Visiting Angkor Wat and other things to do in Siem Reap
Visiting Angkor Wat is definitely among the top things to do in Siem Reap and one of the best things to do in Cambodia. To many it is the cherry on the cake of a trip to South East Asia. It surely was for me, and I am glad I have left it as the very last of the things to do in Siem Reap.
Siem Reap was the last leg of the trip across South East Asia for my sister, who traveled with me for 3 weeks across Vietnam and Cambodia before heading back to Bangkok and flying back to Italy from there. Our main idea was visiting Angkor Wat but it didn’t take us long to realize that there are many things to do in Siem Reap and that the city is incredibly lively.
Find out why I fell in love with Bangkok on my post “Nine fabulous things to do in Bangkok.”
We spent 4 days in Siem Reap. It may not seem like a long time, and since there are so many things to do in Siem Reap and it has a great vibe I would have gladly stayed longer – but it was 40 degrees Celsius with high humidity levels when I visited, and despite my best efforts to stay cool, I eventually got worn out and decided to leave for the much milder Koh Chang, in Thailand.
Read more about Koh Chang on my post “Why Koh Chang is one of the best islands in Thailand.”
Sure enough, in the four days we spent there my sister and I pretty much tried all the things to do in Siem Reap, we enjoyed all of Siem Reap attractions and quite simply had a blast. When we left, we had no doubt that going to Siem Reap is one of the best things to do in Cambodia.
The first impression we actually got when we arrived is that Siem Reap transformed itself to be completely geared to tourism. We soon realized that Siem Reap attractions go well beyond visiting Angkor Wat: there are many more things to do in Siem Reap.
So, here’s a selection of all the things to do in Siem Reap with a few tips on how to make the most of them.
All the things to do in Siem Reap – and a few tips to make the most of them
Visiting Angkor Wat complex
Visiting Angkor Wat is the most obvious of the many things to do in Siem Reap, yet simply unmissable. Visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site is actually one of the top things to do in Cambodia. Yet, a site so spread out can be a bit overwhelming to visit, so it is better to go prepared and knowing what to expect. Here’s a few tips for visiting Angkor Wat.
Tips for visiting Angkor Wat
There are one-day, three-days and seven-days passes for visiting Angkor Wat. The one-day pass costs $20 USD, the three-days one costs $40 and can be used in the course of a week; the seven-day pass costs $60 and can be used in the course of a month. Even if tight on time, I really recommend to plan at least two days for visiting Angkor Wat, as it is one of the top things to do in Siem Reap and among the best things to do in Cambodia. It is totally worth investing the time and money to explore it properly.
Getting a guide:
Believe it or not, I have heard some people say that one day is enough for visiting Angkor Wat and that after a while they got bored. What?! To me it was a fantastic experience! The problem is that a lot of travelers – usually backpackers – are so obsessed with the idea of traveling independently, on a very tight budget, getting off the beaten path and to experience things “as a local,” that they hardly end up experiencing anything at all.
There is a reason some places are called “tourist attractions:” they attract tourists. And they attract tourists because they are gorgeous. At the cost of sounding as the most unsuccessful of all backpackers, I must say that one of the best things to do in Siem Reap is hiring a guide when visiting Angkor Wat.
Find out why I think I am an unsuccessful backpacker on my post “How to be an unsuccessful backpacker.”
I invested a portion of my budget to get a certified guide that took me around the complex of Angkor for two full days. Certified guides can charge anything between $30 and $50 USD per day, which is a reasonable price considering that the tour lasts 8 full hours or more. I shared the expenses with my sister and two more girls I met at the hotel, thus paying only $10 USD per person, per day. One of the best things to do in Siem Reap is to trying to put together a small group to go on a guided tour of Angkor Wat and hotels and hostels are usually happy to help with that.
Of course, I wouldn’t do guided tours all the time as I eventually get annoyed at having a schedule imposed by others. But when visiting Angkor Wat I think it is a must, in order to get a better understanding of the site’s significance, history and even architecture. And ultimately, not to get bored (seriously, people, how can anyone ever get bored at Angkor Wat?).
Find out more on why I enjoy guided tours on my post “Ten reasons to take a guided tour at least once in life.”
Chang, the guide we hired was incredibly kind and he knew the sites so well, as well as the habits of most visitors, so that he dodged the crowds fantastically. I was expecting to find people everywhere when visiting Angkor Wat, and of having to fight for some personal space and for a good photo, and it never happened. Thanks to Chang, I never felt overwhelmed by the crowds. In fact, he knew all the right spots to take the best pictures. And sure enough, one of the best things to do in Siem Reap is taking great photos of Angkor Wat.
