We arrived in Siem Reap in the late afternoon and were met at the airport by Mr. Sal (our hotel had arranged for a tuk-tuk driver to meet us free of charge), who would almost become our personal driver for the next couple days. We exited the airport and loaded into his tuk-tuk for the 20 minute ride to the Golden Mango Inn. Each country seems to have their own version of a tuk-tuk and it was comical yet seemed very efficient to see the chariots attached to scooters as Cambodia’s version. Cruising speed is a little slow, but it got us where we wanted to go.
We arrived at our hotel and were greeted by the kind staff who sat us down in the comfy lobby with a tasty welcome drink. We were treated as if we had arrived at a 5-star resort (our place cost no more than $25 USD a night and included a generous breakfast each morning). They provided a quick rundown of the place and offered tour ideas; we then began to put together our own schedule for a tour of the temples of Angkor. We drew from a few prearranged options that the hotel had printed and sort of made our own plan. The primary goal was to select the ones we wanted to have a guide for and which ones we may spend more time on our own exploring. Secondly, we wanted to be sure to save the best for last putting Angkor Wat at the very end.
Before I begin, I’ll say we really liked our tour setup and would recommend it to anyone that has 3 days. Here’s a sort of summary of what we came up with for our time exploring and a few of the costs. First, we had to purchase entrance tickets to the Angkor Complex of Temples. You can either buy a 1-day, 3-day or 7-day pass. We opted for the 3-day pass which cost $40 USD per person, but it looks like all ticket passes are going up significantly beginning in February 2017.
Day 1: we saw Bantaey Srei and the Grand Circuit – the total cost was $20 for our tuk-tuk driver, and $40 for our guide. (We recommend having a guide for at least one day if possible.)
Day 2: we saw sunrise at Angkor Wat then headed out to Bang Mealea and the Roluos group of temples – the total cost was for $40 for the Tuk-tuk driver.
Day 3: we did the Small Circuit tour, visited Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat, and finished at Phnom Bakeng for sunset – the total cost was for $15 for our Tuk-tuk driver.
On our first full day we met our guide and driver (Mr. Sal) in the lobby and set off on a 30 min tuk-tuk drive to Banteay Srei. Our guide gave us a bit of an overview of all the temples in the area and then of course gave us specifics on the things we were seeing together. This particular temple was a good place to start. We were a little uncertain as we pulled up alongside a few bus tours, but once we got through the entrance the crowds spread out a bit. Our guide pointed out the important items and shared their significance as we walked through. We learned this particular temple was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
Next, we cruised toward a handful of other temples along the Grand Circuit. Each similar in age, but very unique from the aged Preah Khan to unique Neak Poan, a 12th century Buddhist temple surrounded by water. We were intrigued by it all and happy to be led along by our guide. It was definitely worth it to have a guide provide a bit of an introduction into the temples of Angkor on our first day. He even snapped a handful of pictures of Whitney and I along the way.
That night, we ventured into the city center for dinner and happened to run into a good friend from NYC, what are the chances?! It’s always refreshing to see a familiar face especially after so many months of travelling. Our dinner at a food cart set up in front of a 7-eleven tasted great, but wasn’t quite like those of Bangkok. However, soon after dinner on that first night, I discovered my new obsession of avocado shakes as I passed a small stand selling this delicacy for only $1. Our time here was off to a great start.
Day two began super early as we wanted to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. We slipped out of bed way before sunrise and travelled over to the temple entrance. Even as early as we were, the crowds were already enormous by the time we arrived. We found a small area on the corner of one of the ponds to get the “perfect shot with the perfect reflection.” The sun eventually peeked through clouds and we snapped a few (hundred) photos then settled at one of the nearby restaurants for coffee, while downing our hotel’s prepacked breakfast. Tip: We noticed the crowds dissipating as we finished our breakfast, which was actually the perfect time to get photos. We were still planning to save the best for last so we left Angkor Wat without actually exploring and instead took the long ride out to Beng Mealea.
About 2 hours later, we arrived to Beng Mealea ready to explore. This particular temple was truly one of our favorites as we found ourselves far from the crowds and wandering through. Nature has slowly reclaimed much of the temple grounds and it was incredible to see the gigantic trees with their roots climbing over and through the walls.
