Vietnam, Cambodia, Macau and Hong Kong Trip Report: Visiting Angkor Wat and Other Temples in Siem Reap

Angkor Wat Tours:

I don’t really have travel ‘bucket lists’ but there are certainly places and things that catch my imagination, and Angkor Wat has been one of those places for a long time. I’m not sure why exactly, but I had a certain mental image of the place — because it was nearly 1000 years old, so majestic, so religious and because it was in a country in Southeast Asia that I hadn’t yet visitied perhaps. So I was really excited to see the temples outside of Siem Reap.

Because I had been so busy, as I relayed in previous posts, I didn’t do a lot of advance planning. I knew that the cost of visiting the temples was going to consist of:

  • Tickets, you have to pay $20 per person.
  • A guide. This isn’t required of course but I wanted someone who was familiar with the area and its history, and the specific meaning of each thing we were seeing, who could offer their perspective. Once I was flying all the way to Siem Reap it seemed an inexpensive investment.
  • A driver. Also not strictly speaking necessary, you can make your own way to the parks and even hire a guide there or so it seemed or meet up with one. But an easy mode of transportation, and one who had bottles of water and towels to wipe off after walking around in the heat, made the sightseeing much more pleasant.

I shot off an email to the Park Hyatt and managed to arrange something for $150. That included the tickets (2 x $20), guide for the day (I’ve seen guides listed online for ~ $30), and car and driver as well. I could have gotten it cheaper piecemeal, but it was easy and seamless.

Our guide picked us up from the hotel and our first stop was tickets to enter the temple complex, then on to Angkor Wat. The drive is a quick one, it’s only a few miles outside of the center of town.

On arrival at Angkor Wat I was immediately impressed.

Certain parts of the temple were very busy with visitors. Most were wandering around on their own without a guide. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and personable. Whenever something was surprising or impressive he had this funny saying, “Oh my Buddha!”

The temple was constructed as Hindu, of course, but as the ruler of Cambodia became a Buddhist the temple’s statues and carvings were modified as well so that it would be appropriately a Buddhist temple. Built in the 12th century, it’s the largest religious monument in the world.

There are three levels to the temple. As we ascended each, there were fewer tourists. I suppose they didn’t want to walk.

I was surprised, though, by the number of people immodestly dressed inside a religious site. Out of respect, it seems to me, that one should be covered. Shorts and tank tops just didn’t seem appropriate attire, even though it’s certainly hot there.

The back side of the temple is stunning as well, and on that side there are plenty of hawkers selling souvenirs which I suppose some might consider equally inappropriate although there are plenty of tourists to provide services to.

While we stopped along the way between major sites and saw some of the less majestic ones, the next significant temple was Angkor Thom.

Far more popular, though, and especially so with Cambodians visiting Siem Reap was Ta Prohm which our guide described simply as “Angelina Jolie temple” because of its prominence in the film Tomb Raider.

After visiting these major sites, we were hungry for lunch, and asked our guide to pick a place to eat — we asked him for his favorite and not what he thinks we’d like, we asked him what place did he think was best?

The strategy didn’t quite work out the way I had hoped, often times asking someone where they like to go and they go most often when they can is a great way to find real local food and to avoid tourist traps. Asking someone at such a restaurant what food they like best, or would serve to their own mother, can be a way of getting the best out of a restaurant.

Here, giving our guide the choice, he did pick a restaurant nearby that was visited mostly by Cambodians and other Southeast Asians.. but regional tourists.. and a restaurant that it runs out is owned by the family of his boss at the tour company. It wasn’t bad at all, in fact it was quite good, but impossibly pricey for the food served.

Here’s the menu (click to enlarge):

We asked our guide and driver to join us for the meal, and they at first resisted. They insisted that usually the guide and driver would be fed a different meal, outside of the restaurant, when they bring guests. That alone told me that this was a tourist establishment, which gives kickbacks for bringing in patrons (at least in food, but perhaps also more?). Our guide asked permission of the restaurant if they might join us and they were told it was ok.

One of the servers that day, it turns out, was our guide’s boss which seemed as though it was a little awkward but I didn’t understand the language when they spoke. It did seem like he won points by bringing business to his boss’ family, but the awkwardness may have been in his boss having to serve him at the table.

Nonetheless, it was a good meal and in a pretty environment – even if it did cost me $36.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I found the “kickback lunch” to be aggravating in the extreme, particularly since we were paying quite a bit through the Park Hyatt for a guide. Honestly? I’d rather he have dropped us off at the hotel and we’d ordered lunch at the pool.

