The air was already muggy before sunrise. Surrounded by other tourists, I took my place by the front ponds of Angkor Wat. My trusty Samsung Galaxy 7 couldn’t hold a flame to the other professional cameras around me, but I was determined to capture the sunrise over the temple.
By this point, I was on the second leg of my 12-day journey across Southeast Asia, and was trying to soak up every second I could. Yes, some people called me crazy. Yes, other travelers said I was rushing too much. Perhaps they were right, but I was on a time limit, and I was determined to see as much of this world as I possibly could.
Since I was traveling between Bangkok and Hanoi, I would waste the opportunity of a lifetime if I missed the chance to detour to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Back then I was what I like to call a “baby backpacker” in that I was just starting to find my travel style. I hadn’t made it through many countries yet, and ticking off as many as possible in the shortest amount of time was my priority.
If you are on as much of a time crunch as I was, and have less than 24 hours to see Siem Reap, follow along so I can tell you exactly how I did it.
Please note that this is an all-encompassing article, meaning that it will walk you through every single step so it is lengthy!
The actual temples I visited will be at the very end of the article as this article will take you step by step on how to get there.
If your passport is from any country outside of Southeast Asia, you will need a tourist visa in advance to enter the country. See here for the country list.
Luckily, obtaining the e-visa is extremely simple! It costs around $36 USD.
I received my visa within a few days and presented it to customs at the Siem Reap Airport. I found that this was one of the easier airports I’ve been through in the world. I was off my plane and through customs in under 10 minutes.
One of the biggest stresses for me when traveling is figuring out exactly how to get from airports to where I’m staying. Pro-tip, it is always easier than I expect.
Just walk through the front doors and you will immediately see a window to request a taxi. You can take your pick of a taxi, which is actually a modern car instead of a traditional New York taxi, or a traditional Cambodian Tuk Tuk - a carriage pulled by a motorcycle.
The drivers are familiar with almost every resort and hotel around the city, so if you just tell them the name rather than the address they can get you there with no problem.
Note: Cambodia accepts USD as well as Cambodian Riel. Wherever I went I paid with USD in cash and would receive Riel as change. They are picky about the quality of the bills, though. If a bill is too wrinkly, old, or has a tear in it then vendors will not be able to accept it.
The airport fare prices are set, so you will not need to barter like in other parts of the city. Note that they are a little more expensive than bartering, but only by about one or two USD. The drivers at the airport are known to flirt to try and get tips out of you.
Before I left the airport, I did stop by to get a SIM card. The one I chose would have been good for around three days, and only cost me $2 USD. Public WiFi is not widespread in Cambodia, so if you are like me and get anxiety from not being connected, it is better to pay a few dollars for the service!
Another option is to use Pass App - Cambodia’s TukTuk hailing app!
I personally have not used this, but several other travel bloggers recommend it, stating:
It claims that it can be used all across Cambodia, and offers transport to and from airports.
Siem Reap is a tourist hotspot so there is no shortage of resorts, hotels, and budget hostels. A bunk in a shared hostel dorm starts at around $2 USD for a night, and the high-end luxury resorts around $400 a night.
I am a hostel girl at heart, and for only one night in Siem Reap, I chose to stay at Siem Reap Pub Hostel. Why? There was an open pool, bar area, restaurant, and air conditioning for only $4 at the time I stayed.
They also took the extreme hassle out of arranging a tour to Angkor Wat. Through the hostel, I booked my entire tour for $10. This included pick up, a tour guide, transportation through the complex, and ice-cold water throughout the day.
The hostel was comfortable and had a lively, social atmosphere that I seek out when I travel. I went to the pool area and made immediate friends.
For those who travel, you know how special hostel friendships are. You go for a day, speak for an hour, and keep in touch for a lifetime.
If you have 24 hours in the town and are fitting an Angkor Wat tour in there, you have to think carefully about how you are going to spend the evening hours.
Angkor Wat tours start at 4am. So, if you are out until even ten or eleven pm, then you’re committing to a long day ahead on less than five hours of sleep.
For me, I chose the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” route and went out with my newfound friends.
