A Guide to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Why go:
Experience the Angkor Archaeological Park, eat Cambodian cuisine (very friendly to the Pinoy palate), bask in the rich cultural heritage the town has to offer. Forget any notion you might have about Siem Reap being all backwater, rough roads, etc. - the town itself looks very quaint with French colonial architecture, a French-inspired promenade, and pretty bridges. For a simple map of Siem Reap, go here(For practicalities - where to stay, what to eat, should you get a guide or not, proceed to the bottom of this page.)

You would really enjoy Siem Reap if...

1. Culture is a big reason you travel. Upon arriving at the airport, sculptures like these would welcome you:
A more modern sculptural piece made of wires 
Taken at the Siem Reap International Airport

  • There's a sublime quality to the sculptures you will find in Siem Reap. We went to other places after Cambodia (Laos, Thailand, Vietnam), and I think when it comes to sculptures (which includes items of worship found in the museums, temples, the Angkor complex, plus the public monuments), Khmer (also "Cambodian") art remains unparalleled. 
Apsaras on the walls of various temples in Angkor (Angkor Thom and the elephant temple, if I'm not mistaken)

2. Southeast Asian history has always been a point of interest. If you're one with a scholarly interest like our friend Turtle, you fancy yourself a Southeast Asian geek or are mildly passionate about Southeast Asian history, art, and religion, start planning the trip to Siem Reap now! Through the relics, witness the fusion of the two great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, and imagine the ancient ways of life in the Khmer kingdom.

3. You love stories. The whole Angkor Archaeological Park is not so very different from a book, only it's 4D. When you're in the midst of Khmer archaeological greatness, it's easy to vividly picture life in Southeast Asia before the 15th century (before the Renaissance!)- the battles fought (elephants thundering down the mountains to attack!), the courtly rituals (dancers dressed like Apsaras - yes, those curvy, bare-chested women you can see engraved in stones above), how myths about their gods were formed, and the life of royalty and commoners, as told by wall mosaics like the one below, which fuses the Ramayana legend with actual events that happen in the kingdom:

A mosaic from a wall in Angkor Wat which tells the tale of the Ramayana

About the Angkor Archaeological Complex 
Just how big is the Complex? It's 400 square kilometers huge. If it's your first time there, we highly recommend allotting at least 3 days. Passes will be one of your biggest expense in Siem Reap, costing $20 for a 1-day pass, $40 for a 3-day pass and $60 for a 7-day pass. Should you fork over the dollars? Yes, because it's worth every penny, especially if you're into culture, history, archaeology, and heritage conservation. In case you're wondering, you can't use your friend's pass because each pass has a photo.

The Angkor National Museum
You can still save a few pennies, though, by skipping the guide and visiting the Angkor National Museum before visiting the temples. A visit to the Angkor National Museum will cost $12, way cheaper than a guide's day rate. In my opinion, a visit to the Angkor National Museum is not only optional, it's essential.

What you can learn from the museum visit: 
  • An overview of Khmer history, dating as far back as the 8th Century 
  • History of the individual temples - which also clues you in on what the major temples are and which are the ones that you have to see
  • Kings that ruled Cambodia, plus the temples that they built, their sense of aesthetics, etc.
  • Elements of Buddhism and Hinduism, which is crucial to understanding the temples
  • See important artifacts, i.e. the Buddhas which used to be housed in the temples themselves. Commit those artifacts to memory and when you start visiting the (now empty) temples, fill them up in your head one by one with the precious objects from the Museum. 
Personally, I prefer to forego getting a guide and go exploring and discovering a place by myself. On this trip, when Lira, Anj and I checked out the Angkor National Museum, it really put a lot of things in context for us and enriched the whole Angkor experience. Our regret was that we only did so on the 3rd day, reserving it after making the rounds. Imagine if we visited the museum first! 

