In 9 months i visited Siem Reap 3 times, so that should be enough to say: MUST VISIT!
Although Angkor is no longer the off the beaten track paradise it used to be, its still absolutely amazing and mesmerizing.
Cambodia’s history is nothing but simple. The country was influenced by several different cultures, such as India and other Southeast Asian civilizations that we now know as Thailand and Laos.
Its history is so complex that i don’t dare to try to explain, as i might mess up big time.
Instead i will just state a few historic facts about Angkor:
* The Khmer Empire was Southeast Asia’s largest empire during the 12th century.
* The center of power was in Angkor, which was the largest pre-industrial city in the world.
* The Ayutthaya Kingdom (also known as Siam) conquered several kingdoms and city-states, as well as Angkor, this affected the country’s economy, culture and older religions/faiths were eventually supplanted by Theravada Buddhism.
* France ‘adopted’ Cambodia as a protectorate in 1863
* A treaty between the French and Cambodia, helped starting the restoration of Angkor Wat in 1908.
* Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953 and has controlled Angkor Wat ever since.
* The works were interrupted by the civil war and Khmer Rouge control of the country during the 1970s ad 1980s.
(This info was gathered from some books and Wikipedia, unfortunately most writings are bias, so if got anything wrong, please do let me know.)
You can either get an eVisa at http://www.evisa.gov.kh, or a Visa on arrival, but make sure you take USD and a passport size photo.
You can also use USD for almost everything, as the locals accept them willingly.
It really helps to have a good tuk-tuk driver, I found mine through a friend that visited Siem Reap before me. His name is ‘Ra’, and i really couldn’t have asked for a better guide in Siem Reap. He’s a young man, very hard working, very gentle spoken, and super friendly.
Otherwise, you can always get a motorbike, or a bicycle, just check the size of Angkor and how many days you have in Siem Reap before deciding.
Most of the times i went to Siem Reap, i would land in the early morning, stop somewhere for a quick breakfast, and then head straight to Angkor. Right at the entrance of the compound your driver will stop at the ticket counter, so you buy your pass, there are different passes – 1 day, 3 day, .., make sure you get the best for what you are planning on doing, and don’t forget that if in your last day you only do the sunrise, it still counts as 1 day.
Make sure you don’t loose your pass, as it’s quite ‘expensive’.
There’s no perfect order of visiting the temples, but there are some that have a special moment of the day when it’s most amazing. There will always be tourists around, so don’t expect to ever be alone in the major temples.
For sunrises, Angkor Wat is an absolutely amazing experience, i usually advise people to watch it from one of the Libraries, it has a great view, and when the sunlight starts coming through the Library its stunning. After the sunrise it’s still definitely the best time to visit the whole temple, it won’t be too hot, and it is quite a huge temple to walk around. If you go during lunch, there is a great restaurant before the entering the temple, where you can have the best chicken curry with potatoes and carrots inside a coconut, just THE best I have ever had.
For sunsets your guides will tell you to go to Bakheng, unfortunately the trees out grew the view to the temples, so now you can hardly see them, still beautiful and worth it, but not as stunning as it must have been. Nevertheless, you can still go to Angkor Wat for the sunset!
Ta Phrom, the temple featured in Tomb Rider, is still my absolute favorite, and every time I go there I feel like I still find new corners, and new spaces. Most of the temples where designed in a design that basically mirrors itself, which means there is a repetition of spaces, and you have 4 corners that are the same. Although Ta Phrom is no exception to that, the trees grew so much into the temple (or the temple over the trees), that nothing looks repeated, and you have completely different spaces. Make sure you take your time here!
A few other favorites of mine, are Bayon, Preah Kahn and Banteay Kdei. In the complex of Angkor Thom, Bayon’s smiley carved faces will make you take dozens of photos of every possible angle, with one, two, three, four faces, and repeat! Preah Kahn is for me one of the most amazing “”off the beaten track”” temples, Ra took us there the second time I was in Siem Reap, and it has a lot of the same characteristics of some of the main temples – some of Angkor Wat’s architecture details and Ta Phrom’s trees for example. It is much quieter than the other temples, and has a gorgeous ‘terrace’ where you have a great view of the whole temple.
Banteay Kdei was the first temple i visited in my first trip to Cambodia, I was solo traveling that day and it just blew me away, much smaller than all of the other temples I just mentioned, but it has a lot of charm.
And of course, depending on how much time you have in Siem Reap, there are so many other temples worth visiting.
In Siem Reap itself, you have the night market that is worth a visit, great street food, you can try the slimy delicacies – I tried snake for the first time in Siem Reap (!), and there are some amazing restaurants worth spending a few bucks. Such as Le Malraux and Amok Restaurant, just amazing local food, and the places are beautiful.
For drinks and clubbing you have Club Street, with lots of bars and cafes that you can pick from according to what you want.