Southeast Asia has been on my to-go wish list for decades. Last winter break I finally got there. My family booked a trip to Thailand. Before it started, we managed to squeeze in a day and a half in Cambodia. We went to see Angkor Wat, the famous UNESCO world heritage site.
Once there, I really wished we had more time to explore the area. Although Angkor Wat is the most famous temple, there are actually over a thousand other temples all around. Angkor, after all, was the capital of the Khmer Empire for nearly six hundred years (from the 9th to the 15th centuries), and was, at the time, a magnificent mega-city.
What to do if, like me, you have only one day?
Arrive the day before. Since you really want to start your tour early (see below), you should plan to arrive in Siem Reap the day before. If you really have only 24 hours, plan to arrive in the late afternoon and leave the following day around the same time. If you can afford a few more hours, arrive earlier so that you have time to explore Siem Reap as well.
Visit Angkor National Museum. If possible, do this the day before you visit the temples. Angkor National Museum has nice displays portraying the history of the city, the Khmer Empire, as well as a 3-D model of Angkor Wat. You will understand the history, mythology and structure of what you see a lot better if you visit the museum first.
Book a Private Guide. You can try to plan your visit on your own, but booking a private tour guide in advance is so much simpler! There are many tour operators and English speaking guides. They will come pick you up from your hotel, help you buy tickets, take you around and explain what you see. If you hire your own guide, you won’t have to wait around for other people.
Get Up Early. Most tour guides try to be get to Angkor Wat when the site opens at 5:30 am. The official reason is to see the sunrise (though I wasn’t that impressed with it). HOWEVER, the early morning hours also tend to be the most pleasant temperature-wise. It gets very hot and humid later in the day… Getting to Angkor Wat as early as possible will give you more time to explore other temples later on.
Even if you get up at 4:30 am and feel that you traveled to the end of the world, though, don’t expect to be the only tourist there. Angkor Wat is quite crowded, even at dawn. Thousands of people from all over the world try to take pictures of the sunrise!
Once there, don’t get close to the monkeys! You might be as excited as we were to see monkeys in the wild, but they can get aggressive and even bite…
Enjoy the amazing architecture and beautiful reliefs. Although I learned art history in both high school and college, I don’t really know much about Khmer art. The architecture and reliefs in Angkor Wat are different than the art I’m used to, and are truly breath taking! You will enjoy them even more if you understand the Hindu mythology they depict (I didn’t).
Visit other temples. Angkor Wat is the most famous temple, but other temples and ruins in the area are just as beautiful. We visited two additional temples. The last place we went to was Ta Prohm, mostly known because of the film Lara Croft Tomb Rider. I really liked it, mostly because it isn’t as well-kept as Angkor Wat. The raw ruins and grown-in vegetation give it a wild, Indiana-Jones feel!
Wear a hat and stay hydrated! The days are very hot, and you will dehydrate quickly. I could barely walk in the second temple we visited.
Finally, be prepared for rain. Cambodia is in the tropics, and it can rain. Carry a rain poncho, just in case.
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