Siem Reap – Cambodia

Have you ever been to a place where you can actually visualize the past? Siem Reap definitely did this to us. If you do Siem Reap with a tour guide like we did then you are sure to turn into a storyteller by the end of your visit. 

The sound of the wind whispering in my ears the stories of the past. The rustling of the leaves pointing me at a certain direction to view the beauty unfold. As I was walking along the temples I could imagine how the walls would have looked. The feeling of the God’s watching over the country was very evident from all the statues which are still being preserved. Hinduism is something I have been taught since my childhood. Seeing our history reflected on the walls of the temple made me love the place even more.

I was also very touched with the overall humbleness of Cambodians. They were very passionate about their place and always welcomed everyone with a smile.

TIME TO VISIT SIEM REAP

As per my research best time to visit Siem Reap would be from November to April. We however visited in October as we wanted to avoid the crowd. The rains were coming to an end so we only received occasional showers at night.

Overall I found the place to be very humid. It is said to be hot 365 days along with two rainy seasons. I would recommend avoiding the rains to enjoy the whole place. However, if you want to avoid humidity then rainy season would be ideal.

TRAVELING AROUND SIEM REAP

Since we were keener on doing Angkor Wat temple we decided to set base in Siem Reap. We were travelling from Vietnam hence we had chosen the flight option to reach here. Our visa formalities we did in our home town as a result we didn’t have much issues on arrival.

All the temples were far away from each other plus the weather was so hot we decided to do it with a tour company. I would strongly recommend doing it with a tour guide (it was our first guide experience). If you are as lucky as we were you might end up getting a tour guide who shows you the true beauty of all the temples. 

Finding the right tour company can be challenging as there are many options. We had narrowed it down to Asean Angkor guide and Happy Angkor Tours. Finally we chose Asean Angkor guide as we found Mr Raksa’s replies very polite. Having now completed the tour I was very happy with the overall service provided. The cars were clean with polite and friendly driver. The highlight for us was our tour guide, Mr Chy who was very passionate of the place and hence made it memorable for us.

We also saw many tuk tuks and cycles available however we didn’t opt for this cause of the weather. We did however use the tuk tuk in the evenings and didn’t face any problems.

WHERE TO STAY SIEM REAP

If you are just doing Siem Reap then 4 days in more than enough to cover everything.

There are many popular hotels to choose from in Siem Reap. Each hotels in the vicinity is competing by providing excellent services. I would recommend choosing based on your budget and preference.

We had chosen to stay for 3 nights at The Privilege Floor by Borei Angkor Hotel. The hotel is inside Hotel Borei Angkor and only difference is the separate management for the hotel. We had received complimentary pick up and drop from the airport along with an upgrade to the room. I was very happy with the room and found the staff always helpful. Breakfast variety was also very good covering both local and continental. There are number of benefits which the hotel provides like tours, breakfast, free mini bar access and unlimited water bottles for drinking. We however had opted only for room and breakfast. Overall I would definitely recommend staying here. 

THINGS TO DO IN SIEM REAP

ANGKOR WAT TEMPLE

As you approach the gates of Angkor Wat temple you are welcomed by the water showcasing the reflection of the temple. It is believed the five lotus like towers are said to represent the mountains.

The temple was built by the locals for Khmer King Suryavarman II.  The King believed in Lord Vishnu hence the temple has glimpses of the Indian history. Stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata are carved on the walls of temple. King Suryavarman II however never saw the temple completed. Imagine a temple which is built in the 12th century is still standing tall and still attracting tourists from all over the world. The temple is also UNESCO World Heritage site.

Even today the temple stands as a symbol of pride for Cambodia. I have enjoyed the temple throughout the day: In the morning the sun rays reflecting the beauty of the place; In the afternoon the whole temple is telling its story to the visitors; At night it looks like the God’s are still looking over the country.

BAYON TEMPLE

As you approach the gates of the temple the statues are all standing in line welcoming you to tell a story.

Built in the late 12th or early 13th century is a temple which was built during King Jayavarman VII time. This temple stands out from the rest cause of the smiling stone faces which on the towers. It’s said to have 54 towers with 216 smiling faces. The faces are in a set of four making us feel as if the God’s are watching over us from every angle.

Although his predecessors were believer of Hindu, Jayavarman VII believed in Buddhism hence the faces are a replica of Buddha. The statues were many a times destroyed with an attempt of following different religion. Inside the temple there are lots of carvings on the walls: section telling story of how the temple was built; a wall showing the daily lives of the Khmer people and fights against the different tribes. For me personally this was one of my favourite temple. As night falls the faces are still smiling, said to be watching over the people.

