Cambodia is one of the first countries in SE Asia that I visited in my travels. Located in between Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, Cambodia is world famous for its ancient city of Angkor Wat. Although there is plenty more to see in the country, Cambodia is often overshadowed by its neighbors and many tourists opt for a quick trip in and out of Siem Reap.
This itinerary will show how to best plan a 5-7 day trip through the country visiting some of the highlights. This is by no means enough time to really see the whole country but I will be back. I’ve been to Angkor Wat 2x time and you can read my full post about Angkor Wat if you want more details on planning a trip to the famous temples!
Angkor Wat is one of my favorite temples but how does it stack up to my other favorite ancient cities in Petra and Wadi Rum? Read my comparison post between the three ancient cities.
Best time of year to visit Cambodia
The best time of year to visit Cambodia for a tourist largely depends on what type of weather and activities you prefer. Cambodia has a tropical climate, with two distinct seasons: the rainy season and the dry season.
The dry season, which typically runs from November to April, is considered the best time to visit Cambodia for those looking to avoid the rain and enjoy the warm and sunny weather. This is also the peak tourist season, so it’s a good time to visit the country’s famous temples, such as Angkor Wat, as well as enjoy other outdoor activities like swimming and hiking.
Temperatures during the dry season will range from 20 degrees at night to 35 during the days. The climate is also considerably drier than most tropical regions I’ve been to.
The rainy season, which runs from May to October, is considered the low season for tourism in Cambodia. The weather during this time is hot and humid, with heavy rainfall and occasional flooding in some areas. However, it’s a great time to find good deals on accommodation and activities, and also it’s a great time for bird watching and it’s perfect for exploring the country’s beautiful waterfalls and rural areas.
My Full Itinerary for Cambodia
The itinerary starts from a flight into Siem Reap. You can reach Siem Reap from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and a variety of other cities around the region. Alternatively, you can also take a bus to Siem Reap from Bangkok but be prepared to spend a long time on the bus!
I stayed a total of 4 nights in Siem Reap so I could spread out exploring Angkor Wat over a multiple days as opposed to trying to cram it all in for 1 day. Siem Reap is also nearby to the floating markets which are definitely worth a day trip to visit.
From Siem Reap, I took a bus transfer to Phnom Penh which traversed the Cambodian countryside. Finally, the trip ends in Phnom Penh with visits to the Genocide Museum, royal palace, killing fields etc. I would have loved to visit the Cambodian islands in the Gulf of Thailand but that’ll have to be saved for another trip.
Day 1-5: Visiting Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat has only been a tourist attraction for two decades. Twenty years ago, there were hardly any tourists as Cambodia finally moved forward from decades of civil war and unrest. The place really exploded onto the scene in the mid 2000s especially after the Tomb Raider movie came out which was filmed in Angkor Wat (more information on this later).
Spread out your visit is possible
After coming to Angkor Wat two times, I think the best advice I would have for people is to spread out your visit over three days. While you can see everything in just one day, it would be a lot more enjoyable to do it without being rushed.
The reason for this is simply how hot it gets in the park. After 11am, the sun is unforgiving and I just wanted to go home and sleep. Given how close Angkor Wat is to Siem Reap (only 15 minutes drive), it is totally doable to just go back to your hotel and chill for the afternoon before returning to the park when it cools down around 4pm.
In addition, if you decide to do the sunrise, you’ll need to leave your hotel by 5am to arrive in time. This will surely make you tired and you won’t have much energy for the rest of the day to properly explore the temples. In short, temple fatigue is a real thing. Not only will you feel better physically spreading it out over three days, but you’ll likely enjoy the temples and what they have to offer when you are not stressed about seeing everything as quickly as possible.
Arranging transportation to Angkor Wat
The temples of Angkor encompass 500 acres of land. It’s a massive place to say the least and transportation while not mandatory is heavily advised. The temples are also located in the Cambodian jungle and is probably one of the hottest and most humid places I’ve been in my life.
