I've been to Cambodia four times now and I am DEFINITELY not an expert but I feel like I've had enough experiences around Siem Reap to at least be knowledgeable enough to share some insight. It is a very complex country but a fascinating one and there is a lot to learn even for those world travelers who think they've seen it all.
So take this advice ... or not. Part of the complexity of Cambodia is that everyone has a different opinion on what to see, how to behave and how to help.
- Buy a temple pass late in the afternoon (I believe the time is after 5pm). You will be able to enter that evening for free and enjoy the pass on the subsequent days.
- Getting up at dawn to see Angkor Wat is definitely worth the effort. The crowd is a lot of fun and the people watching is just as entertaining as seeing the sun come up over the iconic building. Get there early and rent a red chair.
- The only time to see the Bayon (the temple with the big heads) or Ta Prohm (the temple with the large trees) is either very early in the morning or last thing in the evening. If you go during the other times, you will be swamped by large collections of Korean tourists who will take pictures of EVERYTHING.
- Go see Preah Khan. This is a huge overlooked temple that is one of my favorites. If you go when it is raining, you will think that you've entered another world.
- Buy a red wool "bracelet" from an old woman. It will give you protection when you decide to climb up some of the steeper temples such as Ta Keo.
- If it's your first time in Cambodia, hire a tour guide. They will give you some insight into the fascinating history of the temples and also show you the best places to capture that great photo.
- Drink from a fresh coconut. Not only is it cheaper than a coke but it is much, much better for you if you're sweating your ... ahem, extremities off.
- Go enjoy pub street. Yes, I know, it isn't very "Cambodian" but it sure is a lot of fun and there are some good restaurants (Tigre de Papier, Molly Malone's, Grand Cafe, Khmer Kitchen, Picasso's--not all technically on pub street but close enough).
- If you can find yourself a local to take you to a karaoke bar, it is well worth it. These are private rooms and even bad singers can sound remarkably good. You can have yourself a female escort for a couple of bucks an hour. Leave with her and it will be more. (Keep in mind, prostitution in Cambodia is illegal).
- Go see Apsara dancing. Intricate steady movements make this an interesting spectacle to watch. There are a couple of free shows in town but I saw one combined with a buffet and it was a lot of fun.
- Support the tuk-tuk drivers. For $2 they will take you all over town. For $10 to $15 you can have a private driver for the whole day.
- If you want to take a picture of a monk with their very photogenic orange robes, ask them first. They are just like regular people and will enjoy practicing their English.
- Take your shoes off before you enter someone's home.
- If you would like to help Cambodia, support the organizations that are well established and have a good record. Here's one that you should help out: The Savong Foundation. I'm the CEO so perhaps I'm a little biased.
- Take the side trips out to Banteay Srei (the incredible "women's temple"), Kbal Spean (with its carved river beds) and especially the sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen (the big waterfall is amazing!).
- Check your money for any rips or tears. In Cambodia, the main currency is American dollars and they won't take a damaged bill. No one has ever explained to me why this is so.
- Buy yourself a local phone for about $20. You can call your favorite tuk tuk driver to pick you up wherever you are.
- Don't buy trinkets from the children. Don't even give them money. You're just turning them into beggars and giving their parent(s) an excuse for the children NOT to go to school.
- If a Cambodian shows up unexpectedly while you're trampling around a temple and offers some "tour guide" information, politely decline his company or else he will expect a tip when he decides he has spent enough time with you. If a policeman does the same thing, don't be shocked; they hardly make any money and kind tourists are a good source of income.
- Don't drink the damn tap water. Or even brush your teeth in it unless you like EBD (explosive butt disease).
- Don't play with the stray dogs. They may look cute but they can also bite unexpectedly and I'll bet you a couple thousand Riel that they aren't vaccinated against rabies. The same goes for monkeys who can harbour even more dangerous diseases.
- Don't be rude to the vendors who are walking around trying to sell you a scarf or a carving. They are trying to make a living and won't appreciate being barked at like a dog.
- Don't go visit an "orphanage" just to see smiling kids and take pictures of them. If you want to help, make sure the orphan center is legit (keep in mind that even the legit orphan centers don't always have orphans. Many of them have parents.) and donate money directly to the organization in charge.
- Don't let the poverty get you down. Cambodia is a developing country and needs a lot of help but things are slowly changing for the better.
- Don't expect that Cambodians do things the way we do. They don't. (This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn.)
So that's it. I'm sure I'll think of more but I've got to go eat.