Chances are, if you have traveled to Siem Reap, Cambodia, you plan on seeing at least one temple, probably a few. Since there are approximately eight kajillion temples, you will have to make some choices. Unless, of course, you are a temple fanatic or some sort of camel that never gets dehydrated and loves the heat, then by all means, catch ’em all. I went in knowing only of Angkor Wat, and discovered the rest by spending a morning with my friend Kate, lounging at our hotel pool and reading borrowed guide books from the small library in the lobby. We have an average interest in temples, so we decided on seeing four big ones, plus any little side kick temples that happened to be nearby.
Instead of rambling on about each one, I’ve made a handy little guide that I think would have helped me decide. I *tried* to keep my descriptions short, included a favorite photo from each, give each a handy nickname, and added my favorite and least favorite thing about each. That way, when you go to Cambodia like I told you to, you might have an easier time deciding. I will spare you historical facts because I don’t want to make this post too long and also I forgot most of it what I learned. As I can only review the temples we actually went to, if something is not on this list it probably just means Kate and I got tired of reading guide books, or the temple was far away, etc.
1. Banteay Srei
AKA “Fancy Pants Pink Temple”
This red sandstone temple had the most intricate carvings of all the temples. It was fairly small and manageable to walk around, but was farther away from our hotel (and probably most hotels) than the other temples.
Favorite thing: Alligator-man carving that I later determined through significant googling for “alligator god” and “alligator man” is apparently actually a half-lion, half-man, Khmer guardian. He will always be an alligator man to me.
Least favorite thing: Aggressive young beggars. Pro Tip: If you compliment their English they get somewhat befuddled and take a break from demanding money and candy. Also bring candy because apparently that’s their plan B request if you don’t have money.
2. Ta Prohm
AKA “Tomb Raider Temple”
This temple’s claim to fame is that it was featured in a Tomb Raider movie. It also has a giant tree growing out of the top of it. It’s medium sized and pretty easy to explore.
Favorite thing: Feeling like I was in the Temple Ruins level of Crash Bandicoot the entire time. If you didn’t have a PlayStation as child, then I also liked the tree. The tree was very cool.
Least favorite thing: Inconsiderate tourists taking more than five consecutive selfies and obscuring my photos of the big tree. It’s fine to take a selfie or two, but not five. I think a good future strategy is to zoom in and take a photo of them. And make sure to do it at every good vantage point so they know you appreciate them and want them in your photo.
3. Angkor Wat
AKA “Empire State Building Temple”
Angkor Wat is the big cheese in Siem Reap. Kate and I took the popular route of going at dawn to watch the sunrise, and then exploring the rest of the temple before the sun sucked the life out of us. I recommend the sunrise viewing, because not only is it beautiful, but temps are cooler. Certain areas of the temple have a dress code of long sleeves and long pants, and that’s pretty unbearable at any other time of day. Angkor Wat is big so give yourself some time to explore. And bring money, because you need poofy elephant-print pants. It’s basically the “I went to Asia” uniform. I’m not even being sarcastic, I bought some and wear them more than my sweatpants, which is a lot.
Sidebar: Haggling for prices is common practice at these temples, and merchants, especially at Angkor Wat, take full advantage of the opportunity to sell things to tourists. I am pathetic at haggling. “Oh those knock off sunglasses are $25? That’s reasonable!” *goes home to NYC and sees the same knock offs for $5*. Here is my advice: decide how much you personally are willing to pay for something, and stick to your guns. If you are willing to pay $8 for pants, then pay that. I don’t think you need to feel taken advantage of if you pay more than the next person for something, because the money probably means a lot more to the person you are buying from than it does to you.
Favorite thing: Thai iced coffee while watching the sunrise. Again, I’m well aware that the vendor was capitalizing on my sleepiness, but I got a delicious iced coffee hand delivered to me without having to give up my hard won sunrise viewing spot.
Least favorite thing: Wearing long pants in order to be let into the top of the temple, only to find out that it was closed that day and I was cooking myself in vain.
3.5. Angkor Thom South Gate
AKA “Frowny Bridge”
Okay so this isn’t actually a temple, it’s the gate to enter the Angkor Thom complex, but it’s worth seeing. Our Tuk Tuk driver let us out at the start of the bridge, and picked us up at the other end so that we could walk down it, because he was the best.
Favorite thing: Kate imitating the faces of the carvings
Least favorite thing: Getting reprimanded for standing on something I wasn’t supposed to stand on. It’s actually surprising how much exploring you’re allowed to do, but that does make it hard to figure out where you’re not supposed to go. I really hate getting in trouble, so this was a devastating blow.
4. Angkor Thom
AKA “Legends of the Hidden Temple…Temple”
You guessed it, this temple reminded me of the Nickelodeon show Legends of the Hidden Temple. It turns out I really like giant stone faces. Angkor Thom is also the most sprawling temple, as it is part of a complex. It takes time and energy to see all of Angkor Thom and friends so brace yourself.
Favorite thing: Big Heads
Least Favorite Thing: Temple fatigue
This is an excellent segue to my general tips for visiting the temples. First, temple fatigue is legit. No matter how beautiful a temple is, everything sucks when you’re dehydrated and hangry. I would recommend two temples a day at most, and I’m young and sprightly. This allows you to rest midday when it’s too hot to move, and then have energy for another activity in the evening. If you would like to follow the Kate and Lillian itinerary, we did Banteay Srei and Ta Prohm on day 1 and Angkor Wat and the Angkor Thom Complex on day 2. This worked well, but we could probably have given Angkor Thom and the surrounding area it’s own day as we were dragging towards the end.
Second, pick your poison. Peak tourist seasons are peak because of things like ideal temperatures, vacation periods, lack of bugs, special events, etc. For Siem Reap it’s temperatures. Kate and I were traveling at the end of tourist season, which meant it was hotter than it needed to be. But, the trade off was fewer tourists (there were still a lot so I can’t imagine peak season). If you can’t stand the heat, then pick a more mild time but be prepared for lots and lots of company. Do some research ahead of time, weigh the pros and cons, and make it work!