Itineraries for visiting Angkor Wat:
Among the best things to do in Siem Reap before actually visiting Angkor Wat, there’s getting an idea of an itinerary to follow – so as not to waste precious time moving from one place to another, to make the most of the incredible site and to avoid the crowds. Guidebooks, travel blogs, hotels and hostels all suggest various itineraries, which usually go from the strict highlights of Angkor Wat to the further away sites.
On the first day, I visited the magnificent Angkor Wat – the world largest religious building;
Angkor Thom – with the Buddhist temple of Bayon and its huge faces, as well as the intricate bas-reliefs;
the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King; Victory Gate; Ta Phrom – nicknamed the Tomb Raider temple, and testimony of the power of the jungle –
with Preah Khan, a temple dedicated to Buddha, Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu; and Banteay Kdei.
I concluded my first day visiting Angkor Wat seeing the sunset from Phnom Bakheng. My advice is to go there no later than 4:00 pm, as only 300 people at a time can enter the temple and the security guards allow someone in only when someone gets out. Going later than 4:00 pm means standing in line for up to one hour in order to climb to the top and possibly missing the sunset. In any case, seeing the sunset from Phnom Bakheng is not one of the top things to do in Siem Reap – it is pretty, but not as spectacular as seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat for sure! Also beware that there usually is an extra charge for tours that end after sunset.
This tour lasted 10 full hours, including the lunch break and the sunset.
On my second day, the tour started with visiting Angkor Wat for the sunrise (again, there is an extra charge for this).
We then moved to Preah Khan (which isn’t the same temple right by Angkor, but one much further away), exquisitely quiet and peaceful;
Preah Neak Poan, a Buddhist temple where a large square pool is surrounded by 4 smaller pools with a circular “island” in the middle; Ta Som – a smaller temple north-east of Angkor Thom and also invaded by the jungle; East Mebon, a 10th century Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva where guardian elephant statues are located at the four cardinal points;
Pre Rup, where according to Cambodian belief funerals took place; and Sra Srang, which is a baray or reservoir and whose function is still unclear and probably a combination of agricultural and religious functions.
This tour lasted about 8 hours, including the sunrise and breakfast.
Dress code and etiquette for visiting Angkor Wat:
The heat in Siem Reap is so strong that it is very tempting to walk around in shorts, tank tops and flip flops. Yet, one of the things to do in Siem Reap is paying respect to the sites and the monks in them. It is better to wear long pants or a long skirt, closed-toes shoes and a shirt that covers the shoulders as the security guards don’t allow visitors who are not dressed appropriately to enter the temples which are still used by the monks. All in all, it is so hot that what one wears makes little difference anyways.
Once in the temples, respect the religious sites. Don’t scream, and don’t leave any garbage around.
There’s also various cats roaming around – the monks take care of them. I love cats so it is easy to imagine my reaction when I saw them at the top of Angkor Wat temple! Petting the kitties in Angkor Wat was definitely one of the best things to do on Siem Reap!
Finally, there’s lots of monkeys around Angkor Wat. Don’t feed them – monkeys would eat anything, but that is not good for them!
Eating and drinking at Angkor Wat:
One of the most important things to do in Siem Reap is staying hydrated. The heat is so bad, and the humidity so strong, that water is a necessity. I carried some cold water in my bag (which turned warm in a matter of minutes) and bought more from the small shops that can be found outside the temples. Carrying a water filter is a better option to use less plastic and leave less footprints. There’s also lots of places around the sites, that sell anything from simple snacks to cheap local eateries and fancier ones.
Getting to Angkor Wat and around:
Before getting to Cambodia, I had read that one of the coolest things to do in Siem Reap is renting a bike to visit the Angkor Wat complex. The sporty girl in me was keen to do that. After all, the area is so flat that biking is relatively easy. That’s until I felt the heat and realized that there would be no way I’d make it through the day in that heat if I also had to bike.
Finally, I decided that the one of best thing to do in Siem Reap for visiting Angkor Wat is to hire a tuk tuk (or remorque, how they are called in Cambodia). This costs around $15 to $18 for the whole day and can carry up to 4 persons, so it doesn’t end up being that expensive.
Seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat
There is no doubt that one of the best things to do in Siem Reap is seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat. I am not a morning person at all, yet I woke up at 4 am to make my way there when it was still pitch dark. It was worth it.
I knew there would be lots of people and I was ready to elbow my way to the front to take at least one good shot of the sunrise. But none of this happened – because once again I did one of the sensible things to do in Siem Reap and hired the same guide, Chang, who knew exactly where to go and the exact timings for taking the best pictures.
As soon as we arrived, having the façade of the temple in front of us, we walked to the right, and we sat at a bit of a distance in what used to be a Khmer library. It was around 5:30 then and still dark. As Chang had explained, the light soon started changing and the sky turned pink, the silhouette of Angkor Wat finally visible. We noticed that most people visiting Angkor Wat for the sunrise went to the left side, so that’s where it was most crowded.
