Siem Reap - Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Angkor Wat

Monday, 24 September 2018

Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world and so its not surprising that it attracts over 2 million visitors a year. It's not it's size that gets people through the gates though, rather the fact that the impressive reconstructed stone structures have been around for over 1000 years. With entrance at $37 for a day or $62 for 3 days you might think twice about going here if you're travelling on a budget, but in our opinion it'd be a big mistake to miss the ruins out as they really are worth your money. Like many tourist sites Angkor Wat gets crowded and you'll rarely get that perfect picture without other tourists lurking in the background, but don't let that put you off either. Some places are touristy for a reason and can still be enjoyed regardless.

We arrived in Siem Reap, the jump off point for visiting the ruins, after a night bus from Sihanoukville in the south of the country. We stayed at Mad Monkey hostel which is always a safe bet in Cambodia. They are very organised, cheap, fun and in this case had a pool, which is always a bonus in the heat. The hostel also had its own tuk tuk drivers to take you around Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples which saved the hassle of having to get from your hostel to the entrance, as well as the risk of getting an impatient driver. We chose to get a 3 day pass for the ruins, as we wanted the chance to explore lots of the smaller temples as well as the more famous ones and it meant that we could go for sunrise on one of the days.

Many people don't realise that 'Angkor Wat' is more than just 'Angkor Wat', meaning there are a whole load of other temples on the site to visit, all with different names. In fact our favourites were Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, but we'll go into them all in a bit more detail later. The point is, there is plenty of things to see to fill 3 days. In a day, you could probably see the most impressive temples and watch the sun come down in the evening, but you wouldn't have much time to explore some of the less famous ones at your own pace. This exploring through the ruins, away from all of the other tourists, was what made buying a 3 day pass worthwhile for us. Also consider whether you may want to go to Angkor Wat for sunrise, as if you do then a 3 day pass would make a lot more sense.

We took a tuk tuk from the hostel each day and chose to explore the temples with a driver. He took us on a set route based on how much time we had and what we had already seen each day and he would meant that we would wait as we walked around each temple.

 The benefits of taking an Tuk Tuk are:

  • You don't have to walk anywhere (obviously!)
  • You can take shelter if the heavens open (which they did a number of times)
  • You can get historical information from the driver, who often acts as a tour guide as well. (Not always the case, as will depend upon their English level, but generally good)
However there are a few drawbacks...
  • Paying for the driver. This cost us around $15us / day or $20us for the day we went at sunrise.
  • The Tuk Tuk can break down. In our case it did twice!
  • If you get a grumpy driver they might try to hurry you up as you go along.
Your next best option is to probably rent a bicycle, as the distances between the temples are easily cyclable and you can then of course go at your own pace and save some money. If you go for this option, just make sure you check the weather before hand, as you wouldn't want to be cycling in the heat of the day in the Summer.

Is It Worth Going For Sunrise?

Unfortunately, we can't give a definitive answer for that one. When we went we didn't get the picture perfect pink skies that you may see on postcards around Siem Reap and instead it just got gradually lighter (not worth the 3:30am start!) However the day before us, somebody was showing us their photos and it looked better than you could've possibly hoped for. If you really hate early starts and they make you grumpy for the rest of the day - don't bother. If you're not too bothered then there's no harm in giving it a go. The other benefit of going so early is that, if you time it right, you can be the very first few into Angkor Wat, meaning you can explore what is normally a ridiculously busy site, all on your own!

Which Temples Are the Best?

Everyone will have their own personal favourites for lots of different reasons, but here's out top few...

1. Ta Prohm
Whilst all of the temples are impressive, none of them will blow your mind as much as this one. Ta Prohm is woven together by the outstretched roots of trees around the site, so much so that it seems a miracle how it's still standing. Of course, there have been huge restoration efforts to keep the site up and safe to walk around, but you won't see anything like this anywhere else. It felt like we were walking straight into a film set, then when we googled it afterwards we discovered that it features in the film Tomb Raider, for any of you Lara Croft fans out there.

2. Angkor Thom 
Established at the end of the 1100s, Angkor Thom was the final capital of the Khmer Empire. At the centre of ancient city is the Bayan, the state temple characterised by its stone faced facades. Due to the sheer size of Angkor Thom, we feel that it is even more impressive than Angkor Wat and you'll probably find yourself spending longer here.

3.Angkor Wat
Despite all of the other points we've made, Angkor Wat does live up to expectations and is of course very impressive. It looks the best on approach and therefore probably makes for the best postcard picture. There are monkeys around the grounds which are good fun to watch once you're all templed-out and there's also a chance to climb up a tower in the centre of the temple for views over the site. The only thing worth considering for all three of these temples but Angkor Wat especially, is what time of day to go. We were the first people through the gates which was totally worth the early start to avoid the crowds.

4. Phnom Bakheng
Finally, this temple makes out top 4 as it is without a doubt the best place to sit and watch the sunset. If you've got a Tuk Tuk driver then they'll probably take you here last and give you half an hour or so to walk around before climbing the steps and waiting for the sun to set. On a clear day I'm told you can just about make out the tops of the other temples in the area but when it's a little cloudy you often get a more impressive sunset. Either way, its worth the visit.

Finally, make sure you take the time to stop off along the way around the temples and don't be afraid to ask your driver to stop if you want to take photos. The scenery in between the archaeological sites is really beautiful in areas and worth taking the time to enjoy.

 Is There Anything To Do in Siem Reap Itself?

Some 'jump off' towns really don't have much going for them and solely survive on the nearby tourist attraction. Fortunately this is not the case for Siem Reap, which is actually a really pleasant place to walk around with plenty of bars, restaurants and market stalls selling a big range of clothes and souvenirs. If you fancy something really tasty for a little more money (although still reasonable), head to the FCC Angkor hotel where the food is second to none and you'll be treated like royalty.

How Do I Get to Siem Reap?

If you're travelling from Sihanoukville or Phnom Penh then you can get a direct bus which will take approx. 12 hours ($15us) and 7 hours ($10us) respectively. Flights are available for both journeys but are considerably more expensive. From Phnom Penh to Siem Reap you can also take a boat! Yes they are both inland, but you can travel along the river the whole way. Again this is a lot more expensive but could be worth it if you are looking for a more unique travelling experience.

That's all for now, thanks for reading! Again, if you have any questions at all please hit us up on Instagram, Facebook or comment below.

Will & Melissa

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