    I will say, in the PH Siem Reap’s favor, the Glasshouse Deli was awesome. And the prices for spa services and food and drink in the hotel may be expensive by Siem Reap standards, but were shockingly low for a luxury hotel brand.

  2. Next time try Banteay Srei. It’s a bit of a ride but I did it on the back of a bike on local roads. The red sandstone is beautiful and the relief restoration is crisp. The buildings are in miniature so it’s much more manageable.

  3. Kudos for dressing up. I endured sweltering heat to visit the Vatican and was the only one of my friends to wear pants. I learned that jeans are a bad idea during the Italian summer and have since bought more appropriate “warm weather” pants. But at least I tried.

  4. We’re planning for a trip in July, and I’d love your input on what clothing would be appropriate for men and women, both in Cambodia as a whole and at the temples in particular. Also, did you tip the driver and guide separately? How much is appropriate?

  5. Great review of the trip, I read each day’s updates! But maybe give the high-horse judgments a rest?

    You might find it offensive to walk around in shorts… but guess what? Many find it offensive that you trample all around these religious temples like you own the place, while spending more on just your lunch, than many locals earn in an entire month. That seems to be much worse than wearing shorts…

    I love your travel information, dislike your soapbox sermon. But that’s just my perspective.

  6. Like Gary, Angkor Wat had been on my list for a while.
    I was not disappointed when I visited Siem Reap last Dec.

    If you are in good shape, you can rent a bike to visit the different sites.

    The trip is definitely in my top 5 destinations.

  7. Nice write up. I loved my Cambodia trip back in 2001. Angkor is amazing, though you can get “Templed” out quickly which is sad if you think about it. I agree Bantea Srei suould be seen if possible. Great people, incredible History, though much of it horrible.

  8. I was just here about 3 weeks ago Gary, but you have better pics than me! I arranged our private tour with the Amex platinum concierge and it was also $150 pp x 2. Private guide was great and arranged a flow that avoided the masses. And lunch was not in a very touristy place. We also stayed at the PH and really liked it.

  9. I spent 9 days in Siem Reap in ’08 on a shoestring. I stayed at the Golden Orange Hotel ($20/night including A/C private room with breakfast). I bought a one week pass to the park. The Angkor Park is quite large with many dozens of temples. Angkor Wat and Bayon are the closest and most famous. Each day I ate a big breakfast, took a couple water bottles and hired a motorcycle trike driver for about $5 to drive me to three new temples. I took thousands of photos, skipped lunch because the heat eliminated hunger, and ate a great dinner in town. I probably only really saw a third of the temples there. I read a guidebook the night before to plan and learn the history of the next days temples. Great trip!

  10. I visited SR in September of 2013 and loved it, it should be on every traveler’s “bucket list”. Regarding the kickback lunch – I believe pretty much everything in SR runs on a similar system; I don’t think you can avoid it, and frankly Khmer food wasn’t that exciting to me anyway so the places my guide took me to were pretty much indistinguishable from the places I found on my own in town – indistinguishable in both price and quality. Rather than feeling cheated, I was happy to just see such a beautiful place and have an opportunity to help stimulate the local economy in a very, very poor country. And if my tour guide was to believed, the $20 entrance fee to the temples doesn’t do that, or even go to the upkeep of the temples. He was a bit of a political activist and after a couple days started to get comfortable enough with me to discuss local politics. According to him Vietnamese companies have the gate contracts and most of the takings head across the border.

    Regarding attire at the temples, I disagree about shorts. These aren’t really temples any more – they’re archeological sites. They haven’t been active temples in hundreds of years.

  11. @Elizabeth – I think you just want to cover up.. something below the knee, and that covers your shoulders. And I did tip, because I’m American 🙂

  12. @Everyone Else – I really wasn’t judging anyone, I was trying to be as respective as possible. My guide commented on shorts being disrespectful, and he suggested you can’t ascend to the top level of Angkor Wat if not properly covered, so I was passing that along as hopefully useful information. Certainly didn’t intend any offense by it, or to suggest that I am somehow inherently more appropriate 🙂

  13. There is a great restaurant run by Swiss hipsters. Don’t remember the name, but just mention Swiss owner and your hotel will point it out for you.

  14. I was in SR last November.

    I, too, was appalled by underdressed tourists. What I did differently from Gary was to spend two mornings going to temples. My driver picked me up at 7:00 each day and by noon, I was templed out each of those days and did other things. I am pleased with my choice – as awful as it sounds, the temples do tend to become a blur even at the end of a half day. Also, getting out early permitted me to see the temples before the large tour groups could muster. By 10:00, the major temples were simply packed, which limited their appeal.

