Cambodia has always been on my bucket list. Honestly, I dunno why it took me so long to finally visit. I wasn’t particularly interested in visiting the beaches— there are way better beaches elsewhere in southeast Asia IMO. I also wasn’t too keen on visiting those places that memorialize the grim parts of the country’s history. It depends on the mood I’m in actually. Sometimes I’d want to, and sometimes I’d choose to avoid such places that would leave me with a heavy heart. So why was Cambodia on my bucket list? You guessed it. I have to visit Angkor Wat— it’s what the country is most famous for after all.
To visit the temples in Angkor Wat, you’d have to base yourself for a couple of days in Siem Reap. It’s a really touristy place, so you won’t really experience the real Cambodia here. On the upside, the city has everything you’ll ever need. It has its own international airport so if you’ll be coming from elsewhere, you could choose to fly here instead of passing by the capital Phnom Penh— which is just your typical overpopulated Asian capital city in my opinion. There are also lots of bus connections to and from elsewhere in Cambodia or even to and from the adjacent countries. It’s real easy to get in and get out. And since it attracts a lot of tourists and backpackers, the night life kicks ass. Most bars and clubs are clustered along Pub Street. Even on weekdays, the night life is popping. More on this later…
Angkor Wat is really close to Siem Reap. Before you head there, you have to think about three things: how many days you’d want to explore the temples, your mode of transportation, and the time of day you’d want head out. There are three types of tickets sold. A one day passes costs 37 USD, a three day pass costs 62 USD, and a 1 week pass costs 72 USD. They use US dollars for transactions in Siem Reap which I found really convenient. The exchange rate to their local currency is fixed too so you don’t have to worry about day to day fluctuations (1 USD = 4000 KHR). Most people are fine with 1 day passes to Angkor Wat, though a 3 day pass would hit that sweet spot if you wanna do more exploring on your own. I think the 7 day pass is kind of an overkill, I didn’t meet anyone who bought those. After 2-3 days, you’ll pretty much be templed out. Every temple would start to look the same.
There are many transport options to get there, and since it’s real close it only takes about 20-45 minutes, depending on your mode of transport. The cheapest option would be to rent your own bicycle. The cheapest ones I found only cost 2 USD for an entire day. However, take note of the weather. It gets incredibly hot and humid in Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. I’ve met a couple of travelers who got tired quickly because of the heat, so they weren’t able to do much exploring. Pedaling those bicycles just accelerated their exhaustion. Hostels and hotels offer their own tours as well, the downside is they only take you to the three most popular sites. You won’t be able to explore at your own pace, and you won’t be able to stop at other sites you find interesting. The best option seems to be to rent your own tuk- tuk for the entire day. It’s quite pricey at 20 USD (on the average), but i think the ability to travel at your own pace and stop and go as you please justifies the extra cost. Almost everyone just visits the same three popular temples. If you rent your own tuk-tuk, you can time your trip properly and avoid going to those popular temples during the times when those places are overly crowded.
You also have to decide what time you’d want to head out to the temples. Almost every tour agency promotes the sunrise tours, and as a result most visitors choose to head out before sunrise. I joined a sunrise tour too because it was the only option offered at my hostel. First a disclaimer: I’ve been doing a lot of traveling for the past couple of years, and I’ve joined way too many sunrise tours— because almost every damn tour guide would say that the sunrise makes each attraction extra special. At this point, I’ve already grown weary of sunrise tours. Weary AND wary. I had to wake up before 4 AM for this Angkor Wat tour. We had to be there early because there’s always an incredibly long queue at the ticket counters. Some people who arrived at around 5 AM missed the sunrise. By the time I saw it, I knew that I was right when I thought that it’s gonna be way overrated. Because it definitely was. But hey, that’s just me. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen way too many sunrises that they all start to look the same. I’ve joined so many sunrise tours that I’ve come to realize that they do not add anything to the experience. I also take a lot of photos whenever I travel, and I’ve come to realize that one cannot take the best photos during sunrise because of bad lighting. Oh sure, those silhouettes and shadows look cool at first, but those kinds of pictures get old fast. What makes it worse is the massive crowd. There has got to be a few thousand people flocking to Angkor Wat just to see that sunrise. At some temples it was close to absolute mayhem. If you haven’t been to many sunrise tours though, and if you don’t mind the chaos due to the massive crowd, and if you don’t mind waking up at such an ungodly hour, then go ahead and book a sunrise tour. I’ve met a few people who were amazed by that sunrise. Keep in mind that you might not see the sun though. The group that went the day before us didn’t see the sun because it was overcast.
