This was my first trip to Cambodia. I had always wanted to visit the majestic temples of Angkor, take a photo at Ta Prohm, and probably seek an off-the-beaten-path temple. I decided that 3 days in Siem Reap was just nice to see the country and explore its hidden gems.
Siem Reap is known as “The Gateway to Angkor” and it is the second-largest city in Cambodia. Now, just to be clear, Siem Reap isn’t all temples, and believe me when I say, you can get “templed out”.
This is to say that after seeing all the temples, I didn’t want to see another temple again, even when I was back home in Kuala Lumpur. On this trip, I mixed temples, a hidden gem, and the great lake of Tonle Sap.
Let’s just say, that at the end of the trip, I love Cambodia even more and can’t wait to revisit the country.
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Where is Siem Reap?
Siem Reap is the capital of Siem Reap province in Cambodia. The map below shows the exact location of Siem Reap.
Siem Reap is 198 miles from Phnom Penh and is the capital of Siem Reap Province. The journey to Phnom Penh takes about 5-8 hours by car or bus.
The local folklore states that the literal meaning of the name is ‘Defeat of Siam. This ties in with the local folklore that states that King Ang Chan (1516-1566) named the town Siem Reap after he fought back an army sent by Maha Chakkraphat in 1549.
It was Henri Mouhot who rediscovered Siem Reap in the 19th century. However, Antonio da Madalena visited the ruins of Angkor in 1586. Although Angkot Wat is the main reason visitors flock to Siem Reap, there are other notable sites worth visiting such as:-
- Artisans Angkor which seeks to revive traditional Khmer craftmanship and provide work opportunity for rural artisans.
- Cambodian Cultural Village which is home to miniature historical buildings and structures in Cambodia.
- A variety of markets with the most popular being Psah Chas which is between Pub Street and Siem Reap river.
Day 1: Arrival, Angkor Thom & Bayon
Our 3 days in Siem Reap trip began when we left Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2. The clouds were dark grey when we reached Siem Reap. That was how my ultimate guide to Siem Reap began. Siem Reap can be described as a city that caters to every taste as the city is constantly evolving to meet the demands of its tourists.
We walked a distance of about 200 meters before reaching the main terminal building. Once inside, there were clear signages to guide passengers to immigration and customs. The airport provides Visa on Arrival. However, it is advisable to apply for an eVisa. A map is useful when exploring these temples.
Our 3 days in Siem Reap trip began with a visit to Angkor Thom, the ‘Great City’ built by King Jayavarman VII who established his capital there. Prasat Bayon lies at the center. The enclosure encompasses residences of the priests, palace officials, and military as well as administrative buildings.
Several other temples within the city are Phimeanakas, Baphuon, Terrace of Elephants, and Terrace of Leper King just to name a few.
Khmer Times has recently quoted the excavation of pottery north of Angkor Thom. This is significant as there never has been any excavations to confirm that the site could formerly hold a kiln.
The next on our 3 days in Siem Reap itinerary was to visit Prasat Bayon. Bayon is Cambodia’s most recognizable monument other than Angkor Wat. Bayon was built by King Jayavarman VII between the 12th and 13th centuries. The structure is known for its unique features.
The many serene and smiling faces, presumably that of King Jayavarman, or Buddha. There were a total of 54 towers with 216 faces.
Khmer Times has reported that two statues were found near the Gate of the Dead. These findings are common as the structure of the statues deteriorates over time and they naturally fall into the canal.
The next area that should be explored is the inner and outer galleries. The outer gallery contains historical events and the everyday life of the people. The inner gallery contains Hindu mythological events while the upper gallery has the 200 faces of Lokesvara.
However, only 37 faces of Lokesvara remain as the rest have been destroyed by natural elements. Bayon is part of the Angkor Archaeological Complex. Visitors must purchase an ‘Angkor Pass’ to visit the temples and sites in the park.
Visitors can buy the passes either in one day ($37), three days ($62), or seven-day passes ($72).
Fun Facts About Bayon Temple
- Bayon is located in the center of Angkor Thom.
- The central tower is 45 meters high and features smiling faces of Buddha on all four sides.
- The entry tower at Bayon faces East whilst the entry tower of Angkor Wat faces West.
- Bayon was built 100 years after Angkor Wat.
“I looked up at those all those towers, rising above men overgrown in the greenery and suddenly shivered with fear as I saw a giant frozen smile looming down at me…and then another smile, over there in another tower…and then three, and then five, and then ten.”Pierre Loti
Day 2: Banteay Srei, Koh Ker, Beng Melea & Tonle Sap
On Day 2 of our 3 Days Itinerary in Siem Reap trip, we headed out onto the outskirts to visit three off-beat temples. Our first temple on this trip was Banteay Srei.
The first temple in our 3 Days Itinerary in Siem Reap was a visit to a stunning temple complex built entirely from red sandstone. Courtiers Vishnukumara and Yajnavaraha built this temple signifying Lord Shiva as Lord of the Three Worlds.
