Visiting Siem Reap
Siem Reap is home to one of the most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Angkor Wat is the largest Hindu Temple in the world, dedicated to Lord Vishnu.
In addition, there are over a dozen magnificent temples in the general area that one can get truly lost in and bring out there inner Tomb Raider.
Siem Reap is not a great location for time-lapse photography (there’s not enough change to capture over a short visit), and even from a still photography perspective, you can only capture the essence of the place in so many ways that most people before you have already done. It is, however, an amazing destination for an experience.
Location and how to get there
Siem Reap is well connected to South East Asia by several carriers who all fly into Siem Reap International Airport. SilkAir flys there direct from Singapore. I caught a Malaysia Airlines flight from Singapore via Kuala Lumpur (I had frequent flyer points).
View Siem Reap in a larger map
The main attraction of Siem Reap is Angkor Wat. In addition, there are over a dozen temples nearby that are worth visiting. If you’re keen, a cruise on the Mekong to the floating villages and the flooded forest is worth doing (the only in the rainy season between November and February). In addition, the Pub Street area offers one a broad selection of food and markets.
Cambodia requires all non-Cambodian nationals to secure a visa. A visa on arrival can be secured for certain passport holders. The application process is straight forward. You will need a passport sized photo, and a completed visa application form. The visa application fee was US$30 in November 2017 and must be paid in cash in US Currency.
Cambodia’s official currency is the Cambodian Riel. It is a high denomination currency which, in 2017, converted at approximately 4,000 Riel to every US dollar. However, the US Dollar is accepted everywhere. Occasionally, you may receive Cambodian Riel as change for a dollar. (2000 Riel is 50 cents). While travelling here, you’d do well to carry US dollars. Ensure that you have small bills of $20 and below. You may find it hard to conduct a transaction if you were to hand over a $100 bill.
Cambodia has recently introduced an electronic visa system which you can access online.
Recommended Places to Stay
There are a range of hotels to stay at in Siem Reap. I stayed at the Grand Elysee La Residence. This is a locally run hotel that was only about a year old when I had visited in 2017. It is impeccably run. The staff made me feel right at home and took care of my every need.
I called ahead and let the hotel know about my arrival time and flight number. Their representative was waiting for me at the airport with the vehicle.
I had also called ahead and given the hotel a list of temples that I wanted to visit. They had organised a vehicle, tour and itinerary for me so that I wouldn’t have to worry about a thing.
The itinerary below assumes that you arrive in the late morning or early afternoon and are planning to stay for three nights and three days. It also assumes that you’re going to have a vehicle at your disposal.
Day 1: The Sonle Tap Lake, Floating Villages and the Flooded Forest
After checking into the hotel, make your way to the tourist centre and purchase your pass for the temples at Angkor. A 3-day pass costs US$62 and includes a $2 donation for a local children’s funds. It’s a good idea to do this first so that you don’t have to rush here first thing in the morning prior to sunrise.
Then proceeded to the launch point for the river cruise for the Sonle Tap Lake. This is about a 30 minute drive from the centre of Siem Reap.
You’ll need to purchase a ticket for the boat cruise. I paid the US$26 to get my ticket, and expected that I would share a seat with several other people on a boat. What I discovered was that the $26 gets one the entire boat and boat pilot at my disposal.
The boats generally will seat 20 people comfortably. The seats may be wet, so I recommend carrying a towel or some tissues to wipe them down.
Once launched, the boat ride takes about 30 minutes to the launch point for the flooded forest and the floating village. There, you’ll need to get another smaller boat with an oarsman or oarswoman to take you through the forest and the village. This segment costs US$10. I split the cost with another traveller.
This brief ride will take you through the village. They do make a stop at some floating vendors who will attempt to sell you a beverage. If you decline, they’ll attempt to sell you something for your oarsman or oarswoman (who are generally in on this). They might pick out a stack of notebooks for some school children which they’ll price at US$10, and then attempt to add more items for an increased, bundled cost. What I recommend is that you remain firm and polite while either declining, or making a token purchase.
This brief trip will then make a loop around the floating forest and bring you back to the launch point, from where you’ll be able to get back on your boat, and head out to the mouth of the river into the lake. The boat will then make a loop around a buoy, and then head back to where it started from. The whole trip takes about 3 hours.
It’s worth noting that it occasionally does rain very heavily. If you’re carrying your passport on you, consider putting it in a zip-lock bag to protect it from water and rain.
