When you want to explore Cambodia, the beaten path obviously leads you to Siem Reap. The airport has very convenient connections to almost all major cities in Southeast Asia. So this is where I started my journey. To be honest I didn’t know much about the country and its history. I knew I wanted to see “the temples”. The name Angkor Wat rang a bell and I remembered pictures with temples overgrown by trees and huge stony faces.
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. It is on the UNESCO world heritage list. 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 (more about this later). 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 in specific temples. 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 you buy the ticket, a photograph will be taken of you which will show on your ticket so you can’t pass it on to another person. There are controls at the entrances of the major temples so don’t lose the ticket on the way. Also, getting a ticket might take some time as there are hundreds of tourists every day, so I would advise everyone to get the ticket the day before their visit to save some time (of course this only applies if you are on a DIY tour).
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. Depending on what you want to see, you need to have a little time (2 or 3 days), choose your temples and go.
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 all the information, the heat and the rushing at the end to be back at Angkor Wat at sunset.
Below is my personal Top 5, if you need help deciding or just some inspiration.
Top 5 temples
1. Angkor Wat
Of course. 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 or people 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
Granted, it’s only a tiny, tiny temple. What I absolutely loved was 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.
3. Preah Khan
Again, it’s not one of the “big three” temples. So, one of my favourite parts about it was how quiet it was. There were far fewer people and you could really walk around and enjoy the atmosphere. It’s been restored in parts but it still felt quite untouched 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 not so many people like to walk 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 disappointed by this one. Maybe, because I expected more (what with Indiana Jones and Lara Croft having been filmed here). But mostly because this place was packed with tourists, who were herded in groups from one tree trunk to the next to pose for pictures. Invariably everybody ends up with the pictures of the same trees, so I actually tried to photograph the tree trunks which did not seem to be crowd-pleasers. As soon as I got over myself and tried to blend out the crowds, I still got a little impression of that otherworldly vibe that many have described.