At the time Game of Thrones was airing its final season. Yes, I am as dissatisfied as the next person with how it turned out. But, it led to one of my favorite travel memories. Imagine you are in a hostel bunk with 20 people surrounding one laptop watching Aria Stark kill the Night King.
We took that high out to Pub Street - officially titled Street 08. It is the nightlife and food hub of downtown Siem Reap. Vendors stand out advertising 50-cent beers, raging neon clubs, and street food to satisfy the most adventurous eaters.
My vegetarian heart stayed clear of the tarantula and scorpion appetizers, but they were interesting to see nonetheless.
You have to be careful with many foods in Siem Reap, as Western stomachs are not accustomed to the cuisine and I have heard of more than one case of food poisoning stemming from an innocent-looking meal. The best advice is to stay away from buffets and uncooked vegetables.
I steered clear of alcohol because the last thing I wanted was a hangover at the temple complex the next day. But, I took my time and soaked in the atmosphere of the neon-speckled streets and lively atmosphere of the street.
Backpackers from all over the world were mixing, singing, dancing, and soaking in life.
If you are wanting to go to bed early, do not worry because things on the street usually kick to life from the second the sun goes down. So, you could just as well head out at eight pm, walk around for an hour, and be in bed by nine or ten pm for the next day.
If this does not sound like your type of vibe, enjoy a quiet night in your room and rest up for the next day.
The Angkor complex is the number one tourist attraction in Cambodia, and the main reason people from around the world gather in Siem Reap. It is famous for being the filming location for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Beyond modern media, it is culturally and spiritually significant and a source of pride for the Khmer people.
Originally constructed in the century as a Hindu temple for the god Vishnu, it was later transformed into a Buddhist temple by the end of the 12th century.
I did not do my research properly before visiting, so my impression was that it would be a set of temples and buildings scattered between dirt paths and easily walkable. I was absolutely wrong.
The entire complex is spread out over 400 acres and would have been absolutely impossible to traverse easily by foot.
Be prepared for an early morning as most tours depart by 4 am to give you time to get your passes and arrive at Angkor Wat in time to see the sunrise.
There are a few options for tours. They range from group tours, bike tours, to Tuk Tuk Tours.
With limited time, I decided to take the day tour provided by my hostel. This was the best choice for me as it took all of the hassles out of planning the day. I got to see the highlights of the complex, make friends in the small group, and retreat to an air-conditioned van between stops.
Some travelers going solo will miss the sunrise if they choose to not take a group tour like this and get their tickets when the ticket office opens!
Because I went during the low tourism season, the tour guide had extra time to show the group the best spot to take photos and could tell us some extra facts about the complex. At the end of the day, I tipped him $10, the price of the tour itself, because he made the experience so wonderful.
This is popular for friend groups and you can negotiate the price with your driver! It is fairly easy to seek out a tour guide around Siem Reap.
They will take you around the complex for the day and can give u the best inside advice and the history of the temples. This is another go option if you are strapped for time as you can negotiate exactly what time you need to leave the park!
Note - Tuk Tuk Tours do not usually take you to the ticket office before sunrise because of time constraints! In this situation, you should go to the ticket office the evening before. If you are on a time crunch this can eat into your time in Siem Reap.
This is the type of tour I least recommend. They are often overpriced and strenuous. A girl I met on my tour told me a company was going to charge almost $70 for the bike tour.
April is the hottest time of the year for Southeast Asia, and the blaring sun and dirt paths would have made it an extremely difficult experience for the average traveler.
However, in the cooler months, this could be a good experience! Do your research carefully and take your physical limitations into account.
Several passes are available for visiting the temples. The three options are 1, 3, and 7 days.
This was by far the most expensive part of my trip because the one-day pass cost $37 USD.
1 Day - $37
3 Days - $62
7 Days - $72
These are at-the-counter prices - which are cheaper! Tickets are available online at a higher rate.
Because I went in April, it was tourism low season so the group did not have to wait long.
Note: The pass is valid until 5 pm the day of purchase. If you get your passes after 5 pm they will be valid the next day. Though, if you go on a tour they will almost always take you to get your tickets!
Children under 12 are free, but they will need a valid ID (passport) to show proof of their age.
You must keep the pass with you at all times throughout the day because guards around the park will look at it at certain checkpoints.