  15. The dress code (covering legs, etc.) is really only expected/enforced on the top level (if its open) of Angkor Wat temple – as this is an active holy site where monks live. Bayon is also a holy site. Most of the rest of the temples in the Angkor National Park are archaeological sites. What really bothered me was seeing the bus loads of tourists from Korea and China (among others) pouring in and behaving very badly. People touch everything, including delicate carvings and sitting/climbing on areas clearly marked as off limits/do not touch. I would recommend seeing Siem Ream sooner than later because these temples are not going to last long.

  16. Having dealt with drivers and interpreters for a number of years in SE Asia with my work, i have found they often prefer to dine among what they consider to be their peers. But a kind and polite gesture on your part, i always do the same, some take me up on it, some don’t.

  17. I guess people like @Everyone Else don’t”…trample all around these religious temples like you own the place, while spending more on just your lunch, than many locals earn in an entire month.”

    Perhaps they fly over the temples or do their travelling in cyberspace or their imaginations? Otherwise please explain to us how you are more culturally sensitive in your approach?

    BTW paying those inflated restaurant prices is likely contributing more for the local economy than what you are doing, trying to scam the locals for the cheapest prices on your holidays.

  18. We visited the Angkor temples for 3 days, a few months ago, and it was amazing. Truly a bucket list item for me. With the right tour guide and a willingness to enter the park at 5 am, you can totally avoid the crowds.

    Average per-capita income in Cambodia is $880 per year, making it one of the poorest countries in the world (generally speaking, only a few African countries are poorer). Given that, I was happy to pay “inflated” restaurant prices and buy a few “overpriced” souvenirs to support the local economy.

    The population is young overall because an entire generation was lost to the Khmer Rouge. I was very impressed by their work ethic. Yes, they are all hustling and yes, that means “kickback lunches” and that type of thing. Good for them. I admire their spirit and if the people I met are any indication, Cambodia has a bright future ahead of it.

    Go there and spend some money!

  19. Nice pictures Gary. I agree about the no shorts in the temples. I always take off my hat too. There were monks around the temples at ankor and wat thom when I was there in october of2013. A one day pass was 20 dollars, a three day 40. I was told the admission went to relatives of the ruling family, not to government or local area. There were also protests going against the election results in phnompenh while I was there, So alot of tourtists were apparently staying away and ankor wasn’t so crowded. Although some tourists who were there had been told the protests were over, so therer you go. I rented a tuk tuk (moto trike) for 10 bucks a half day, five hours or so. Back in town by 1 or so, very tired from templing around the countryside. I did have lunch one day at the collection of shop stalls and eateries down past wat thom and just past the leper king temple. The place my tuktuk driver took me, was run by people from his village. He was happy to join me for lunch there too, he had the soup. Anyway, even the small scale places have their connections and commissions.

    Oh, I flew in to pnh on dragonair using avios from hkg. I then flew from siem rep to rangoon on MIA, myanmar international airlines where I got a visa on arrival but only after being told by burmese immigration I needed another “paper” and would have to go back. They did let me in after 10 or 15 minutes of this. I actually may have had the “other paper” the whole time, since they never asked me for my onward tricket or my hotel reservations and itinary inn burma. I used avios again to fly dragonair from rangoon to hongkong direct at the end of my visit there, just fyi on that. Then you can go to Bagan and see what getting templed out is really about.

  20. Thanks Gary. This brings back memories of our 3 week fall 2014 tour of South East Asia. What an incredible honor and memory we cherish from our visit to Siem Reap and Temples! We purposely chose to pay for our stay at The Prevelige Floor; it was pure luxury and an incredible experience for $300 US dollars. Amazing, really! The Cambodian people are so kind – it was a real joy to meet them and to experience their culture and exemplorary work ethic. We too, had a similar experience with our most excellent guide and driver. We asked them to join us for lunch which seemed to make them a bit uncomfortable…our guide did join us but the driver sat apart. Of course, we insisted on paying the tab for both. It is tricky sometimes to know what is considered respectful or not in other cultures though we do try to get a sense of such things prior. We were also fortunate enough to experience first on Cathay from JFX to HGK and return – wow!

  21. Yes! On our visit there last year, we had the same surprise at how some people were dressed! We actually had pants on that came under the knees, but not all the way to the ankles and when we asked our tuk tuk driver if it was okay, he asked us to change! I think it is so important to be respectful of other countries customs!!
    In other news, I also agree that Angkor Wat is incredible! We only visited the main temples as I was pregnant and struggling with the heat, but WOW!!! 🙂

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