Won't the museum be boring?
I assure you, it won't. As an institution, the Angkor National Museum has funds. You won't just be reading off walls and staring at object displays- this museum caters to all kinds of learners: visual learners, auditory learners, even the kinesthetic ones. The innovative curation is complemented with high-tech gadgets: there are a number of videos & recorded narrations, which you'll have fun utilizing and learning from. All in all, this was one of the best museums I've been to.

One critique I would have though is that some of the displays in the Buddha room were too far up to be inspected closely.

Must-see Temples in Angkor
Unless you're staying for 5 days, it's quite impossible to see everything. There are some temples you shouldn't miss out.

The Angkor Wat 
Back view of the Angkor Wat  

From another angle, Lira's photo
The Bayon Temple
Hands down, this was my favorite.

Getting past the curiosity, it was magical the first time I saw Bayon. I think a tear or two formed in the corner of my eye. :p 
An image of King Jayavarman VII from the Bayon Temple
photo by Mine Ferrer

King Jayavarman VII fangirls

Unlike Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, or Bantay Srei, the thing that makes Bayon very distinct are the stone images. Some say it's of King Jayavarman VII himself, other sources claim it's a combination of the king's image and Buddha. We don't have to go too far to guess that his reason for doing so was to inspire respect and achieve a deity-like status. 

King Jayavarman VII is thought of as being one of history's earliest humanists. He built hospitals, constructed rest houses for passing travelers, and built two more temples in honor of his parents (Ta Phrom for his mother and Preah Kahn for his father).

According to this wiki site, bas reliefs in Bayon portrayed the life in 12th Century Khmer kingdom.

Ta Prohm
Famous for being the site where some parts of Tomb Raider was shot. It's also quite huge and has maze-like features. 

An oft-photographed entryway
Photo by Lira Maranan  

The Angkor Thom 
One of the biggest complexes, give yourselves hours to explore this area. This one has many interesting sections, like the Elephant Terrace.  

Photo by Lira Maranan

Look at the sheer magnitude
Photo by Lira Maranan

At the Elephant Terrace

Lions with butts
See those tower-like structures at the distance? Those were the first resthouses King J VII built 

Banteay Srei

Some people refer to this as the "Pink Temple." It's pretty far from the main Angkor complex and takes at least 2 hours to get to. The structure itself is not as grandiose as the Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom. On the contrary, it's smaller and more intimate- which is why it's worth checking out.

From Banteay Srei
Monkeying around
On the way back, drop by the Landmine Museum created by Aki Ra (a former child soldier of Pol Pot who later on defected) and learn about the atrocities committed by the Pol Pot regime and what you can do to help.

Cultural elements to note (or things we've learned from Turtle):
The concept of Yoni and Linga- represents duality; yoni is female, while lingam is male. Yoni is the source, a place of rest, home or a nest. Linga, on the other hand, is symbolic of male creative energy, or the phallus. It represents power. In structures, the yoni is the base, while the lingam is usually that structure rising towards the sky, i.e. the "tower."


Can you distinguish which is the yoni part of this structure and which is the linga? 
Yep, there are 3 lingas here
How many yoni/ lingas do you see? 

Apsaras. Aside from learning so much about Buddhism and Hinduims, one creature we fell in love with are the apsaras, those angel-like creatures/ nymphs/ celestial beings in Khmer mythologies.

Apsaras can dance very gracefully and their art is the source of their power. In stories, they entertain gods and (according to Wikipedia) take care of fallen heroes.

In contemporary culture, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia performs indigenous ballet with movements inspired by the apsaras. Lira, our dancer-friend, inquired about learning the basics of Apsara dance. According to our tuktuk driver, to learn you'll have to start as a child.

