“Hey look it’s another 1,000 year old temple! And monkeys are climbing all over us!” That’s right, we spent a week in Siem Reap, Cambodia touring the ancient temples of the Angkor Wat complex.
Our visit to Siem Reap was part of our seven week Southeast Asia vacation that included two weeks in Vietnam and a week in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. After Siem Reap we headed to Thailand for a month where we visited Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Bangkok.
How to spend a week in Siem Reap, Cambodia
The Angkor Wat temple complex is the main attraction in town. It’s really the only reason to visit Siem Reap in my opinion, especially if you’re also planning on visiting Phnom Penh (as we did).
To clarify a bit, Ankgor Wat is the name of the most iconic temple in a set of temples and ruins sprawled across a roughly square shaped site measuring about five miles on each side. “Angkor Wat” is often used as a shorthand way of describing all the temples in the complex although each of the other temples have their own names like Preah Khan, Bayon, and Baphuon.
There are also dozens of other temples outside of the main five mile by five mile site. All the ancient temples in the area were constructed by the Khmer Empire during the ninth through thirteenth centuries. At it’s peak the Khmer Empire was by some metrics the largest empire on Earth.
As I mentioned in my post on Phnom Penh, the Khmer are Mrs. Root of Good’s people. All of the temples of the Angkor complex make up part of her cultural inheritance. I suppose our kids are entitled to a half share of that inheritance as well. As a result, the temples in Siem Reap had a lot of personal importance to us.
Visiting the Temples
It’s impossible to see the entire Angkor temple site in one day. If you only visit for a day or two then you’ll have to pick and choose what temples or routes you want to visit. Also consider the heat and humidity will wear you down during most of the year.
We had a full week in Siem Reap so we spent the first day researching our options to tour the temples. We ended up booking a private driver with a 10 person van that took us to the temples each day. The driver kept his cooler stocked with cold water and the AC in the van was excellent. All of that “luxury” for only USD$40 or $50 per day for the van plus driver.
For smaller groups of two or three, a tuktuk would be more economical though less comfortable given the dusty roads and lack of AC. Groups of four could fit in a sedan that would be slightly cheaper than our 10 person van rental.
We arranged our driver through our hotel although there are signs for drivers all over Siem Reap.
An alternative to booking a tuktuk, car, or van for the day would be to get a taxi via the Grab app (the Uber of Southeast Asia). Then spend an hour or two at a temple before calling a second Grab ride home. The economics of transportation are screwy in Siem Reap as the price of a round trip Grab ride to/from the temples (about 30 minutes ride in total) is about 75% of the price of hiring a driver and vehicle for touring the temples all day.
The government of Cambodia runs Angkor Enterprises, the agency that maintains the temples and sells admission tickets. The tickets come in three different tiers:
- 1 day ticket – USD$37
- 3 day ticket – $62
- 7 day ticket – $72
The three day ticket is valid for any three days out of a ten day period while the seven day ticket is valid for any seven days out of a one month period.
Cambodian nationals and the children of Cambodians get in for free. We didn’t have anything to prove that Mrs. Root of Good’s parents were Cambodian so we had to pay full price for her.
Our youngest child was seven at the time so he got in for free as do all children under age 12. Bring your kid’s passport to prove age.
Tickets have to be purchased at a facility several miles away from the temples. We purchased a three day ticket the day before our first full day of touring for a total price of $248 ($62 x 4 + 1 free kid under age 12).
If you buy the tickets after 5 pm you can enter the temples in the evening for free and watch the sun set.
When visiting the temples, there are two different pre-packaged routes that all the tour operators and drivers use. The “small circuit” consisting of Angkor Wat and several other temples on an “inner” loop. The “grand circuit” (alternatively “large”, “long”, or “big” circuit) covers a second set of temples on an “outer” loop that is further out than the inner loop. At a minimum it would take two long days to see most of the small circuit and the grand circuit temples.
Small Circuit Temples
The Small Circuit is about 10 miles long and includes these temples:
- Angkor Wat
- Angkor Thom (may be on Grand Circuit tours too)
- Bayon (may be on Grand Circuit tours too)
- Baphuon (may be on Grand Circuit tours too)
- Ta Keo
- Ta Prohm
The main admission ticket offers admission to all of these temples and there is usually a ticket checker at the main entrance of each temple.
Grand Circuit Temples
The Grand Circuit, or outer loop of temples, is no less impressive than the Small Circuit Temples.
We did things out of order at the suggestion of our driver and started the Grand Circuit tour on the first day of touring the temples. The guide said we would appreciate Angkor Wat more if we save the best for last.
