When I told people that I was going to Siem Reap, the universal reply was – “Siam what?”. When I said I am going to Cambodia, people were even more perplexed wondering why I wanted to go to Cambodia. It was only when I mentioned Angkor Wat, then even realised where I was going and gave me the absentminded Indian head nod. This post – A Solo traveller’s guide to Siem Reap is about my experience in this lovely, beautiful, and friendly city. It is great for solo travel, backpacking as well as a luxury retreat. It is a place that you have to see atleast once in your lifetime. And I waited 21 years for this trip.
I must have come across a picture of Angkor Wat in Kumudam, a Tamil magazine as a 11 year old and immediately wanted to see it. I wrote about it too, in my I dream of travel post in 2016. But Cambodia had always been out of reach. It was always too expensive, too far, too unknown, too strenuous, and too improbable. Finally, this year, I made up my mind to go and made arrangements. Then I had to postpone the whole trip because of a work visit.
It meant getting leave, travel permission, postponing tickets, hotel stay, itinerary and all the works again. This was all done in December, during semester exams – the busiest month of the year for a faculty. On the last day of my work visit, a fell and hurt my left leg. My good, weight bearing leg as my right knee is wonky. But I believe in working towards the fulfilment of your dreams and never giving up. So bandage and all I boarded the flight. I must have
walked limped through atleast 20km in the next three days but I kept the promise I made to my 11 year old self. So if you have a dream like mine then this Solo traveller’s guide to Siem Reap will direct you in the right direction.
Solo traveller’s guide to Siem Reap
From India, you can fly to Siem Reap via Bangkok or Malaysia. I took the cheaper route in flying by Airasia through Malaysia and spent my long layovers sightseeing. More on it later. You need a visa to enter SR, but it is Visa on arrival. You need your passport, visa form, $30 USD cash and one 4cm X 6cm colour photograph. I got my visa in less than 5 minutes.
If you have less money to spend and a strong back, go by tuk tuks everywhere. If not book a car for the longer trips and use Tuk tuks to go to Pub street or the museum. Minimum Tuk Tuk charge is $1 USD. My Driver Mr. Hav Lim (I recommend him, please email me for his details) charged me $85 USD for two days including a trip to Banteay Srei. Most drivers also double as as guides and charge anywhere between $20 to $50 for two days. I didn’t use a guide; infact I ended up guiding a lot of guides and tourists at various temples. You need to get a 1 day, 3 day or 7 day ticket to visit the temples at the Apsara ticket booth. A 3 day $62 USD ticket is recommended.
When to go
November to February are the coolest months while September and October are the greenest. Go in December or January if possible but be prepared for Peak season crowds. I found the days to be hot and the nights chilly just like Chennai in January.
What to wear & Pack
For women I recommend calf length dresses or skirts (culottes) and tops with sleeves while visiting the temples. Wear cotton or viscose rayon as it is breathable. Fitted Pants, leggings or jeans will chaff your thighs. You will need a jacket or a shawl/wrap for early mornings and late nights. Men can wear knee length shorts or loose pants with Tshirts or shirts. Shorts, sleeveless tops are not allowed at temples. A wide brimmed hat is a must and so is comfortable footwear. I picked up cleap Yep me sandals with a suede insole and it really helped with my hurt leg. They are scuffed beyond repair now but it was worth it. Wear shoes only if you are used to hiking/climbing on rocks and stones with them.
If you are particular about brands for toiletries, medicines, and cosmetics pack them. If not you’ll get everything you need and more in Siem Reap but with unfamiliar branding. Do not forget your camera, selfie stick (aka monopod), cell phone and chargers.
Where to Stay
While the high end resorts are either in the Airport road or near the river, the backpacking hostels are close to Pub street. I chose to stay at Taphul village and it was a great decision. My $25 a night hotel was beautiful. There were supermarkets and local kirana stores, pharmacies, a Tuktuk stand and massage places around. There was one Mexican restaurant and one Nepali restaurant nearby that had separate vegetarian menus.