Even short shorts and a tank top were no match for the blistering sun as I couldn’t stop sweating and I wasn’t even engaging in any strenuous activity. I also came during a cool part of the year so I could only imagine how much worse it would have been if I had come during the wet season of March-May.
While you CAN walk through Angkor Wat, the vast majority of people will rent a tuk tuk with a driver for the entire day. My hotel, along with ever other hotel and hostel in Siem Reap will offer you the services of a tuk tuk driver. There are multiple itineraries for Angkor that will be offered and I just chose the popular ones that take you to all the main temples.
For 1 full day as of 2023, I paid $18. Yes, $18 for someone to pick me up at my hotel at 5am for the sunrise to sunset at 6pm. I had to keep telling myself that while it seemed like a ridiculous low amount of money, $18 is A LOT of money for a days work in Cambodia.
Make sure you get a remorque vehicle which is different than the standard tuk tuk. The Remorques are essentially old school carriages being pulled by a scooter. These vehicles have more space and is completely open which allows for views of the beautiful park.
My driver would drop me off at each site and would waited for me among the sea of other tuk tuk drivers (which he seemed to all know), while I did my thing walking through the temple.
Tour guides for Angkor Wat
Hiring a tour guide is a wise move when visiting Angkor Wat. There is so much information about this temple that you simply won’t learn anything if you just walked around aimlessly on your own.
For example, did you know that Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple originally since the people of that time were Hindu and only later became a Buddhist temple when the rulers converted accordingly?
Ya I never would have either.
You can prebook a tour with tour guides that will pick you up in a tuk tuk or Remorque vehicle. These tours are generally quite expensive at around $40-50 USD per person. The better option is to just find a guide in the park when you arrive. There are usually guides waiting around to be hired for the day. These prices will be much lower especially if you are splitting between multiple people.
Alternatively, you can book tours with E-bikes, regular bicycles, and even a guided tour with Vespas. There is literally everything you can think of in Siem Reap.
Sadly, even with hiring a guide for Angkor Wat, I forgot most of what he told me since the weather was just too hot and you just wanted to go back to your hotel and sleep afterwards.
Dress Code for Angkor Wat
As of 2016, there is now a dress code for visiting the temples of Angkor Wat. Men and women must cover up the shoulders and the knees at all times while inside the temple. This means men and women can no longer wear tank tops or super short shorts.
This is enforced in most of the temples I visited. Some temples had guards that didn’t care but most of them told me to put a shirt on. I did have above the knee shorts but they didn’t care about this in the end.
When you are not inside a temple, you are free to wear whatever you want and I stuck to my sleeveless shirts the entire way. I carried a linen shirt that I threw on when inside the temple. Respect the local rules and culture!
Entry Costs for Angkor Wat
As far as grand, historic, lost cities go, Angkor Wat is on the cheaper side in my opinion. There are three options available for purchase:
As of 2022, the prices for entry are as follows
- 1 day pass – $37
- 3 day pass – $62
- 7 day pass – $72
Tickets can be purchased at the ticket office right before entering Angkor Wat. Your tuk tuk driver will take you here if you don’t already have tickets. Your picture is taken with each ticket so to prevent you from sharing unused tickets with other people.
If you’re here for 2 days, you will automatically purchase the 3 day ticket as there are no special discounts for 2 day visits.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is the biggest and most popular temple in Angkor. It’s this temple that is spread out on travel magazines and Instagram pics and likely the picture that made you say “Oh that is amazing, I need to go”. Most people mistake Angkor Wat (myself included) to mean the entire compound.
When most people say they’re visiting Angkor Wat, they mean to say they are visiting the ancient city of Angkor. There are dozens of other temples in Angkor. Nevertheless, everyone gets the idea.
