I don’t even know where to start when I think back to my week in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I initially intended staying three full days, which I was told was plenty of time, but, I ended up staying for six days and LOVED every second of it! It was plenty of days to see both sides of the city, without one spoiling the other!
I knew I wanted to visit Siem Reap because I really wanted to see Angkor Wat, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What made it grow higher on my list, was the fact that I’d heard it’s effortless to cross the border between Thailand and Cambodia. It was a no brainer.
I pre-booked my ticket with Giant Ibis through 12go.asia, the best website for booking or researching transportation in Asia. I also decided to apply for my visa ahead of time to save space in my passport. It was honestly SUPER easy in every sense of the way.
The journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap was estimated to take about 8 hours and took about 9 hours. The bus ride was pretty uneventful with a little confusion at the border. Thankfully, Giant Ibis was there every step of the way.
Once I physically arrived into Siem Reap, I jumped in a tuk-tuk, which ended up being the best thing that happened, and headed to my hostel, Onederz. Once we arrived at the hostel, my tuk-tuk driver, Morl, mentioned to me that he offers tuk-tuk rides through Angkor Wat. I honestly didn’t know my plans and wanted to “wing it,” so we exchanged numbers, just in case!
Once at the hostel, I ended up meeting a girl, Laura, who together with several others, decided to go ahead with the hostel’s tour of Angkor Wat. I usually wouldn’t do a tour, but I wanted to learn more about the majestic Angkor Wat, and it was only $12.
One thing I want to explain before I go forward is the currency of Cambodia. Cambodia’s official currency is the riel. However, the majority of the country uses the US dollar, including ATMs, and it was extremely WEIRD going back to the US dollar after being on the Thai baht for seven months. Another thing, Cambodia also doesn’t have coins for their currency since the riel to dollar ratio is 4000:1. Meaning, they’ll give you US dollars for bills, then riels for change. It’s a pretty unique aspect to Cambodia!
The particular tour I did with Onederz Hostel was the Sunrise Tour or Small Circuit tour with a tour guide. You can opt for a tuk-tuk tour without guide for $6, but I thought having a guide would be beneficial for the first time visit.
Now, something you should know about Angkor Wat is that it is said to be one of the most beautiful sunrises in the world, and I wasn’t going to skip it.
The Sunrise Tour started with the sunrise and a walk around the main Angkor Wat temple learning a little about the history. It continues with a drive through the South Gate and on to Angkor Thom’s Bayon Temple. Next, the tour took us to Ta Prohm (think Tomb Raider), and finished at Banteay Kdei. I’ll go into more details later.
Sunrise tours in Siem Reap typically mean a 4:30/4:45 departure time and this tour wasn’t any different. The primary reason for the SUPER early departure usually depends on if you need a ticket or not, and the sheer volume of tourists visiting sunrise on a single day means traffic.
Angkor Wat tickets can be purchased the day of the sunrise visit very quickly. There are several ticket options for Angkor Wat including a single day entry for $37, a 3-day pass for $62, or a 7-day pass for $72. What’s unique about these multiple-day passes is that they do not need to be used consecutively. The 3-day pass is valid for 10 days, and the 7-day pass is valid for 30 days, which means you have options for visiting the grounds of Angkor Wat and the many, many temples.
Laura and I both opted for the 3-day pass to give us the option for returning to the temples, depending on the tour (which I’m glad we did.) The tour itself started off strong with a good history of Angkor Wat and allowed time to experience things like climbing to a tower for a view or getting blessed by a monk. However, after the first two temples, it started to become nearly impossible to hear the tour guide, and the speed was becoming increasingly fast.
Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in hanging back and ignoring the tour guide. There was another couple who felt very similar to the tour as I did, and the three of us pretty much just took pictures of the majestic temples.
Each temple we visited had a different vibe and look to them. I later found out (thanks Laura for listening) was because of the century in which they were built, the religious entity who they were built for, and the purpose for the building.
The temples of Angkor were built between the 9th and 13th-century, as either a Hindu temple for the Hindu god, Vishnu, or a Buddhist temple, for the Khmer Empire. This means Angkor Wat is a beautiful combination of Hinduism and Buddhism and is currently a Buddist place of worship.
The largest and main temple on the grounds is Angkor Wat, which faces west and allows the sun to rise directly behind it. This skillful placement is part of why the sunrise at Angkor Wat is one of the most famous sunrises in the world. What’s even more unique, during the equinox, the sun rises in direct alignment with the middle tower. (Without knowing, I was a few days shy of this perfect alignment).
These towers and many throughout the grounds have a particular Lotus flower shape to them. The lotus flower is very symbolic in both Hinduism and Buddhism, meaning divine perfection and purity, respectively. It’s not uncommon to see the symbol of the lotus throughout temples, and Angkor Wat is no exception.
After we watched the sunrise, our guide took us into the main temple where we learned a little more about the stones, carvings, and design of the temple. We were given some time alone to explore and had to opportunity to be blessed by a monk. It was extremely spiritual.
We continued our tour to Bayon, a late 12th-early 13th-century Buddhist temple, known for smiling stone faces. It was starting to get ridiculously crowded with tourists, so it was here that I chose to hang back from the tour guide and take in the serenity of the temple.
Next on the tour was the second most famous temple at the park, Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is the temple best known for the trees, which have grown through the stone and have become one with the structures. It is why its nickname is “The Jungle Temple.” It is also the location where parts of Tomb Raider was filmed. Unfortunately, the majestic site was lost to the glob of tourists, and I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I was hoping. I felt very rushed and at times, felt like a sardine.
Our final location was Banteay Kdei, another Buddhist temple built in the mid 12th- early 13th-century. At this point of the day (it’s only 1 pm), my brain was slowly fading, and I don’t remember much of the history of this temple. Having started the day at 4:30 am, I was ready to be done. This, I would say, is a con to taking an organized tour vs. hiring a tuk-tuk driver.
We finally returned to the hostel after an extremely long and hot day exploring Angkor, and I wasn’t up for much the rest of the day. After a short nap, Laura and I met to discussed plans for the next day, and concluded with asking Morl to be our driver/guide for the day! Although I was ready to be done for the day, I wasn’t ready to be done with Angkor. Stay tuned for another journey through Angkor Archaeological Park!