Siem Reap in 3 Days
Photo by Josh Meister Photo.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and at the top of a lot of travel wish lists, including ours, so we were super excited to get to spend a few days in Siem Reap, and even more pumped that two of our good friends would be joining us!
Angkor Wat literally translates to “Temple City” (“angkor” = city” + “wat” = temple) and, the Angkor region, of which Angkor Wat is a part, is made up of a ton of ancient wats. To visit the most well-known, there's a few options. First, you need to purchase an Angkor Pass. The passes are available in 1-day ($37), 3-day ($62), or 6-day ($72) allotments. Next you need to decide if you'd like to visit the temples on the small loop or the large loop. The small loop includes the big three – Angkor Wat, Bayon (giant happy faces), and Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple – plus several other ones, and the large loop lets you visit pretty much all of what's included in the small loop plus about six more. We opted for a 1-day pass and the small loop.
TIP: Purchase your pass just before 5pm the night before you plan to visit the temples, and you'll be allowed to visit one of the temples that's open til 6pm to see the sunset that night in addition to your main day the next day. Bonus temple!
Also, don't forget to dress respectfully, as the temples are extremely religiously meaningful! Shoulders and knees should be covered, and for women, most of your legs should be covered as well. (There's tons of vendors selling sarongs for just a couple of dollars in the area if you need to purchase one!)
Our first day in Siem Reap, we hired a driver to take us about 1.5 hours away to Beng Mealea Temple, one that doesn't require the Angkor pass to visit. We spent the morning leisurely strolling around the Indian Jones-esque grounds and inside the ruins, gingerly walking along a boardwalk that was constructed as part of a movie filmed in 2004 and clearly hadn't been meant to last or updated since then.
After a nearby lunch of amok, a classic Cambodian dish that has a bunch of varieties but essentially encompasses curry cooked by steam in banana leaves, we headed back into town, some of us taking the opportunity to nap.
For dinner, we hightailed it to The Sugar Palm, which looks incredibly fancy and expensive, but is actually completely affordable and delicious, and where we ordered a ton of different dishes (including amok of course) to share. Next, it was out to explore the town and check out the party area, Pub Street. We grabbed a drink at one of the mobile bar carts, and then left shortly later in horror after watching some of the local children in action. READ ABOUT THE HEARTBREAKING SIDE OF SIEM REAP AND CAMBODIAN CHILDREN HERE. We opted instead for the more chill and laidback bar section down New Street A, a small side street opposite Pub Street.
Ready to get absorbed in some more-recent culture, we headed to the Landmine Museum. The museum was founded by Aki Ra, a former child soldier turned landmine remover, and it's incredibly educational, powerful, and emotional. I definitely cried while we there, maybe even just reading Aki Ra's story before we even made it through the first room. He is one of the front runners in the drive to clear Cambodia of landmines, originally doing it completely by hand with pretty much no protective gear. Thankfully, he and his staff are a bit more official and safe now.
In addition, the museum functions as a home and school for children who are landmine victims or need some help in other ways. It should be at the top of anyone's list on a visit to Siem Reap.
After an adventurous lunch at Marum, a teaching restaurant where the guys partook in the red ant beef (blech!), we were in line for our Angkor passes promptly at 4:50pm. We were photographed and presented our cards in less than 10 minutes, and our driver zipped us over to Pre Rup, just as the sun was dipping low in the sky. We climbed up to join a throng of people on top of the structure and reveled in our first Siem Reap sunset, warming our butts on stones that date back to the 900s.
As we made our way down in the dusk, we were bombarded by adorable tiny children asking us to buy whatever it was they were selling – postcards, toys, souvenirs. They spoke fairly good English, probably learned with a survival mentality, and didn't want to take no for an answer. Guiltily, we didn't oblige, and walked back to our driver feeling terribly. (READ ABOUT THE HEARTBREAKING SIDE OF SIEM REAP AND CAMBODIAN CHILDREN HERE.)
That evening, we headed to budget, yet delicious, restaurant Pot & Pan for more amok (shocker!) and then foot massages that cost just a few dollars, and deliciously tasty cocktails at the very chic and seemingly out-of-place, Menaka Lounge Speakeasy.
Groggily waking to our alarms at 4:30am, we quickly got dressed, grabbed our take-away breakfasts from our guesthouse, and met our driver downstairs in a waiting tuk tuk.
He had us to the entrance of Siem Reap by 5:30am, and we joined the crowds of people lining the moat outside the temple grounds, watching the sky change and the silhouette of the temple come into focus. After a few minutes, we realized, Oh no, we're in the wrong place!, and booked it through the first set of gates to join hundreds more that already knew where they should be. Oops! We watched the rest of the show, enamored in the experience, and then made our way to the temple itself.
There's tons of people on the grounds, yet it's not hard to find little quiet pockets, as the complex is so large, and there's a ton to explore.
We spent a lot of time checking out the reliefs and kind of just ambling around before getting in line to head up to the top of the Bakan Tower. Even though the line was long, it took less than 30 minutes.
As we left the compound, the monkeys were making their way in, and we stopped to watch them playing, grooming, and fighting, as well as trawling tourists' discarded items for something good. One monkey emptied the saddle bag on a nearby motorcycle, looked at himself in the sideview mirror for a while, and then tried to dismantle the mirror from the bike so he could take it with him!
Next we headed to the Angkor Thom complex and Bayon Temple, the one with all the giant smiling faces, and my favorite of all the temples. From Bayon, we walked through the complex, visiting Baphuon, Phimeanakas, the Elephant Terrace, the Leper King Terrace, and the Men's Pool and Ladies Pool.
Then we rode through Victory Gate, which was only used by the Khmer kings when returning from a winning battle, to the small jewel temples, Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda.
Next up was Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple. The tree roots here are stunning, and next to Angkor Wat, this one was by far the most popular. We saw a ton of monks being tourists here as well, which was oddly fascinating to us.
Our last stop was Phnom Bakheng for sunset. We got there almost two hours early because they only let 300 people up, so we spent a lot of time relaxing at the top. Most of the view towards the sunset was unfortunately blocked by overgrown trees, but the expanse of green, smokey fields is stunning, and it was a great way to end our time in Siem Reap.