When I was much younger, I remember seeing a documentary about the temples of Angkor and I instantly knew I had to go there one day. I finally made it there in 2006, then again in 2010, and again in 2014. The atmosphere around the temples has changed over time, but the feeling of seeing the intricate carvings, moss covered walls, and encroaching jungle surrounding monolithic structures still inspire me to return to Angkor.
The temples of Angkor sit just outside Siem Reap in Northern Cambodia. The airport is serviced by numerous airlines – I’ve actually flown there from Bangkok, Hanoi, and Kuala Lumpur. As you fly in you may be able to see the Tonle Sap (Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake) and the winding Mekong River. The airport is around 8km from the city centre. You can also get there by bus from various capitals, but be prepared for delays and discomfort.
You have a few options to go around the temples if you’re doing a private tour – tuk-tuk, motorbike, and car. Be aware that Cambodia is HOT! The temperature ranges from 30 to 40 degrees Celsius, but when you factor in the humidity it feels even hotter. Also, don’t forget that the temples are big and the majority have a lot of stairs. It’s really nice to come back from exploring a temple and then climb into an air conditioned car rather than sitting in an open tuk-tuk with a hot breeze blowing in your face. If you really prefer going on a cheaper tuk-tuk, then it’s probably better to go in the slightly cooler and drier peak season from November to March. However, my favourite time to see the temples in during the wet season. Yes, it’s hot and humid, but the jungle is more vibrant, thick green moss covers the temples, and the stones turn to a dark black. It’s also when less people visit, so it’s not so crowded.
You have to understand that ancient Angkor stretches over 400 square kilometers with over 70 temples and other official buildings. This is why you have the option of buying a 1, 3, or 7 day pass. Although, I’ve only ever gone with the one day pass as I find I get a little tired of looking at temples, no matter how incredible I think they are. To get a good sample of what’s on offer, I suggest seeing at least 4 of the main temples.
A truly great start to the sites of Angkor. Go in just after breakfast as you’ll have to do a bit of walking around the 9 square kilometer complex, and it gets hot early. As you’ll drive in, you’ll see Angkor Wat on your way to the south entrance of Angkor Thom. The bridge to the south entrance is lined with gods and demons that lead you to the gate in the 8 meter high wall which is capped with a 23 meter tower bearing the iconic faces of Angkor. After passing through you’ll follow the road until you reach the Bayon. Usually, there are elephant rides around the Bayon, but PLEASE DON’T RIDE THE ELEPHANTS. One died in April 2016 from exhaustion after carrying tourists all day in extreme heat, and as they actually have very delicate spines it is not good to ride elephants.
Bayon & surrounds
The 54 towers of the Bayon are iconic images of Angkor. In total there are 216 faces of King Jayavarman VII gazing at you from every direction. Back in 2006, I found monks and nuns praying in the little shrines throughout the structure, but on my last trip I couldn’t find any. Now it seems there are shows of dancing Apsaras. At the back of the complex you’ll see some impressive galleries depicting battles. To the north of the Bayon you’ll find Baphuon, which was reconstructed over a period of 50 years. I really enjoyed seeing it come together with each visit.
Then there are the terraces to the east of Baphuon. The carvings are really quite detailed, and while the terrace of the elephants is popular for photos, my favourite would have to be the Terrace of the Leper King with its thousands of carvings – it’s protected by a wall so a lot of people don’t notice it at the end next to the car park.
From here you’ll got through the eastern gate of Angkor Thom and past a few more temples until you reach Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm became really famous after it was featured in the first Tomb Raider movie, and is my favourite temple. The temple has been left as it was found – reclaimed by the jungle. The towering trees grow out of the buildings with roots that cascade over the 12th century carvings. Sadly, over time it has lost a bit of its charm with the installation of a wooden path. Back in 2006, I was able to go anywhere I wanted, and with hardly any people around I was able to imagine I was like Indiana Jones discovering some lost tomb. Another thing I miss is the little market that was outside the entrance, which had simple Cambodian dishes for sale. Last time I was there, it had been cleared to build a car park. There are a couple of other temples which still have trees growing out of the buildings, but none of them compare to Ta Prohm
To take a break from the typical architecture, I definitely recommend journeying out to Bantaey Srei. It’s a 25km drive, but it gives you the opportunity to see life in the villages around Angkor and you can also stop by the Landmine Museum on the way. The temple is carved from red sandstone, but something that sets it apart from other temples was that it was not built by a king. It was actually built by a doctor of the royal court who later became the teacher of Jayavarman V. Although it’s quite a small complex, it has extremely intricate carvings. If you’re arriving in the afternoon, be warned that there’s very little shade, so you may want to take an umbrella. There’s also a large area you have to exit through which is full of souvenir stands.
A lot of people choose to go to see Angkor Wat in the early hours to catch the sunrise behind it. I have a lot of friends who’ve done this, and I’ve seen their fairly average looking photos on Facebook, although a few do get lucky. I prefer to leave it for the end of the day, after all, it is such an iconic place that it’s even on the Cambodian flag as it towers out of the jungle at 213 meters, so why not finish a trip around Angkor with a bang? I usually ask to be dropped off at the eastern entrance as nobody really goes there – the western entrance is more impressive. Although Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu temple, the central shrine now houses a statue of Buddha. After walking in from the eastern entrance, I suggest you climb the very steep stairs to the central shrine. Make sure you’re dressed appropriately as people with exposed shoulders will be refused entry. You’ll notice a lot of Apsara and Devata carvings on the interior walls. Then head back down to the eastern gallery, which is home to the famous ‘Churning of the sea of milk’ bas-relief. From there you can continue around the gallery to see depictions of life and battles in the Khmer kingdom. After this you can walk along the crowded causeway to the western entrance and grab a beer at the restaurant there before the sun starts to set.
Out of the ‘Wonders of the Ancient World’, Angkor is definitely one of my favourites. Sadly, each time I go it becomes a little more developed, which makes me feel like it is losing a bit of its mystery and charm. However, every time I travel to Angkor with someone who is seeing it for the first time, I can see how captivated they are by the place. It’s certainly somewhere for your bucket list, and will likely remain as one of your top travel experiences.