Angkor Wat was the top thing on my list of places I wanted to visit in Asia (with the possible exception of Japan). I love temples and ruins and archeology and learning about ancient cultures. With over 2 million visitors each year these days, I felt confident that Angkor Wat would live up to the hype. Chad was less intrigued but game to check it out and also add the country of Cambodia to the list of places we’d visited. Visiting Angkor Wat meant an extra couple of flights and travel days, but I knew it would be worth it.
Arrival in Siem Reap
Siem Reap is the gateway to an Angkor Wat visit, so that is where we flew. US citizens must get a visa to visit Cambodia, which can be obtained on arrival for $30 US cash (Cambodia operates primarily on the US dollar, which made things easy for us!). One slightly confusing thing for us is the visa form asks for a passport-size photo, which we did not have. There was no problem getting the visa anyway, but it might be worth bringing in order to avoid confusion.
Our hotel had offered airport pickup service (which in hindsight I should have accepted), but we were able to get a taxi from the taxi stand that is just to the left of the arrivals door (after finding the purchase counter; we walked right past it twice without seeing it!) and got a taxi for $10 and an interesting conversation with a solo traveller who asked to share our cab.
Our hotel was incredible and my review is below – I highly recommend it! After settling in, we ventured out to walk up the river. Siem Reap is not a large town and so is, in theory, easy to get around on foot, but there are few sidewalks to speak of, lots of traffic and it is super-hot. But, we like to walk so we persevered and rewarded ourselves with some refreshing craft beer at Siem Reap Brew Pub. We spent the rest of the day enjoying the pool and taking it easy before venturing out to find dinner.
One great thing about Siem Reap is there are ample delicious and inexpensive restaurants. In our four nights there, we didn’t have a bad lunch or dinner (plus delicious breakfast at our hotel) and often spent less than $10 including beer and generous tip (our research said that tipping isn’t expected but appreciated, and with the clear poverty all around us, it seemed the least we could do). We ate at Moringa (delicious vegetarian food), Holy Khmer Restaurant ($1.5 entrees and 50-cent beer), Christa’s Restaurant (where we tried fish amok), Khmer Grill (best-ever beef with broccoli), Tevy’s Place (where we tried beef lok lak), and Wild (a creative spring roll restaurant owned by a French couple, one of whom attended a year of college near my small town in Missouri!). Seriously, every meal we had was fantastic and the most we ever spent was $18.50 at Wild. Fish or chicken amok and beef lok lak are the two traditional khmer dishes that felt must-try and both were delicious.
The next morning, we rose earlyish for our excellent hotel breakfast and then met the tuk-tuk driver arranged through our hotel to visit Angkor Wat at 8 a.m. First, he took us to buy tickets and we purchased two three-day passes for $62 each (a good value considering a one-day pass is $37). There are two main tour routes for Angkor Wat and on day 1 we did the “small tour” ($18 through our hotel). It began at Angkor Wat, then on to Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom, then onto Ta Keo temple (where we allowed a local “tour guide” to show us around and take our photo for a tip; normally we don’t encourage such things but he was so charming and knowledgeable), then to Ta Prohm temple (aka the Tomb Raider temple). There was at least one other temple on that route, but the day was very hot by then (about 1 p.m.) so we asked to be taken home.
The following day, we booked the tuk-tuk again for the “grand tour” ($19) with additional sunrise option ($11). Chad enjoyed running around getting shots of the million (it felt like) tourists who showed up at this special time. It is true that the light was incredible and we got some lovely photos of the sunrise over Angkor Wat (and plenty of other people’s cell phones getting the same shot). From there we headed back to Angkor Thom in the hope of seeing it with fewer people. Mission accomplished and we enjoyed the surreal feeling of walking through all the huge carved heads. As we headed out, a troop of monkeys had entered the temple and Chad had a great time photographing them and their friends just outside the temple. They had no fear of humans. We then walked down to the area called the Elephant Walk, which has carvings of elephants, and through its gates to the abandoned temple behind. We were practically the only people there which was very cool. The rest of the grand tour route was different from the small tour, and we enjoyed all of the temples, especially Neak Pean temple on an island. We managed to visit all the main temples on the route and still got back to our hotel by 11:30.
We took our third full day in Siem Reap off from the temples, having seen our fill, but on our last morning went ahead and booked the sunrise only option ($12 from our hotel). Since we already had our sunrise photos from prior visits, we walked to the back of Angkor Wat and asked a security guard when the main temple would be open to visitors; he said 6 a.m. Entering from the back side of the grounds at 6 a.m. on the nose gave us the temple essentially to ourselves for a while, and we had a lovely wander around and took the opportunity to go up into the top part of the temple, which opened at 6:40 a.m. Afterward we found our tuk-tuk driver and returned to our hotel by 7:45 a.m., with plenty of time to enjoy breakfast, call home and finish packing before heading back out to the airport (again via car, this time arranged through our hotel for the same $10 price tag; they also offered a complimentary tuk-tuk ride to the airport, but with all our luggage I felt we’d be more comfortable in a car).
If I were to do Angkor Wat again, I’d probably opt for the sunrise start both days – you beat the crowds a little at the other temples and we arrived home before noon on the day we started with sunrise, thereby beating the worst of the heat. Also, I’d wear a t-shirt both days rather than following the advice I’d read online about wearing a tank top with a shawl to cover shoulders in the temple. We were in temples virtually all the time other than when we were in the tuk-tuk, so it was like having an extra layer for no reason. My t-shirt on the second day was far more comfortable. But there were several things we did right: choosing the tuk-tuk over a car to see the temples (didn’t need a car); bringing water and snacks to sustain us (though we also bought cold water there); and going back on our departure day for the sunrise.
There are a few other attractions in the Siem Reap area, including other temples and “floating villages,” but we chose to just focus on Angkor Wat. We used the day we skipped going to the temples to explore the town more in the cool of the morning, buy a few souvenirs and visit the Angkor Wat Miniature Museum, which displays the work of artist Dy Proeung who created scale models and drawings of Angkor Wat. It was a neat attraction, especially because the artist (now in his mid-70s) was there and shared his history with us. We spent every afternoon of our stay in the lovely hotel pool for an hour or two. April in Siem Reap is very hot. And of course, there are the bars and restaurants of Pub Street. We had one fun cocktail there but generally chose less touristy restaurants.
Of course, not everything is happy in Cambodia. There was evidence of extreme poverty everywhere in Siem Reap despite the tourist trade there, and the greatest disparity between the middle class and poor that we’ve seen anywhere on our travels so far. But overall it was a wonderful and inspiring visit that lived up to my very high expectations.
Review of The Moon Residence and Spa
My husband and I loved our 4-night stay at The Moon Residence. Everyone on the staff was very friendly, kind, and helpful. The included breakfast each morning was excellent in the restaurant and on the morning we took the sunrise tour to Angkor Wat they kindly packed us a filling to-go breakfast. We used their tuk tuk service for all three of our Angkor Wat visits during our stay and the driver was excellent, dropping us at each entrance and a much safer driver than many of the tuk tuks we saw on the road. Our room was lovely with a very comfortable king bed and excellent AC. It was nice to have a mini-fridge, bottled water, and a kettle to make our own coffee in the morning. The hotel has a lovely pool area that we used every day of our stay. Be aware, the road on which the hotel is located doesn’t have sidewalks, so walking was a slight challenge, but it felt very safe and was easy to walk to restaurants and markets. The wifi was fast though slightly inconsistent, but was no issue for us. We highly recommend The Moon Residence and Spa.