We then moved forward at around 6:00 am, as the sun had finally appeared and it was visible behind the palm trees and the image of the temple was reflected on the moat. It was a gorgeous view – the confirmation that one of the best things to do in Siem Reap is seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Finally, at around 6:20 we moved to the left side, as the sun was reflecting on the moat on that side, for more gorgeous pictures.
Doing the Flight of the Gibbon
My sister and I love zip-lining. We tried it in Mexico for the first time, we did it in Argentina and even in Cuba. Needless to say, as soon as I found out that Flight of the Gibbon has some fun zip lines in Angkor Park and that these are one of the top Siem Reap attractions, I knew it was our chance to fly. I knew it what to do in Siem Reap to get some adrenaline rush. Not only that: Flight of the Gibbon runs a very good conservation program, reintroducing gibbons in the area.
Read more about my zip-lining experience in Argentina on my post “Great things to do in Argentina.”
As zip-lining with Flight of the Gibbon is one of the best things to do in Siem Reap, and very popular too, I wanted to make sure we’d have a reservation as we were on a bit of an un-flexible schedule. I thus found out that I could use a Tinggly Experiences voucher I had been offered to book that.
Tinggly proved to be the perfect gift for people like me, who don’t really care about material possession and spend pretty much all the money on travel or travel related stuff. I keep saying to family and friends that I don’t want presents, and that really, if they want to give me something, I’d rather have money that I can spend on traveling. Tinggly is the perfect compromise! Vouchers can be offered as presents and used to pick among a great variety of activities in so many locations.
Zip-lining with Flight of the Gibbon was an amazing experience. We were picked up from our hotel at 8:00 am and taken to Angkor Park. The base is completely immersed in the jungle. As soon as we arrived, we were welcomed by the staff, who helped us wearing the protective gear. Safety is certainly one of the things that makes the Flight of the Gibbon one of the top Siem Reap attractions.
Our sky rangers Tola and Tida then took us to the beginning of the trail and trained us about the safety measures, on how to fly and how to stop. They spoke perfect English, they were incredibly friendly and made a lot of jokes – all the while keeping extremely professional. With such charming sky rangers it is little wonder that Flight of the Gibbon is becoming one of the most popular things to do in Siem Reap.
Then we started flying from tree to tree, for a total of ten zip-lines, and crossing 4 sky bridges. At each stop, we were given information on the length of the flight, on the hight and – most importantly – we were all tied properly for safety. Tola and Tida gave excellent insights on the jungle surrounding us, on the wildlife and plants we saw. As we learned a lot about the the nature and environment of Cambodia, I’d recommend this as one of the things to do in Siem Reap for nature and adventure lovers.
When we finally made our way to the base camp, we were happy to see that one of the gibbons that live in the area had made an appearance. There he was, showing off his beauty!
Before being driven back to town, we were taken for lunch at a lovely restaurant and got to try some of the local dishes. Lunch was included in the experience, and it was truly delicious – besides, trying the local specialties is one of the things to do in Siem Reap.
All in all, it was an amazing day and I am grateful that I got to share this amazing experience with my sister!
Enjoying Siem Reap bustling night life
The center of town is one of Siem Reap attractions and can’t be bypassed. It is a series of bars, restaurants (lots of them western style) and pubs, all blasting very loud music and offering happy hour deals. Pub Street – that’s the name, which says a lot about the place – is packed with a younger crowd looking for cheap booze which can be found on the many “booze carts” selling alcoholic drinks in the street. It is fun to watch for a while. In fact taking a night stroll along Pub Street is just one of the things to do in Siem Reap.
Getting a massage (and supporting a good cause)
The center of town is the best place to get a cheap massage – excellent way to relax after having spent the whole day visiting Angkor Wat. Lots of places offer a foot rub for just $1 USD, back rubs, and all sorts of other massages, and even the fish massage where fish eat the dead skin off the feet.
If privacy isn’t an issue (customers are all sitting right next to each other in the open, passers-by curiously staring), this is one of the most fun and cheap things to do in Siem Reap. Just make sure that the people doing the massage are actually adults – I have seen lots of masseurs who looked way too young to be working till late, and I’d hate to contribute to child exploitation.
There also are various spas where the masseurs are blind people and where the profits go to support their training, employment and integration (but beware as there also are places that exploit the blinds for profits). Sure enough, one of the best things to do in Cambodia is supporting a good cause, where by paying for a service such as a biking tour, a meal or even a massage, money goes to support the local community with education, employment, integration and environmental protection programs.