Day 2: Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom
Start the day early to get to Angkor Wat at sunrise. If you’ve already purchased your temple pass, you can leave the hotel at 5:00am. I recommend having the hotel organise a vehicle for you. I also recommend having the hotel organise a packed breakfast box for you so that you have something to eat.
The drive to Angkor Wat takes about 20 minutes.
Normally, when I visit a location at sunrise, I expect it to be quiet. Angkor Wat has several hundred visitors at sunrise. Tourists tend to congregate behind one of two lakes on either side of the central path to the temple. As the sun rises, the crowd dissipates. You’ll then be able to wander through the temple and take in the architecture. Exploring Angkor Wat takes about two hours.
After exploring Angkor Wat, drive to the city of Angkor Thom, which is a few minutes up the road, and stop first at the Bayon Temple. This temple is an agglomeration of stone towers with faces carved into them. Allow yourself about 45 minutes to take in this temple.
Once done, drive further towards the Terrace of the Elephants.
This is a very impressive pyramid-like temple with a central pathway that leads to it. While the temple is quite impressive from the grounds, a far better experience is to climb to the top. There are steel stairs that have been installed around the temple that grant one access to the upper levels. The stairs are very steep, and require one to have a reasonable level of fitness to get to the top. A visit to this temple requires an hour to fully take in.
The city of Angkor Thom has more to explore. This also includes the Terrace of Leper King. During my visit, I didn’t venture further as there were renovations in progress at the time.
From here, make your way to the Ta Prohm.
This is a temple that is straight out the the Tomb Raider movie. It’s most striking features are the number of large tress that are growing straight out of the stone structure. This temple has fallen into disrepair. There is a major restoration process underway led by the Indian Archeological Survey. The paradox here is that the trees that are growing into the temple’s structures are holding it together and preventing it from falling apart; yet, it is the roots of these trees that will eventually destroy this temple. A visit to this temple will take about an hour.
There are other temples to visit, but at this stage, it will be around noon. At this stage, I would recommend calling it a day, and allowing yourself to rest for the rest of the day.
Day 3: Other temples in the Angkor Wat Area
Angkor Wat has no lack of temples. You could spend months visiting all of them. However, there are 4 that stand out from the rest.
Banteay Srei or the “Citadel of Women” was not built by kings, but by Brahmin priests. It is described as the “Jewel of Khmer Art”and while its small size does surprise visitors, the decoration of its surfaces is exceptional.
Banteay Samré is the one of the most complete complexes at Angkor. It has been restored following a near complete deconstruction of the building, numbering of its components, and then painstaking reconstruction.
Preah Khan is one of my favourites. It was built in the 12th century was one of Jayavarman VII’s largest projects dedicated to his father. Preah Khan was more than a temple. It appears to have been a Buddhist University and home to over 1,000 teachers. The site has a near symmetrical layout with seemingly unending tunnels leading from one end to the other. A stupa stands in the middle of this structure.
My fourth and final temple that I’d recommend on the third day is Neak Pean. This is somewhat off the beaten path, and is located at a site accessed by a boardwalk across the Jayatataka reservoir. It is a collection of five ponds. The main 70 square meter pond is surrounded by four smaller ponds.
Covering these four temples will get you to about 2pm, at which time, I’d recommend heading back to your hotel, cooling off and resting before catching a flight back home.
Siem Reap is a destination that one can come back to several times in a lifetime. Leave a few temples for your next visit and enjoy each visit.
- Your camera and lenses. I would recommend a wide-angle lens and a fisheye lens for the temples, and a mid-range zoom lens (around 24-75mm) for spontaneous shots. general street photography. If you’re looking for close-ups of people, I recommend that you carry a good telephoto lens (something like a 70-200mm);
- Any ND or polarising filters that you plan to use (day-time shoots only);
- A micro-fibre wipe/cloth to keep the lens clean;
- Cable release;
- A stabilised video system (Osmo X3 with Z-Axis or a 360 Camera).
Non Camera Gear
- Comfortable walking shoes.
- Towel to dry yourself (it’s humid in this region and you’ll want something to wipe yourself down regularly).
- Appropriate outer gear. Consider the season at the time that you’re travelling.
- A hat.
- A small torch or flash light (for early morning and late evening shoots).
- Water and some snacks (you will be probably get hungry and thirsty while walking around).
- Hand sanitiser,
- Mobile phone.
The accounts in this article are compiled from my own experiences from trips that I paid for myself. This post has not been sponsored – be it by any individual, commercial entity, or any other organisation. The opinions reflected herein are strictly my own.