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.
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.
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.
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.
#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.