It was nearly a thousand years ago when Khmer Kings commissioned the construction of gigantic temples on the edge of Tonle Sap Lake. They probably never had envisioned a future where people from across the world would come to visit their creations even centuries after their kingdom ceased to exist.
Siem Reap, the gateway city to the temples of Angkor receives more than two million visitors every year. This means, unless you go in the sweltering heat of summer months, you will never be able to find a lonely spot devoid of crowds anywhere in the large temples spread across the landscape. This has become such an important consideration for some travellers, a few travel agencies claim to keep informers in every temple and help their clients find less crowded spots!
With the crowds growing every year, Siem Reap’s attractions are no longer limited to the ancient temples. Travellers suffering from temple-fatigue can pick from a wide choice of activities and entertainment geared towards the tourists – such as a circus, joy-rides on all-terrain vehicles, visits to crafts villages and much more. And when the darkness falls, there is always the pub-street where an amazing choice of restaurants serve up food and drinks from across the world.
Welcome to a global village called Siem Reap! Here is your guide to spending a weekend in one of Asia’s most sought-after tourist destinations. This guide helps you see the temples and life in the region efficiently, disregarding many tourist-oriented creations in the city.
To understand the reference to Angkor Wat and other temples, you might want to go through this super-quick guide to Angkor Temples at the bottom of this page.
Siem Reap – Day 1 – Visit to the temples
Start the day with sunrise at Angkor Wat
To optimize your weekend in Siem Reap, it is best that you arrive on Friday evening. One of the most popular ‘to-do’ activity is to witness the sunrise over Angkor Wat Temple. Watching the reflections of sunrise over the temple, created by a pond in the premises is hugely popular with tourists, especially photography enthusiasts.
If photographing the sunrise by setting up a tripod is on your agenda, arrive by 4.30am to reserve your spot or be ready for disappointment! Only the early-birds get the coveted places needed for making good photographs. Others can arrive in leisure, a little after 5.30am to watch the sky turn from dark to various shades of blue until an orange glow lights up the sky just at the moment of sunrise.
The ticket counter opens only at 5am, so if photography is on your mind, you should consider purchasing tickets the previous evening!
Most visitors who are at Angkor Wat to see sunrise over the temple will now head to visit the temple interiors or go back to their hotel for breakfast. This may be a good time to visit Ta Prohm, one of the most popular temples in the area. Ta Prohm is known for the giant ficus and silk-cotton trees in the premises that have reclaimed their space and now overshadow the mighty temples.
Ta Prohm is also popular as the place where the movie ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ was shot. Some people even refer to it as ‘Tomb Raider Temple’ and also as ‘Angelina Jolie’ temple, which stands as a testimony to this.
Throughout the day, Ta Prohm receives tourists in large number who often come in a big wave, take selfies in strategic locations and vanish as quickly as they arrive. There is usually not much gap between two tour groups and it often results in a flood! Early morning hours are relatively better.
It would be wise to visit Ta Prohm soon after sunrise instead of lingering longer in Angkor Wat Temple. But then, this blog is not the first one to offer this advice! Many visitors have already discovered this, so don’t expect to have the temple all for yourself!
Breakfast at one of the many restaurants in Angkor Thom or at your hotel
Having spent a productive morning, you are no longer in a rush. If you prefer to take it easy, you may return to your hotel for breakfast and a moment of rest before heading out again. Or if you want to optimize your time, you will find several restaurants near the main temples in Angkor Thom complex as well as at Angkor Wat.
Temples of Angkor Thom and nearby
If you are in Siem Reap just for a weekend, it is better to head-out again well before noon to visit a few more temples and understand the scale of construction that Khmer Kings indulged in. If you are here for a longer duration, you can always change your plans according to the weather. On clear days, a strong sun may prompt you to stay indoors. Cloudy skies are friendlier for visiting the temples.
For the weekend visitors, some of the best places to visit during the day are Bayon and Preah Khan Temples. Bayon is one of the larger and popular temples, known for its huge beautiful faces. Preah Khan is also one of the bigger temples that is partly overrun with trees. Visiting Neak Pean temple is an interesting experience, as the approach to the temple is over a walk-way on the waters of a marsh land, usually referred to as the Baray of Preah Khan. To both sides of the walk-way is a forest that is half-submerged in water during the wet months.
Much of your time before and after noon would be spent in these places along with a lunch-stop in one of the restaurants near Neak Pean.
Evening at Angkor Wat
Although you have visited Angkor Wat Temple premises for sunrise, you haven’t been inside yet. Some time around 3.30 to 4pm is a good time to come back here again. Devote at least an hour for Angkor Wat; 1.5 hours is a good allocation before you head out somewhere for sunset. Spare some time to look back at the temple when you are heading out: Angkor Wat looks beautiful in the evening light.