BAPHOUN TEMPLE

This temple is older than other temples in Angkor Wat. Built in the 11th century during Udayadityavarman II era. It was dedicated to Lord Shiva and followed the Hindu beliefs. However, in 15th century it was converted to Buddhist temple. There are many places where the temple is destroyed and this happened cause of the placement of reclining Buddha. We were told since the temple was built on land filled with sand it’s still standing. The steps to the top of the temple is steep but the view is great from top.

TERRACE OF THE ELEPHANT

King Jayavarman VII used the terrace to witness the return of his army. Some of the platforms still stands and you can see the carvings of the elephants on the eastern face.

The 350 m long Terrace of Elephant was also used during public ceremonies. It was also considered to be the entrance point to the royal palace. In the middle wall there are also carvings of life size Garuda and Lions whose ruins still remains. 

ROYAL PALACE AREA

In the 10th century a royal palace did exist. Later in the 11th century it was the residence of King Suryavarman I. This has now remained as an enclosed wall with some pools and the Phimeanakas temple.

PHIMEANAKAS

Built in the 10th century under Rajendravarman and later completed by Suryavarman I was this three tier Pyramid temple. It was built as a Hindu temple. The climb up the top is very steep and currently under restoration hence not permitted for tourist. We only had a chance to walk around the temple but still could visualise how it might have looked all those years ago. There were many lion status still standing strong however most of the faces are destroyed.

TERRACE OF LEPER KING

Built in the Bayon style under Jayavaman VII is the 15th century temple. This is said to be dedicated to the Hindu god Yama (God of death). As you walk around you will see various sculptures: Nagas, Apsaras and Devas. It was said that one of the King’s suffered with leprosy hence you can see moss growing on status to reflect this.

BANTEAY SREI (LADY’S TEMPLE)

A temple from the 10th century made from red sandstone with decorative wall cravings. It is described as the “jewel of Khmer art” or “Citadel of women” or “Citadel of Beauty” for its Angorian construction, size and delicacy of its decorations. The temple was not built by Kings but by Brahmin priests and dedicated to Lord Shiva. The entrance to the main temple was guarded by a monkey’s sculptures. As compared to the other temples this is small but has its own unique charm to it. 

BAKONG SANDSTONE TEMPLE

Built in the 9th century is the first mountain temple made from sandstone. It is served as a temple of King Indravarman I and located in Roluos. This is the only temple which is in the pyramid shape.

The statue of lion guards the entrance of the central pyramids. It has steps to climb which I personally didn’t struggle with.

As you reach the top there are elephants which stand at the corners of the lower pyramids as if guarding the lower pyramids. Since the temple is very old the carvings are mostly not visible. 

PRASAT TA PROHM

Have you ever felt you are actually seeing the scenes from a movie flash in front of your eyes? Well Ta Prohm temple did that for me, I felt I was in the Tomb Raider movie.

In the lush greenery you will enter the 12th century temple which is now completely taken over by the trees surrounding it. The walls of the temples are gulped in by the roots and trunks. We saw a place where there was one apsara statue which was still visible between the walls and the branches of the trees.

In 1992 Ta Prohm was listed in UNESCO World Heritage. The temple is now being restored under the Archaeological Survey of India and the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Resign of Siem Reap (APSARA).

It’s a temple which is so unique thanks to the beautiful trees which are surrounding it. I loved this temple and for the first time saw the roots of the trees growing with so much force. It was said that some of the trees were more than 800 years old. Although the trees are taking over the temple at times it does look like they are also protecting them. I was more impressed with the trees than the carvings inside this temple. For me this was nature at its best.


PREAH KHAN

When Jayavarman VII invaded the Chams this temple was built. It was the largest project and he dedicated it to his father. The name means ‘holy sword’. The temple was built in the 12th century with a flat design. There is a stupa in the centre of the four passages. It was much more than a temple at that time, it was said to be the Buddhist University. The temple is not yet restored as a result taken over my numerous plants and vegetation’s growing around it.

NEAK PEAN

While making our way to the temple we passed a lane with lake on either side. When we reached inside the 12th century temple we saw a pond which had temples at different end. When our guide told us this is actually a hospital I was shocked. The ancients believed the pools balances the elements in the bather thus curing diseases.

There were supposed to be four great animals: Horse, Lion, Elephant and Bull. This is supposed to correspond the north, east, south and west quarters. Some say these pools also represent Water, Earth, Fire and Wind. It was an interesting place different to the other temples.

TASOM

This temple was built in the 12th century for King Jayvarman VII which he dedicated to his father Dharanindravarman II. It’s of one level and surrounded by laterite walls.  There is not much restoration done yet hence you get welcomed by trees growing in and around the ruins. A special mention to the large fig tree which is growing in the eastern gate.

