Over recent months, several prospective travellers have sought feedback on their itinerary, and when it comes to the Angkor ian Temples, it's sort of we must see them, but we're planning only a day or two.
The tragedy of this statement is that the prospective traveller is usually spending more time getting to/from Siem Reap than actually looking at this World Heritage masterpiece.
From the way I see the world, I suggest people ought spend at a minimum, 4 FULL days at Siem Reap. Let me explain why.
Most travellers that just turn up without doing some background reading are amazed at the sheer scale of area and number of temples (on this, go read here.
The entire Khmer Kingdom covered some 3000 square Km (1150 sq miles). The central Angkorian temple complex at Siem Reap covers some 200 sq Km (or 75 sq miles).
Without doubt, 200 sq Km is a vast area. Even the centrepiece - Angkor Wat - covers some 2 sq Km! Think about how you would embrace walking around/through a building complex covering that area. And, this building is only one of hundreds.
For a brief background idea of the Khmer Kingdom go look here .
To my mind, even three days hardly scratches the surface - but I believe a traveller gets a reasonable idea of the scale, majesty and power of the Khmer Kingdom after about 3 days.
The pass to get into the Angkorian Temples is issued as either a 1 day pass, a 3 day day pass (but you can use over any 7 days) and a 7 day pass.
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I suggest the traveller go read a text on the Angkorian Temples before they visit. Travelfish has a pdf (go here , or for print try looking at the large section in Lonely Planet Cambodia, amongst many good offerings.
As there is so much to actually see, the traveller needs to hire a tuk-tuk or similar to be carried around. While the tuk-tuk drivers are good, to get the best out of the visit the traveller needs to have a game-plan of what building/s they wish to visit. And, give the game-plan to the tuk-tuk driver to save time and money. But, reading up before hand also allows you to better grasp the fundamentals of the Kingdom's rulers (and why they built so many temples).
But there is also another reason. For most visitors without a game-plan, many say It's just a lot of buildings, I can't make sense of it. A game-plan allows you to make sense of the scale, size, and meaning of the complexity of the buildings.
Again, most travellers get tired of seeing ancient buildings for 3 days in a row.
I suggest a visit to Tonle Sap. This is a huge lake just south of the Angkorian temple complex. The Khmer Kingdom needed food and water; Tonle Sap provided this.
Another reason to visit Tonle Sap is because it is under threat of becoming just a dry bog. Tonle Sap is a huge backwater of the Mekong River (which begins in the Himalaya). During the wet season, Tonle Sap more than doubles in size. And, this huge freshwater inflow facilitates a massive increase in fishstock, and water for agriculture. Without doubt, it is one of the last largely undisturbed iconic ecological lake systems left in the world.
The Chinese are building several dams on the Mekong River. Environmentalists say that the effect of the dams will be that Tonle Sap will disappear. If this becomes the outcome, a visit to Tonle Sap is worth the effort merely to say "I went there before humans destroyed it".
Many visit Tonle Sap and get taken by a speedboat around the edge, only to see a few floating houses. The lake supports much more. If you can, try and visit Kompong Khleang. Go here to see more detail about Kompong Khleang.
By taking 2 days to visit temples, the third day at Kompong Khleang on Tonle Sap provides a welcome respite.
The third day back at the temples can be used to finish the game-plan and/or revisit temples that hold special appeal.
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Elsewhere on Travelfish is written...
However, if you simply don't have the time for four days, don't feel bad, instead consider what we say in the Travelfish Guide to SiemReap and just make do with a one-day pass:
"Buy your temple pass after 16:00 the previous day and you're allowed to visit the monuments that afternoon, so start off with a late afternoon visit to Angkor then hustle up the Bakheng with every other soul in town for the sunset views. The next morning, be out of your guesthouse by 04:30 for dawn at Angkor, then skedaddle over to the Bayon before the hordes get there. Once you're done with Bayon, decamp somewhere for some noodles and coffee, then head back to Angkor Thom to take in the main sites -- Baphuon, the Palace enclosure and the terraces.
By now the day will be warming up, so get your picnic lunch out and have a leisurely meal beside Srah Srei (Women's Bath) in the Royal Palace enclosure -- well-shaded with comfy steps to relax on, this is a gem of a place to while away a few hours, and certainly beats heading back into dusty Siem Reap. Once you're recharged, pack up and head out at a very leisurely pace to Ta Phrom, continuing on through Bantaey Srei to Srah Srang, where there are more food and drink stalls. Take your time in these sites. As the sun starts to dip, you can head to the far end of Srah Srang for some great pictures, or perhaps back to Angkor Wat for another visit."
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While this rushed approach is 'doable' - sort of in the same way as a one 'dayer' to Tokyo to visit the Tsukiji Markets, the Sony Centre in Ginza, the electro-fun of Shinjuku and the architecture of Ikebukuro - it only really allows you a shock and awe factor. It doesn't really let you emote into the locality, relate with how the locals perceive their culture, or comprehend the sociological relevance of the Khmer Kingdom in SE Asia over the past 1200 years.
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Hope this helps.