After 6 hours in a shockingly cramped minibus, we arrive in Siem Reap, eager to perk up after a very somber few days learning about genocide in Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, we run into serious challenges trying to find a room for the night.
To be fair, there is some available accommodation when we first arrive, but naturally we scoff at offers of $14/night in favour of something cheaper. Over the next 3 hours, it becomes clear that we have just rejected the only 2 available rooms in all of Siem Reap. We eventually give up on walking and hire a tuk tuk to shuttle us around the city, stopping at every guest house and hostel we pass. All full.
We sit in a hotel lobby and make a booking for something on booking.com, 20min out of the main city. As luck would have it, the place has no record of our booking when we arrive and is entirely full.
It’s been about 11 hours since we last ate, so tensions are running high.. Just before midnight, we manage to find a room for $20/night, the catch being that we have to vacate by 7am for someone else to come in. We are too tired to care, so we pay our tuk tuk driver and collapse in the room.
All the details: Siem Reap temple tour
Cost: We paid a tuk tuk driver $10USD for two people to be driven around for a full-day of temple viewing. There are hundreds of drivers offering this informal “tour”, so it’s easy to bargain for a good price and find a driver who speaks reasonably good English. They all seem to have a brochure of the various temples, and you can work with your own driver to decide whether you will visit all or just a select few.
Getting there: The easiest way to reach Siem Reap is via bus or minibus from Phnom Penh, which can be organised upon arrival at the bus station in town or with the help of your accomodation. We paid $10 each for our 5 hour minibus journey, but large buses will often be even cheaper than this (and take slightly longer).
Top tips: Don’t try and cram a dozen different temples into a single day— they will all end up blending together and you’ll struggle to remember what you’ve even seen. It’s much more enjoyable to pick a few favourites and spend more time exploring the complex at each.
Even after the unreasonable amount of drama finding a room, we end up loving Siem Reap. We spend the next week exploring the city, walking around the most famous temples, visiting a floating village, and having our feet nibbled by the little biting fish in the market (serious fun).
For the main attractions, we wake up early one morning and pay a tuk tuk driver to escort us around to 8 different temples in Siem Reap. This proves monumentally exhausting and by the time we’re done, I feel like I don’t want to see another temple for the rest of my life, but we also really enjoy the diversity of these ancient structures and it’s a lot nicer now sorting through these photos when we are laying up in our comfy hotel bed. The exhaustion is already a distant memory..
The most notable temple we visit in Siem Reap is Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world and the temple depicted across the Cambodian flag. Angkor Wat makes it onto many of the Wonders of the World lists, is World Heritage Listed, and it’s probably the only thing that many people even know about Cambodia. The level of detail in the carvings all over the temple and just the sheer size of the “Temple City” are enough to stun you, so naturally we spent several hours taking photos and exploring every corner of this ancient marvel.
Later in the day, our tuk tuk delivers us to another famous and intricately decorated Khmer temple, Bayon, which is covered in elaborate carvings of serenely smiling giant faces on most surfaces. Apparently there are more than 200 faces, one for each of four sides on the 51 towers that surround the central tower of the temple. Like Angkor Wat, Bayon is incredibly old, circa the 1100’s, but the structure and decorations of the temple still remain largely intact. If for nothing other than its uniqueness, no trip to Siem Reap would be complete without a visit to Bayon.
Originally called Rajavihara, this impressive Khmer temple stands out most for the way it is truly built into nature. Huge trees sit atop many of the structures and the roots wrap around the walls, creating an incredible sense of harmony. It’s no wonder that this temple stands out most in my memory of all the things we saw today.
My advice to anyone visiting Siem Reap and hoping to see some of the ancient Khmer temples would be to do as we did and hire a tuk tuk driver (seriously, about $10 for the day) to take you to all the sites. Just don’t try to see too many, because it will get seriously exhausting! We visited 8 in a single day and I would say now that you could easily get just as much satisfaction out of visiting 4-5 temples― you probably won’t remember all 8, anyway! Either divide the temple-seeing into 2 days, or cut back the number of temples and take in the few that you do see at a slower and more enjoyable pace.