If you were blessed with good weather this morning and have enjoyed the sunrise over Angkor Wat, you would be looking forward a similar sunset somewhere in around the temples. Unfortunately, there aren’t any known places for sunset that can match the beauty of sunrise at Angkor.
One of the popular places for watching sunsets is at Phnom Bakheng, the only hill in the area. It’s a twenty minute hike to the top of the hill, where you can climb atop an Angkorean era temple to see the sunset. Expect to share the space three hundred more people (there is space for only 300 people, and is always packed during sunset) and arrive early to to ensure that you aren’t turned away. We do not think the sunset from here is worth the pains of nudging the crowd, as there is not much of a view to see from here. Tall trees block your views in all directions, so don’t expect to see a spectacular aerial view of the temples. If you wish to visit the hill temple, arrive well before sunset and leave before the crowds starts accumulating.
Remember: you can’t drive up the hill! Your choice is to make the twenty-minute hike or go on an elephant back. We recommend the former.
Perhaps the reason why sunset at Phnom Bakheng is popular is due to lack of other choices. Some people prefer to wait it out at the south gate of Angkor Thom, watching sunset over the waters of West Baray. Occasional boat on the baray adds to the beauty of sunset. Again, even this doesn’t compare anywhere close to the benchmark: sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Shopping at Night Market + Dinner at Pub Street
If you need to do some shopping and take things home, you don’t have to go from place to place searching for something interesting. The big night-market understands the pulse of a tourist and brings you everything that you would ever need: T shirts, souvenirs, artworks, books and a lot more.
Head to pub-street for dinner and you will be spoilt for choices. Take your time to walk back-and-forth and pick a place that you fancy. We can’t be bothered to recommend one place when you have so much to choose from!
Beng Melea and Kompong Khleang – Day 2
You have seen enough temples yesterday and may not want to spend another full-day going from temple to temple. Some deviations are in the order.
As in any other place in the world, markets are busy early in the morning. Head to Phsar Leu, Siem Reap’s local market for vegetables and other perishable supplies. It’s colourful, busy, interesting and not filled with tourists. Take your time and return to the hotel for breakfast.
You can also use this as a back-up day, in case clouds marred your sunset plans yesterday.
After breakfast: visit a local monastery
When you are in Cambodia, you are never too far from a monastery! Ask your hotel for monasteries nearby. If you are lucky, you normally find some activities or rituals in progress during the morning hours, until the monks take their lunch. As they are required to complete their lunch before noon, best time to visit the monastery would be between 9am and 12pm.
Beng Melea Temple
Beng Melea is a temple faraway from Siem Reap. It is more than an hour’s drive and has all the charms of being overrun with trees that Ta Prohm has. Until a few years ago, this distance meant fewer tourists and a quiet experience of the temples. Unfortunately, the crowds of tourists arriving in Siem Reap have already discovered this and you have no respite any more! Nonetheless, Beng Melea is worth a visit.
You can stop on the way to Beng Melea temple for lunch at Dom Dek, a small town, where restaurants can serve you from a menu that doesn’t have tourist influences.
Floating Village of Kampong Khleang
An hour’s drive south of Beng Melea is Kampong Khleang, where you can hire a boat and visit the the floating houses on Tonle Sap Lake. An hour’s boat ride gives you a glimpse of life on the water, where houses are built on twenty-feet high stilts to account for rising and receding waters of Tonle Sap with change in seasons. It’s a worthy experience seeing how people have to rely on boats even to reach their neighbour’s place. It should be about sunset by the time you come back from your boat trip, and the drive back to Siem Reap should take another hour.
A Super-quick guide to Angkor Temples
Let’s make this really short! It’s only meant to help you become familiar with the terms and give you an orientation of the place.
Angkor Wat is a very large temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Almost a thousand years after it was built, it is still the world’s largest single religious monument.
Angkor Wat is not alone. There are a large number of temples from the same era, all within a short driving distance from Angkor Wat temple. Some examples of well-known temples among these are Bayon, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan. But there are many more. Some of these temples are located within the enclosure of an ancient wall. This enclosed area is called Angkor Thom.
While Bayon Temple is located within the walls of Angkor Thom, many other well-known temples including Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm are located outside the enclosure. The area around Angkor Thom is full of temples large and small. Many more are located across Cambodia, although they become less common as you move farther from Siem Reap. Collectively, they are often referred to as Temples of Angkorean Era.
Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are just a fifteen minutes drive from Siem Reap City Center.
Also see: My photography tour to Cambodia every year in Sep/Oct months.