To Guide Or Not To Guide - That Is The Question
I am often asked by friends, acquaintances and website visitors if they should or need to hire a guide and if my friend Savuth or his driver mates are guides. Savuth and his mates are drivers, not guides. But let me share my thoughts on the question of driver versus guide by giving some background on how the driver and guide system works in Siem Reap and what to expect from each, by outlining some of the possible pro?s and con?s of guide or no guide and by giving you several sources of good and unusual information for Angkor visitors, whether you will be using a guide or not.
Background: the difference between a driver and a guide
First a small bit of background. In Siem Reap, you have drivers and guides. Guides do not drive and drivers are not allowed to enter the temples with their guests. Drivers like Savuth and his mates have an amazing amount of local knowledge, can put together a great touring itinerary, make suggestions of things to do, know where its good to eat while out touring and can be your man about town when it comes to arranging things or taking care of needs that come up during your stay. They know something about the temples but do not have in-depth knowledge about the temples. A guide has completed a rigorous study to gain in-depth knowledge of the temples and everything about them.
If one wants a guide, then one will need to hire and pay for both a guide and a driver. One can engage a guide and he or she will arrange and charge for the transportation. Or one can engage a driver and he will arrange a guide out of his network to accompany the guests. In both cases, once again, the guest will pay for both the transportation and the guide. An English language guide currently charges $30 per day with a small supplement for sunrise starts or extra long days to far-off temples like Koh Ker.
To guide or not to guide
The vast majority of independent travelers do not use a guide but there is absolutely no right or wrong answer to this question. It really is a matter of personal style. Some pre-travel research and a good guide book is generally sufficient in my opinion and from my experience. However, that?s me. Each person will crave a varying level of detail when visiting these wonders and each person will have a different style of preparing for such a trip. Some people will love the in-depth running commentary that a guide provides, getting to know a lot of detail that may otherwise be missed in terms of the meaning and evolution of the rich imagery and architectural motifs that characterize the temples as well as some background and historical details. But again, with some pre-trip research and a good guide book in tow, one can do most of this on your own.
On the other hand, many people, including myself, seem to prefer the more do-it-yourself approach. I find that the guidebook level of information provides more than enough insight and detail for me and gives me the freedom to wander and ponder on my own. At many moments I enjoy just sitting in silent solitude absorbing the incredible atmosphere, watching the other tourists and in particular locals and of course taking a lot of pictures. Many people would find it difficult with a guide to say something like, I think thats enough for now, I think I would like to wander around a bit on my own. Be back in 30 or 40 minutes.
As with many things in life, many people will find perhaps a golden middle route the best option. If you are leaning to choosing for a guide, or not quite sure, you can consider engaging a guide for your first day which would hopefully be the day you will be doing Angkor Wat. That way you get a lot of information about many of the motifs, carvings, architectural features and religious symbols that are partially recurring themes in many of the temples.
Resources and guide books
I highly recommend exploring the amazing multi-media special coverage of the ancient Angkor empire from National Geographic. It provides some wonderful context to what the temples actually are and the role they played in the powerful and very technologically advanced ancient Angkor empire. It is fascinating stuff and really brought the place to life for me on my subsequent visits. This is where I encourage every Angkor visitor to begin their research, whether you will be hiring a guide or not. If you only want to read one thing before you go, then this would be it in my opinion.
In terms of guidebooks here is what I have learned: You can check out Lonely Planet's 'Temples of Angkor' which is the downloadable chapter from their Cambodia guide book for about $5. It offers good detail without getting too detailed. This is my favorite and what I take with me every year. If you want to know everything there is to know, you can download a massive and free guide from Maurice Glaize who in 1944 wrote the definitive almost academic guide to the temples. You can also check out various audio tours.
As interesting background reading, you can also download 'Time, Space and Astronomy at Angkor Wat? that looks at the often overlooked aspects of the cosmology and astronomy of the temple Angkor Wat. If you have an iPad check out this interactive guidebook.