Siem Reap, Cambodia. Angkor Wat and More Wats. Intro.

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Please read my post  at Frugal Travel Guide:  Siem Reap, Cambodia: Ten Tips for the First-Time Visitor

Not unlike Peruvian village Aguas Calientas that is thriving due to its proximity to Machu Picchu, Siem Reap, a town in rural Cambodia is prospering too, serving hordes of tourists visiting Angkor Wat. There is nothing else in the vicinity that would warrant a visit, or if there is, they hide it pretty well. Of course, there are waterfalls a couple hours away (and I’m a sucker for waterfalls), but when I mentioned going there and taking a dip, my driver said the water wasn’t clean enough.. So… unchecked.

Stay in Siem Reap for longer than one day, and your adventure turns into a well-oiled routine. You explore the ruins during the day, then go to Pub Street for a night on the town. There you’ll find all kinds of bars, restaurants, massage parlors, and tacky souvenir shops; all venues inevitably associated with huge concentration of tourists and their wallets.

When people say they are going to see Angkor Wat, they don’t really mean it. Well, they think they do, but today the area called Angkor Wat is just one temple complex, and there are more than one, of course.  Roughly speaking, there are three routes most tourists follow in Siem Reap.

  • The Inner Circle that includes Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, and Banteay Kdei. You will need to spend all day to visit all these sites.

Siem Reap Inner

  • The Outer Circle that includes Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon, Pre Rup, and Sras Srang. Half Day is enough.

Siem Reap Outer

  • Bantley Prei in about 40-minute drive out of town to the north. It’s a very small temple that can be seen in less than twenty minutes, but it has been nicely restored, and the carvings there are absolutely phenomenal. On the way back, you can stop at the Landmine Museum.

There are do and don’t’s of touring the temples of Siem Reap. Do hire a private guide. Don’t  sign up for a group tour. Easy! If you think that this advice sounds strange coming from a guy who believes that saving money must be a priority, even on a free trip, let me run my case by you, and see if it makes sense.

There is a difference between frugality and cheapness. Being frugal helps us enjoy more “go time”. Being cheap takes away our most precious travel moments.

Having flown thousands of miles across the globe and robbing yourself of the most important experience of your journey is not frugal or smart. Cambodia is so cheap that you will be saving money on everything else. Hotels are cheap, food is cheap, taxis are cheap, hell, even an hour of massage is cheaper than our minimum wage. Do not save money on guides. You don’t want to just see these carvings, you want to understand them in historical concept.

You may counter that you’re not a scholar of history, and that knowing why this temple looks worse than another temple, even if it was built a century later may not sound like something important, but it is when you get to hear the story. There will be more than one “wow moment” when these depictions of real and fictional battles begin making sense to you. Trust me, there were plenty of wow moments during my visit, when I was happy to have an experienced guide next to me.

There is an alternative to hiring a guide for $30-50 a day. You could read a book. However, you wouldn’t just have to read a book, you’d have to study it, mark the most important passages, take it with you on a trip. And even the best book won’t help you find the best photo angles. It won’t tell you to make two steps away into a hidden corridor or behind the door, or get around the corner in order to make that great shot.

If you don’t care about stuff like that, reading a good book will work. It won’t hurt, that’s for sure.

Want to save money in Siem Reap? You will. Everything is so cheap here, it’s short of amazing. A dinner under $10 even on expensive and touristy Pub Street. A beer for $.50. A cocktail under $2. A 1-hour massage for $5-10. A tuk-tuk ride from and to any hotel in town for $2 or $3. Everything costs peanuts. Actually, strike that, peanuts do cost in Cambodia as much as in the US, but, you’ve got the picture.

Using points for a hotel stay in Siem Reap is unnecessary, although you can if you want to. Le Meridian where I stayed is still a decent option at 28,000 for five days, as is Grand Hyatt for 15,000 a day. But the thing is, there are dozens of good 4-star hotels in Siem Reap that cost under $70 a day with breakfast.

On a subject of money: you don’t need to change the money. Everyone accepts US dollars, and the prices are the same.

Next part:  Angkor Wat and More Wats. Cambodia Day One.

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