Angkor Wat is likely the first stop on most people’s agendas. Coming here for the sunrise is incredibly popular and a must do according to every travel blog and book I read. Naturally, I get a extreme FOMO when I travel so I made sure to wake up at 4am. My tuk tuk was already waiting for me and after buying the tickets, we were dropped off in front of Angkor Wat in the pitch darkness following the crowds of people making their way to see the sunrise.
Everyone assembles near to the pond which allows for beautiful photos with the iconic reflections of Angkor Wat.
Sadly, the day I came, everyone else in the world seemed to have decided to come as well. By the time we got to the viewing area (~5am), it was already packed. I couldn’t even get close to the pond. It was a complete shitshow and I felt like I was at a music festival instead of an ancient temple.
I know Angkor Wat has seen an explosion of tourism in the last decade, especially with the bulging Chinese middle class flexing their travel muscles, but this was awful. I’d reckon there were two to three thousand people waiting for the sunrise. Perhaps I just picked a really bad day to visit, but I couldn’t help thinking about my time sitting in front of the monastery at Petra without a soul in sight.
After taking some pics wherever I could, we decided it was a lost cause and entered the temple. Turns out, we should have done this earlier because while everyone was busy watching the sunrise, the inside of the temple itself was largely devoid of tourists. Despite the huge swaths of tourists, Angkor Wat is indeed an impressive place. The carvings, pillars, and statues are still in great condition.
The scale of Angkor Wat is also amazingly impressive. There’s no denying that it is the largest temple in the world. There were the occasional monks that were actually praying, but they must have gotten it all in well before the sunrise because I’m not sure how they could find zen in this place nowadays.
We walked around for about an hour, pausing to take loads of pictures along the way. People slowly trickled in and by the time we left, it was getting so crowded, it was hard to move.
There was a mini food market setup outside the temple for all the tourists to eat at. Each had a funny Western name like “Rambo”, or “Harry Potter”. They’re all the same and even though the food is 2x of that in town, it is still remarkably cheap.
After breakfast, we proceeded further into Angkor to Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is like a mini city within Angkor that was once the capital of the Khmer empire. It’s surrounded by huge gates and the southern entrance we entered through was the most well preserved, and most touristy.
There are numerous sights to see here but the main attraction in my opinion is the Bayon Temple, another huge temple that rivals that of Angkor Wat. I actually found Bayon Temple to be as impressive, if not more so than Angkor Wat.
We decided to do the elephant ride here around the temple. As touristy as this was, $20 for an elephant ride is quite cheap compared to the elephant rides in Thailand and South Africa. Plus, you get to ride it around this amazing temple complex
Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider temple)
After spending a few hours in Angkor Thom, we proceeded on to Ta Prohm is a beautiful temple, bound by massive roots of huge trees. Back in the days it was very different: one could see walls decorated by precious stones, hear beautiful music, and dancing in the halls.
When in late nineteenth century Ta Prohm was discovered by French, they decided not to conduct a full-scale restoration of the temple. The decision was made due to the fact that giant trees, such as ficus and silk tree, were so merged with ancient walls that eventually they became whole.
This temple, however, is probably best known for its use in the movie Tomb Raider. At least that’s what my tuk tuk driver kept telling me it was – “Johnny, next stop is the Tomb Raider temple!”
The other temples
It’s hard not to get temple fatigue at Angkor wat, not just from seeing endless temples but the extreme heat that is impossible to escape from (make sure to bring plenty of water!). That’s why people recommend you spend at least 2-3 days here to split up the sightseeing. We got temple fatigue around 1pm! Nevertheless, we pushed on and saw a few more temples before heading back to Siem Reap for a nice round of massages. We ended up going to Ta Keo, Ta Nei, Ta Prom, Bantea Kdei.
Sunset at Angkor Wat
The conventional wisdom is to do sunrise at Angkor Wat and Sunset at the Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom. You’ll also be sharing those precious moments with thousands of other people. After talking to some travelers, they recommended I try it in the reverse order.
