12 Things You Need to Know Before You Go to Siem Reap
If you’re planning a trip to Siem Reap, you’re in for a treat! Cambodia, Siem Reap, and the Angkor Archeological Park are truly an amazing spot for your next adventure. If you’re also like me, you want to know what to prepare for before you go to Cambodia to be sure you have a comfortable and enjoyable vacation. When I researched our trip to Siem Reap I used several travel websites, blogs, and a trusty guidebook to piece together what we should expect and what we needed to bring. But today, you’re in luck, because I’ve summarized it ALL here for you! You’re welcome. 😉
Here are the primary things you need to know before heading to Siem Reap. Make sure you add these onto my list of 10+ things that you should do before you travel to ANY country — get it [HERE]!
1. You can haggle
Unfortunately Tyler and I have fallen victim to tourist prices many times, including in Cambodia, so don’t forget — you can haggle or barter with shop owners in Siem Reap and around Angkor Wat. You’ll quickly notice that shop owners are very aggressive (similar to Thailand if you’ve been). They will literally follow you while you walk and try to sell you any number of scarves, paintings, dresses, magnets, and postcards to name a few. Yes, it’s annoying, but there’s no use in getting mad. I generally smile, shake my head no, or just keep walking and say “No, thank you!”. When you do find something you like, they will try to get 4-5 times more than the price they will sell it for. Yes, that much! So, haggle and barter when you find something you want, while still keeping in mind that this is their livelihood (you can’t get it for free!).
2. Stick with your Tuk Tuk driver
On our first day in Siem Reap, our hotel called a Tuk Tuk driver to take us to Angkor Wat. I knew we wanted a Tuk Tuk, but I didn’t know that it was customary to hire them for the day. I tried to hire them to take us one way to Angkor Wat (not knowing how long we’d be there) for $5. They told me that they would give me the whole Grand Circuit tour for $15. Perhaps I was weary after being scammed in a similar situation in Thailand, but I didn’t think it was real that they would wait around for us all day for only $15. Guess what? It’s real! Everyone traveling by Tuk Tuk to the temples is hiring for the day — it’s completely normal and not a scam. We liked our driver so much we hired him all three days we were there (and tipped him $5-10 extra each day)!
3. Don’t ride the elephants…please
As you approach the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom, you’ll likely see several tourists riding elephants up to the temple entrance. Seems picturesque and amazing, right? Wrong. Elephants, throughout Southeast Asia in particular, are unnecessarily harmed and debilitated by the tourism industry. It’s not worth the ride!
Before heading to Thailand in 2014, Tyler and I did quite a bit of research on where we could spend some quality time with elephants, because we knew from other articles and stories that riding elephants is about the worst thing you can do to them. We ended up finding an amazing place — Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) — where we could feed, walk, and bathe rehabilitating elephants instead of riding them. If you really want to see elephants or other wildlife, do some research and do it responsibly.
4. Stay hydrated
We live in the Philippines, which is hot, humid, sticky, sweaty, and just about any other similar adjective. We’re at least half-way used to it, so when I read the same about Cambodia, I figured we’d be just fine. While we were fine, it’s probably only because we drank about 10 bottles of water each day! Siem Reap, and especially the temple complexes, are very hot and humid. After our first 5 minutes in the blazing sun, we were pouring sweat (yea I know, but everyone else is too!). Be sure to prepare extra clean clothes, hats, a bandana, sunscreen, and anything else you might want to survive and recover from the hot, sticky days in Siem Reap.
5. Prepare for ATM fees
When we travel internationally, we generally don’t use currency exchanges. It’s almost always cheaper to just get local currency from an ATM. Plus, in Siem Reap, all the ATMs dispense USD — which we both thought was crazy, but is quite convenient. Regardless, there is always an ATM fee. In Siem Reap it was $5-6 per transaction (if your bank doesn’t also charge you). Not bad at all, but when you have to withdraw 4 or 5 times, you’re like, “Crap! There went $25!”. Moral of the story — try to withdraw what you think you’ll need for the whole trip and safeguard your cash by not carrying it all with you / putting it in your hotel safe.
