I’ve wanted to go to Cambodia for years now, and after trying to work in time to go with girlfriends or the fiancé, I finally bit the bullet and decided I’d just go alone rather than wait for schedules to align. It wasn’t the first time I’ve travelled alone in Asia- I went to Bali two years ago by myself- but Cambodia is very, very different from Bali. Like in Bali, most Cambodians were baffled upon seeing a young woman travel alone- I got a load of questions and sympathetic looks when people asked if I had any friends or family. Like in Bali, I was fine travelling alone- going where I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted, without having to make conversation or anything like that. And like in Bali, I broke up my solo travel time with a retreat so I could get my fill of companionship. More about the retreat here.
I spent three days in total in Siem Reap seeing temples- one half day and two full days. Realistically, you could get away with seeing everything in two days, but in my opinion, it would be a very full three days, and I was much more comfortable taking it easy a couple of the days, particularly after my retreat when I was sore and tired from the yoga!
Below is my itinerary and what I found super beautiful/worthwhile and what I could have given a pass. I bought a seven day temple pass because my retreat was not far from some of the more distant temples (Bakong, Lo Lei and Prash Ko), but without that, I would have been fine with the three day pass.
Day 1: Beng Melea, Tonle Sap Lake and Phnom Backeng
Since time was of the essence, I hired a driver to get me around as quickly as possible- which gave me access to far flung temples and places I couldn’t have gotten to with a bike or moped. I did see a ton of tourists on both, and would recommend it as a way to get around (we did this in Bagan and it was fun, and felt safe), unless you don’t have much time and want to see a lot. I used Siem Reap Private Day Tours and was so happy with my driver, Kriss. He was so friendly and chatty, and I learned a lot about his life in Cambodia.
We started early to go to Beng Melea, an ancient temple that is crumbling. We arrived around 8:45am, before the massive busses of tourists, so I had the place to myself (well, minus the cows nearby) so it was peaceful and really lovely to explore– and not too hot. This temple is pretty far out, so you don’t need to go, but it was interesting to see one surrendering so completely to nature.
The biggest highlight of the day, and what I would highly recommend if you want to see something besides temples, was going on a tour of Tonle Sap Lake. Tonle Sap is Asia’s largest lake, and there are many fishing villages along it that are fascinating to see. The way of life is just so different from anything I’ve seen in the west.
After the lake, we rushed back to the temple complex (I use this term loosely as the main temple complex is MASSIVE, about 26 km, and there are temples further out, like Beng Melea) so I could see the sunset at Phnom Backeng. It look about 10 minutes to walk up the hill toward the temple, and there was a really long line of people- about 200, I’d guess- waiting to get up to the top. It gets so busy that they have a one in, one out policy. It made me feel a little guilty for just being there as clearly this old temple won’t last long with so many people crawling all over it. The sunset was beautiful but not spectacular- it is worth seeing the temple, but I would come any time of day, and the lines won’t be as insane in the middle of the day.
Day 2: Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Banteay Srey, Ta Prohm, South Gate of Angkor Tom, Bayon, Baphuon, Phimeanakas, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King, North Kleang, South Kleang and daytime Angkor Wat.
I’ve never in my life spent 14 hours touristing, but I did this on day two. If you have time, please do sunrise at Angkor Wat and exploring of Angkor Wat separately from Angkor Tom, mostly for your own mental sanity and because your feet will KILL YOU if you don’t. I knew I just had this one day to explore and examine everything so I took it all in, but I would have liked to have had two days just so I was more mentally aware. My favorite of the temples was Bayon, with its amazing faces, and I also really liked seeing the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King. There was not one part of the day that I would change, however, or one temple I would skip. They were all amazing and worth seeing.
Angkor Wat sunrise: what more is there to say than this was beautiful and a life goal completed to see it?
Banteay Srey, the Women’s Temple: I was there at 8am, so I was the first person in and had the complex to myself. Go early, the light is fabulous against the rock. This was my favorite temple- just so beautiful, and ornately carved.
Ta Prohm: of Tomb Raider fame (which I now want to watch writing about it), this temple was crumbling similar to Beng Melea, but is a little more interesting because MASSIVE trees are growing out of it. I can see why Angelina Jolie was transfixed by this temple, and Cambodia is general. Hopefully my pictures are showing you why as well.
Angkor Tom: this is a massive group of temples- kind of a complex within a complex.
Angkor Wat daytime: we ended the day where we began so I could experience Angkor Wat in the broad daylight. Honestly, I think if you stay for sunrise, just stay until the sun has fully risen. There are a few less people so you can walk around some of the corridors relatively uninterrupted in the morning, whereas in the afternoon it is absolutely heaving with people (and monkeys!). To be honest, although it is the most popular temple, it was the one I was least impressed by.
Day 3: Bakong, Lo Lei, Prash Ko, Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Poan and Prash Khan
I didn’t intend to stay an extra day in Siem Reap after my retreat, but I decided I couldn’t leave without seeing more temples. (I know, I have an obsession.) So I contacted my driver and spent one more day seeing the last of the local temples, including re-exploring the temples that were near my retreat center. It was nice to leisurely explore the temples we had driven past in our mad dash to see the biggest temples on day two of my excursion, and I think all these are worth seeing, but definitely Bakong, Pre Rup and Ta Som, if you’re pressed for time.
I loved my time in Cambodia. It has usurped India and Italy as my favorite country. I am not sure if its because of my time at Hariharalaya, or because the people were so amazing, or the landscape so captivating, or the history so haunting and present- but something about it has really stuck with me in my bones.