The Best 1 Week Itinerary – Cambodia

Paula Martinelli Blog, Travel Leave a Comment

How to make the most of your visit to the temples of Siem Reap

Just like many people, I took advantage of the geographical proximity of Vietnam and Cambodia and I combined to visit both countries during my vacation.  With a total of 3 week traveling, my itinerary was 2 weeks in Vietnam and 1 week in Cambodia – which I spent 3 days in Siem Reap and 2 days in Phnom Pehm (not including the travel time).

In preparation for my trip to Cambodia, my research focused on which temples to visit in Siem Reap and what time of the day would be better (with less tourists and better light for pictures). I also did a lot of research on Phnom Pehm in order to educate myself about the history, and what places should be a “must to visit”.

You can check the Cambodia Travel Tips for everything you need to know to help you to plan your dream vacation to Cambodia.

Sunrise in Angkor Wat
Sunrise in Angkor Wat

Day 1- Angkor Thom, Victory Gate, Terraces of Elephants, Bayon, Banteay Srei

Tour time: Approximately 10 hours

I had a nice breakfast at the hotel  and my tuk-tuk driver, Mr Kree, picked me up from the hotel at 7 AM and this is the itinerary for the first day.

ANGKOR PASS - Our first stop was to buy the pass – you will need it in order to visit the temples. You can see all the details here. Consider purchasing the pass on the day of arrival so that you can start your tours without having to 1st stop for a pass.

VICTORY GATE – Victory Gate is one of the 5 gates which guard the ancient city of Angkor Thom. This was my first stop after getting the pass, at around 8AM as it was the best time to visit. I was the only tourist visiting at this time, and was able to spend some time walking around observing the beauty and how well preserved it is, and of course taking pictures. The light is fantastic for photos this early in the morning.

Victory Gate
Victory Gate
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ANGKOR THOM - The city of Angkor Thom is a massive area that consists of a square, each side of which is about three kilometers (1.9 miles) long a laterite wall 8 meters (26 feet) high around the city encloses an area of 145.8 hectares (360 acres). An entry tower and a long causeway bisect each side of the wall except on the east where there are two entrances. You can visit different temples around this area. I spent a couple of hours exploring the labyrinth and appreciating the carving details on the walls, roofs and gates of this temple.

Angkor Thom Temple
Angkor Thom Temple
The carving work remains very well preserved and you can see all over
The carving work remains very well preserved and you can see all over

BAYON – This temple is located inside the Angkor Thom and it is famous for the many serene carved faces, that seem to be smiling at us. Bayon was a Buddhist temple that was built in the 12th and 13th centuries by King Jayavarman VII and the over 200 faces were carved to look like him. I was in this temple around 12PM and it was packed with tourists, making it difficult to even take a picture and walk around. I would strongly recommend to visit Bayon earlier in the morning in order to avoid the crowds. The noon sun also made pictures a challenge.

Bayon Temple famous for the many faces of Buddha
Bayon Temple famous for the many faces of Buddha

TERRACES OF THE ELEPHANTS – Just outside, across the street from Bayon (within Angkor Thom) is the fascinating Terraces of the Elephants. Just observe the details carved on the walls. The carvings tell stories of a powerful past. Just keep in mind that it is hot outside, so don’t forget your sunblock and your water bottle.

Terraces of Elephant
Terraces of Elephant
All the details are amazing and well preserved
All the details are amazing and well preserved

BANTEAY SREI – This temple was my favorite because it contains the finest, and most intricate carving to be found around Angkor Wat. It is easy to spend hours gazing at the intricate carvings and sculptures. This temple is particularly well preserved and, due to its location, not as crowded. It is located about 30 minutes from Siem Reap by car or tuk-tuk. This temple is also known as The Citadel of the Women and it was built in second half of the 10th century, to be dedicated to Shiva (Hindu god). By going in the late afternoon the sun provided beautiful ambient light for taking amazing photos.

Beautiful view from the outside the "Lady Temple"
Beautiful view from the outside the "Lady Temple"
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I was back to the hotel around 5PM, showered and then headed to the Pub Street for a street food dinner and to wander around this very busy and intriguing busy place. My last stop was a relaxing amazing foot massage for $3.00 and then back to the hotel for a good night’s rest.

Day 2 - Ankgor Wat & Ta Phrom

Tour time: Approximately 10 hours

The amazing Angkor Wat

The big day was here, and the night before I talked to the front desk at my hotel and decided to schedule a local tour guide to visit Angkor Wat to learn as much as I could about the history. The good news is that they were able to book a last minute English speaking guide for me, but the bad news is that booking a last minute tour guide was a big mistake. You can read about my experience here

Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built between 1113 and 1150 and it attracts at least half of the international tourists that visit Cambodia every year.

You cannot tell, but there were thousands of people around watching the sunrise
You cannot tell, but there were thousands of people around watching the sunrise

I woke up at 4AM. I was so excited that I barely slept the night before. Watching sunrise at Angkor Wat was on my bucket list, and it is a must see. The guide was waiting for me at the lobby of the hotel, and our tuk-tuk dropped us off at 5:15AM. We had to walk in the dark for about 15 minutes to get to the best location to watch the sunrise, but the best location was already super crowded right on front of the temple. I had about three or four rows of people in front of me. It was frustrating for pictures, since I had to share my view with so many heads, arms, selfy- sticks and cell phones … but at around 6AM, as the horizon was starting to get light, we decided to politely ask if we could move to the front. We literally sitting on rocks on the edge of the pond to be able to be in front of the craziness and get some good photos of this amazing moment. We did not steal anyone’s spot and did not block anyone’s view. We just sat on the rocks and enjoyed the show with an unobstructed view. Things that we do in order to take a good picture of the sunrise in Angkor Wat!

