Thoughts on Revisiting Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
In October of 2011, I spent about 10 days in Cambodia during my round the world trip. That’s not a very long time to see a country, so when Andy and I started researching places to go for our winter escape and he was interested in seeing Angkor Wat, I didn’t mind a return trip. I thought I might enjoy taking pictures of the temples with my DSLR, which I didn’t have the first time around, and I figured it was a good opportunity to visit other parts of the country that I didn’t make it to. It was a second chance to see a country I thought I’d never visit again.
Struggling at the temples
Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples really are amazing. I loved seeing them a few years ago. I assumed I would enjoy it the second time around, but it didn’t quite work out that way. A lingering sinus infection meant I was having a hard time dealing with the exhaust from the motorbikes and tuk tuks, plus all the dust and dirt they kick up as they drive through the dirt paths near the temples.
On top of that, we were in Siem Reap during Chinese New Year, which apparently is a popular time for people from China to visit. The temples were so crowded which sucked the fun out of it for me. People kept going up stairs marked as down only, and vice versa, and on steep, narrow stairs, it felt like the rule-breakers would make me fall. The hordes of tourists waiting their turn to take overly posed pictures made it near impossible for me to get an unobstructed photo. And with all the extra tourists came all the touts pushing their cheap souvenirs on us at every turn.
I can barely tolerate crowds when I’m visiting an attraction I’ve never seen before. Trying to enjoy one on the second time around in those conditions put me in a foul mood. Aside from that, the temples themselves just didn’t thrill me on my second visit. Would I have found them just as fascinating without the crowds? Or is it really the kind of place I only needed to see once?
A different perspective on Siem Reap
Two years ago, I thought the town of Siem Reap was charming. Sure, the Pub Street area, where most of the tourists go to eat and drink, is mostly set up for the tourists. Almost all of the locals you see in this area are tuk tuk drivers or people who work at one of the many cafes, bars, travel agencies or souvenir shops. But it still felt exotic enough that I didn’t mind, and the food options seemed endless.
This time around, my view had changed. The same exotic feel was still there, but my patience was thinner. The tuk tuk drivers constantly jumping in my face asking if I needed a ride grated my nerves. There are dozens of them on every corner, if I need a ride, I know where to find them. The restaurants served up watered down versions of Cambodian and Thai food, and we struggled to find anything we wanted to eat. We quickly became regulars at the one place we could tolerate that served barbeque chicken skewers, among other things. We also ate at a Mexican place twice. (Not quite as good as Mexican food in Berlin but somehow still better than Freiburg’s.)
In the end, 10 days/11 nights was too long for us to stay in Siem Reap, especially since we got stuck in a crappy guesthouse for half of it. We thought it would be an easy place to hang out and get some work done while still having plenty of time to see the sights. But since we worked through our food options fairly quickly and we were still adjusting to traveling again, it turned out to be a difficult place for us. Aside from two days in Phnom Penh before arriving in Siem Reap, we didn’t make it anywhere else in Cambodia and instead opted to book a flight to southern Thailand for some island time.
I still think Angkor Wat and the other temples are well worth visiting, and I would encourage anyone planning a trip to Southeast Asia to go to spend a few days in Siem Reap. I’m also glad Andy had the chance to see Angkor Wat and some of the other temples. But I’ve definitely learned there are some places I just can’t repeat.
You might also enjoy:
- How Much We Spent Traveling in Southeast Asia for Two Months
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February 20, 2014 @ 8:41 AM
I love your picture from Angkor Wat. I was there in November and it was quite okay with the tourists during the day. Maybe because I was there early, early in the morning. The sunset on Phnom Bakheng, a temple on a hill in the area is amazing but you have to deal with lots of tourists. Doing it once is okay and definitely worth it but I can only agree with you that I am not sure if I want to do it a second time.
Have a great day.
February 22, 2014 @ 11:59 AM
Thanks Christina! My first time in Cambodia was in October 2011, and I think there were probably less tourists there overall as well. Plus the time of day definitely affects the situation. But I think high season is major for places like Angkor Wat. I mostly need to remember that revisiting a specific sight probably isn’t something I need to do, but revising a city or country (in most cases) is ok because there’s always more to see.
Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
February 20, 2014 @ 9:33 AM
I completely understand what you mean about the touts—I found them to be fairly terrible throughout Cambodia, though I would say Phnom Penh was by far the worst for us. Most of the time in Siem Reap the people seemed to respect when we said no and would leave it at that, but in PP, they would actually follow us down the street, sometimes for a whole block! I also really disliked how there were so many vendors at the temples, often setting up their displays in or on the ruins themselves! I took to telling people I was from Malaysia when they asked where I was from because I found that if I did, they would leave me alone, but if I said I was from Canada they would just harass me to buy things non-stop…
That said, I still really like Angkor Wat and didn’t mind Siem Reap. But we visited both near the end of our time in Cambodia so we were well versed with how the country operated at that point. Also, we were there during rainy season which meant far fewer visitors!
February 22, 2014 @ 12:02 PM
We didn’t spend much time in Phom Penh, though in hindsight I kind of wish we had stayed a little longer if only because the food was better there than in Siem Reap. The touts at Angkor Wat really got to me. There was one temple where they wouldn’t let us out towards where all the tuk tuks were parked, even though that looked to be the logical direction, because they wanted us to take the long way around and have to go through the stalls and touts all trying to sell us things. I wish they realized how much better off they’d be if they just backed off even a little. But yes, the temples are so worth visiting, and I would never tell anyone not to go because of the touts. My first visit was in October 2011 which was technically still rainy season I think, and that was less crowded overall.
February 20, 2014 @ 9:14 PM
Sadly things do change. It looks likes everybody chasing the dollar. These things can ruin your travels. I would love to visit Cambodia but it looks PP might be worth missing.
February 22, 2014 @ 12:06 PM
If by PP you mean Phnom Penh, that’s not what I meant at all. I think Phnom Penh is worth visiting. The Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum are tough to take but so important in learning about Cambodia’s recent past. I thought the food there was better than in Siem Reap, and I did like the city feel of it even though it’s not at all what you’d expect a city to be like from a European or North American perspective. My suggestion is to go on the edges of rainy season when there are less tourists overall, be prepared for touts no matter where you are, and at the temples in Siem Reap, go super early for sunrise and continue seeing the temples right afterwards. Apparently many people go see the sunrise, then go back to their hotels for breakfast, and then return to the temples mid to late morning, which means things are generally less crowded right after sunrise.
February 22, 2014 @ 12:53 AM
Thanks for the comment about when NOT to visit, Ali. I’m not good at handling crowds and have little patience with tourists who care more about getting a great photo than about the site they are visiting.
February 22, 2014 @ 12:08 PM
Thanks Linda. Cambodia on the edges of rainy season is probably a better time of year. And if you stick around to see the temples immediately after you’re done watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, there are usually less people than later in the morning. But I highly recommend avoiding Siem Reap altogether during Chinese New Year, just too any people.
Lindsay @ Where Is Your Toothbrush?
February 22, 2014 @ 4:56 AM
We skipped Cambodia on this trip, but I hope to visit some day. Sounds like peak season should be avoided!
I too find myself extremely annoyed with aggressive touts, and then annoyed with myself for being so annoyed. It’s a hard job and they’re doing everything they can to make a living, but it doesn’t make me want to buy anything from them. One evening in Kuala Lumpur we walked down a street lined with hawker stalls and the touts were shoving menus in our faces, blocking us in the street, shouting at us. It’s really hard to ignore them when they’re that aggressive.
February 22, 2014 @ 12:11 PM
I understand those touts are usually poor people who really need the money, but that aggression really turns me off and makes me even less likely to buy anything. Same with the tuk tuk drivers. We often walked to and from the center of Siem Reap (15-20 minutes) simply because we didn’t want to deal with them. The guys with the menus just kill me. I do NOT want to eat at your restaurant if you shove a menu in my face.
February 22, 2014 @ 6:03 PM
Wow, we got the Tomb Raider temple to ourselves (in May, and a few years ago now too). Your picture certainly illustrates the difference in an experience due to visiting an attraction at different times of the year.
February 24, 2014 @ 3:51 AM
Definitely! When I was there the first time a couple years ago, it was in late October, and such a difference! The time of year is vital. Thanks Shane!