However, the modern name means ‘Citadel of Women’ which could be due to the fact that the detailed carvings were made by women carvers.
The temple was in use until the 14th century and was abandoned until it was rediscovered by Andre Malraux who made headlines for stealing four devatas (God sculpture) from the site.
An hour is sufficient as this temple complex is rather small. Interestingly, the Apsara Arts Dance Academy premiered their latest dance presentation, ‘Amara’ in the Indian Festival of Arts 2020 as stated in The Hindu.
After almost 2 hours on the bumpy road, we reached our next temple, Koh Ker. This temple complex is out of Siem Reap city. There are separate ticket fees to enter this temple. The ticket fee is $10.
The second temple in our 3 Days Itinerary in Siem Reap trip was Koh Ker. Lonely Planet describes Koh Ker as Cambodia’s most remote temple complex. Koh Ker was the short-lived capital of the Angkor Empire from 928 – 944 CE. What was once a busy capital was now a ghost town. Abandoned by mankind and embraced by Mother Nature.
The seven-tiered pyramid or Prang was the state temple. A 13 ft Shiva Lingam stood at the top. The original staircase was steep and ruined. In an effort to bring tourists, a newer staircase was built at the back of the pyramid. The stunning view at the top shows the vast paddy fields and lands below.
According to Smithsonian, Angkor Wat owed its existence to an engineering defect at Koh Ker. The Khmer Empire is one of the least studied empires in the world. Using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDar), historians found a broken chute led excess water from the reservoir towards the river had continuously damaged Koh Ker.
When we arrived here, we were the only tourists. It was a surreal experience to have an ancient structure all to ourselves. We did not have to fight our way through crowds or persistent vendors. According to Lonely Planet, Koh Ker does have some dangers and annoyances. Although the area was de-mined in 2008, it is best not to wander off the trodden path.
Prasat Neang Khmau
On our way back, we stopped by the Black Lady. We were curious about how the name Black Lady came about. Leighton Travels visited Prasat Neang Khmau in June 2020 and describes his visit to the Black Lady temple.
The legend associated with this temple is that this temple may have been dedicated to Goddess Kali. Hence, the black color of the temple.
We spent about 15-20 minutes here before making our way to our last temple on our three days Siem Reap trip which was Beng Melea. The journey to Beng Melea was a smooth one. Beng Melea is located in the countryside, so views of vast lands dominate the horizon.
More than an hour later, we arrived at the entrance of Beng Melea, Cambodia’s Jungle Temple. This temple is located in the countryside. With social media, there were a large number of tourists.
What was ahead of us was a smaller version of Angkor Wat, in ruins, unrestored and reclaimed by nature. This temple is unique in that no one knows why it was built and for what purpose.
An hour was sufficient here and we were templed out, it was time to explore Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s Great Lake. The journey was also a smooth one.
Tonle Sap is a natural floodplain reservoir that is also the largest freshwater body in South East Asia. This lake is part of the Great Lake systems of Cambodia and Vietnam and consists of flood plains, wetlands, flooded forests, and deciduous forests.
According to Tourism Cambodia, Tonle Sap is circled by 5 provinces with a total population of 3 million. We arrived at Tonle Sap, after one and a half hours of driving. The road was clear as our driver took us to Kampong Phluk.
This small village community lives along the banks of a tributary river leading to Tonle Sap. The villagers depend on fishing, agriculture, and tourism for survival. As we traveled during the monsoon season, there were significantly fewer tourists around.
The Flooded Forests
Phnom Penh Post reported that 250,000 hectares of forests were razed in a fire. This has had a negative impact on the residents who depend on Tonle Sap for a living. National Geographic reported that with the loss of the flooded forest, things are no longer normal at Tonle Sap.
After a short ride along the Great Lake, it was time to head back to our hotel. It started drizzling as we entered our car, thankful that we completed my ultimate guide to Siem Reap before the rain set in. It was a fulfilling day indeed to end our second day of our 3 Days Itinerary in Siem Reap!
Day 3: Ta Prohm, Roluos Group of Temples & Apsara Dance
Our first stop on Day 3 of our 3 day Siem Reap itinerary was to visit Rajavihara, the Royal Monastery which is Ta Prohm. This temple was built by King Jayavarman VII to honor his family. And, the architecture of this temple follows the Bayon style.
The main purpose of this temple was to a Mahayana Buddhist Monastery and University. Ta Prohm is located about 1 kilometer East of Angkor Thom.
Ta Prohm is where the temple’s main image was a personification of the King’s mother. The northern and southern temples were dedicated to the King’s teacher and brother. Preah Khan temple was built as a dedication to the King’s father and to complement Ta Prohm.
The design of Ta Prohm consists of a single platform. The temple faces East with entrances from all 4 cardinal points. Today, only the East and West Gate are accessible to tourists. The inner galleries contain bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Buddhist mythology.
A map is useful to further understand the layout and structure of this temple.
The doorway of the famous scene of Angelina Jolie from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider had a very long queue. Millions of visitors flock to that doorway to recreate their own version of that scene. Hence, the name Tomb Raider Temple.