The sunrise in Angkor Wat was my bucket list
The sunrise in Angkor Wat was my bucket list
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Around 7AM I started my tour inside the Angkor Wat, which was another mistake, since this is the busiest time to visit. Go figure! Everyone has the same idea after watching the amazing sunrise.

After exploring Angkor Wat for about 3 hours, I took a break for lunch and continued to visit temples in the afternoon.

You can spend hours exploring the history on the wall carvings
You can spend hours exploring the history on the wall carvings
Exploring inside the Angkor Wat
Exploring inside the Angkor Wat

The ruins of Ta Prohm

This temple is easily recognized from the movie Tomb Raider (that I have to be honest, I never saw). You really feel that you are entering a magical place, with all the effects that the large vines and tree roots that cover the ruins, creating the scenery of a fantasy book.

Ta Prohm is an amazing place to appreciate the power of the nature, as it was swallowed by the forest over the years. Also if you enjoy photography, this was my favorite place to just walk around and capture so many amazing images of this magical place.

The nature takes over the temples
The nature takes over the temples
You really feel small around the amazing trees
You really feel small around the amazing trees
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This was my last temple of the day, and it was pretty intense to visit Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm on the same day. But since my day started so early, I finished visiting the temples around 3PM and took a few hours to relax by the pool at the hotel before heading to the Pub Street for dinner.

Day 3 - Artisans of Ankgor & Remote Temples

Tour time: Approximately 6 hours

Local artisans

Mr. Kree took me to visit several artisans as I was interested to know and appreciate their artwork. It is just amazing to see a raw material transform before your eyes, as it is not something you can see every day. One of the places I visited was Les Artisans d’Angkor. It is a social enterprise company that helps to bring jobs to rural villages, helping to keep the ancient Khmer arts alive and promoting and developing the Khmer arts and crafts.

It is amazing to see stone becoming art in front of your eyes
It is amazing to see stone becoming art in front of your eyes

More temples

After 2 intense days of visiting amazing temples, and also dealing with the crowds of tourists, I was ready for some more local experience. I asked my driver, Mr Kree to take me to visit some remote temples. It was a phenomenal opportunity to visit some of the ruins that are even more hidden in the Cambodian jungle. I was able to observe what nature did to the buildings. Even better was the silence and peace with only the jungle’s noises while you contemplate the ruins.

I had the chance to visit the Siem Reap Art Market then the Night Market located around the Pub Street. Of course, finishing my day with a nice oil full body massage for $10.

Exploring one of the remotes temples in the jungle
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I had the chance to visit the Siem Reap Art Market then the Night Market located around the Pub Street. Of course, finishing my day with a nice oil full body massage for $10.

Day 4 - Trip to Phnom Pehn

Trip time: Approximately 6 hours (with 1 stop along the way)

Private Driver: US$90

I found the roads safe, but not necessarily the drivers. They don’t respect the signs and the driving was a little bit scary. Unfortunately I saw 2 major accidents with victims along the road. On the bright side, you will have the opportunity to see beautiful views of the countryside. The rice paddies were lush and green and the road passes through villages and by traditional houses and farms.

Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda

Even tired after my last days of visiting temples non stop, and the (stressful) trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Pehm, I still took a few hours to visit the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. It is located in the city center. They are worth seeing, but can be skipped if you are pressed for time.

Visiting inside the Pagoda
Visiting inside the Pagoda

Night Market

The Night Market is located to the north of the city where the locals and tourists come for dinner. You can enjoy some interesting ways of eating – pick the items you want to eat, and they will mix everything and cook it fresh in front of your eyes. And you can also enjoy some local live music.

You first choose your food
You first choose your food
...then you enjoy it with the locals
...then you enjoy it with the locals

Day 5 - Phnom Pehn - Killing Fields & Toul Sleng genocide museum

Killing Fields (Choeung Ek)

We hired a tuk-tuk to drive us, as it is located 17km from the city center. Tickets can be purchased at the entrance with the option to get an audio guide in many different languages. The tour time takes approximately 2 hours.

This is not a pleasant place to visit, as you can figure by the name. But I felt obligated to learn about the dark past of Cambodia and they did a good job transforming the tour around this site to be very educational. It is a must see if you would like to learn about the Khmer Rouge regime and to pay your respect to the tens of thousands of Cambodians who lost their lives in this place.

I had a very similar feeling here as visiting the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. This is not a place to go to relax, but rather to learn some of the hard lessons that history has to teach. It is a place for the living to go and remember the sacrifices of those who died there.

One of the many graves, it is a very emotional place to visit
One of the many graves, it is a very emotional place to visit

S21 – Toul Sleng Genocide Museum

The museum used to be a secondary school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison and interrogation site. Of the 17,000 prisoners brought to this place, only 7 survived. I spent approximately 2 hours to tour.

Upon arrival you will have access to an audio tour, which features the chilling account of Him Huy, a guard and executioner at S21. He takes you through life in this prison, and through his words everything surrounding us became very real. It is the kind of tour that you have to be mentally and emotionally prepared to visit. It is a moment to listen to the stories and for reflection.

S21 used to be a high school before it becomes a prison
S21 used to be a high school before it becomes a prison

As I was leaving, I was able to meet 2 of the survivors. Having learned their stories I was overcome with emotion to meet them. It was a tremendous honor to be able to shake their hands and take pictures with them. I bought the books that each of them wrote about their experiences and how they wound up in the prison and how they survived.

I have to say that after a very “emotionally heavy” day, I had to just go back to the hotel. I remember lying down in bed and just talking to my husband about all we saw and learned about this tragic time in Cambodia. As Anthony Bourdain said “ Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart.”

1 of only 7 survivors from the S21 Prison
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Day 6 - Flight Back to Ho Chi Minh City from Phnom Pehn

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