With so much written about the Khmer temple complex at Angkor Wat, the site depicted on the Cambodian flag could be forgiven for not living up to expectations. It turned out that Angkor Wat surpassed those expectations, and then some. Nothing had prepared us for just how impressive the ancient ruins of Angkor could be… and we barely scratched the surface.
To access Angkor, you need to stay in Siem Reap which is the closest town. Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s main tourist pull, so getting to Siem Reap is fairly easy. We arrived from Phnom Penh for around $10-15 (check out my blog on Phnom Penh here!). Coaches also arrive from all over Cambodia (between $5-10 from the coastal resorts) and Bangkok ($15).
Where to Stay:
Siem Reap is a town that is dependent on Angkor’s tourist pull, so hostels, hotels and guesthouses are everywhere. Don’t expect a quaint Cambodian atmosphere in Siem Reap, as markets, bars and restaurants are extremely tourist-orientated (the main street is called ‘Pub Street’!)
We stayed at the Garden Village Guesthouse, which was a popular choice with backpackers. Make sure you book an actual room when staying here – we had to change rooms from a glorified cubicle with no air conditioning. It turns out some rooms are too cheap for a reason!
What to Do:
The best (and only) way to get round all of Angkor Wat’s temples is by renting a tuk-tuk for the day. These cost $15-25 per day, but there’s no practical alternative. We used the luxury of having a tuk-tuk to see some of Angkor’s smaller (but no less impressive) temples. The highlight of these was the pools of Preah Neak Poan, which involves a precarious boardwalk approach!
Entry into Angkor isn’t cheap either. We opted for the three-day pass at $40. You can spread the three days over a week, and to be honest the price is completely justified. Keep your ticket at all times, as guards check them at every temple. If you spend longer in the park (a week pass is $60), travel to the edge of Angkor’s complex where temples including Banteay Srei are waiting.
We chose to start our tour of Angkor at the ‘smaller’ Preah Khan Temple (left) with long corridors and ruins. If this was the only temple at Angkor, it would probably still be worth a visit to the area. It’s a good introduction to Angkor, and there’s instant opportunity to play explorer and take the all-important photographic instagram shot.
The unforgettable Bayon temple.
After that, we made our way to Angkor Thom. While Angkor Wat rightly takes the headlines, inside Angkor Thom’s wall are arguably a more impressive collection of temples. Mainly, the huge Bayon temple is a quirky and unexpected shrine to King Avalokiteshvara. His face is carved 216 times on every face of Bayon’s 54 towers, while the upper levels of the temple offer great views of the jungle. For pure eccentricity, Bayon was my favourite temple to explore.
Also in Angkor Thom is the impressive Terrace of the Elephants and the adjacent Baphuon pyramid-like temple. All of the temples in Angkor are full of history, but it was these monuments that really made me imagine just how many people used this area during the Khmer empire. Even at 1000-years old, Baphuon also did a good job of sheltering us from a sudden thunderstorm in one of the more surreal experiences of our trip as we were trapped at the top of the monument from the rain!
Perhaps Angkor’s most infamous temple is Ta Prohm (right), where nature has truly taken over. It was used as a location in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and it’s easy to see why. Huge trees climb all over the temple’s remains, and roots break through it’s 900-year-old corridors. Ta Prohm is a clear reminder of just how old and impressive Angkor is.
Finally, a visit to Angkor is incomplete without an early start at the main attraction to catch sunrise over Angkor Wat. We soon forgot about the 4am wake-up as we joined the crowds in the dark ready to catch a photo of the huge temple. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any ‘sun’, but the experience of watching Angkor Wat’s iconic towers slowly appear was one of the highlights of our trip. It’s definitely worth saving the best until last in this case.
To avoid the rush inside the temple, head inside just before the sun is properly up. Inside, the temple justifies its title as the world’s largest religious building, and it’s a joy to explore. I particularly enjoyed admiring the intricate stone carvings along corridor walls. It’s also possible to head up to the upper levels of Angkor, but a small bribe of a couple of dollars to a security guard is needed!
Finally, a word of caution. The amount of tourists at Angkor means there is plenty of opportunity for locals to make some money. While stalls and restaurants are limited to specific areas, workers will still harass you at every opportunity for your custom. Also, security guards will attempt to earn tips by offering to take photos or act as a tour guide… for a small fee. We were also surprised by a group of friendly children, who wouldn’t leave us alone until we bought their souvenirs.
From Siem Reap, we travelled on to Bangkok for the last stop of our trip before we headed home. The coach took around 12 hours with lots of changing buses and a long queue at Thai border control. Coaches to Phnom Penh, and Southern coastal resorts are also frequent and cheap.
Check out my blog on Bangkok here! Also have a look at my ‘Top 5’ Highlights blog, where I look at the best places we visited, stayed, ate and drank over our incredible seven weeks of travelling – you won’t be surprised to hear that Angkor Wat features heavily!