These temples are usually included in the Grand Circuit tour:
- Angkor Thom (may be on Small Circuit tours too)
- Bayon (may be on Small Circuit tours too)
- Baphuon (may be on Small Circuit tours too)
- Pre Rup
- Preah Khan
- Beantey Srei Temple (a common add-on to the Grand Circuit but it’s 30 minutes away from the Grand Circuit temples)
Angkor Thom is a huge walled compound that takes many hours to explore in itself. Angkor Thom is surrounded by a massive stone wall that stretches around the square-shaped 8 mile long circumference of the complex. In case the wall doesn’t keep invaders at bay, there’s also a 350 foot wide moat guarding the 8 mile walled perimeter. As a retired civil engineer, the amount of earthwork and stonework is astounding!
We heard from our driver that some people hike the eight miles along the top of the wall. But that was way too much for us to handle with kids plus heat plus humidity.
Within Angkor Thom are several temples and monuments. The two most impressive are Bayon Temple and Baphuon Temple.
One of our favorite temples was Preah Khan, just around the corner from Angkor Thom. We liked it so much that we visited it again on our third day of touring the temples.
The next two temples are visually different in appearance from the other temples we toured. Pre Rup and Banteay Srei were built in the mid and late 10th century (respectively) which is several hundred years before the construction of the more impressive temples at Bayon, Baphuon, and Angkor Wat. The main difference compared to the larger and newer temples comes from the reddish color of the stone and the decorative motifs used throughout Pre Rup and Banteay Srei.
Wild times in Cambodia
On the drive out to the Banteay Srei temple we got a good view of the Cambodian countryside.
And while at the Baphuon Temple, we were beset by (mostly) tame monkeys!
The City of Siem Reap
The city of Siem Reap is fairly unremarkable unless you are into the backpacker tourist scene and enjoy pounding down 50 cent draft beers. We walked around the downtown for a bit, ate, then departed to our hotel located about a half mile outside the tourist center of town.
In the following sections I’ll talk about where we stayed, what we ate, and how we got around town and between cities. Lastly, since this is a personal finance blog, I’ll go over the costs of our trip.
Lodging for 7 nights in Siem Reap, Cambodia
We stayed at the Schein Residence Hotel which was about a half mile north of the edge of where the tourists usually roam.
The location had its pros and cons. It was nice and quiet and among locals. Prices for groceries and laundry were much less than in the tourist part of town. But the variety of nearby restaurants was more limited. However, we got a lot nicer accommodations by staying just outside of the tourist center on the north side of town and we were closer to the temples.
Since the hotel was very affordable, we booked three rooms so that us and the kids could spread out and relax. The total cost was USD$16 per room per night . I got some discounted hotels.com gift cards to help cut the price. Lodging totaled $335 for the week.
The hotel offered a free deluxe breakfast every day and we always took advantage of it. After we dined heartily, we still had plenty of leftover fresh baked baguettes and some fruit that we packed for snacks while out touring temples.
We usually book Airbnbs because they are more comfortable and spacious for our family. And they are often much cheaper! In this case, we couldn’t find any decent Airbnbs in Siem Reap for a reasonable price so we booked a hotel that came with solid reviews (and a free deluxe breakfast).
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Food in Siem Reap
Overall, we liked the food in Siem Reap better than the food in Phnom Penh. We ate at mostly local places and also got takeout pizza several times.
At the Reak Smey restaurant we finally found some good eats in Cambodia. For $25 the whole family gorged on different dishes and enjoyed frozen fruit smoothies and draft beers. We liked it so much that we returned on a different day and ordered another $20 worth of take out for another meal.
While waiting for our flight to Thailand, we made a pit stop at the Plaza Premium Lounge in the Siem Reap airport. We get in free with our Priority Pass. I would say this is the nicest airport lounge we’ve ever been in. Good fresh food options and a bartender/barista ready to make you anything you want to drink.
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Transportation in Siem Reap, Cambodia
The flight into Siem Reap was discussed in my Phnom Penh trip recap.
The flight from Siem Reap to Chiang Mai, Thailand was booked on AirAsia for $61 per person (a total of $307 for five of us). We booked the tickets as two separate flights – one from Siem Reap to Bangkok’s DMK airport, and then onward from DMK to Chiang Mai. Separate tickets were cheaper than booking flights straight through, and we got to enjoy another airport lounge during an intentionally long layover in Bangkok.
The flights on AirAsia were uneventful and had a cheap feel to them with lots of advertisements on the overhead bins and seat backs. But hey, the tickets were inexpensive and the flights were short!
I couldn’t find any decent airline mile redemption options for this segment of our trip so we just paid cash for the tickets.
Private van rental
We arranged a private van rental through our hotel for $40 to $50 per day to tour the temples. That rate includes the driver that speaks some English and acts as a guide and a cooler filled with ice cold bottled water.
Rates vary, but we paid a total of $150 spread across four days as follows:
- Small circuit tour – $40/day
- Grand circuit tour plus Banteay Srei Temple 30 minutes away – $50/day
- Grand circuit tour (a second time) – $40/day
- Get tickets and visit Angkor Wat for sunset – $20 for about 3 hours
We were usually out with the driver for 7 to 9 hours for the full day rentals, but the driver said there is no real time limit, it’s just a per-day rental fee. We had the driver drop us off at a restaurant near the hotel on one day so we didn’t have to walk back up there to get food.
