If you’d asked me about our Cambodia trip pre-arrival, I would’ve said this particular vacation was my husband’s baby. And I was okay with that. After all, he was very gracious about my dragging him back to Thailand for a second, more-beach-centric trip. So it seemed only fair to make getting to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat a priority.
Pretty quickly into our trip, however, I grasped why everyone we knew who’d traveled to Cambodia gave it such glowing reviews. “Kingdom of Wonders” is a lofty title for any locale to hold, but Cambodia manages to live up to its self-hype.
In the future, I hope to blog in more detail about our trip. But for now, here’s 5 things you should know if you’re thinking about your own Siem Reap escape.
- Burning Ring of Fire: The best way to say this is bluntly: Cambodia is HOT. Likely, this is why the high season for tourism is in the winter, when temperatures are slightly less miserable. My husband and I chose to go in June and I don’t regret it, as it meant our sea of co-tourists was a far smaller one. But I think it’s worth knowing what you’re signing up for so you can prepare, mentally and logistically. You will be sticky and sweaty and probably dusty for the bulk of your trip–that’s just a fact. But if you keep hydrated, rub on the obligatory sunscreen, and sport a hat/sunglass combo, you can at least avoid having your trip spoiled by heat exhaustion.
- Early Bird Gets the Best Temple Views: This relates to tidbit numero uno. On the first of our two days of temple touring, we started at approximately 10:30 AM. I wouldn’t say it was unbearable, but doing our exploring between 10:30 to 3:00 meant that we were out and about during the worst of the day’s heat. The next morning, when we were pealing ourselves out of bed at 4:00 AM to see sunrise break over Angkor Wat,
I think my husband and I were both re-thinking the whole “early bird” thing. But it was SOOOO worth it–not only because the sunrise was lovely, but because the temperatures were cooler and the tour groups were thinner. By the time we returned to our hotel around 11:00 AM, we’d already gotten in a full day of touring, thus allowing us to weather the sun’s fiercest rays in a cool, air-conditioned locale.
- On the Cat Walk: Like Thailand, Cambodia has pretty strict rules regarding modesty, which they’ll enforce to the point of preventing your entrance to a temple if your shoulders and knees aren’t covered. At least for this Texas gal, serious heat (see No.1) means breaking out sundresses and tank tops, but in Cambodia, that solution is no solution at all. So pack smart. Choose cool cotton t-shirts. Ladies, if you have midi- or maxi-skirts or dresses that still allow you movement enough to climb around temples, this is the time to pull them out. Guys, any linen pants you have are worth including in your suitcase. The local economy also offers a nice option: Everywhere you go, in Thailand and Cambodia alike, vendors are selling thin, breezy harem pants for 3-5USD.
I own 3 pairs, courtesy of Bangkok, and these proved to be the perfect temple gear as they were cool, modest, and allowed for perfect freedom of movement. They’re also helpful for general tourist life in Cambodia, as you’ll be better received, no matter where you are, if you keep things covered up. When we landed in Cambodia, I was wearing a spaghetti-strap maxi-dress. I’d packed a light cardigan to don upon arrival in-country, but had forgotten to put it on. The first Cambodian I interacted with–a visa official–was a bit brusque, almost rude. When he walked off to get my visa, I suddenly remembered my cardigan. I put it on, and when the visa official returned, he was suddenly all smiles, warm and friendly in a way he hadn’t been before. Could his mood-change have been related to something other than my garb? Absolutely. But this I do know: his post-cardigan attitude was a big improvement over his pre-cardigan one.
- Treat Yo’ Self: If ever you’ve wanted that four- or five-star hotel experience but just can’t bring yourself to part with the cash, Siem Reap is your chance to enjoy the bling without the sting. Rife with boutique hotels, the city offers endless options that blend western luxury and standards with Khmer inspiration. Prices are ridiculously affordable–my husband and I paid a grand total of 196USD for four nights’ accommodation (and breakfast) at a four-star hotel, the Chronicle Angkor. The staff were even kind enough to upgrade our room to their top-of-the-line, Cabana suite with private garden, complete with sitting area, soaker tub, and canopy draped king-sized bed (which brought me as close to sleeping in a cloud as I ever expect to come). In fact, the staff were phenomenal across the board: kind, friendly, responsive, and accommodating, they helped us plan and arrange all our excursions, ensuring that our tuk-tuk driver (who stayed with us throughout our trip) had a stash of chilled, damp cloths and icy water bottles to help us cool down between temples. Certainly, we could’ve paid far less for our stay than we did; a quick search on booking.com yielded results as low as 48USD total for four nights’ stay. But when luxury–and tourism assistance–can be acquired for 50USD a night, I think the high-end Cambodian experience is worth the additional moolah. Especially given that, depending on when in the year your travel takes place, you may be spending large chunks of time indoors, hiding from both scorching heat and drenching monsoons. One such storm grounded us in our hotel room for four hours one evening. But who cares when your room is such a lovely place to be, offering a perfect place from which to watch the rainforest turn slick with rain?
- Pace It, Don’t Race It: Siem Reap has many sites well-worth seeing. Obviously, Angkor Wat is the crown jewel of Cambodia’s temples. But it’s far from the only temple to see, as generations of ancient Khmer kings considered it an important part of their reigns to build their own, individual temples around the area,
resulting in plethora of temples scattered about a relatively small area of land. Today, this translates into two different “circuit tours” for temple-seekers: the small circuit, and the large (which augments the temples of the smaller circuit with still more). During our two days of temple-touring, we opted for the smaller circuit (17 kilometers vs 26); even so, we wound up seeing nearly 10 temples. They were all lovely and unique, ranging from the unusual pink sandstone of Banteay Srei, aka the “Ladies Temple,” to tree-draped Ta Phrom of Tomb Raider fame (my personal favorite). Toward the end of both days, however, my husband and I felt “temple fatigue” set in. It’s a tempting impulse to just push through this, shoving as many temples as possible into your tour; after all, who’s to say if you’ll make it back to Cambodia?
But it’s worth listening to your interest level as you tour: are you still enjoying yourself? Or has it begun to feel like work? Taking a break when the former becomes the latter is key, I think, to keeping a vacation enjoyable. And if you get to feeling temple-weary, there’s always alternative venues to tour: Pub Street or the many, bargain-friendly markets (where you can, again, cheaply treat yo’ self), the Angkor National Museum (offering insight into the temples you’ll see) or the Landmine Museum (which, though as depressing as it sounds, is very worth visiting). Mixing some of these sights with temples lends a Siem Reap trip dynamism where it might otherwise become a blur of temples.
Visiting Siem Reap never held a spot on my bucket list; that’s an honor reserved for swimming with whale sharks. But I’d now happily recommend a Cambodia trip to anyone who’d listen. Just keep a water bottle and some light cotton clothing close at hand, and you’ll be set. And, oh yeah: Don’t feed the monkeys.