Temples Galore in Cambodia: 5 Top Temples You Must Visit in Siem Reap
I recently wrote about visiting Siem Reap with my family, it was a fantastic experience and the heritage and culture was breathtaking. It’s one of those places that more and more people and tour groups are heading to, so I would recommend that if you haven’t been yet, go – stat. We were only there for a quick three day trip to eat, sleep, practice yoga and visit the temples, but managed to cover a fair bit of ground. There is a lot to see, and you can easily get sucked into trying to visit every single temple in the Angkor area, so here is a list of which temples are must-sees in my books.
What you should know before you visit Siem Reap
In order to enter the Angkor area you will need to buy a pass that grants access to all the temples and monuments. It’s priced at US$20 (1 day), $40 (3 days) or $60 (1 week) depending on how many days you need it for – we got a 3 day pass for $40 and this was plenty*. It’s a small slip of paper, but do not lose it – there are people at every temple that will ask to see your ticket before you’re allowed to enter. Your photo is taken and printed on the ticket so it is non-transferable. The ticket office opens at 4 am so it is possible to buy a ticket and then head straight to Angkor Wat for a sunrise if you only have 1 day for Angkor Archaeological Park. This is a photo of the ticket office at 4:30 am – hundreds of people were there!
*Update 2017: The prices have been increased. The current prices stand at $37, $62 and $72. Your 3 day pass can be used on non-consecutive days within a week, and your 7 day pass can be used on non-consecutive days within a month.
Siem Reap is hot throughout most of the year, in general you can expect it to get up to the mid-high thirties (Celsius), so we found that the best time to visit the temples was bright and early in the morning as it starts to get hot and crowded at around 9 am. Peak season is from November to March, but we have been twice in both April and May and the crowds tend to thin out (but the heat goes way up).
Code of Conduct in the Angkor Archaeological Park
Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire and once the largest city in the world. It remains an active religious and spiritual site so it’s important to respect the community who engage in worship. It’s important to observe the following when you are visiting any of the temples around and within the Angkor Archaeological Zone.
- Cover your shoulders and knees – you might get away with it and not get turned away (as you would if you were not properly dressed to visit churches in Italy), but respectful dress is strongly encouraged.
- Don’t touch the monuments – many of the carvings and structures are extremely fragile. Don’t sit on the balustrades or lean on the walls.
- Keep your voice down – it goes without saying that loud conversation should be kept to a minimum!
- Follow the signs – most of the temples, especially ones that are more maze-like, will have directions that you should follow as you walk through. Follow these directions!
- Don’t smoke and litter – Angkor is a smoke free site. Make sure you don’t litter and take any trash with you or place it in one of the many trash cans. I saw a monkey playing with a plastic bottle that someone had obviously chucked to the side – not great!
- Respect the monks – this is a big one and hits close to home for me, especially after hearing all the horror stories about what goes on during alms giving ceremonies in Asia. Read more about my thoughts on alms giving in Luang Prabang here. You may see processions during your time at Angkor, and the beautiful saffron robes are eye-catching, but please don’t charge towards the monks and start snapping away. It’s not a human zoo! Monks are revered and respected – if you want to take photos, please ask for permission. If you are a female tourist you should not touch the monks.
- Skip the drone – flying drones requires a permit from the APSARA National Authority.
*Adapted from the official Apsara Angkor Visitor Code of Conduct pamphlet.
5 Temples You Shouldn’t Miss in Siem Reap
1. Angkor Wat
Obviously, this is the “crown jewel” and the temple everyone hears about and visits. I might get shot for saying this, but this was the most “meh” temple of all the ones that we saw. Most people head here to watch the sunrise, but when we visited for the first time (April 2015) the little lake in front of the temple had dried up, there were a million people around and the sunrise lasted all of 2 minutes. If you don’t mind waking up super early and want to check this off your to-do list, then by all means! You will need to get there by 5:15, 5:30 am latest in order to get a good spot.
Once the sunrise is over make sure you walk around explore some of the quiet corridors – they’re stunning and if you’re there early enough you’ll get it all to yourself.
2. Angkor Thom: The Bayon
If you only visit one temple, make it this one. The Bayon stands in the middle of Angkor Thom and there is so much to see as you weave your way around the columns and walk up and down the old stone stairs. It’s very easy to get lost (in a good way) in here. The faces carved in the columns are incredibly intricate and fairly well preserved, and there are reliefs on almost every wall depicting mythological and historical events as well as every day life. The Bayon doesn’t open until 7:30 am, but it gets crowded so you should aim to be there as soon as it starts letting tourists in.
3. Ta Prohm
AKA that temple where they filmed Tomb Raider. Well worth visiting to see the trees that have melded themselves with the ruins and taken root (literally). If you are taking a tuk tuk, ask your driver to pick you up on the other side of the temple so that you can walk straight through without having to double back.
Looking to venture beyond the most iconic and popular temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park? Click here for 5 lesser-known and underrated temples in Siem Reap that you shouldn’t skip
4. Preah Khan
A slightly smaller temple but there is a corridor of door frames and columns right down the center that makes it unique. Once you step past the door frames there are beautiful reliefs and carvings on the stone walls on either side. This place is a lot quieter than the three I mentioned above, which makes it the perfect place to wander around and explore.
5. East Mebon
My personal favorite of all the temples we visited – a vertical temple structure slightly further away from the main Angkor temples. There are steep stairs and some climbing involved, which translates into: not as many people – perfect. Once you get to the top, the 360 view surrounding the temple is amazing, and there are beautiful, well preserved statues of elephants on each corner of the temple which let’s be honest, is the main reason I wanted to visit East Mebon.
Where to stay in Siem Reap
During my first two trips to Siem Reap stayed at a lovely little boutique hotel called Navutu Dreams Resort, located just 10 minutes away from the entrance to the Angkor archaeological site. As part of the (very reasonable) room rate, you also get a private tuk tuk driver for 12 hours who can take you around to the different temples and night markets. If you love fresh & healthy food, practicing Yoga, beautiful pools and private cabanas then Navutu Dreams is the place to be! Stay tuned for my full review or click here to book your stay at Navutu Dreams!
If you are looking for something a little more low-key and private, House Jane is another fantastic option. This boutique hotel only has a handful of rooms and is a short 15-20 minute walk away from the Old Market. The villa-style hotel has its own pool surrounded by greenery and can help you organize tours to Angkor, Tonle Sap and beyond. It even has its own poolside massage cabana for in-house treatments. Click here to book your stay at House Jane!
Where to eat in Siem Reap
There are many restaurants, cafés and training facilities in Siem Reap dedicated to helping young Cambodian people gain valuable work skills and employment opportunities. If you are planning a visit to Siem Reap to visit the incredible temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park, you can also get your fill of delicious food while ensuring that your tourism dollars are going towards sustainable community development and ethical projects. Read on for 7 socially responsible restaurants and cafés to check out in Siem Reap!
What are some of the other must-see places in Siem Reap? Comment and tell me all about it below!
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