As far as “things to see before you die,” Angkor Wat has gotta be at the top of the list. The temple complex is located in the city of Siem Reap (for some reason, people get really confused about which one’s the town and which one’s the temple) and is by far the largest temple complex in Southeast Asia. As someone who spent four months seeing hundreds of temples filled with infinity buddhas, it was exciting even for me. Siem Reap itself is also a can’t-miss. Everything I hated about Phnom Penh – the big buildings and strip malls, the inauthenticity — was totally absent in Siem Reap. The city was not so much a “city,” and it felt like real Cambodia. There were beautiful landscapes, traditional architecture and a lot of stuff to see. Plus, people eat fried tarantulas there, which for some weird reason really fascinates me.
I spent a weekend in April visiting Angkor Wat Siem Reap with James and two of our friends. It was really, really, really hot (like, borderline unbearable) but incredible nonetheless. It was 4.5 hours by car from Phnom Penh (where we were living) and two days definitely felt like enough time. Here’s exactly how I spent 48 hours in Siem Reap — my favorite (and every other tourist’s favorite) part of Cambodia.
The Sarai Hotel
Trust me: If you’re going to Siem Reap (and doing the temples) you are definitely going to want a pool at your hotel. It’s so, so hot, and you’re going to want somewhere to kick back, relax and cool off at the end of the day. Thankfully, the pool — and every other thing — at the Sarai is next-level amazing. I paid $85 a night for a huge bedroom with a window seat and a gorgeous bathroom in which the toilet and shower were separate things (a rare luxury in Cambodia) and spent the better part of my afternoons in Siem Reap laid up on a lounge chair. The location isn’t the best, but if you hire a tuk tuk driver you won’t even notice.
Hire A Tuk Tuk Driver
People have various opinions about what the “best” way to get around Siem Reap is, but I’m personally a huge proponent of hiring a Tuk Tuk driver for the week/weekend and having him show you around. My boyfriend had met our Tuk Tuk driver, Bun, almost 10 years ago when he was on a backpacking trip, and we re-hired him for our trip this spring. We paid $40-$50 for two days, and he took us absolutely everywhere we wanted to go. He also brought us to a locals-only sunset spot, which was hands down the most beautiful sunset I saw in all of Asia. No joke — message me and I’ll set you up with Bun. He’s awesome.
Visit Angkor Wat At Sunrise
… Obviously. Angkor Wat is one of the biggest tourist attractions on the planet, so going to Siem Reap without seeing it makes literally no sense at all. Going at sunrise is really beautiful, but also kind of necessary because of how hot it gets during the day. The morning of our big touring day, my alarm went off at 4:30am, which was B. R. U. T. A. L. I somehow managed to pull myself (and my very sleepy boyfriend, James) out of bed, and put on a knee covering, shoulder covering outfit. We were out the door by 5, but didn’t realize that we needed to stop and get tickets before we were going to be allowed into the temples. I would definitely recommend doing this the night before, because the line was insane and by the time we got through e were running very, very late to sunrise. We got there, though, and it was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. When we were inside the temple, I got blessed by a Buddhist Monk, which was an incredibly special experience. Afterward, we had breakfast at a temple-side stand run by a man named JAMES BOND, LICENSE TO COFFEE. He is famous among Angkor Wat tourists, and if you ever make it there you will almost definitely hear him shouting his catch phrase and trying to sell you fried rice.
See Bayon And Ta Prom Temples
I’m going to level with you: Seeing temples in 120 degree heat is exhausting. I gave up after three (it was only 11am…), but genuinely feel like I saw enough — I have never once looked back on the trip and thought “wow, I wish I’d had more temple time!” Do Angkor Wat first, then head over to Bayon, which has all kinds of cool faces carved into the stone that make it look like Legends of the Hidden Temple. Have your Tuk Tuk driver drop you off in the front, and then exit to the left and walk a bit, and you’ll get to see some other cool ruins along the way. Have him pick you up in the parking lot abut a half of a kilometer away in that direction.
After Bayon, hit up Ta Prom, which is the temple that Angelina Jolie filmed Tomb Raider in. It’s really cool, mostly because of the BIG TREE that’s growing straight through the stone, but also because you’ll probably recognize it from the movie (which I’ve never seen, but people say it’s cool!). Take a vertical panorama with the tree — it’s the only way to get everything you’ll want in the image.
Go To The Phare Circus
The 'Influence' troupe are still living it up up up in France with Collectif clowns d'ailleurs d'ici. We hope they miss us as much as we miss them… Photo cred: Daniel Michelon . . . . #france #tour #circus #pharecircus #cambodia #siemreap #youth #artist #performer #fly #arobatics #showtime #socialenterprise
If you’re looking to do something cultural that doesn’t involve temples, check out the Phare Circus. It features Cambodian acrobats and contortionists, and tells the story of the Cambodian Genocide through dance. It’s a really beautiful show (that, truthfully, went a bit over my head at first) and offers a really unique telling of the country’s history.
Walk Around The Night Markets
The night market in Siem Reap isn’t so much a “market” as a neighborhood, and it is really cool. Touristy, yes, but still cool! There are shops selling every kind of elephant pants/piece of jewelry/Cambodia tank top you could possibly think of, and most of it is severely overpriced. My favorite part was the food — to look at, not to eat… unless you’re braver than I am. And like I mentioned, there were vendors cooking all kinds of insane foods, including scorpions, tarantulas and snakes. Mmmmm (lol jkjkjkjk).
Go Out At Angkor WHAT?
Near the night markets, there’s a whole street of bars that serve booze in buckets. They’re pretty tourist-y and filled with backpackers, but they’re still really, really fun. Not exactly the most cultural thing you can do in Siem Reap, but after a long day of touring you could definitely use a drink.
For delicious and authentic Khmer cuisine in a great atmosphere, check out Chanrey Tree. It all tastes clean and healthy, but offers adventurous dishes like Stuffed Frog and Crispy Sticky Rice with “Natang” Sauce.
Not only is Spoons the best food I had in Cambodia, it also gives back to the community with every dish served. It’s part of the EGBOK Foundation, which helps educate young people in hospitality. Spoons café serves as a training facility, and helps provide EGBOK students with hands-on training. And seriously – the food rocks.