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When it comes to travel planning, my job is to research what to see and Dan handles the bookings. Until Cambodia. Dan had been wanting to see Angkor Wat for such a long time that I asked him to plan the entire Siem Reap itinerary.
I should have expected no less than this: My resourceful husband found a local to help him find the best things to do in Siem Reap. (Is that cheating?)
Okay, he didn't hire just any local. This Siem Reap native had been a private tour guide for over 20 years, his English was excellent and he responded quickly to Dan’s questions.
I was shocked at how quickly Dan had the trip arranged. It takes me weeks of research and planning. Maybe he should take over that responsibility and let me spend more time with my Kindle and online, reading more about Cambodia travel and what to do there.
Siem Reap tour options: Hire a guide, or do it yourself?
Here are the sightseeing options, as I see it.
1. Use a guidebook.
Had I been in charge of planning the trip, I probably would have taken the DIY approach to save money. You know the routine: Read a guidebook, hire a tuk-tuk driver, buy the ticket and wander around, looking for all the landmarks the book recommends.
A lot of websites offer that advice, but after having spent a week in Cambodia, I think my method would have been a huge mistake. We had used a book for our one-day walking tour in Savannah, Georgia. I found myself saying, “Hold on, let me see what’s important about this building” a whole lot. Then we’d stop so I could read the entry to Dan.
2. Hire a guide.
Dan’s idea to hire a private guide meant we could focus on the sights and let someone else manage the details. We ended up with two (!) tour guides for the price of one, who shared the driving and guiding duties. Both were well-versed in Cambodia’s history and culture as well as Buddhist and Hindu lore. Sunny and his friend Bunna offered anecdotes, pointed out curiosities, and answered our myriad questions.
Yes, it was costlier, but we could economize later. When it's a once-in-a-lifetime trip, shouldn’t you make the most of it?
3. Join a group tour.
A group tour would be informative as well, but they work on a strict schedule and you are hampered by the slowest person. You can't stay as long as you wish or leave early if we you have seen enough of a place. When service was slow one morning, Sunny and Bunna waited for us to finish our breakfast.
When I sprained my knee while mounting a too-high step, Bunna slowed the pace and helped me along. They took us to a few lesser-known temples and we got some incredible shots, with no one in the way. Could we have done that with a group tour? I'll let you figure that out.
Tip: Whichever method you choose, keep in mind that arriving early can make all the difference in your experience. For one thing, it's cooler early in the morning, and for another, you'll miss the tour bus crowds. Temples open at sunrise or before.
One week around Siem Reap and Angkor
Most tourists are in Siem Reap for only a few days. They’ll visit Angkor Wat and a few other sights, then head off to Phnom Penh. As a result, Sunny had never needed to offer anything longer than four-day itineraries on his website.
We were the first of Sunny's clients who wanted to spend a whole week in Siem Reap. Since none of the usual itineraries would work, he offered to create one that would. The extra time took us further afield and we were able to travel down rural roads, passing through countryside few westerners see.
Sothea (a.k.a. Sunny), who owns the company, took a break from guiding and became our driver. His friend Phing Bunna guided us through the area. Both are from Siem Reap and have been tour guides since 1996. Believe me, a Lexus hybrid car is a whole lot more comfortable than a tour bus or tuk-tuk would have been.
In any case, we fit a lot of Cambodia into one week. Take a look at this itinerary, then go ahead and feel sorry for people who have only stayed for three or four days.
Or, you can pay it forward by sharing this article with your friends who want to see Angkor Wat or visit Cambodia.
Day 1: City highlights + traditional shows
Morning: Learn how silk is made at a local silk farm, see relics from the country’s wars at the Cambodia War Museum, then watch artisans create unique stone, wood and textile crafts at Artisans d’Angkor Khmer handicraft center.
Afternoon: See exhibits on Khmer history, civilization, and cultural heritage at Angkor National Museum, then enjoy some free time at the Old Market (Psar Chaa). Return to hotel for shower and relaxation.
