For many, the purpose of visiting Siem Reap and Cambodia is to see the great temples of Angkor. Hidden in the dense, humid jungles of Cambodia, this incredible complex was only found in the 19th century by British explorers. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple in the 12th century before being converted to a Buddhist temple, it was built to be the main temple of Angkor, the capital of the Khmer (pronounced Kah-my) empire. “Wat” means temple, so naturally Angkor Wat just means the temple of Angkor. Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the largest religious monument ever constructed, and the city of Angkor is believed to have been the largest pre-industrialization city in the world.
Arriving in Siem Reap and Visas
I arrived in Siem Reap, the gateway city to the temples of Angkor, via a Jetstar flight from Singapore. The airport is what you’d expect from a touristy hub in the jungles of a third world country but I’ve seen worse. Arriving at customs, all Western passports must obtain visas to enter the country. Visas are available for purchase upon arrival so no need to make plans beforehand. I met some American travelers working in Dubai on my flight and we ended up hanging out for the duration of my stay. They also all brought with them passport photos as apparently it was a requirement for the visa process. Nope. Not true at all. Just make sure to have some US Dollars before entering; the visa costs $30 and they will take “photos” of you for another $2 which funny enough, was less than what we would pay for passport photos back home.
While the official currency of Cambodia is the Cambodia Riel, US Dollars are widely accepted in Siem Reap. In fact, almost all prices and signs will be quoted in US Dollars. The Riel is hard pegged to the $ at 4000 Riels to $1 so perhaps they’ve just realized it’s easier for people not to have to multiple 4000 constantly, or that the locals really love the smell of the greenback. Either way, paying in Riel or $ is accepted everywhere and some street vendors will only give you change in Riels. Whatever you do, just make sure to get rid of your Riels before leaving as the currency is useless outside of Cambodia.
The town of Siem Reap is your standard SE Asian tourist hotspot town. It immediately reminded me of Patong in Phuket or Kuta, Bali in the sense that it was once a sleepy local town with few visitors, but has since become a huge draw for tourists and turned into a subsequent shitshow. So I’m talking about terrible traffic, constant noise, streets that only contain bars/restaurants catering to Westerners, seedy strip clubs, etc. Siem Reap has all of these. However, if I had to choose, I’d say it is still better than Patong or Bali.
For starters, it is the cheapest of the bunch. I thought Thailand was dirt cheap (and it is), but Siem Reap is even cheaper. Local dishes of Amok or Cambodian curry was $2-3 at a tourist level restaurant, while a full hour massage can be found for $5 (of which I got many of). A private room at a hotel was $18 a night, and Angkor beers are flowing for $0.50! It’s certainly a place where your money will go a long way.
Once you get past the nonstop traffic and street noise of Siem Reap, the locals are incredibly friendly and always had a smile on their faces.
Before this trip, the only exposure to Cambodian food I had was a sandwich chain in NYC called Num Pang. Sadly, this is like someone saying the only exposure they’ve had to Mexican food is a Chipotle burrito. While the latter is delicious, it is by no means Mexican and the same can be said about Num Pang. I found Cambodian food to be…delicious! Cambodia’s food is often all about the contrasts—sweet and bitter, salty and sour, fresh and cooked. It shares many dishes with its neighbors, and you’ll find noodle soup similar to Vietnamese phở and sandwiches like bánh mì, Thailand’s refreshing salads and sour soups, Indian-inspired curries, and noodles and stir fries handed down from years of Chinese migration.
Sadly, I wasn’t here long enough to experience as much food as I’d liked but with the help of my tuk tuk driver, I was able to eat more of the good stuff than the average tourist. Here are a list of my favorite foods that are readily available all throughout Cambodia.
As close as it gets to the national dish of Cambodia. It is made with kroeung, an aromatic curry paste made with lemongrass, galangal, fresh turmeric, shallots, garlic, and a little chili. The kroeung is mixed with coconut milk, which turns a beautiful golden yellow. Mild white fish, chicken, or beef and shredded kaffir lime leaves are added to the curry, which is steamed in a banana-leaf cup. Every restaurant prepares fish amok slightly different—some are saucier and others becomes custardy as they steam. I tried this for the first time at breakfast stalls near the Angkor Wat temple, and had it many more times thereafter.
Bai Sach Chrouk (BBQ Pork and Rice)
One of Cambodia’s most popular breakfast dishes, and one that would be great all day if there was any bai sach chrouk left past 9 am. No two recipes are the same, but all feature pork marinated in garlic, soy, and coconut milk slowly grilled over charcoal, where it becomes smoky and caramelized. The pork is sliced thin, sprinkled with scallions and served over rice and fresh sliced cucumbers and green tomatoes, with a small bowl of gingery, lightly pickled cucumber, daikon, and green mango on the side. The best way to eat bai sach chrouk is to scoop a bite of pork, rice and pickle all together.
Not to be confused with Plantains, these things were like crack to me. Fried bananas become melty from their swim in the hot oil, and the crunchy outside is just a little sweet. The only hazard is making sure you don’t burn your tongue as you nibble away.
Khmer Iced Coffee
It’s important to stay cool in such a hot country, and Cambodians have figured out a winning method: Rich, dark, strong-brewed coffee poured over a full cup of ice with sweetened condensed milk. The drink is similar to Vietnamese iced coffee, but Cambodian coffee beans are roasted with a little fat, either butter or lard, which deepens the flavor. The intense coffee combined with the sweet milk tastes like chocolate to me. Khmer iced coffee lies at the intersection of morning pick-me-up and milkshake.
Angkor Wat has only been a recent tourist destination. Twenty years ago, there were hardly any tourists but the place really exploded onto the scene in the mid 2000s. While this likely ruined the tranquil, mysterious ambiance of the place (which I will get into later), but the boost in tourism has undoubtedly given the local people a great opportunity. Cambodia’s heartbreaking history is difficult to comprehend. After the jet-setting 1950s and ’60s (Jackie Kennedy famously visited Angkor Wat), the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took control and murdered over two million Cambodians, leading to two decades of darkness and the ravages of war. It was good to see first hand the boost tourism has given the people as they move on from their dark past.
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, I paid $18. Yes, $18 for someone to pick me up at my hotel at 4am 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.
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.
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:
- 1 day pass – $20
- 3 day pass – $40
- 7 day pass – $60
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. I had two full days here and bought the 3 day pass, just in case I wanted to come back for the sunrise again on the third day before my morning flight.
Visiting 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 our 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. There is one area that everyone assembles at, around a pond that beautifully reflects the temple.
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
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. I found this view to be much prettier than the sunrise. In addition, because you’re not trying to take a picture in the dark, portrait shots at sunset are awesome.