Don’t Short Siem Reap

When people heard we were planning on spending a month in Siem Reap the response was mixed. “The temples are amazing,” they conceded, “but you can pretty much see it all in a couple days.” We’d heard a lot about the famous Angkor Wat complex, but thought perhaps there wasn’t much else to see beyond that. However, after over three weeks in this city and numerous trips out to the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, I don’t think I could possibly disagree more with the idea that this incredible place can be fully appreciated in just a couple days. Siem Reap and its surrounding areas are worth so much more than a quick stop on a Southeast Asian tour.
The Famous Angkor Wat
Opposing face at Bayon
Off the beaten track in Angkor Wat Archaeological Park
Phantom traffic at Angkor Thom gate
The less touristy side of Ta Prohm
One of the famous faces of Bayon

Rather than just the famed Angkor Wat complex, Siem Reap offers a huge collection of some of the most intricately designed and well preserved ancient temples on the planet. I’ll grant you, it’s possible to buzz through the most famous parts of this massive historical area and stay just long enough in each spot to get a few photos and a quick dose of awe. However, slowing down, taking your time, getting off the beaten track and returning to favorite spots will deliver a truly memorable and often soul-searching experience.

Historical Hallways
Slowing down to see the details
Banyan tree at daybreak
Monk at Bayon
Sunrise in Prasat Bayon
One of many Buddhist shrines
Siem Reap has been one of many places on this journey where Brian and I have to pause and appreciate the fact that we’re on this adventure with our kids. Traveling with children means we’ve slowed down our pace and looked at things through a much younger set of eyes. The girls are the ones noticing a gorgeous patch of violets growing out of a stone wall. They stop to really look at the details of a long mural and interpret the story etched into the stone. They find vines to swing on and then stop to rest on ancient, ornate windows. They see beauty we fast-paced adults might miss. With kids in tow, we don’t even attempt the exhausting, dawn-to-dusk temple tour. We’ve stretched our exploration out over many days, a few hours at a time, and it’s made our experience of this place much more meaningful.
DSC04728A stop to appreciate nature's swing
Nice resting spot
Peek a Boo in Banteay dei
Trees among Temples in Bantaey Kdei

Some Straight Up Advice
A few bits of travel advice for those able to make their way to Siem Reap for an extended stay…

#1 – Hit YouTube before you come. Documentaries and short videos on Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the other major attractions of Siem Reap give you an insight most tourists only get from a tour guide. These films also give you an image of the Cambodian culture and dress during the time of the temples’ construction and an understanding for the engineering going into these massive structures.

#2 – Buy the 7-day pass that’s good for a full month. It’s worth it. You need the pass to go anywhere near the temples in the Siem Reap area, and you’ll appreciate having extra days to return to your favorite spots.

#3 – You don’t need a tour company! Practically every tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap knows the temples. Flag one down outside your guesthouse. They’ll ask if you want the “Big Tour” or “Small Tour.” Our advice is to do neither. Focus on a particular area of the park each day, stopping at a major site and maybe some of the small temples you pass on your way.

Ancient Angkor#4 – Get a book. Your first day out in the park, buy a guidebook from one of the many vendors walking around selling them at temple entrances. You can usually get one for about $10, a better price than you would find in a store. The Ancient Angkor guidebook served us well during our time here.

#5 – Be open to going out to the temples for just a few hours. It doesn’t have to be an all day affair. That’s why you have that 7-day pass. You won’t experience temple tourist burn out, where each landmark starts looking like the last. Plus, you’ll make room for other great experiences in Siem Reap like the Phare Circus, the Angkor Museum, and the Backstreet Academy.

#6 – Take the turn no one else is taking. Every temple has its popular path, with some having obvious railings and walkways. Yet, one of the best things about Angkor Park is you can pretty much go wherever you want. Make an effort to walk away from the crowds, and go where no one else is going. These less traveled areas aren’t any less amazing. Most people simply don’t have time to see them.

#7 – Finally, but most importantly, just stop and sit. One of my new favorite sayings is “Be where you are.” These words certainly ring true for the experience of the Angkor Archaeological Park. With everyone milling about and snapping photos, you start to feel an urgency while touring through the temples. What if I miss that perfect photo? When is this guy going to get out of my shot? The real experience of this place comes when you still your body, quiet your mind and imagine these ancient landmarks as they once looked. When you stop to consider the spiritual significance they’ve had for millions of people both past and present, they’ll start to have the same for you.

Banyan tree at daybreak

About the Author

Tracey Carisch

Mom, wife, friend and change agent traveling the world with my family to learn our place in it. After spending a career in organizational change management and community initiative implementation, I put my career on hold for our family's trip around the world. In April of 2014 we sold almost everything we own, put the rest in a storage container, and departed on this journey. While my husband continued his software development work to financially support our trip, I planned and documented our adventure, homeschooled our three daughters, and found volunteer work opportunities for us to do in the communities we visit. Now that we've returned to the U.S., I'm completing book about our family's adventure and our lessons learned.

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  1. I am so intrigued by the pictures of this temple. It makes me want to travel back in time and see what happened in their history. They built such marvelous structures. And it really is beautiful there. You are doing such a wonderful thing!

  2. Hello!

    It was great meeting up with all of you in Siem Reap. We really enjoyed hearing about all of your travel stories and having Tyler and Kara make some new friends. Your photos are beautiful and your writing is wonderful. Nice meeting you and good luck with the rest of your travels!

    Julie, Tim, Tyler, and Kara

    1. Great to meet you guys too! I hope your travel in Vietnam is going well. We will be keeping up with your journey as well. Who knows, maybe our paths will cross again some day. Best of luck to you all!

    1. You’ll love it! You’ll have your own amazing picture soon. :-) Try to go eat at Genevieve’s Sok Sun road. It’s a great restaurant doing good things for the local community. Have a great trip.

  3. Hello Tracey,really glad you kept my email address.i totally agree with you,Siem Reap is a diamond in the rough.i am looking forward to going back there sometime in the near future.we did venture further then S.R.went as far as Sihanoukville,interesting ,but not sure if I would go back there,but I would venture on to Kampot and Kep.great seeing the photo of the girls.thanks for keeping me posted,how is Chile???

    1. Hi Rachelle! Sounds like you guys had a great trip to Cambodia. Not sure if you’re back in CA or in Chiang Mai, but our best to you whichever side of the planet you’re on right now. :-)

  4. Hey!
    Currently I´m also traveling through Cambodia and was at Angkor Wat last week. It is a really increadible place just as the entire country! If you want to learn more about the Cambodian spirituality or do some great spiritual activities and workshops, I can recommend you to visit the Wayist Center in Siem Reap. There are daily free workshops on Cambodian spirituality and many other spiritual activities and workshops in which I learned a lot. It´s really worth a visit ( .
    Enjoy your journey! :)

    1. It wasn’t a problem for us. You can find western foods at the Angkor Market on Sivatha Road. Near the Old Market there are restaurants with any type of food under the sun. Even the local food is pretty kid friendly. Our kids ate a lot of chicken fried rice, and then starting branching out to Cambodian dishes.

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