What to eat – Vegetarian Diaries
Siem Reap is vegetarian friendly unlike Thailand. The places I ate at took note of my spice requirements and allergies and catered to them. Thnou street – the area around Pub street has restaurants that cater to different cuisines including Indian. It was a bit difficult to find veg options at the temples. But I could get rice, french fries and coconut water at Angkor Wat and there seemed to be ice cream too. I usually book rooms with breakfast but it proved to be futile here. In Siem Reap, you are going to get up early in the morning or sleep in till mid morning after sightseeing the previous day. This means that you’ll only get cold bread and butter with bananas for breakfast. Its not worth spending $3 a day on it. You can pick up fruits and bread at a local store for a far lesser amount. Buy water bottle in a pack of 12 and save money. A meal at a local restaurant would cost $4 upwards and a drink $0.5 upwards.
Things to do
- See the Sunrise at Angkor Wat
- Explore the temples – Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom, Preah Khan, Banteay Srei, Pre Rup, Prasat Kravan (Detailed Descriptions will follow in a separate post)
- Visit the museums – Visit the National museum before you go to the temples and the MGC Asian Traditional textiles museums on way back on the second day of temple visit
- Visit Artisans Angkor and and take a tour of the various craft workshops
- Pamper yourself – Get $5 USD massages and $3 USD Fish pedicures. Relax and rejuvenate
- People watch at Pub street or get a pretty drink for really cheap
- Optional – See the Phare Circus or visit the Cultural village – to see the wax hall, Khmer houses, and folk performances including circus acts
While the Made in Cambodia market is the place to treat yourself to locally made Khmer shawls, silk necklaces and paintings, you can buy cheap souvenirs at the various Night markets. Artisan’s Angkor is a great place to buy repousse boxes, silk dress, and laquared home decor. Shop at Claycult for some ceramic beaded jewelry.
Most of us are not used to walking 10+ km a day. So it will be tiring and you will require a tremendous amount of will power to continue going in the heat. Walk atleast 2-3 km the day before you go to the temple ruins to get used to it. Many temples have steep steps every few yards – you need to climb up and down a lot. Drink 4-5 litres of water a day when touring the temples to avoid dehydration. Substitute water, if required with fresh juices or coconut water to get in more vitamins. Massages help keep cramps at bay but tell your masseur to be gentle. I recommend BL massage in Taphul road for their no frills approach to pain management. They use Vit E creams or Lemongrass oil with Vit E for massages. If you are not allergic to Vitamin E, I strongly recommend that you take Evion supplements once a day just like I did to avoid nocturnal cramps. I also used Evion on my skin and hair to help me combat the damage done by dust and heat. Just do not overdo it.*
Get a copy of Ancient Angkor (available from $7 at most temples though the maps will be missing in the pirated versions) and read through it. It will help you prioritize locations and point you to the details that you want to see. Get Local sim card ($5 rental) if you staying for more than 2-3 days as hotels charge for local calls. However, there is free wifi available almost everywhere in the city (not in Angkor though). You only have to ask for the password. Though Riel is the official currency, its used only as small change. Carry crisp, new USD in 1, 5, 10 and 20 dollar notes. Nobody will accept a $100 note or old, crumpled, folded notes. Coins are not accepted.
Some dreams come true easily and some take a while. My dream to visit Angkor Wat took tremendous effort to visit but it was totally worth it. Some cities make you crave the comfort of being in a group, some scare you, some threaten loneliness and some others make you want to cut loose and run. Siem Reap does none of them. It just lets you be, the way you want to be. Go there by yourself and make friends with the city and the stories it has to offer.
I hope this Solo traveller’s guide to Siem Reap was helpful to you. Do look out for the post on Khmer temples coming up soon.
*Post submitted for the #Evion – Vitamin E mantra contest