While I couldn’t stomach waking up at 4am again for another sunrise, I did return to Angkor Wat on my second day for the sunset and what a good decision that was! While there are still people here (you’ll never find peace and solace at Angkor Wat), it was far better than the sunrise I witnessed the day before. Since the sun rises behind the temple, it sets in front of it, thereby shining down and illuminating all the colors and details of the temple for sunset.
Sunset at Phnom Bakheng
One of the most popular sunset spots in Angkor Wat is the temple of Phnom Bakheng. This is one of the few temples open until 7pm making it the perfect place to see the sunset.
You’ll have to hike about 15 minutes to the top of this temple which is why it is so popular for those looking for perfect views.
The temple itself isn’t anything special but the sunset here is incredible as you can see all the way to the surrounding lakes and valley.
Expect to see a lot of other people also trying to enjoy the sunset as this is one of the most popular areas of the park.
Floating Villages of Siem Reap
The floating villages of Cambodia are a unique and fascinating aspect of the country’s culture and way of life. These villages are located on the Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and are home to thousands of people.
The houses in these villages are built on stilts and are made of wood and other locally available materials. They are connected by a network of boardwalks and bridges, creating a kind of floating neighborhood. The residents of these villages rely on the lake for their livelihoods, fishing and farming being the main sources of income.
The floating villages are also home to floating schools, floating temples, and floating markets, which are bustling with activity. The floating markets provide a unique and colorful experience, with vendors selling everything from fresh produce to handmade crafts.
Despite the challenges of living on the water, the people of these villages have created a sustainable way of life. They have adapted to the changing water levels of the lake and have implemented systems to manage waste and sewage. When you visit the floating villages, keep in mind that this is not just a tourist attraction but actually day to day life for the people that call this part home.
The floating villages of Cambodia are a testament to the resilience and resourcefulness of the Cambodian people and are a must-see for anyone visiting the country.
First, it’s best to visit during the dry season (November-May), as the water level is lower and it’s easier to navigate through the villages. During the wet season (June-October), the water level can rise significantly, making it difficult to access the villages.
There are several tour operators in Siem Reap that offer boat tours to the floating villages. These tours typically include transportation to and from the village, a boat ride through the village, and a local guide to provide information about the village and its inhabitants. Some tours also include a stop at a floating school or market.
Siem Reap to Phnom Penh
Getting form Siem Reap to Phnom Penh is the next part of this itinerary. There are a multitude of ways to get from the two most populous cities in Cambodia. In the end, I flew out of Phnom Penh because the flights were just significantly cheaper but I would have probably just ended the trip in Siem Reap otherwise.
To get from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, here are the methods of transport:
- By Car: The drive from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh is 5-6 hours. You can hire a private car transport for about $100. If you’re 3 or more people, this might make sense as this is the fastest mode of transport. The best part of this is you can make a stop at the floating markets for lunch and explore some of the things along the way.
- By Bus: There are many buses that go from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. Expect to pay about $10 for the bus but this will take 7-8 hours for travel
- By Boat ride: You can take a ferry between the two cities Ferries depart 7am daily from the Phnom Penh Port on Sisowath Quay. Ferries depart Siem Reap daily at 7am from the dock at Chong Khneas. Passage is around $18-$25 and should be purchased a day in advance (251km, 4-6 hours).
There isn’t much to see along the drive as the Cambodian countryside is so flat. The only thing you should do is stop and eat Kralang, a typical Cambodian snack of coconut sticky rice and soybeans inside a bamboo shoot. It’s undeniably one of my favorite snacks and up there in the ranks with mango sticky rice!
Day 5-7: Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is the underrated capital of Cambodia. This city is small in size but it’s much more developed than I had thought. Again, the main reason I went to Phnom Penh was because the flights from the capital were significantly cheaper than in Siem Reap. I’m talking many hundreds of dollars cheaper for just a one way flight!
