Asia Cambodia Destinations

Siem Reap: The Magical Gateway to an Ancient Empire

Siem Reap is the most authentic place I’ve ever seen. There are lots of reasons to love the city, including the ancient temples and the local markets. But the one thing I like the most about Siem Reap is definitely its people.

You can also find out what to eat in “What to Eat in Siem Reap, Cambodia” post.

Quick Terminology

  • The Name: “Siem Reap” means “Siam defeated” in Khmer.
  • Angkor Thom: The last capital of Khmer Empire.
  • Angkor Wat: One of the world’s largest religious monuments. Earthly representation of Mount Meru in Hinduism. Located just outside Angkor Thom.
  • Pub Street: Network of pubs and restaurants located in central Siem Reap.
  • Charles De Gaulle: Name of the boulevard that lies between Angkor Wat and National Highway 6.
  • Tuk Tuk: A three-wheeled motor vehicle that is widely used for transportation in Siem Reap.
  • Airport: Siem Reap International Airport
  • 3rd Largest City of Kingdom of Cambodia

Transportation

How to get there? There are daily flghts from Bangkok and from other major cities in Southeast Asia to Siem Reap International Airport. If you are flying from a city in Europe or Middle East, your flight will typically have one or two connections.

We got on the plane from Istanbul, and our connections were in Abu Dhabi and Bangkok. The flights took 13 hours in total, but with the transfer times included, it took us about 17 hours to get to Siem Reap from Istanbul.

Siem Reap International AirportIf your hotel doesn’t provide airport transfer, which would likely be by tuk tuk anyway, you can find a tuk tuk driver at the airport. The ride will take half an hour if you’re staying at the city center.

All hotels have their tuk tuk drivers, who are available for the hotel customers 24/7.

As soon as you arrive at your hotel, explain your itinerary and ask for a tuk tuk driver at the front desk. Learn the name and phone number of your driver, and don’t forget to ask for water during the daytime rides.

Siem Reap Angkor Thom Tuk Tuk

Transactions

You can use US dollars everywhere in Siem Reap. You don’t even need to exchange currency if you have enough US dollars. Only the rare transactions that are less than $1 will require Cambodian riels.

Temples of Angkor

No visit to Cambodia is complete without seeing the great temples of Angkor. The site includes hundreds of ancient Khmer temples, gates, and palaces that were built mosly between the 10th and the 13th centuries.

Some ruins are not yet fully explored, and each visitor can discover something new here.

At all temples, women should cover their shoulders and knees. Cambodian authorities are pretty strict with this one. I took one of my wide scarves with me. It was really helpful during our visit.

Visitor Tickets

There are 1-day, 3-day, and 7-day options of Angkor Archeological Site visitor tickets. You should use your ticket on consecutive days, and it must be with you during all temple visits, because you will need to show it to the security staff before entering each site.

The ticket prices are $37 for 1 day, $62 for 3 days, and $72 for 7 days. Yes, it’s more expensive than most museums in other countries. But, is it worth it? Definitely.

Your tuk tuk driver will take you to the ticket office before your first temple visit. So, if you are planning to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat on your first day, you should leave the hotel even earlier and inform the driver beforehand.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, which gave its name to classical style Khmer architecture – or Angkor Wat Style architecture, is the earthly representation of Mount Meru in Hinduism and one of the largest religious monuments in the world. The 12th-century temple has five towers, including the central one that reaches 65 meters above the ground level. It’s located just outside the south gate of Angkor Thom (Trust me, you won’t miss it).

It is widely believed that King Suryavarman II wanted his funeral to take place at Angkor Wat, and that’s why, unlike all other temples in Angkor, the temple is oriented not to the east but to the west, which symbolizes death in ancient Khmer mythology.

Finally, the sunrise. You are going to have to wake up at 4 AM to watch it, but it will be one of the most unforgettable sunrises you have seen in your entire life. For me, it was surely worth it. And, well, having more than a hundred people yawning with you while taking photographs is some kind of a ritual.

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Angkor Wat Palm Trees

On the night before you’ll watch the sunrise, learn if your hotel provides on-the-go breakfast. If it doesn’t, you can take some sandwiches or snacks with you to eat after watching it. While eating, watch out for the monkeys, as they will be there to steal your food.

Angkor Wat is a temple with many sights in it. You can spend even a complete day here. But if it’s not your only stop for the day, half a day is also enough.

Angkor Wat Gate Carving

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While wandering around Angkor, you will see many monks and children dressed in Kasaya (the orange monk dress). Some families send their children to the monk schools because Buddhist primary education is financed by the state. However, many young people prefer switching institutions and attending other schools after they complete primary education.

Angkor Wat Buddhist Monks

Bayon

Located at the heart of Angkor Thom, Bayon is famous for the smiling faces on its 54 towers. The temple was built in the late 12th or the early 13th century, during the reign of King Jayavarman VII, and the smiling faces on the towers (also known as the Mona Lisas of Southeast Asia) are said to resemble the king’s own face. Yes, he was such a humble man.

Bayon Temple

Bayon Temple Face Tower

Bayon is the last state temple built in Angkor by Khmer Empire.

There is definitely more to Bayon than the faces. Carvings that depict some scenes from religious ceremonies and wars are visible above the gates and on the chamber walls.

Bayon Temple Gate Carving

Bayon Temple Wall Carving

Baphuon

Baphuon is a 11-century temple, commissioned by King Udayadityavarman II. The temple’s 34-meter-tall base survives today, despite its poor condition. Baphuon should have been 50 meters tall with its tower. However, the tower was completely collapsed when the lost city of Angkor Thom was discovered at the end of the 19th century, and hasn’t been restored since.