Dress conservatively. Wear what you would like elsewhere, but within the complex modesty is not only respectful, but required.
Make sure your shoulders and knees are fully covered. Avoid religious-themed patterns and graphics.
Tops, bottoms, and dresses guidelines
For many people, this means wearing some of the famous loose-flowing elephant pants popular around SouthEast Asia.
WARNING: These pants are made with thin fabric! They run a high risk of tearing. It happened first to a girl in my group, and then to me. Make sure you have an emergency pair in a bag so you don’t accidentally flash the monks.
Siem Reap is hot, especially in March and April. Wearing breathable clothing is essential!
For many women, use this as a chance to break out your Boho style! The flowy-er and looser the better you will feel.
Uniqlo’s airism innerwear was a lifesaver, too.
Shoes - Most of Siem Reap is dirt paths. Wearing strappy sandals is encouraged! Avoid socks if you can.
Hats - The sun is unforgiving and shade is hard to find in the complex. A breathable sun hat will not only look cute, but be your best friend throughout the day and hide your sweat!
Be sure to pack plenty of sunscreen and bug repellent.
Other things to bring, but not necessarily include
Most guided tours will stop you by a restaurant to break for a meal at around 10 am. These restaurants will be more expensive than the city, but the quality is good!
We were taken to Takeo Khmer Food - located just beside Ta Keo temple!
I wanted to try traditional Cambodian food. The tour guide recommended a dish called Amok - a creamy soup-like curry with fish. It is one of the national dishes of Cambodia! My meal ran around $6 USD with a drink and some rice.
It was, simply put, amazing! Filling, hearty, delicious - everything I could want in a meal.
Note: Generally touching or leaning against parts of these temples is highly discouraged. Everywhere I took pictures was with the approval of the tour guide.
There are an estimated 50 Buddhist and Hindu temples scattered around Angkor Archaeological Park. The tour guide drove us past a good number of them, while allowing us out to walk around four of them.
As mentioned above, no tour can start without seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise.
When the sun peeks just through the five lotus-like towers, you understand why it is worth it to detour your trip here.
To this day, it is still one of the most humbling things I have ever seen.
The next, significantly prominent temple to visit is Ta Prohm. Towering trees grow from the ruins. Over the years, the trees and foliage have become a part of the architecture.
Fig, banyan, and kapok trees intertwine to create an ethereal atmosphere that leaves you feeling you have visited another world.
This is also known as the famous Tomb Raider temple.
The third temple we were taken to explore was Ta Keo.
We were allowed to independently explore since the restaurant we ate lunch at was just next to it!
Ta Keo was a beauty to behold. The temple is built in a tiered style, with five towers on the top.
Be warned that this temple can be one of the more unforgiving ones to visit. There was no shade, and no railings for the steep, uneven steps.
Warning: If you go to this temple wearing elephant pants, be careful with the steps! I had the misfortune of completely tearing my pants and going down the steps wrong. It wasn’t a regular tear, my whole backside was fully exposed. Elephants are breezy and cute, but will fall apart at the wrong move.
The last stop of the day was to the impressive Bayon temple. Years later, I can still picture myself standing underneath a stone tower engraved with the four faces of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.
Overall, there are 50 of these towers in the temple.
We arrived at this temple around noon, and had an hour to explore. The time went by quickly, taking pictures and learning the history.
The half-day trip was blisteringly hot, exhausting, and undoubtedly one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced. If you are thinking about taking a detour to Siem Reap even for less than 24 hours as I did, I strongly encourage you to.
Even more, I encourage you to spend as long as you possibly can in Cambodia. I feel as though I could spend years there and never experience all this amazing country has to offer.
I do not buy souvenirs when I travel, preferring the only thing I take to be my photo memories. Even so, I was struck by an artist who set up a station inside Angkor Wat. I bought this painting as the hues reminded me of the most memorable sunrise of my life so far.
Even though I have no permanent home now and plan to live my life nomadically, I have decided that if I were to ever settle somewhere, this will be framed by my front door.
After being dropped back off at the hostel at around 1 pm, I took a shower, a quick nap, and readied my things to for the next leg of my journey to Hanoi.