Phnom Penh (or PP) reminds of me a miniature Bangkok with an assortment of great restaurants, rooftop bars, cafes, and bars. There really isn’t that much to do in PP so I wouldn’t spend too many days in the city. The main highlights are the Genocide museum which is a memorial for one of the torture prisons during the Khmer Rouge era as well as the Royal Temple that will remind you of the temples in Bangkok.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Without a doubt the Tuoal Sleng Genocide Museum is a must visit when in Phnom Penh. This museum is a tribute to the many lives lost during the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. Specifically, this specific museum was once a high school that was turned into a torture prison for the tens of thousands that came through.
To better understand the prison, it’s best to better understand just what happened during the terrible reign of the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge, also known as the Democratic Kampuchea lasted from 1975 to 1979. The regime, led by Pol Pot of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, was responsible for the deaths of 2 million Cambodians, or about 20% of their population at the time.
The Communists started in Cambodia as a rural peasant movement. They aimed to overthrow the sitting Government due to corruption and redistribute the land to the poor which started off the 8 year civil war from 1967-1975. During this time, the Government along with the US, heavily bombed the Cambodian countryside leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Over time, the Khmer Rouge slowly defeated the Government forces and captured Phnom Penh in 1975.
People cheered the Khmer Rouge liberating the cities but this celebration was short lived. The Khmer Rouge had a dream of turning Cambodia into an Agrarian communist society where there were no classes, poor, or rich people. This led to the Government forcefully kicking people out of the cities to the countryside where they were forced to work the fields. None of these people had any experience farming and therefore millions died due to starvation and famine.
Because of the Authoritarian nature of the Khmer Rouge, they had to regularly cull dissidents and anyone that would oppose the regime. The Tuol Sleng prison was one of the many such places where anyone even remotely considered a threat to the regime would be tortured and executed. Many of those killed were intellectuals, doctors, engineers, politicians, and essentially anyone that even had a thought of opposing the regime. Many of those executed were taken to the now infamous killing fields which you can visit outside of Phnom Penh.
The museum details the living conditions, torture devices used, and the general day to day life of a prisoner living here. It reminded me a lot of the Holocaust museums in Poland. Make sure to absolutely pay for the audio tour as it is incredibly well narrated by a former survivor of this camp. The museum takes about 2 hours to complete and costs $10 for the entry ticket and the audio tour.
Royal Palace of Phnom Penh
The Royal Palace of Phnom Penh is a palace complex in the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. It serves as the residence of the King of Cambodia and is also used for ceremonial and state occasions. The palace is located on the banks of the Mekong River and is a symbol of the Cambodian monarchy and national heritage.
The palace was built in the late 19th century by King Norodom, who wanted to establish a new capital in Phnom Penh. The palace complex was designed in the traditional Khmer style and features a number of buildings, including the Throne Hall, which is used for coronations and royal audiences; the Silver Pagoda, which is named for its floor made of 5000 silver tiles; and the Napoleon III Pavilion, a gift from the French emperor to King Norodom.
The palace is open to visitors, with several buildings and halls open to the public, including the Throne Hall, the Silver Pagoda, and the Royal Residence. Visitors can also see the palace’s collection of Cambodian art and artifacts, including a collection of Buddhas made of gold and precious stones.
The palace is surrounded by beautiful gardens and is a popular spot for visitors to Phnom Penh. It is also an important cultural and historical site, representing the continuity of the Cambodian monarchy and the country’s rich cultural heritage.
The cost to visit the Royal Palace is $10 USD and the palace is open from 8am to 5pm. Make sure to arrive before 4pm as they might kick you out early without notice.
Have a rooftop drink at the Sora Skybar
Phnom Penh has plenty of bars and restaurants to keep you busy at night. One of my favorite places that I visited was the skybar at the Rosewood hotel. The Rosewood is the tallest building in the city with a huge terrace protruding out of its top floor. This bar has incredible views of the city and also makes fantastic cocktails. While not as impressive as the rooftop bars in Bangkok, the Rosewood holds its own.
It’s the absolutely the best place to watch the sunset as the sun sets directly in front of the hotel.
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