We flew into Siem Reap one afternoon, flying over Tonle Sap, South East Asia’s (SEA) largest freshwater lake and a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and the heart of Cambodian life. It isn’t particularly picturesque from the air, but not everything in life is anyway.
From the minute we stepped into the Siem Reap airport we were impressed. Just built in 2016, the lovely well lit airport incorporates modern with traditional elements so effortlessly.
Our hotel, the Le Meridien Angkor, was just a 15 minute van ride away. The Le Meridien is an old property, but the rooms were fairly decent, if a little dated. With a Stay-3-pay-2 deal, it was an irresistible deal as compared to the other hotels I was eyeing, such as FCC, Raffles Angkor, and The Park Hyatt.
En route to the hotel from the airport we were greeted by cows and goats along the road. The roadside scenes are similar to other SEA countries – apart from signage you might be hard pressed to figure out whether you were in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand…you get the point. We checked in to the hotel and decided to head to the hotel spa for a massage to kick off the holiday. At USD$40 onwards (including tax, after a 20% discount for SPG members), the massage was decent.
The breakfast at the hotel, however, is rather dismal. There are plenty of hip cafes a short tuktuk ride away, so after the first breakfast (what a waste of a meal), we chose to head out on other days instead. Tuk tuks go at an average of USD$1-3 per head depending on distance, and they can also wait for you if you are going for a meal. One of our tuk tuk drivers had decent English, and since we were going to the more touristy places, we never had problems getting around. On our first night from the hotel we had Mr. Lucky, tuk tuk #10, who was the most smiley guy.
On the day of our tour of the temples, we met our guide in the hotel lobby at 5am. Prior to our stay I had emailed the hotel for tour recommendations and the Le Meridien work with Golden Asia Vacation. I must say that Le Meridien were wonderful in providing all their communications regarding the airport pick up and tour information! For the temple tours, we paid USD$137 for a van, and I’m not sure what the maximum number of people can be accommodated at this price but we thought it was a good deal for a private tour for the four of us. The itinerary was completely up to us, and if we wanted we could have gone to see as many temples as we wanted.
Our first stop was to buy the temple pass. Then we headed to Angkor Wat to find a spot in front of one of their ponds to wait for sunrise. Tip: Our wonderful guide led us to the area on the right when facing the temple, where she said the view might be less postcard, but considerably less crowded and the crowd somehow less obnoxious.
The sunrise that day was not particularly stunning, so once it was light we went inside to climb up to the higher sections. Tip: Get in early! Our guide said the queue for climbing the inner sections can sometimes be up to an hour in the scorching heat, but at 645am we merely waited 5 minutes. Children and pregnant women are not allowed to do the climb, although I think older kids might be able to pass. In the middle photo above, you see the original steps, and our guide said that she used to climb up the steps, using hands too of course, when she was young.
After walking around a bit, we found a nice quiet spot where our guide gave us a short sobering lesson in Khmer history. It made us even more thankful and grateful for our own country’s “boring” and un-colourful history.
Our next temple was Bayon, famous for its beautiful smiling Buddha faces. Bayon had the most crowd, but we enjoyed visiting them nonetheless.
The last stop was Ta Phrom, otherwise known as the Forest Temple. Made famous by Angeline Jolie in Tomb Raider, although it is the most run down of the three temples, some spots are also the most spectacular, with trees rising out of the temple, and one particular tree, in the light, almost looked completely sliver in colour.
We did our tour with Makara, a lovely lady who is from Siem Reap. She was very knowledgeable but not too chatty, and we loved that she was good at finding the shortest queues or walking the routes which had fewer people. She was amazing at knowing all the photo spots and was excellent at taking them, and although some of the poses she suggested to us were a little cheesy, we quite enjoyed taking them anyway. We felt as if we were on some kind of wedding photo shoot tour! She was so open, and warm. I would definitely look for her if ever I’m in Siem Reap again. I will have to update this post again when I find her email address.
- Although we could have included more temples if we had wanted, we felt the three were enough for one day because it was just about right! The next time we would like to do other temples.
- You are required to cover your shoulders and knees to get into the temples, bermudas and skirts are fine as long as they are long enough (or just mid knee for berms).
- Do remember that the temples involve some climbing, and I saw some ladies in long dresses (you know, the type that tourists love in this part of the world), and I don’t know how they did it.
- Just visiting the 3 temples we did about 15,000 steps that day so you might want some good walking shoes. I saw some ladies with sandals that are meant for markets and beaches (see my point on long dresses above).
- You can do the temples on your own but it was so valuable to have a guide not just for temples but to get to know more about Cambodia and Cambodian life. I loved that our guide was from Siem Reap. I also liked that it was a small private group so it was easy for us to get around and we didn’t waste time waiting for other people. Oh and also our guide was like a temple photography expert, I hear many of them are really good at it!
- I saw one couple pushing a pram into Angkor Wat while we were heading out… I’m not really sure what they were thinking. They didn’t have prams in the 12th century, so temples aren’t stroller friendly. Sorry!
Another day we went on a Quad Adventure tour, which took you to the countryside, past local houses, and paddi fields on an ATV. In all honesty, the paddy fields are nowhere near as spectacular as those in Bali, and the local houses didn’t look particularly different from that of other houses in S.E.A., but the trip was really enjoyable. I sat behind my husband because I didn’t want to drive one myself. If you do want to go on an ATV tour, wear your smelliest blackest clothing because everything will have the orange dust you see in the photo above. EVEN MY EARS HAD IT.
We will definitely be keen to go back to Siem Reap to visit another few temples and to eat the amazing food which I will write about in my next post. I’m glad we came without the kids because with kids ages 4-9, it would be tough for the younger ones to appreciate the temples, let alone walk so much without complaining. It was hot when we visited but it is slightly less humid than Singapore, so it made it slightly more bearable. Just by like 5%. Sunblock, a hat and a fan helped, and cold drinking water and cold towels from the van were lifesavers.
Look out for my next post on Siem Reap EATS!
Look out for my next post on the amazing eats we had in Siem Reap.