When you want to explore Cambodia, there is no way around the temples of Angkor. The city that sits right next to this UNESCO world heritage site is Siem Reap. And its airport is conveniently connected to many cities in Southeast Asia.
Angkor and Siem Reap
For several centuries, Angkor was the centre of the Khmer empire and is still one of the most important archeological sites in Southeast Asia. For those of you who love archeology, you can find more information about the area here.
Walking through Siem Reap the first day made me realize just how important the site of Angkor has become. It felt like every building is either a hotel, a guesthouse or a hostel (accommodating every budget and personal taste). If you are on a budget, check out the offers on Hostelworld. In between, you will find pub street, some markets and many, MANY tour operators.
To visit Angkor, you can choose between 3 ticket options: 1 day ($20), 3 days ($40) and 7 days ($60). One day will cover the main sites. The 3 day option seems to be the most popular one and will allow you to participate in the two-day tours (the “big” and “small” circuit). I guess the third day is an extra day in case you want to go back and spend more time roaming around the site. I don’t know who would “need” (or have the energy) for 7 days’ visiting temples unless you are an absolute archeology/history nerd.
When buying the ticket, they take a picture of you that they then put on your ticket. This is so you can’t pass it on to another person. Entries are checked at the entrances to the major temples so don’t lose yours en route. Also, getting a ticket might take some time as there are hundreds of tourists every day, so I would advise you to get the ticket the day before to save some time.
How to visit the site
You will hear a lot about the “small” and the “big” tour.
The small tour will cost you $15 (prices may vary slightly) by tuk-tuk and take you to the “big” ones: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm.
The big tour costs a little more (about $18) and will take you to the lesser known temples (which come with slightly less tourists, too). Depending on the operator, this tour can be arranged more flexibly and include a temple that you wish to see, but the “basic” tour would include Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon, Pre Rup.
I have been rather disappointed by organized tours. If you are like me and want to do this on your own, I would recommend you to rent a bicycle.
I had only one day so I chose to get a tuk-tuk, shared the costs with a friend and left at 8am. By the end of the day, I was deeply impressed by what I had seen, but also totally exhausted by the heat and the rush to get back to Angkor Wat in time for sunset.
So, what if you only have one day to spare? My advice: pick the temples you absolutely want to see. If you need help deciding, here is my personal top 5:
Top 5 temples
1. Angkor Wat
There is just no way around this one. Everybody is heading there (I mean it), so be ready for huge crowds. I don’t like crowded places but this one is definitely worth being bumped into and putting up with people inadvertently running into your pictures .
It’s one of the largest religious monuments ever constructed (originally a Hindu temple, later converted into a Bhuddist temple). The centre of Angkor Wat has been described as the symbolic centre of the nation, centre of the universe and some rank it among the seven wonders of the world.
2. Neak Pean
I agree that the temple itself can’t compete with its neighbors (it’s tiny). But I absolutely loved the walk over a wooden footbridge to get there. The temple sits on an artificial island surrounded by a baray (reservoir). As it is not one of the major temples, there were very few visitors. This site seemed really peaceful and quiet after the crowds surrounding the other sites.
3. Preah Khan
Again, not one of the “big three”. But I absolutely loved the quiet. There were far fewer people around and you could just wander and enjoy this peaceful atmosphere. It’s been restored in parts but it remains authentic and is largely overgrown by impressive trees. I thought of it as a lesser visited Ta Prohm. I have since learned that these two temples were actually built by the same man, namely king Jayavarman VII. He dedicated Ta Prohm temple to his mother, Preah Khan to his father. For more information, check out this great website.
4. Angkor Thom
Its name translates to “the great city” and you can still imagine how grand this place must have been. Again, founded by king Jayavarman VII, this city was built as an (almost) perfect square. The most impressive temples in there are probably Bayon, Baphuon and Phimeanakas, but the area is large and you can explore the ruins of two platforms, namely the terrace of the Elephants and the terrace of the Leper King. There are also five impressive gates, decorated with the famous faces. What I liked most is that the area is pretty vast and few people seem keen on walking in the heat and humidity. So even though it is one of the big temples, it was far less crowded than Angkor Wat.
Little hint: Look at the last picture, you will see that it’s the face of a lying Buddha. Many people seem to walk by this as they don’t stop to read the panels.
5. Ta Prohm
Frankly, I was a little disappointed by this one. Mostly because of how commercialized this site seemed to be. It was packed with tourists, who were herded along the famous tree trunks to pose for pictures. There actually are specific spots designated for photo-ops. People line up to have their shot taken. Invariably, everybody ends up with the same pictures of the same trees. It’s probably the most instagrammable temple (though I’m no expert when it comes to that). I actually tried to photograph the tree trunks that didn’t seem to be crowd-pleasers. But, to be fair, once I got over myself and tried to ignore the crowds, I still got a little impression of that otherworldly vibe that many have described.
Hopefully, this will help you set up your on tour of the site.
If you have a little time to spare in Siem Reap, I strongly recommend a
or a day-trip to one of