An Apsara upclose, photo by Mine Ferrer
Goof Around
In spite of all the blabbing about things we've learned there, of course my girlfriends and I also had lots of fun taking photos! The joke was that we have amassed enough Facebook profile picture photos to last us til we're 40! Anyway, here were some of our best attempts: 

Our friend, Lira, was a celestial nymph in her past life :D
Mine, whose loyalties to Thailand were, at this point, being questioned

Anjie Jolie, Temple Raider
Me, hoping to levitate

The most sweat-free ways to get there:
  1. Plane, via AirAsia from KL - if you don't mind flying to Malaysia first, this is the most convenient and cost effecive way of doing it, IMHO. Our 1-way KL-Siem Reap ticket cost us around Php2000, booked 9 months ahead of time via the AirAsia website. 
  2. Overland, via Bangkok 
    • A number of van/ bus operators offer packages from BKK or Khao San (backpacker mecca) to Siem Reap, just make sure you're booking a trip with an agency that's reliable. A lot of horror stories about being scammed, being made to pay additional charges upon reaching Siem Reap circulate around the internet. 
      • What to do so this doesn't happen to you: only book online if reviews from other travelers make you feel secure enough. Alternatively, if you have time to spare, spend a day in Khao San checking out the agencies and talking to other travelers/ backpackers who've gone to Cambodia (check out the shirts they're wearing!) and ask them for recommendations.  
Where to stay 
When it comes to accommodations and food, Siem Reap is very affordable. We stayed at Mom's Guesthouse (deluxe room cost around $30/night for 3 people, breakfast included), which has a pool you can use, a pleasant staff, and kept their rooms clean. It's close to several laundry shops, so you don't have to have this done at the hotel. Should you book ahead? If it's off-peak season, I don't think it's necessary. The thing with Mom's is that it's pretty far from the night market, which is where you and your friends will most likely go at night. Taking the tuktuk to get there is an unnecessary expense. 

What you can expect to eat
Food-wise, Cambodian cuisine is really good! It's less spicier than Thai or Malaysian cuisine. Try the amok, their local curriesand fish soup, have a barbecue picnic at the local market where you sit by mats or banigs, and have a Cambodian hotpot (a must!).  

Getting around - do you need a guide?
Many tourists opt to get guides especially if they're only going to be in Siem Reap for a limited period. One advantage of a guide is you can entrust them to come up with an itinerary and they provide you with a great context of Khmer culture. The downside? This cuts down on some of the legwork (makes things too convenient) and I think it can get pretty boring once you rely on them to understand everything about Angkor. I think you can only listen to a stranger for a certain period of time. Three days with a guide in tow everywhere you go? Tsk.

As you might have guessed, we opted not to get a guide - we got a reliable and honest tuktuk driver-with-a-good-heart instead, Mr. Sra Pon. Most of his guests end up becoming his friends. One of them even made him a website, MyTukuk.
Mr. Sra Pon, our Tatay in Siem Reap
Get his services, his contact nos. are in MyTukuk

Getting him as our driver/guide made our stay really pleasant. Proof of how much my friends and I trusted him? By the 1st day alone, we already started called him "Ampok" and "Tatay" (the first is Cambodian term for "father," the latter is the Tagalog one).

Tatay basically planned our route, after informing him about special circumstances like one of our friends only having a day & a half to spend in Siem Reap. He arranged our route in a way that really maximized each day.

Another major plus to Tatay: he knows good places to eat! We just tell him our budget, what we're in the mood for, and he'd take care of the rest. Aside from being reliable and trustworthy, his rates are cheaper than the driver rates offered by most hotels.

In case you're interested to get his services, go to his website. We also took his video, so I bring you the man himself:

There you go, my (I hope) culturally-focused guide to Siem Reap. Obviously, four days were not enough to see everything and we're all talking about going back. If we get another chance to visit, these are things we'll make sure not to miss: 

1. A trip to the Tonle Sap Lake
2. A performance by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia

If you have done these two, fill me in, will you? And if you end up contacting Sra Pon, give him a big hi from us, his anaks from the Philippines.

*Kindly ask permission should you wish to use any of the photos in this page. 


  1. Mare, talaga bang nakapunta tayong Siem Reap? :D Sana may B-2012!

  2. Mine, mauulit pa kaya to? I bet, I bet! Kelangan lang nating magipon ng pang-fuel. I think our next stops will be somewhere that touches the Indian Ocean.