I wanted to write up a little something following 5 days my husband and I spent in Siem Reap. I relied heavily on reviews and advice from tripadvisor to put the trip together, so hopefully this info will help someone else.
We got into Siem Reap at 10:xx pm on a Sunday night after long, long, long flights from Ohio. It was so nice having someone with a sign with our names on it waiting to take us to the hotel and just crash. None of the thinking involved with trying to find a decent place at a decent price that I've been known to do in the past.
So...Tip 1: Book a room in advance, at least for a night. Ask them to arrange an airport pickup. It's just much easier. If you like the hotel, see if you can stay longer. If not, there are places all over town to stay.
On Day 1, we meandered around town and just got our bearings. We stopped in an active temple complex near the river, went to the grocery store (always a great way to get an introduction to a place), wandered some markets, visited the museum and generally got over being jet-lagged. Sunset at the temples didn't happen as we fell asleep early and slept through the night.
Tips of the day: 1)Don't underestimate jetlag... 2)The Angkor museum is a great GREAT introduction to what you'll see at the temples, but laid out in chronological order. I imagine a guide would be able to give a similar introduction, but we found the musuem to be really helpful in understanding a lot of what we went on to see later in the week.
Day 2: Early breakfast, and off to the temples we went. We used a tuk tuk driver from the hotel. He didn't really speak great English, so it was awkward at times, but he safely got us where we needed to go. Small circuit didn't feel particularly small and it took all day. Bayon was the highlight of the day by far, though Ta Prohm was pretty good, too. It wasn't anywhere near as jungley as I thought it was going to be.
Tip of the day: Read "Temple of a Thousand Faces" on the plane/bus to Siem Reap. You'll feel like you know Jayavarman VII, who built Bayon. It also helps with understanding the coexistence of Hinduism and Buddism that's all throughout the temple complexes.
Day 3: Long, busy day with the outliers. Beng Mealea, Kbal Spean, Bantey Srei. We, again, took a tuk tuk, which is not generally recommended to the outliers. I understand why, because it's a long, dusty trip and really, really long for the tuk-tuk driver especially. It turned out okay, though, and was a nice way to see the countryside. Same driver as before. The only downside was forgetting to check prices of the lunch before ordering. Of course, the dishes that were advertised as $2 at the stall next door came on our check as $5.
Beng Mealea was FANTASTIC!!!! I can't stress that enough. Very informal, easy to explore and as rough as you want it to be. When the guide invited us to climb around on the ruins, we couldn't believe it. While we were there there was a film crew doing some sort of fashion shoot, which provided an interesting contrast to the ruggedness of the surroundings. I also brought a deck of UNO cards with me and while my husband and I sat down to have a game, we attracted the attention of the local kids who were using the ruins as their playground. A group of 6 kids now know how to play UNO and are the proud owners of an UNO deck, should anyone happen by and wonder how that got started.
Kbal Spean was a wonderful hike in the woods, lots of natural beauty in the area and virtually empty. There's a refreshing waterfall downstream from the carvings that makes the trek back down the hill more pleasant. Banteay Srei was beautiful in the late afternoon light. The pink colors really show up well on pictures.
Tips of the day: Definitely visit Beng Mealea. Really... Don't miss it! And, if you go to Kbal Spean, it shares a parking lot with the Center for Conservation of Biodiversity. There are tours of the wildlife center in late morning and at 1:00 pm. We were 15 minutes too late for the last tour, but had I known about it in advance I would have tried to attend.
Day 4: We were hoping to go to Preah Vihear today, but the hotel informed us the night before that it wasn't going to happen. I'm not entirely sure of the reasons, but I'd guess they didn't want to send somebody all that way for a day and didn't want to lose our booking for an overnight. Because we didn't find out until the night before, and we would have needed to leave early in the morning, we had a free day in Siem Reap. My husband surprised me to no end by claiming to be "templed out" (he's a former archaeologist...I swear someone snatched his body on the plane), so we bummed around town again for a lot of the day. We went to Artisans d'Angkor and also took a tour of the silk workshop outside of town. To do our duty to society, we went to the Angkor Hospital for Children and my husband gave blood (my iron was too low, and they don't really need type A blood). He got a nice t-shirt, some cookies and a can of coca-cola and an excuse to laze around for the rest of the day, which he did by a pool. We spent the evening doing a street food tour through the River Garden Hotel and also booked a village walk and talk through Beyond Unique Adventures for the following morning.
Tips of the day (there are many): 1)Donate blood. To children. Or Adults. Just do it. 2) Don't be afraid to not see temples one day. You won't know what you don't see. 3) Street food is great! Get the stuff that can't really go bad, like fried dough products or freshly cut produce. Snakefruit are delicious and if you see a Pancake cart, get one. No, really...they're cheap. Get one. 4) Don't pay for a tuktuk to go to the silk workshop. Go to the Artisans d'Angkor main office and ask when their bus leaves. It goes a few times a day for free.
Day 5: Our last day in Siem Reap. We started our day with a village walk and talk through Beyond Unique Adventures. You can book one in the office in downtown Siem Reap (you'll see the office, I promise). It was a great way to learn a little about the Cambodia not associated with the temples. Souvenier shopping followed, picking up pepper and amok powder and scarves and durian candy. We did a lot of people-watching in the afternoon and immensely enjoyed watching the city die down around 2:00ish and come back to life around 5:00ish. One last dinner and then it was off to the airport to begin the long journey home-ish.
Tips of the day: 1) Get out and see some non-temple Cambodia. Talk to someone who can fill you in on how things are and how things were. 2) If the Tuk Tuk drivers have no idea where you're asking them to go (Angkor Handicraft Association, I'm looking at you...), point to the one with the smartphone and googlemap it for them. What was travel like before smartphones?