If Siem Reap is high on your travel wish list, don’t wait. Cambodia is poised to develop tourism here in a major way, catering to massive tour groups from nearby China. Get the Indiana Jones and Lara Croft experience of exploring the splendid temples at your own pace in occasional solitude while you still can.
Home Base: The busy town of Siem Reap is filled with hotels for every budget, from tour bus destinations to backpacker hostels. We chose Navutu Dreams because it offered a peaceful sanctuary on the outskirts. Our package for two, booked through Expedia, included breakfast, a tuk-tuk driver at our disposal for the entire stay and an airport transfer. Be sure to email the hotel your arrival time so they can have the transfer taxi meet you at the airport; we neglected to do this and ended up using the included transfer on the way back.
We reached the hotel by hailing a random taxi. The driver, while boasting of his expertise as a tour guide for hire, got completely lost trying to find the hotel in the dark. While it may seem remote, everything you want to do in Siem Reap is only a short tuk-tuk ride from the hotel and the bone-rattling dirt road is just part of the adventure.
The relaxed vibe at Navutu Dreams blended yoga classes with happy hour, always a winning combination for me! Our spacious room had wifi and AC in the sleeping area, but not in the bathroom, which was a bit stuffy despite the fan and screens to let in the outside air. Be sure to reserve a treatment in the spa; you’ll need it after the rigors of exploring the temples. Breakfast in the breezy outdoor restaurant was served on a personal tray with enough choices to make everyone happy, a nice alternative to foraging over another buffet. We also enjoyed dinner in the restaurant, where the Italian-trained chef serves up excellent pastas as well as Asian fare. The hotel recommended a Khmer restaurant where we tried local dishes on our second night. Poolside areas include lounges and outdoor canopy beds so comfy that you’ll have to tear yourself away to explore the town market.
Touring the Temples: We booked our two-day tour through the hotel. Our guide, Mr. Narith, helped us avoid the crowds and his patient explanations in English deepened our understanding of Cambodia and its people. He shared his own story of enduring Cambodia’s civil war and teaching himself English. Discussing the past without bitterness, he works hard to provide a better life for his family. But he was also quite a jokester and got a laugh from most of the bored ticket-takers we met along the way. To beat the crowds and heat we set off each day at 7:30am. We began with Angkor Thom and progressed in reverse order through the Tomb Raider movie site to finish Day 1 at Angkor Wat.
The sites are quite spread out and Narith kindly took time to help the many lost tourists trying to find their way without a guide — not recommended. He took some great pictures of us in front of the major sites. Our tuk-tuk driver provided plenty of cold water and they dropped us off in an air-conditioned restaurant while they took a break in our 8-hour day.
On Day 2, we took the long circuit through temples that are less known but worth seeing.
You won’t mind paying the hefty park admission fee when you see how the site provides jobs for many local people who sell souvenirs and keep the park clean. Do not underestimate the physical demands of this trip; even with a tuk-tuk it’s a lot of walking and you’ll see more by clambering up and down as many steps as you can. Bring sunscreen and a hat. You must respect the sites by not showing too much skin; Narith sent me back to the room to change out of shorts that were too short.
All of the licensed guides for the temples have the same training, but the personality of our guide made this tour special. In two very full and unforgettable days you can experience the best of the wonders Siem Reap has to offer. To paraphrase a sign in the lobby of the Navutu Dreams: “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.”