This is my advice though for those who’d rather avoid the crowds: skip the sunrise tour. Touring the temples in Angkor Wat is the second most touristy thing to do in Cambodia. Touring the temples during sunrise is the most touristy thing. I’d say go early in the morning right after sunrise. That way the massive crowd would have moved on to the next temple. The sun would be up at around 7 or 8 in the morning. Around this time, it wouldn’t be too hot. You won’t get too exhausted even if you’re riding your own bike. You’d get great lighting too so you can take clear and awesome pictures. Also, almost everyone doing tours just visit the same three temples. As I’ve mentioned above, you can time your visit to the famous temples when the crowds have moved on. In the meantime, you can visit the many other temples that aren’t in the touristy itinerary. You better not skip those three temples though, there’s a reason why each one those temples are on everybody’s list.
The first one is the Angkor Wat Temple. You won’t miss it since this is the closest one from where you buy tickets. it’s also where everyone waits to watch the sunrise. It’s massive, you can easily spend 2 hours just roaming around. Every corner has such awesome architecture, it would be a shame if you rushed through it.
The next one is the Bayon Temple, known for all those smiling stone faces. It was actually the one I liked the most. It’s outstanding how everything was well preserved.
The last famous temple is the Ta Prohm Temple. It’s famous because it was shown in the first Tomb Raider movie. It’s interesting too, with all the tree roots and vines intertwined with the wall of the temple, it’s like mother nature is slowly reclaiming what was once hers. There’s currently a lot of construction and restoration work going on though, but good thing they’re mostly confined to a few spaces so they don’t distract much from the overall experience.
There are other things you can do back in Siem Reap— it’s not all about Angkor Wat. The National Museum has a lot of interesting artifacts, but they charge a 12 USD entrance fee which may be too much for travelers on a budget. A cheaper and more interesting alternative (in my opinion) is the Landmine Museum. It only costs 3 USD to enter, and all proceeds go directly to the community. From the city center, it costs about 5 USD to get there.
There are loads of restaurants in Siem Reap, so people who love to eat would be in seventh heaven. I was pleasantly surprised with Khmer food. I didn’t think I’d like it. if you’re not too keen on local cuisine, there are so many restaurants serving international food that you’ll definitely find something you’d like. There’s even an authentic Italian restaurant serving a bowl of pasta for only 1 USD! I still couldn’t believe how cheap everything was in Siem Reap. I knew Cambodia was a cheap country to visit, but i thought Siem Reap would be an exception because of the number of tourists who visit. Beers only cost 50 US cents to 1 US Dollar. Jesus, no wonder I got drunk every night. lol.
Speaking of getting drunk, most people pregame at their hostels and hotels, and almost everyone flocks to Pub Street before midnight. As I’ve mentioned above, the nightlife is good every day of the week, not just on weekends. Most people seem to go to Angkor What? and Temple Bar. These two establishments are across from each other so a lot of people just transfer from one place to the other, and the part of the street between these two bars is always full of people.
Walking along Pub Street, you’ll likely see locals selling overpriced exotic snacks for 1 to 2 USD. When I say exotic, I mean tarantulas, scorpions, caterpillars, small snakes— you know, usual stuff. lol. I was already drunk one night so I decided to try em all when I got hungry. The scorpions didn’t taste bad— they just tasted like cardboard. I wouldn’t recommend eating em though, cause they are so tough to chew. I felt like some scorpion bits even got lodged in my throat, I had to drink so much water to wash it all down. I’d recommend the tarantulas though. They tasted like soft shell crabs. I loved em so much, I kept coming back for more! lol.
You’re gonna hear some travelers talking about Happy Pizza. It’s just a pizza laced with a generous topping of— you guessed, it… marijuana. It’s pretty cheap too, about 8-12 USD for an entire pizza which you can easily share with a couple of friends. I asked the hostel staff if it was legal. I mean, it should be because several restaurants were openly advertising those pizzas. They said it was, so we shouldn’t worry about getting into trouble with the law if we were seen eating at those establishments. I found that really weird though. Smoking weed is illegal, yet eating weed isn’t? So odd. Well it turns out that it is illegal, but cops turn a blind eye when it comes to happy pizza. I never tried one though so I can’t really say if those were delicious or not. It really takes a long time for me to get edibles out of my system and I find their effect really unpredictable, so I decided not to risk it. My friends who ate some seemed really happy though when they got back lol. A word of caution: some locals wait outside some of these happy pizza places waiting for oblivious tourists. Cambodians are generally nice but of course rotten apples are present in every country. If you do decide to eat a happy pizza, better go as a group. Better to be on the safe side.
Siem Reap is definitely a must visit place for any traveler. You get to learn a lot about the country’s culture, you get to see many amazing sights, and you get to experience insane parties too if that’s your thing. The fact that everything is so so cheap makes the deal so much sweeter.
If only I didn’t do the Angkor Wat tour during sunrise, this trip would have been perfect. lol.