The guide books warn you to avoid Siem Reap during the months of March to May, unless you enjoy spending huge amounts of time in steam rooms. They use descriptions like ‘stifling heat’ and ‘sapping humidity’. One even goes as far as to say ‘Avoid April at all costs: it is boiling.’ They are not exaggerating! I grew up in a hot, tropical country and I have visited a few more in my time, but I can honestly say that during those months, Cambodia has the hottest, stickiest, most uncomfortable climate that I have ever experienced.
Given the unpleasant conditions, you’d have thought we’d have the place to ourselves… but we hadn’t realised that our trip coincided with the Khmer and Thai New Year festivities. Or that Thailand’s fugitive former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, would be holding a mass rally for his Red Shirt supporters in Siem Reap the weekend of the 17th and 18th of April 2012. An estimated 30,000 Red Shirts made the pilgrimage from Thailand to Siem Reap to catch a glimpse of the one-time premier, who had been living in a kind of self-imposed exile for years. As a gesture of friendship, the Red Shirts were all given free admission to Angkor Wat by the Cambodian authorities…. all 30,000 of them! At the time I was not particularly clued up on the politics of the situation… what I did know was that Siem Reap was heaving with visitors! And that loads of people wearing red shirts can really spoil photographs of ancient temples!
Despite the sapping heat and the massive crowds, the temples were truly a sight to behold. Here is a selection of my favourite photos from Angkor Wat, built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th Century as a temple to the Hindu god Vishnu, and transformed into a Buddhist temple later that century.
We tacked a 2-day excursion to the Angkor temple complex at Siem Reap onto the end of a tour of Vietnam in April 2012, flying there directly from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). It’s a very popular route with travellers, so anyone planning on making this trip should book their flights well in advance, and get to the airport in good time as the flights are almost always overbooked.
Siem Reap is an excellent base for exploring the most famous of the temples – Angor Wat, Ta Phrom and Bayon. Unless you’re Cambodian or related to a Cambodian, you will need to purchase a temple permit (with photo) to enter any of the temples. 1-day, 3-day and 7-day permits are available, and allow you access to the temple complex from 5 pm the previous day.
If you decide to travel to Cambodia at the very hottest time of the year like we did, my advice is to get up and go temple exploring as early as possible! The temples open at 5 am and shut around 6 pm (varies per temple), so you could head back to your hotel for a refreshing swim and rest during the hottest part of the day, then go out again in the late afternoon.