Siem Reap as a city is essentially in place as a conduit for visiting the nearby wonder of Angkor Wat.
Upon arrival in the city of Siem Reap head first to the Night Market district, a bustling hub of accommodation, restaurants and bars situated neatly beside, you guessed it, the night market. One street down you will find Sok San Street and Villa Sok San an affordable, comfortable hotel with a swimming pool ($15/ night).
Spend the day wandering the streets. Cold draft beers are fifty cents apiece and help to lighten the oppressive humid heat. For sunset grab a tuk tuk out to the temples. The best sunset temple (although extremely crowded) is Phnom Bakheng. Famous mostly for its view of the spectral Angkor Wat as the sun dims upon its luster (lustre for our commonwealth friends).
In the morning, set out early as to catch the dawn. For those who prefer to plan ahead, set up a time and price with a tuk tuk the evening before (shouldn’t cost more than ten dollars for a trip including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Tha Prohm). Otherwise, just head out to the street and grab a tuk tuk but be sure to provide enough time for bargaining so as not to miss the sunrise. The entrance fee is twenty dollars for one day, forty for three and sixty for one week, all of which must be used on consecutive days. If you are really counting coins be forewarned that you will pay an extra dollar on the official rate should you bring US currency.
The first stop will most certainly be Angkor Wat for sunrise. Pass over the moat and through the inner walls for your first sight of the four-towered structure. Many people pause beside the lake on the left side of the middle-walkway in an attempt to get the “perfect shot”, however, this presents an opportunity to enter the temple itself and catch a few moments of (relative) privacy before the inexorable stampede commences.
Angkor Wat is a four-tiered temple and the first floor is a mosaic of bas-reliefs and carvings which depict the line of successions of the kings. The third level is directly below the towers and you can walk around the broad base of these spires, admiring, as well, the beautiful carvings and inlays of the surrounding walls.
It’s possible to head even higher to the base of individual towers, however, this option does not open until 7:30 AM.
Out of Angkor Wat, the next likely stop will be Angkor Thom, a large “gated community” including the wonders of Baphuon (the Elephant Terrace), Bayon and The Terrace of the Leper King.
After your entrance beneath the Angkor Thom gate, the first temple you will see ahead is Bayon. Built in the 12th or 13th Century this double layered temple is composed of hundreds of faces built to resemble a mixture of Avalokiteshvara and King Jayavarman VII.
Baphuon is next. After a walk across The Elephant Terrace, (a great platform from which Jayavarman the ruler would gaze down at his returning army) you’ll arrive at Baphuon itself. Baphuon was originally disassembled upon its discovery. Later archaeologists had to minutely once more piece together the massive structure. Consequently, it has been called the “the greatest jigsaw puzzle, ever.”
The final sight for Angkor Thom is the Terrace of the Leper King. Originally named after Yasovarman I – a leper, the latest theories suggest that it is, however, a royal mausoleum. The statue itself (originally covered in moss similar to leprosy discoloration) is that of Yama – the Hindu god of Death.
Tha Prohm is a ten minute drive and en route from Angkor Thom you will pass Ta Keo – another excellent temple to view the sunset over Angkor Wat.
That Prohm itself is a fascinating look at the jungle’s reclamation of one of man’s greatest achievements. Inside you’ll find it overgrown as trees and gnarled roots branch over the walls and stupas. This temple was featured in the Lara Croft film and often feels like a venture into an Indiana Jones type adventure, assuming you can escape the other tourists for long enough.
Depending on the time your tour has taken thus far you may find yourself succumbing to the wretched heat. You may choose to continue exploring the other surrounding temples or to return to your hotel and bathe in the cool waters of the swimming pool before another venture to the cheap beer havens around town. Either way, enjoy!