The 10 passenger van worked great for the five of us, and for smaller groups it’s possible to rent a regular sedan with driver or a tuktuk. I think the rates for those vehicles are around $30-35/day for the car (4 passengers) and $20/day for the tuktuk (2 passengers).
Grab is Southeast Asia’s version of Uber. It’s incredibly simple to book a ride through their app.
We spent approximately $30 on the Grab rides in Siem Reap. Rides into town were usually USD$4-5 each way in a car or about $2 in a tuktuk. The ride to/from the airport was about USD$9-10. A car ride to the temples would be $14+ each way but we never took Grab to the temples given rates for a van and driver were only $40-50/day.
We walked around the area near our hotel. The roads aren’t in good condition with basically zero sidewalks and lots of mud and standing water after it rains. Fortunately it only rained hard once while we were in Siem Reap because after walking in the mud to get some take out I decided next time I would call a tuktuk and spend the $0.75 to take me the 250 feet to a paved road!
That ridiculous 250 foot ride never materialized because the mud on the road re-hardened and dried out after the first (very rainy) night in town.
The downtown tourist area was a little nicer but it’s still “rustic”. It’s easier to walk around downtown and some parts are rather scenic, especially around the river.
We skipped the local Cambodian SIM chips so I can’t say much about them.
I went with the simpler, yet possibly slightly more expensive Google Fi phone service for overseas travel. It works in almost every country in the world and doesn’t require switching SIMs or paying extra for international service.
I use a different low cost provider (Freedompop) while in the US, but use Google Fi when traveling overseas. It costs $20 per month for unlimited voice and texting plus $0.01 per megabyte of data. We used 300 megabytes of data during our summer in Asia (about USD$3.00 worth of data).
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Costs for a week in Siem Reap, Cambodia and touring Angkor Wat
We didn’t track every penny we spent in great detail, but after some forensic accounting I pulled together this cost summary using the transaction data from Personal Capital. In total we spent around $1,270 for our 7 days in Siem Reap or about $181/day.
Lodging of $335 covers the three hotel rooms our family rented for seven nights in Siem Reap.
Food totaled approximately $200 for 7 days which averages to $29 per day. The food category includes restaurants, groceries, snacks, and drinks. We generally ate at simple restaurants with meals ranging from USD$2.50 to $4 per person. Drinks included 50 cent draft beers and fruit smoothies for $1-2 each. Groceries from the local market were mostly fresh fruits, snacks, and bottled water. Our food expenses were lower than normal because of the hearty breakfasts included in our hotel room rates.
Bus/Train/Plane expense is the one way flight from Siem Reap to Chiang Mai, Thailand on AirAsia. $307 total for the five tickets, and we paid cash instead of using frequent flyer miles.
Taxi/Grab expense of $30 represents what we spent on local transportation. Most rides into the tourist area were USD$4-5 while longer rides across town to the airport were around USD$9-10.
Admission fees to Angkor Wat and affiliated temples were $248 total.
Summary of costs for 7 days in Phnom Penh:
|Food (groceries, restaurants, drinks)||200|
Thoughts on Siem Reap, Cambodia and Angkor Wat
As a place to stay while visiting Angkor Wat and the temples around it, Siem Reap is a decent enough home base. The tourist infrastructure is decent. Lots of people speak English.
Other than the temples, there isn’t a whole lot to see in Siem Reap and the prices are fairly high by Cambodian standards.
If Siem Reap is the only place you visit in Cambodia (such as on a short side trip from Thailand), then the various museums and Apsara dance show might be interesting to see. We saw plenty of this in the capital city of Phnom Penh, so we had a couple of extra days in Siem Reap to relax by the pool and explore the town a bit.
I would 100% recommend visiting the temples if you get a chance during your lifetime. It’s worth the trip to Siem Reap in spite of the variably dusty and muddy roads and loooong flights from the United States.
If I had to do it all over again, I would restructure our time in Siem Reap a bit. I would have bought the 7 day Angkor Wat tickets for only $10 more than the 3 day tickets. This way, we could have spent five or six days visiting temples while visiting just two or three temples each day. We were really exhausted from the heat and humidity after the first two or three temples. By the time we got to temple #4 and #5 each day, the interest level started to slump.
By spreading out the temple visits and taking them at a slower pace, I think each temple would have been more impressive and memorable. Then we could have wrapped up the tour at 1 or 2 pm each day then head back to the hotel pool to cool off. For $10 per person extra for the admission tickets plus another few days of $40/day van rental I think we could have turned an incredible but exhausting three days into a really incredible 5-6 days in Siem Reap.
Overall, I hope to make it back to Angkor Wat and the other temples one day. They rank pretty highly among all the places we have visited in the world.
Have you ever visited Angkor Wat? What did you think?
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