Another “oops!” moment of ours to avoid is not bringing enough cash with you for a day touring the temples. There aren’t any ATMs around the temples; only in Siem Reap proper. On our second day, we had to share a dish for lunch because we couldn’t afford two. I was fine, but Tyler got a little hangry. 😉
6. Consider a tour guide
In general, I’m a big fan of independent travel. Tours and tour guides are generally overpriced and limit your flexibility when experiencing a new place. Plus, when you carry a good guidebook with you, you can be your own tour guide. However, we witnessed several other couples, individuals, and families that had hired personal tour guides to accompany them to the Angkor temples. Not only can they tell you about the history and culture (in nearly any language — we heard English, French, and German most), but they can also take photos for you and even tell you where to get the best photo. If you’re ok with a little more structure in touring the temples, a tour guide is the way to go!
7. Bring a power bank
At time of writing, we use my iPhone 6s and our GoPro Hero 5 for all our travel videos and photography. Luckily we have an extra battery for our GoPro, but we only have one iPhone, which means it’s too easy to drain that battery before you’re done snapping photos of the amazing-ness around you. Carrying a small power bank is the perfect solution for recharging devices on the go!
8. Avoid the massage parlor tourist trap
Despite loving our Tuk Tuk driver — I mean, he literally kept water on ice for us and delivered it to us as we finished touring each temple complex — it was apparent that he had connections with certain businesses, which was likely part of a larger tourist scheme. Our best guess is that he gets a small commission for bringing us to a specific restaurant or spa. We didn’t really mind when we went to lunch since all the food options were comparable in quality and price. However, on our last day, when we opted to spend a couple hours at the spa getting massages, he took us to a place that was probably not the best we could’ve experienced. Don’t get me wrong, we still enjoyed our massages and there wasn’t anything off about the place — except the prices. So, if you want a massage, ask your concierge or check ratings on TripAdvisor. Your Tuk Tuk driver might protest, but not for long.
9. Buy water and snacks at a convenience store
If you’ve traveled at all, you probably already know that mini-bar prices in hotel rooms are outrageous. Well, it’s definitely true in Siem Reap too. Since it’s slightly safer to drink bottled water in Cambodia, you need bottles of water to drink or to make your coffee or tea. A litre of water in our mini-bar was $4.50!! CRAZY! Therefore, my advice for Siem Reap (and really anywhere you’re going to spend more than a day) is to stop off at a convenience store and stock up on water and snacks. It’s also a great place to grab some beer or wine for much cheaper than at the hotel!
10. If you’re eligible, get an e-Visa for Cambodia before you go
Cambodia requires a tourist visa to enter the country, meaning you have to apply and be approved before you go (unless you want to wait in crazy long lines at the airport to apply in-person). Luckily, they offer an e-Visa option so you can quickly and easily get your visa electronically (if you’re not entering in Siem Reap, make sure you check if an e-Visa is valid where you plan to enter the country). You can check if you’re eligible for a Cambodian e-Visa here. Perhaps the best part of the e-Visa is that you can take your own “passport style” photos and upload them to your online application, that way you don’t have to go out and have photos taken and printed. FYI, the visa fee is $36 per person.
11. Be sure you bring sunglasses and a scarf and/or bandana
These items are not only handy for protecting yourself from the sun, but they are essential for Tuk Tuk rides. While Tuk Tuk rides are largely relaxing and enjoyable, the roads in and around Siem Reap are very dusty, and you’ll quickly be picking specks of dirt out of your eyes and off your face if you don’t have something to shield yourself. Tyler is a big fan of his new headwear multi-function bandana. You’ve likely seen him wearing it in our photos — and no they aren’t paying us, but they could if they want to! 😉
12. Think carefully about and prepare a few “temple outfits”
There IS a dress code for the Angkor temples. And before you think about how you can cheat it, remember that it’s put in place because it’s disrespectful to the Cambodian people, monks, and their culture not to follow it. The general rule is that you must cover your shoulders and knees. That means t-shirts and pants mostly, but the ladies get more creative with skirts and dresses too. It’s also HOT, so light, flowy fabrics or athletic wear will keep you most comfortable. We actually were a little challenged by this! Tyler only had one pair of pants that were light enough for him to survive the heat, and I only had two t-shirts that weren’t heavy cotton or tight-fitted. However, when we got to Cambodia (as we suspected), we found that there were dozens of vendors that sell all types of clothing that are suitable for temple-touring!
Don’t you feel more prepared to go to Siem Reap already!? If you have any questions about our trip or if I’ve missed anything essential, let me know in the comments!
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