EAST MEBON

Another 10th century temple which was built during King Rajendravarman’s time. This temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. There are lots of things can be seen even after so long namely:

You can see Lord Shiva’s Nandi (sacred bull) in the entrance; At the end of the temple there is also the Elephant which is acting like a guardian.; On the walls you can also see the carvings of Indra God. The original temple was surrounded by water but none can be seen now.

PRE RUP 

Built by King Rajesndravarman in 961 is this Hindu temple which is dedicated to Lord Shiva. On first seeing the temple you can see the pyramid shaped temple mountains. Upon looking closely you can notice the five lotus on the top of the towers.

The name of the temple translates to ‘Turning the Body’. Cambodians believe the temple to be a place for conducting funerals. The ashes of the body is then moved in different directions as part of the ritual.

PHNOM BAKHENG/HILL

The temple is in a form of a mountain and has both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Built in the end of 9th century during Yasovarman reign is now threatened as it is a popular sunset viewing point of Angkor Wat temple. The temple is built in the pyramid form of seven levels said to represent the seven heavens. 

SRAS SRANG

This is also referred to as The Royal Bath. A reservoir which was first dug in mid-10th century and later further modified in 1200 year by Jayavarman VII. It is also a popular spot for viewing Angkor Wat temple during sunset. Locals were seen having a picnic and exercising around it during our visit. 

TONLE SAP LAKE

It was considered the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and was designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1997.

The boat ride goes along the lake and ends at the Mekong River. We did experience mild rains during our ride but still enjoyed the beauty of the lake. During the boat ride you also get to enjoy the floating village.

There is also a lot of fishing activities which takes place here. We had a friendly boat driver whose boat was made with interesting stuff from car: steering wheels were used for turning the boat; gear box for increasing or decreasing speed; brakes used to slow down.

KAMPONG PHLUK VILLAGE

The floating village was both interesting and sad at the same time. The living conditions were bad but it was nice to see them making the most of it. There were lots of activities in the place to see: kids playing games with a smiling face; ladies enjoying a chat and men were seen resting inside their house. We didn’t opt for the tours through the village, this option is also available at a price. 

THE PUB STREET

As the name suggests there are lots of pubs here and beer is also very cheap. We have enjoyed our evenings for dinner along with performances on the street. A nice place to wind your day after exploring the temples during the day.I did however miss the Cambodian culture here, it felt more of a western experience.

NIGHT MARKET

There were two night markets which we came across. Very close to Pub Street and also a very popular place to buy souvenirs. It is a welcome break to take from all the days temple visits. There is a lot of negotiation you have to do when you are planning to purchase something. The place is usually divided in sections and walking along the way you will come across things to pick.

Besides the things mentioned there are also many other temples to visit. We opted for the popular ones dues to time constraint.  It’s hard to mention all the temples and pagodas as there are many. Below is a map which shows some of the other places to visit and you can add depending on your time.

Map courtesy Angkor Enterprise

One place we later felt we should have visited is the Kulen National Park and 1000 Lingas. It is 65 km from Siem Reap and can be done along with Banteay Srei and Pre Rup temple. We didn’t do this cause of the road journey involved. Should you add an extra day this would be ideal and less hectic.

OUR ITINERARY IN SIEM REAP

Below is a customised tour which we planned with Asean Angkor Guide.

DAY 1

  • Took complimentary shuttle service and checked into The Privilege Hotel by Borie Angkor.
  • Met our tour guide and went in car to get our 3 day Angkor pass from the Angkor Temple ticket booth.
  • After lunch explored Angkor Wat temple on foot with our tour guide.
  • Drove to Bayon temple and learnt the history of the place.
  • From here we were taken to Baphoun temple by car.
  • Next we headed to see Terrace of the elephant, Royal Palace area, Phimeanakas and Terrace of leper king. This was done by combination of car and foot.
  • Got dropped back to the hotel.
  • Evening took the tuk tuk and went to see the night market.
  • Had dinner at Pub Street.
  • Came back to hotel by tuk tuk.

DAY 2

  • Visited Banteay Srei temple by car. Enjoyed some time here hearing the stories of the temple.
  • Drove to Rolous to have lunch.
  • Went to see Bakong temple by car.
  • Drove to Tonle Sap Lake and did our boat ride here.
  • During our boat ride took a halt to see Kampong Phluk Village by foot.
  • Got dropped back to the hotel.
  • Evening again took the tuk tuk to shop at the night market.
  • Had dinner at Pub Street.
  • Took tuk tuk back to the hotel.

DAY 3

  • Woke up early morning to see Angkor Wat at sunrise.
  • Returned back to the hotel for having breakfast and rest.
  • Drove to see Prasat Ta Prom. Walked along the forest to get to Prasat Ta Prom to get the whole feel for the temple and its surroundings. 
  • Was taken later by car to do the grand tour of Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Tasom and East Mebon.  
  • Had lunch in the Angkor Heritage Park. Then went by car to visit Pre Rup and Sras Srang
  • Drove to see Phnom Bakheng. Enjoyed the walk up to the temple and explored the place.
  • Got dropped back to the hotel. End of our tour.
  • Evening went to Night Market and Pub Street to do last minute shopping and eating.
  • Returned to The Privilege Hotel by Borie Angkor by tuk tuk. 

