Siem Reap is my least favorite city in Cambodia, but is worth a visit because it is home to Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the former capital city of the Khmer Empire (802 AD to 1351 AD). Read on for recommended accommodation, restaurants, and sightseeing itineraries.
What to See
Angkor, encompasses thousands of temples, notably Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm. Having declared themselves devarajas (Hindu god kings), Khmer rulers built the temples as monuments to Mount Meru, the divine residence of the gods. With the adoption of Theravada Buddhism as the state religion, the majority of shrines were converted from Hindu to Buddhist. Construction of the renowned Angkor Wat began in the 12th century under King Suryavarman II and continued under King Jayavarman VII.
If you have one day, make sure you see Angkor Wat, Bayon, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, and Preah Khan. The main attraction, Angkor Wat, presents a gorgeous sight at sunrise. Arrive early in order to purchase your tickets and avoid the crowds. After taking photos of the sun climbing above the front temple’s towers, walk across the bridge and enter the temple complex where you can capture the classic photograph of sunrise over the reflecting pool.
From Angkor Wat, visit Angkor Thom, a city within a city featuring numerous places of interest including the South Gate, Terrace of the Elephants, and Terrace of the Leper King. At the center of Angkor Thom sits Bayon, recognizable for the 216 smiling faces sculpted into the temple’s towers which may represent Jayavarman VII or the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Next head to Ta Prohm, the temple made famous because of its appearance in the movie Tomb Raider, a Hollywood film starring Angelina Jolie which significantly boosted tourism to Cambodia and Angkor in particular. Then move to Preah Khan, my favorite temple because of how time has transmuted the sandstone carvings into pink and green reliefs. I felt like an adventurer exploring uncharted territory as I darted over fallen stones, ducked under low doorways, and sprinted through the House of Fire and the Hall of Dancers.
With three or more days, you have time to visit the more distant temples like Banteay Srei, which is celebrated for its intricate carvings, and Beng Mealea, which is often referred to as “the Indiana Jones temple.” Beng Mealea is what Ta Prohm would look like if archaeologists had not completed any restorations. Nature has made its presence felt through vines and trees growing in the temple courtyard and the piles of rubble surrounding the temple’s perimeter. As seeing temples day after day can become repetitive, I suggest selecting different transportation modes to vary your sightseeing experiences. My friends and I biked to the closer temples on the first day, hired a guide and rode in tuk tuks to the main temples the second day, and drove scooters to the far-off temples on the third day.
Know Before You Go
You can purchase a one-, three-, or seven-day pass for Angkor for $20, $40, or $60, respectively. For multiple day passes, you do not have to visit the temples on consecutive days, only within the same week. Beng Mealea requires a separate entrance fee of $5. Bring lots of water and sunscreen as temperatures can reach 104° F/40° C during summer and there is little shade within the complex.
If you are visiting Angkor after having stopped at other shrines in the region, know that unlike the wats in Thailand and mandirs in India, the Angkor temples are not functioning religious sites. As I was expecting a more spiritual atmosphere, I was disappointed by the overwhelmingly touristy environment. I was equally disheartened by the poor condition of the buildings. Notwithstanding its recognition as a shining exemplar of Khmer architecture, conservation of Angkor edifices has been lacking. Where restoration work has occurred, it has largely been paid for by foreign governments, which is a shameful indictment of the Cambodian government.
Where to Stay
Backpackers and budget travelers should stay at Onderz Hostel. Both times I visited Siem Reap I stayed at Onderz because of its cozy beds, powerful air conditioning, cheap breakfasts, and rooftop pool. During my first visit, I had one complaint about the cleanliness of the bathrooms but management quickly remedied the problem.
Where to Eat
After a hot day touring Angkor Wat, enjoy dinner or a drink while relishing the cool rooftop breeze at ABBA Café. ABBA’s menu comprises a small number of dishes from Cambodia, Korea, Japan, and Italy, which the kitchen is more than willing to modify to accommodate various dietary restrictions. Vegans and vegetarians should stop by Banllé Vegetarian Restaurant or Chamkar Vegetarian Restaurant. While Banllé’s verdant scenery, comfortable couches, and nutritious, delicious food make it a tranquil spot for lunch, you can’t go wrong with Chamkar’s Wedding Dip and the Pumpkin Curry for dinner. For a romantic setting, good food, and great service, make a reservation at Haven, a vocational training restaurant for disadvantaged Cambodian youth. Vegetarians should try the Zuri Gschnetzlets with Swiss Rosti. For cheap local food ($3-5 for a meal), check out the small restaurants surrounding the Old Market and on 2 Thnou Street (near Pub Street). Last but not least, pop into The Blue Pumpkin for dessert and sample its homemade fruit ice creams and fresh fruit sorbets with refreshing flavors like strawberry, passion fruit, mango, and Khmer fruits.