I'm often asked by visitors to my gallery about which temples to prioritise during a short stay in Siem Reap. Before I recommend which temples to visit, I give them the following advice:
These are sacred places, etiquette and respect demand that you behave and dress accordingly. Treat them as if you were visiting a cathedral or holy shrine in your own country – please cover your shoulders and knees, and if you feel you need to dress lightly in the heat, take a sarong with you to cover up inside the temples (you can easily buy one while at the temples).
Protect yourself from the heat. Stay hydrated, take a wide-brimmed hat, cover your shoulders, arms, and legs, and use a good sunscreen.
Go early! Dawn at Angkor Wat is spectacular, well worth dragging yourself out of your comfy bed! The other temples open at 7:30 a.m. I have the luxury of going to the temples every day, so I avoid the heat of the day and the harshest light. I always visit from 7:30 till 9:30, the coolest part of the day, and again from about 3:30 p.m. until they close at 5:30 p.m., when the light is gorgeous. These are also the quietest times of day, you're likely to have many of the temples to yourself, which is a spiritual experience. Phnom Bakheng Temple opens late to let you enjoy the sunset, and is popular with the locals – the sun setting over the jungle and the West Baray is beautiful, and the light falling on nearby Angkor Wat can be stunning.
Hire a guide! The official guides are qualified, knowledgeable and multilingual. Your hotel can help you find the best guide for your needs.
A good guide is indispensable, but it's well worth doing your own research online before your visit. You will find My Journal and Angkoepedia very useful. I detail all of the temples and write regularly about my ongoing exploration of their mysteries, the stories that they tell, and the secrets that they hold. Cellular data service is pretty good in most of the temples, so you can access them there, or read them at your leisure before and after your visit.
The best way to get around the temples is by car; as well as providing air-conditioned comfort and protection from the elements, they are safer and faster, enabling you to see more of the temples during your stay, especially those further afield. Don’t try to hire a car here, ask your hotel to organise a chauffeur and a guide as part of a tour, but ask them to leave room to explore at your own pace. A good hotel will find you a driver who is reliable and speaks your language, they will help to guide you between temples, find the best local refreshments and rest stops, and look after your belongings.
If your budget won’t stretch to a chauffeur-driven car, then travel by tuk-tuk. In good weather, the leisurely pace will let you fully experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the jungle, and you’ll see more of local village life. Your hotel can help you find a safe and reliable driver to suit your needs, and a guide to travel with you.