Tip: Reserve your dinner table ahead of time or you'll be stuck in the back. Book as early as possible and ask for front-row, center seats.
Day 2: Angkor Thom (“smiling faces temple”) + Cambodian Circus
Morning: See the many-faced towers at Angkor Thom. Pass through the South Gate and tour the interior: Bayon, Baphuon, King Palace area, Phimean Akas, Terrace of Leper King, and Elephant Terrace.
Afternoon: Visit Angkor Wat, then watch the sunset at Bakheng mountain or Pre Rup temple.
Evening: Enjoy an after-dinner performance at Phare, Cambodian Circus.
Tip: The circus was incredibly fun, but open seating views are partially obstructed. Worth paying more for center seats. (tickets)
Day 3: Sunrise at Angkor Wat + Ta Prom Temple
Morning: Leave hotel at 4:30 am to see sunrise at the Angkor Wat. After sunrise, visit Ta Prom temple before the crowds arrive. Then continue to Preah Khan, Neak Pan, Ta Som, East Mebon, Pre Rup. Lunch at the Angkor Park.
Afternoon: Continue to Pre Rup, Prasat Kravan and Srah Srang.
Evening: Have dinner at Malis Restaurant, a 5-star dining establishment.
Day 4: Banteay Srei + River of 1000 Lingas + Roluos Group
Morning: Leave at 7:30 am to visit “citadel of the women,” Banteay Srei, then continue on to see the River of 1000 Lingas and waterfall at Phnom Kulen mountain. Lunch at the Angkor Park.
Afternoon: Visit Roluos Group of temples, the first major capital of the Angkorian-era Khmer Empire. Then return to your hotel for some relaxation time. And a shower. You're going to want one of those.
Day 5: Cambodian life tour at Tonle Sap Lake + Beng Mealea temple
Morning: Depart at 8:00 am to see the lifestyle of Cambodians who live along the banks of Tonle Sap Lake, the largest lake in Southeast Asia. Explore Kampong Phluk floating village and/or Kampong Khleang stilt village.
Afternoon: Explore Beng Mealea, an especially beautiful temple that is being reclaimed by the jungle. Enjoy the evening on your own.
Day 6: Prasat Preah Vihea & Koh Ker Temple
Morning: Depart before breakfast to visit Prasat Preah Vihea, a spectacular Hindu temple that is situated on a 525-metre-high clifftop on the Thai border.
Afternoon: Explore Koh Ker archaeological site, with 40 temples and a reservoir that were built by Jayavarman IV, Khmer emperor from 928 – 941. Koh Ker is dominated by Prasat Thom, Prasat Linga, Brastat Prum and Brasat Neag Kmau. Among those, the most beautiful is “Prasat Thom,” which represents the sacred mountain of Hindu mythology. The giant pyramid temple has seven tiers a 36-meter base.
No evening plans, so perhaps the vibrant nightlife along Pub Street in Siem Reap is an option.
Day 7: Cooking class + quad bike ride – Siem Reap countryside tour
Morning: Cooking class! This was fun. Learn how to prepare traditional and delicious Khmer dishes under the guidance of a professional chef. Begin with a walk through the local market, see the action and learn about the produce. Then return to the kitchen and get to work learning to prepare spring rolls, traditional amok fish, and fried bananas before enjoying your creation in the garden.
Afternoon: 4-hour off-road quad bike trip offers an insight into a different side of Cambodia: the countryside surrounding Siem Reap. A local guide will show you how locals live in rural areas and their daily life style. The trip begins with a full briefing on how to drive the quad bike as well as important safety instructions. Then set off through the streets of Siem Reap to see villages, rice fields, a hidden temple, and Cambodians going about their daily lives, The final stop is at a rice paddy, with a beautiful view of the setting sun as it dips below the rice fields.