Should you wish to do the above itinerary on your own in Tuk Tuk or a bicycle then below map will help you plan your day.

Free Pocket Map received from Angkor Archaeological Park

FOOD TO TRY IN SIEM REAP

Khmer cuisine I personally felt was a combination of Thai and Indian food. However, the food was much lighter and milder. This was also a good thing as it suited the weather perfectly. Personally I would have preferred less rice.

Fish Amok – A very popular dish in the Khmer cuisine. This is made from coconut milk, chilli paste, fish paste, shrimp paste, boneless white fish, banana leaves, spinach leaves and red chillies. The dish is mostly served with steamed rice. The dish is light and with all the ingredient it also makes it very colourful.

Lok Lak–  This is a Vietnamese and French influenced dish. Traditionally the main ingredient is beef however we tried it with chicken. The beef is marinated in soy sauce, oyster sauce, tomato, pepper, fish sauce  and garlic cloves.  After being cooked this is either served with rice or in salad form. We opted for the salad form and weren’t disappointed.

Pahut/ Pahet/Phahut (Fish cake with hot chilli sauce) -Made from boneless white fish which is cut in chunks. It also consists of lemongrass, turmeric and garlic cloves.  

Chicken skewer & chicken leg– Again we opted for chicken however beef is the traditional one. Personally this wasn’t anything new for me, it’s something I have had before.

Somlar Kari Saek Mouan(Khmer Red Curry)- Made from coconut milk, chicken, eggplant, green beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes and red curry paste called kroeung. It’s very similar to Thai red curry however I found it milder and lighter as compared. This is also served with rice.

Nom Banh Chok (Khmer Noodles)- Made from rice noodles mixed with fish gravy, crispy raw vegetables , fresh herbs like basil and mint. Cambodians mostly enjoy this meal for breakfast and is a very traditional one in every homes.

Samlor Marchu  (Sweet & Sour Soup with Fish)- The sourness to this dish comes from tamarind and certain tangy vegetables like tomato and pineapple. It also has Kroeung paste, turmeric, catfish, lotus roots and basil. This dish is also done with beef ribs but we opted for the fish version. 

Prahok – Unfortunately this one I didn’t try. It’s made from fermented fish and was really smelly. I couldn’t get myself to taste this cause the smell was too strong for me.

Khmer Pineapple Fried Rice– Made from Shrimp, onions, carrots, green pea, cashewnut, garlic, soy sauce, white pepper, curry powder and pineapple for seasoning. We ordered this to take a break from fish amok and were not disappointed. Served inside pineapple shell this dish looked and tasted good.

There are still more to try namely all different types of insect. Unfortunately I couldn’t make myself to try it as it wasn’t my cup of tea.

Looking for places to eat then check out the map below to give rough guide.

Map courtesy Angkor Publication in the Siem Reap Angkor Pocket Map

THINGS TO NOTE IN SIEM REAP

We had taken Angkor air from Vietnam to Cambodia. Since it was international flight we assumed we had check in baggage. This was not the case and we had to pay extra. So make sure you check this while booking flights.

First thing buy the temple passes. There is one day, three days and seven day passes. We opted for three days and it worked out very nicely for us.

Advisable to do Angkor Temple with a tour guide as they share some interesting stories. Also show you some nice places to click photos.

Sunrise of Angkor Wat temple was nice but it gets crowded so be prepared.

For Sunset in Phnom Bakheng there usually is only limited people allowed. Head there early to get the pass and a good spot.

Carvings of the temples should not be touched.

Should you want to take photos of a monk, ask before doing so. Women are also not supposed to touch a monk.

Hats and shoes should be removed before entering pagodas and a Khmer home.

Proper clothing is required for both male and females when visiting temples. Clothes should cover shoulder and knees.

Light cotton clothes is recommended given the weather.

Carry sun screen and mosquito sprays while visiting temples.

Riel (local currency) is hardly used in Cambodia. American dollar is mostly preferred in the place. Smaller changes are returned in Riel.

Torn notes are not accepted throughout Cambodia.

It is strongly advisable not to buy from local children or give them money. Reason for suggesting this is they believe it’s an easy way to earn money as a result avoid going to schools. I also saw children being rude every time I said I don’t want to buy.

Tuk Tuk usually have a set fare. Ask your hotel how much they should roughly charge to get an idea before going on one.

I found Siem Reap to be really safe even late nights. But better still be careful of your belongings.