Forget what I have said above about not caring so much for material possession. When I saw the Night Market in Siem Reap, I was tempted to buy pretty much anything I saw! Other than the many shops that sell mediocre quality souvenirs, there is a more tucked away part of the Night Market that has lots of small stalls of local artists that sell hand made jewels, clothes and bags, some of it made from recycled material too. Fine, I am not a shopaholic but I think that shopping is one of the most fun things to do in Siem Reap.
More important things to do in Siem Reap
The heat in Cambodia is unprecedented. One of the most important things to do in Cambodia is to keep hydrated, drinking lots of water.
Furthermore, one more of the important things to do in Cambodia is to always protect against the sun, which is really strong at this latitude. Wearing a high SPF is necessary not to get sunburnt and in fact, make sure to get proper sun lotion as it is known that in this part of the world lots don’t actually do what they promise.
Finally – Siem Reap and the rest of the country (and of South East Asia, in fact) are invaded with mosquitos. The chances of getting malaria are slim, especially during the dry season. Yet, I tend to be an easy target for mosquitos and I can’t stand the itch they cause me when they bite me (which they always do). So, one of the fundamental things to do in Cambodia is wearing mosquito repellent, possibly with DEET too. Since I don’t particularly enjoy putting it on, I made sure to wear long pants and shoes, so that I’d only have to spray it on my arms, shoulders and neck.
What not to do in Siem Reap
This isn’t meant to be a post on responsible travel, although one is bound to come soon. Yet, I feel compelled to comment on what I saw when visiting Angkor Wat, because I am seriously bothered. One of the things not to do in Siem Reap (in fact, one of the things not to do in Cambodia, and in general anywhere in the world) is riding elephants. Yet, I saw quite a few elephants walking around the sites, and lots of them carrying tourists.
I am frankly shocked that there still are people that ride elephants in an era when information on how these animals are tortured, how their body structure isn’t apt for carrying weights, and what the consequences are is so easily available. In fact, we don’t even have to look for this kind of information, as it is provided to anybody who basically browses the web and has a Facebook account.
News such as that of the elephant that died in the 40 degrees heat after having been ridden by tourists were all over the web last week. The Mail Online was the first to report it.
I invite anybody traveling to South East Asia to read these reports before taking into consideration activities such as elephant riding and the likes. After all, with all the things to do in Siem Reap, and with all of Siem Reap attractions, there really is no need to do something so irresponsible.
Where to stay and where to eat in Siem Reap
As one of the top places to visit in Cambodia, Siem Reap is geared to accommodate travelers on any budget. The choice of accommodation should only be based on location. Most people opt to stay in the centre, not far from the mayhem of Pub Street.
Siem Reap was the last leg of the journey for my sister – she went back to Bangkok and then to Italy from there, and I continued to travel around South East Asia by myself. So we decided to splurge a bit and opted to stay in a boutique hotel, called Rose Royal Boutique Hotel, tucked away in a small street right behind the centre. I am glad we did: one of the things to do in Siem Reap is getting pampered with a nice room and a nice meal, which in Cambodia are totally affordable. Besides, after visiting Angkor Wat and bearing with the incredible heat, it was nice to get back and find a lovely pool where to jump in, and great cocktails to drink by it!
Food was never an issue in Siem Reap. In fact, if one has any doubts about what to do in Siem Reap, I’d say sit down, grab a beer and a great meal. There’s just about anything, from international food to local one; from posh restaurants to street food and it is difficult to go wrong. I tried Chanrey Tree on my first night in town and it was lovely: delicious food in a cozy environment and great service, all for around $15 USD per person which – granted – is a lot of money in Asia.
Another place I tried was The Hidden Home, which is really close to the hotel where I stayed. It is a family run restaurant tucked away in a quiet street, where the host is super nice and the food delicious. A meal which included an order of vegetables with tofu, chicken with pumpkin, two sides of rice, a beer and a mango smoothy and a courtesy plate of fruit turned out to be $8 USD.
Finally, one of the best things to do in Siem Reap is trying the street food (the best place for that is after Pub Street, on the way to the river). Stir fried noodles, fruit smoothies, fruit bars, rice cakes made with rice flour and coconut milk, filled with fruit or pumpkin, pancakes and what not. It was delicious and oh so cheap – not to mention a lot of fun. There even is a place that allegedly makes fried ice cream (which isn’t fried at all, actually – but fun to see how it is made nevertheless).
How to get to Siem Reap and away
As one of the most important places to visit in Cambodia and South East Asia, Siem Reap is well connected to the rest of the country by bus, with connections to Phnom Penh, Battambang, and even Bangkok. The airport is located at about 20 minutes drive from the city (no more than $7 USD by tuk tuk) and connects it with various destinations in South East Asia, including Bangkok.
Have you ever been to Siem Reap? Of all the things to do in Siem Reap, which did you enjoy the most?
LEGAL DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Tinggly and Flight of the Gibbon during my trip to Cambodia, however all the views expressed are my own.