The Trees of Ta Phrohm
The trees which spread their roots over Ta Prohm are Fig, Banyan, and Kapok trees. Scholars disagree about the two major species of trees at the site. Some say that the larger trees are either silk-cotton trees or thitpok. The smaller trees are either strangler figs or gold apple trees.
Lonely Planet describes Ta Prohm as a ‘manicured jungle temple’ while Beng Melea as the ‘raw jungle temple’.
Riley Black of Smithsonian Magazine states that no one knows when this carving was first spotted. Could it be a cow or rhinoceros flanked by palm leaves? Or could be an endangered Cambodian pangolin? Try to find this carving on your next visit. Let me know what you think in the comments section below.
An hour was sufficient at this temple as we made our way to the next group of temples. Roluos Group of Temples are located outside of Angkor Archaeological Park. The temples are 12 kms East of Siem Reap on National Highway 6 which leads to Phnom Penh.
Roluos Group of Temples
Our last temple in our 3 day Siem Reap trip was the Roluos Group of Temples or Hariharalaya. There are three temples, namely Bakong, Preah Ko, and Lolei within this site. King Jayavarman II established Hariharalaya where Lord Vishnu represented “Hari” as the male energy while “Hara” represented as Lord Shiva as the female energy.
The largest temple is Bakong. It is a five-level pyramid-like temple. Bakong was a state temple until the end of the 9th century. The capital was moved by King Yasovarman I who named the new capital Yasodharapura.
King Yasovarman I did not abandon these temples. He returned to build Lolei. He dedicated Lolei to his ancestors and Lord Shiva. The layout of Lolei is just four brick temples on a terrace. The King built one temple for his grandfather, grandmother, father, and mother.
The Phnom Penh Post reported that the Government plans to conserve and develop an ancient road connecting the Roluos Group of Temples to Angkor Wat. The road could be Siem Reap’s living heritage. It will connect Angkor Wat to the Roluos Group of Temples.
We returned to our hotel after an hour here. Our final agenda for the day was the Apsara dance performance in the evening.
The last itinerary in our 3 day Siem Reap itinerary was the Apsara dance. This dance is the traditional dance of Cambodia. It is similar to the Bharatnatyam dance of India. The similarity lies in the storytelling, elaborate costumes, fine hand gestures, and graceful elegance.
The late Princess Norodom Buppha Devi brought worldwide recognition and acknowledgment of this dance. It was under her guidance that this dance form symbolized Cambodia as a nation.
Girls are trained at a young age to gain flexibility. This is to maintain their posture and have a graceful elegance when performing. This dance was almost wiped-out during the Pol Pot era. During that era, artisans and learned scholars were killed.
It was the surviving dancers who kept the dance alive by passing on the knowledge to the younger generations.
What is the purpose of Cambodian celestial dance?
This dance was entertainment for royalty and visiting dignitaries. Artisans Angkor states that the earliest carvings of an Apsara date back to the 7th century. The dance is meaningful as it links the various religions which dominated Cambodia throughout history. The known religions are Animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
What do Apsara dancers symbolizes?
Apsara dancers celestial beings sent from the heavens to entertain the kings and royalty. The performances are based on Cambodia’s adaptation of the Hindu epic, Ramayana, although there are other dance-drama repertories such as Kakati-Jataka and Kailas.
Hindu and Cambodian legend mention Apsaras as being born from the Churning of the Milk Ocean. A bas-relief in Angkor Wat depicts this scene.
Every finger and body movement has a different meaning. These gestures symbolize the continuity of life, love, and respect towards one another. The finger movements represent nature. The body movements represent communication.
There are four main roles in the dance form. The four roles represent male, female, demon, or monkey. King Jayavarman VII had 3,000 Apsara dancers in his court. He believed they represented the spirit of water and clouds. This was essential for the survival of the Kingdom.
A few places where you can watch these performances which are Cambodian Living Arts, Angkor Village Apsara Theatre, and Le Residence De Angkor. One of the survivors of the Pol Pot era, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro has embarked on a mission to showcase the Cambodian traditional dance to the world.
How many Apsara are there in Angkor Wat?
So far, 1800 Apsaras have been counted and recorded in Angkor Wat. Each Apsara is unique and no two are alike. Kent Davis states that the Apsaras in Angkor Wat could have represented the women of Angkor. He states that Angkor Wat could have been a 12th century Facebook.
We watched the performance over a three-course dinner meal. The food options included both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. The performance lasted about one and a half hours. And we made our way back to our hotel, a satisfying end to the day!
A free-spirited traveler who dreams to conquer the world one country at a time, exploring local vegetarian cuisines and discovering off the beaten path destinations. Yes! That's me.
I've always loved creating itineraries for family and friends. With this website, I help you plan your travels by making it easier.
Our guides are mostly free self-guided walking tours, specifically trips that you can do within a day or two. We will be expanding our itineraries to cater to longer trips in the future.
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