We spent a couple hours wandering the grounds until Mr. Sal took us back toward town where we stopped briefly at a few of the temples of the Rolous Group. These smaller temples broke up the long drive home and made for a full day.
Even though it was a long drive I was entertained by the tuk-tuks crowded with children and families of as many as 5 people. Additionally, seeing that furniture for an entire house was being pulled by a single little scooter was frightening yet interesting and innovative.
That evening we wandered around town a bit more and even got a couple foot massages. (Of note: we paid $5 for a 60min foot massage, but received a measly 3min foot massage and 57min shin massage. You get what you pay for I guess.)
For our third and last day of exploring the temples we were ready to see the best of the best on the Small Circuit. Exploring began as our driver let us out to walk through the impressive south gate of Angkor Thom. He then took us to Bayon, the largest temple of Angkor Thom and sometimes referred to as the ‘face temple’ because of the 216 faces decorating its towers. Following our impromptu photo shoot we continued on to Baphuon, which is home to the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle. The now reassembled stones have become an enormous reclining Buddha, very impressive. Beyond there we saw a few other sights in Angkor Thom, such as the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King with some of the most intricate stone carvings we have seen.
Then before heading to Angkor Wat, the main event, we took a quick look at Ta Keo since it was on the way, but it wasn’t all that impressive at this point. Next, we arrived at the “Tomb Raider Temple” Ta Prohm. This particular one is an absolute must. I mentioned before how nature has slowly reclaimed other temples, but this was one of the most impressive. Enormous trees engulf parts of this temple in such a seamless manner its mind blowing. We could have spent most of the day here, but on we went to a lesser known temple of Banteay Kdei. We had not even heard of Banteay Kdei previously but actually ended up spending a bit of time in this less crowded yet charming temple.
Even though we were becoming a bit worn out from being on the go and seeing so many places over the last couple days, it was time to finally head over to Angkor Wat. Hoping that the late afternoon would be a little less crowded we were happy to be entering Angkor Wat late in the day. This was really the only temple that has been maintained since it was built and it shows. The walls, buildings, pathways and even the stairs sit just as they did hundreds of years ago. We explored as much as we could and even climbed to the top of the towers to look out at the impressive views all around.
Finally, nearing the end of our time at the Temples of Angkor we ventured to Phnom Bakheng for sunset from the top of the small mountain. On a tip, we arrived early enough to be allowed entrance to the top of the temple. (As a crowd control measure, the entrance is limited to 300 people so get there early.) After a quick walk around we sat down at the edge of an overlook and waited for the sun to set over the horizon. People watching was as entertaining as always and kept us occupied until the sun dipped beyond the trees. It was the perfect way to end our tour of all the temples.
After our 4 nights in Siem Reap, we wanted to round out our time in Cambodia by venturing over its’ capital city Phnom Penh, but heavy rain sort of led us to extend our time in Siem Reap instead, so we simply extended our stay by an extra 2 nights before heading back to Bangkok. For the next two days we simply relaxed at our resort soaking up the internet and doing our best to catch up on this blog. (We didn’t do all that good a job catching up since I’m actually writing this article months after our visit). We went into downtown a few more times for my new favorite avocado shake, dinner, massages and even an excellent $3 haircut over the next couple days.
Oh, and I cannot forget one of our favorite experiences was watching the Cambodian Circus. On a recommendation from a friend we got a couple tickets to the intimate circus show on our last evening and were certainly not disappointed. The acrobatics alone were amazing. Highly, highly recommended.
In the end we spent a total of 6 nights in Siem Reap and felt that was more than enough to see everything and even relax a bit. As for the temples, 2-3 days is enough to see plenty and any longer we would have been bored with them. Our must see temples came down to Banteay Srei, Beng Melea, Bayon, Ta Prohm, and of course Angkor Wat. The others along the Grand Circuit that included Pre Rup, East Mabon, Ta Som, Preah Khan and Neak Poan were worth seeing. Our ride back from Beng Melea took us to see the Rolous Group which made the long trip even more worth it. Finally, sunrise at Angkor Wat seems to be a must even though it’s crowded, and sunset at Phnom Bakheng should be on the list as well if there is time.
For now, it’s back to Bangkok to meet my younger sister before heading off to the Thailand islands for the Christmas Holidays!