Baphuon Temple Walkway

Terrace of the Elephants

Next to the entrance of Baphuon, you will see Terrace of the Elephants. It is one of the royal terraces in Angkor Thom. It is thought, by the archeologists, that Terrace of the Elephants had been used for public ceremonies as an audience hall by King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century.

The elephant figures on its both sides are in surprisingly good condition, and the 300-meter-long terrace is famous for its animal-shaped bas-reliefs.

Terrace of the Elephants Angkor Thom

Not all carvings in Angkor Thom are well preserved. You can see some parts of the old structures lying on the roadside.

Terrace of the Elephants Walkway

Terrace of the Leper King

The 12th-century terrace was named after the Leper King statue, that resembles the face of a man with leprosy, found on it. Cambodians also believe that the terrace was built in memory of a leper Khmer king.

Phnom Bakheng

Phnom Bakheng is an 80-meter-high mountain that is located between Angkor Wat and the south gate of Angkor Thom.

We watched the sunset from the top of Phnom Bakheng on our first day in Angkor. The sunset was worth the hike and the wait, but, to be honest, it could have been much better to watch on a clear day.

If you’re planning to watch the sunset from Phnom Bakheng, don’t forget to check the weather and see if it’s suitable.

Phnom Bakheng Hill Temple

Phnom Bakheng Hill Sunset

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei, or Citadel of Women, is a 10th-century Hindu temple that was dedicated to the god Shiva. It was the first temple in Angkor area that was not financed by a monarch. Instead, its architect is thought to be commissioned by the king Rajendravarman II’s counsellor.

The temple is known for its intricate carvings that remain in good condition and its pinky color. It takes its color from the sandstone that covers its walls.

Banteay Srei Statues

Banteay Srei Inside

Banteay Srei Carvings

Ta Prohm

Yes, the jungle actually grows on Ta Prohm!

Being swallowed by trees makes Ta Prohm one of the most interesting temples to visit in Angkor. It is also larger and has a more complicated structure than most of the temples here.

The construction of the temple began in the 12th century, and it was dedicated to the mother of King Jayavarman VII.

Ta Prohm Tree

Visiting the temple in the morning might allow you to walk around the temple freely as you will avoid the crowd.

Ta Prohm Gate Carving

Ta Prohm Carving

Neak Pean

Neak Pean, with its beautiful walkway, is one of my favourites. It was built on an artificial circular island in the 12th century. It’s located to the north of Angkor Thom.

The temple’s modern name “Neak Pean” means “entwined serpents” in Khmer. It took this name from the “naga” (serpent) figures around it.

Neak Pean Walking Path

Neak Pean Lake

Neak Pean Temple

Preah Khan

Preah Khan, one of the largest complexes in Angkor area, was built in the 12th century and dedicated to the father of King Jayavarman VII. The name “Preah Kahn” means “sacred sword” in Khmer.

At Preah Khan, you will find something interesting in each chamber and corridor. It takes more than 1.5 hours to see everything here. So, don’t forget to bring your hat and some water with you.

Preah Khan Entrance Statues

Preah Khan Inside

Preah Khan Gate

Ta Som

Ta Som, or the little face temple, is one of the mysterious temples in Angkor area. It is known that the temple had been built during the reign of King Jayavarman VII. But its purpose is a complete conundrum and its exact date of construction is not yet brought into daylight.

Besides, it is relitavely small compared with the other structures that had been constructed by King Jayavarman VII.

Ta Som Face Gate

East Mebon

East Mebon is a 10th-century Hindu temple built during the reign of King Rajendravarman II. It was once at the center of East Baray, the water body that had been used as the reservoir of the whole city.

The temple is located to the east of Angkor Thom, and it usually has fewer visitors than the temples inside the city.

If you want to walk around the towers, get ready for the hike, because the stairs leading to its central tower are very steep and in poor condition.

East Mebon Entrance

Thommanon

Built around the same time as Angkor Wat, Thommanon is a small Hindu temple that was dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. It is in much better condition than its twin temple Chau Say Tevoda due to the reconstruction undetaken in the 60s.

Thommanon Temple

Chau Say Tevoda

Across the street from Thommanon is its twin temple Chau Say Tevoda.

Chau Say Tevoda Temple

Chau Say Tevoda Temple Gate

Kampong Phluk Floating Village

Kampong Phluk is a floating (fishermen’s) village on the coast of Tonle Sap lake near Siem Reap. It takes approximately one hour to drive here from the city center.

We arrived in the village with our small tour group (4 people and a guide). After walking around the village, a fisherman took us for a trip along the river with his wooden boat. Then, we had a late lunch at the floating restaurant on Tonle Sap lake.

At first, we were hesitant to wait for the sunset there. But it turned out to be the best sunset all of us had seen. To watch it, we got on the boat again, and started traveling around the lake. There was just one other boat on the lake with us. I won’t elaborate on that, I just want you to see it for yourselves (below).

To visit Kampong Phluk, you can arrange a tour from the front dest at your hotel.

Kampong Phluk Floating Village

The village is estimated to be 150 years old. 97% of its population consists of fishermen and their families, and rest of the locals are the buyers (restaurant owners and middlemen).

During the dry season, the water level on the river is about 1.5 meters. But in the wet season the water level reaches up to 15 meters.

Kampong Phluk Floating Village People

Kampong Phluk Floating Village School

Tonle Sap Lake Sunset

Pub Street

Pub Street is the wide network of pubs and restaurants located in central Siem Reap.  It’s full of life and colors regardless of the time.

Siem Reap Pub Street

Night Market

You can buy virtually everything in Siem Reap Night Market, from souvenirs to massage bundles. You should negotiate while shopping for souvenirs, it will save you a great deal of dollars.

Siem Reap Night Market

Where to Eat 

If you’re looking for food/restaurant recommendations, you can find them in the post What to Eat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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