February 24, 2014 @ 1:29 PM
We first toured Angkor in 2006, during our first trip to Asia and fell in love. Perhaps it was our lack of exposure to Asia in general, but when we returned in the spring of 2009, I saw a whole different side of Siem Reap, and we have not been back since then. It was at the heart of the recession, and tourist numbers were in decline. The desperation for tourist dollars was palpable. We were faced with scams left and right, from our hotel to a tuk tuk driver – where we had to escape from him by jumping off a moving tuk tuk, with our backpacks and all. We enjoyed riding bikes around the temples for an afternoon, but were struck with heat exhaustion later that day, souring the rest of our brief stay. And, the touts were at an extreme level that made everything entirely uncomfortable. It is too bad, because I really enjoy a lot that Cambodia has to offer, but the scams, touts, and corruption are out of control.
February 26, 2014 @ 1:35 PM
Amber, that’s crazy! I cannot imagine jumping out of a tuk tuk, bags and all, while it’s still moving! I can’t say we really dealt with scams while we were there, other than a few tuk tuk drivers trying to overcharge for a ride, but I could feel the desperation. I completely understand why they’re a bit desperate for money, but it’s overwhelming and doesn’t encourage me to go back. I still think the temples are worth seeing, and I kind of wish I had seen more of Cambodia than just Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but I doubt we’ll return anytime soon.
February 25, 2014 @ 5:43 AM
My husband had a thing about the Tuk Tuk Drivers too. He started off saying no to them all. Then he only answered the ones on his side of the street and finally answered none of them. What I found amazing was that they each asked the question with enthusiasm and hope – as if they did not know that you had already said No to another 20 before them. That takes a positive spirit 🙂
February 26, 2014 @ 1:19 PM
You have a point, it definitely takes a positive spirit to continually ask people if they need a ride when so many have said no already. It’s just unfortunate that their constant asking, when I knew exactly where they were and how to get a tuk tuk ride if I needed one, actually made me less likely to want a ride. It didn’t help matters when we actually did pay a tuk tuk driver to take us back to our hotel one night and he couldn’t find our hotel.
February 26, 2014 @ 5:14 AM
This is really interesting since we spent close to 3 weeks in Siem Reap. I can see how it would be a hard place to come for a repeat visit. Angkor Wat is overwhelming enough as it is…add in a million Chinese tourists, I would be done.
February 26, 2014 @ 1:21 PM
Thanks Carmel! Andy struggled to be there for as long as we were, and it was his first time. He did enjoy seeing the temples, but not the big crowds. And I really didn’t need a repeat visit. Live and learn I guess!
March 6, 2014 @ 10:09 PM
OMG I am pretty sure I ate at the same Mexican restaurant you ate at. As soon as I saw those tacos I recognized them, lol!!! OMG those photos with tons of people in them drove me crazy… I can’t imagine how crazy packed everything must have been because of Chinese New Year. Wow…just wow. I would also agree with you on it not being a small charming little town. That is not how I thought of it when I went. That place is jam packed with tons of people not that it’s a bad thing. I actually found Phnom Phen more charming and that is the biggest city in Cambodia.
March 8, 2014 @ 9:43 AM
When I was in Siem Reap 2 years ago, there was only 1 Mexican restaurant. This time that same one had a second location, and there was another place that was trying to be a Mexican restaurant, but it didn’t look too promising. I think I liked the town the first time around because it was still sort of rainy season and there weren’t quite so many people. This time around was incredibly crowded, and I really couldn’t stand it. I kind of wish Andy and I had spent more time in Phnom Penh, but oh well.
Laura @ Design Think Travel
March 21, 2016 @ 10:59 PM
It takes a thick skin to deal with the crowds and commercialism at Angkor.
My husband traveled around SE Asia and South America in the late 90s and early 2000s before mass tourism reached the iconic places. There were only 6 hotels in Siem Reap back then. It is a bummer for me to go to these places with him and listen to him go on about how he was alone at the Bakhong at sunset.
These days, independent travelers have to put in a lot more effort to find temples at Angkor that have that magic atmosphere. That would be thought during Chinese New Year! I cannot even imagine how crowded that must have been.
It makes me wonder if Angkor will still be with visiting in 5 or 10 years if visitor numbers continue to skyrocket.
March 26, 2016 @ 10:35 AM
Wow Laura, I can’t even imagine being someplace like Siem Reap back then before mass tourism really hit. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and travel in the 90s to some of those places instead of the 10 day whirlwind tours of Europe I did in the 90s. (I was in high school.) The crowds at Angkor Wat when we were there at Chinese New Year were unbearable. I’m not sure we would’ve gone at that time had we known ahead of time that visiting Siem Reap was so popular during that holiday. I sort of hope they start limiting the number of visitors to the temples at some point, like they’re doing in other parts of the world.