lived there.
For sunrise, head to Angkor Wat — the main temple in the complex — and try and find a spot to the west for the best views. I was heading out of Siem Reap airport very early, and my guide managed to sneak me in to the park as a route to the airport heads right by this spot. The view is made doubly impressive as the towers of the temple reflect in the still water filling the moat around the complex.
For sunset head to Phnom Bakheang, a hill on the way into the temple grounds. Starting around 4:45 p.m. you can buy a “next day pass” for the temples, which will also get you immediate access giving you the chance to enter the complex in time for sunset. Once at the top, finding a suitable spot may be a challenge due to the crowd but is well worth the effort.
2) Angkor Wat
The most famous of the temples, Angkor Wat is the “must see” attraction in the area. The temple is about 20 minutes away from Siem Reap, where most travelers stay. To make getting around easier, hire a Tuk-Tuk for the day you plan on visiting the main temple sites (about $6 got me a ride to and from dinner as well).
Consider hiring a guide registered through the park, as they will be helpful with administrative details like buying passes and finding good lunch spots. Another option is a tour bus, which provides air conditioning and water. The downside is, like any tour, you are tied down to their schedule and can miss some of the temples that are further from Siem Reap.
Upon arriving at Angkor Wat, agree on a meet-up time and place with your Tuk-Tuk driver, then head to the right a hundred feet or so before crossing the bridge. From here I managed to step away from the crowd rushing across the bridge and capture my best photos. Once inside, follow the flow and enjoy the extensive bas-relief works throughout the temple.
Make sure to spend some time simply wandering around away from the masses. At one point I found myself alone on a second floor ledge at the back with a far-reaching views of the surrounding lush jungle. The isolation I saw served to underline the challenge it must have been to create the temples.
3) Banteay Srey (Red Temple)
After visiting the main temple complex on your first day, use your second day to get a bit further out of Siem Reap. The temple of Banteay Srey is much smaller compared to Angkor Wat, but offers a chance to see some more intricate and older (c.10th century) carvings and to also avoid some of the crowds. The temple was constructed out of a red stone, which creates a very unique feeling.
While it is possible to take a Tuk-Tuk to the temples further out, due to the distance it’s best to spend a little more and hire a driver for the roughly 30-minute ride.
4) Kbal Spean (Mountain Temple)
While you’re already out of Siem Reap, tacking on the outing to the Kbal Spean ruins is a must. With 11th-century carvings awaiting you, enjoy the ride through the countryside and take in what rural Cambodia is now like. From where the driver drops you, it’s about a mile-long hike into the Cambodian forest until you hear the distinctive sound of the famed waterfall.
In the pool at the base of the cliff, you may find three or four other tourists swimming, or you may have the place to yourself. Climb up to the cliff above and look into the stream and you will see a large number of phallic carvings carved into the riverbed. The water from this stream flows all the way back to Angkor Wat where it fills the moat around the temple, and these symbols serve to “fertilize” the water on their journey to Angkor.
5) Walk Through The Woods / Landmine Museum
Cambodia has a long history of bloodshed and fighting. Many parts of the temples of Angkor were inaccessible for many years due to the landmines that were installed throughout the woods. Walking between Angkor Thom and Terrace of the Leper King, steer away from the main path and head in to the woods a few yards — it’s quickly possible to imagine the fear of taking the next step that was long a facet of everyday life in this region (although I’ve been assured that the area has been thoroughly cleared).
To explore this part of local history, there is the The Cambodia Landmine Museum that can be reached via car on your way back from Kbal Spean. While not particularly uplifting, appreciating recent history helps in understanding how the country has developed in recent years.
6) Tonle Sap, Floating Village
With a 30-minute Tuk-Tuk ride from Siem Reap you can reach one of the floating village sites on Tonle Sap lake. The water level varies so significant that it is easier for fishermen to build floating homes rather than move with the changing shorelines throughout the year.
These floating homes can be reached with a quick boat ride from the shore, and provide a (admittedly touristy) glimpse of the fishermen’s lives. Depending on your haggling skills, the trip can be done for below $15 per person.
7) Night Market
No trip to an Asian city is complete without a visit to the night market. Siem Reap offers one that caters to the visitors in the city. There is a balance between souvenir kitsch and local arts and crafts to be found. If you’re feeling adventurous, a number of kiddie pools have been setup here — as is the case around all of Siem Reap — with small fish in them that will eat the dead skin off your worn out feet. (But be warned, Hong Kong has apparently forbidden these “treatments” for health and safety reasons.)
8) Old (Food) Market
During the day is the much more authentic Old Market. Here locals come to buy and sell everything from vegetables to chickens and fish. The scene is a bit overwhelming and very hot at first. In the morning you can pick up breakfast for around $1, which is certainly a bargain compared to prices at the nearby hotels and restaurants. However, be prepared to negotiate as prices aren’t indicated and the sellers see you as an easy way to charge more for their wares.
Siem Reap has a couple busy streets that serve as a nighttime hub of entertainment. The Red Piano Restaurant (northwest of the Old Market) is one of the more prominent places to dine and was supposedly frequented by Angelina Jolie while filming Tomb Raider. Many restaurants cater to the Western pallet, but with a little exploring you can find many restaurants that feature a number of good local curries. A couple blocks away you can find Khmer Kitchen and The Soup Dragon that offer local dishes and Vietnamese-style foods.
There seemed to be accommodations for every budget in Siem Reap, ranging from the basic backpacker’s hostel up through to the ultra-luxurious. In this regard, I can only point out that the purpose of the visit should be to see the temples, not the hotel room, and therefore less can be more in this regard
However, one of the favorite pastimes in Siem Reap on non-temple days is the chance to lounge at a pool — appropriate given the amount of walking and hiking that goes on otherwise. Luckily, for the budget traveler who will likely be staying somewhere without one, nearly every hotel in the city offer day passes to their pool for a small fee (starting from around $5 for the smaller hotels).
For example, for only $8 you can arrive at the Prince D’Angkor Hotel in the morning and experience all-day access to one of the biggest pools in the city, their gym, a jacuzzi, steam room, and enjoy poolside meal-service. Not bad when you consider most people around you are spending upwards of ten times what you are just to sleep there. And by day’s end you’ll feel fully re-energized for another day out in one of the wonders of the world.
By Simon Mikolayczyk
About the Author
Simon Mikolayczyk has lived in North America, Asia, and now Europe. He has a passion for travel and photography, which he takes every opportunity to combine. Find more from Simon on www.mikolayczyk.com.
[Bayon by Matt Stabile; Kbal Spean by Jay_Fr/Flickr; Tonle Sap Floating Village by the author.]