The Temples of Angkor: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Cambodia is located in Southeast Asia and is bordered by Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. It is on the Gulf of Thailand and the Mekong River runs through the country into the Tonle Sap. It is becoming a popular tourist destination, particularly for Europeans and Australians. It is a bit more difficult for Americans to fly there, but as tourism becomes more popular, more and Americans are heading to Cambodia due to it being a more exotic destination. This country has a very interesting history and culture that we really enjoyed learning about and experiencing first hand. Also, just in case you were wondering, Angkor = city.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is located about 7 hours by bus from the capital city of Phnom Penh. It has become a popular tourist destination because this is where you can visit the very famous Angkor complex. Due to the influx of tourists and expats, Siem Reap has become more modern and a comfortable place to visit but still offers a view into Cambodian culture. The hotel we stayed at was the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra. This hotel is on the luxury end of the spectrum for Cambodia (rates from $198/night according to their website), but it is really gorgeous.
The main attraction of Siem Reap is the Angkor site. There are several ways to get to the site from where you are staying, the easiest probably being via tuk-tuk. You can also hire a car, rent a bicycle, or take a bus. Since we were with a tour group, we had our own bus with a local guide.
The Traveling Gals Tip: WEAR COMFORTABLE CLOTHES. It is so hot and humid here. Remember that you are basically in a jungle climate. This is not a time to be fashionable because you will be sweating a lot. Also remember to respect the culture and not wear booty shorts.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and the most visited tourist attraction in Cambodia. It was originally built for the Hindu god Vishnu, but over time became a Buddhist temple and was cared for by monks. On our trip, this was really talked up and hyped up so much that by the time we actually got there we couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed. We are not entirely sure why, but we were hoping for more. This is not to say that it is not an interesting place to visit with important historical meaning; it just did not ‘WOW’ us like we were expecting. Others in our tour group also expressed this. While Angkor Wat is surely worth visiting and taking the time to explore, there are also other interesting temples and ruins nearby that might be even more impressive.
About a mile from Angkor Wat lies the last capital of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Thom. At it’s height, this Angkor (remember Angkor = city!) may have governed over one million people. There are several locations here that the movie Tomb Raider was filmed. The south gate is the most popular but also the most crowded because it leads to Angkor Wat. This area contains many features to explore, including Bayon Temple, Banteay Srei, and Ta Prohm.
Located inside Angkor Thom, Bayon is a very unique temple that we highly suggest you visit. This was one of our favorite areas we walked around in Angkor. Prasat Bayon was built as a shrine to the Buddha in the 12th/13th century. The most remarkable feature of Bayon is the same carved face that appears 216 times throughout, smiling serenely over the temple. It is believed to be the King Jayavarman VII’s face, but no one knows for certain.
Banteay Srei was originally built to dedicate the Hindu god Shiva. This temple’s structures are miniature in size compared to other temples, which is an interesting contrast to the large, towering structures at the other ruins.
This temple was another highlight of the trip. Because it has mostly been left untouched since it’s discovery, the most unique feature of Ta Prohm is the trees growing out of the ruins. The structures and nature have basically become one. It feels much more exotic and jungle-y (not a word, but accurate description!) when walking around. It is very quiet and almost eerie because of all the heavy vegetation that has grown here. This is a very popular place to take pictures and it one pf the most visited temples in Cambodia. Ta Prohm was also used as a location for the filming of Tomb Raider. It was originally a Buddhist monastery and university which is hard to recreate in your mind while walking around.
What else is there to do in Siem, Reap?
Siem Reap is a unique place because it has recently experienced a large influx of tourists but is trying hard to preserve the local culture. There are art galleries, museums, volunteering opportunities, fishing villages on the Tonle Sap river, cooking classes, bike tours, & more!
One of our favorite blogs we follow, Journo & the Joker, live in Siem Reap and have some great posts on what to do in the area when you are done seeing the temples! Definitely check out their blog on how to have some more unique experiences during your stay in Siem Reap.
- Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. It is hot and humid there. You will be walking a lot.
- Drink lots of water. We had a few people in our group who had to leave early because of dehydration and they had to miss some of the amazing ruins we saw.
- There is an option to ride an elephant at Angkor Wat. While, yes, this does provide a cool photo-op, read this article before you decide.
- Read about the history before going. It is a much more impactful visit when you learn about what went on in these cities and temples and know some of the symbolism.
Have you been to Siem Reap or another part of Cambodia? Or is it still on your wanderlist? Let us know in the comments!