Our trip in Cambodia started from Siem Reap where we spent a week between working and exploring the majestic ruins of Angkor.
The archeological park of Angkor, with about 2 million visitors per year, is definitely a common travel destination. The site sees all kinds of different people: pelegrins, historians, temple lovers, backpackers, big tourist groups, sooner or later everyone arrives in Cambodia to visit the ruins of the Khmer kingdom. No, you will not have the chance to be a lonely adventurer Indiana Jones, and most certainly you will not be alone while watching the famous sunrise over Angkor Wat. You will have to be there at least an hour before the sun begins to rise if you want to get a decent spot ,and plan your visit to the most known temple in strategic hours if you don’t like big crowds. Is it still “worth it”? Or it feels like some sort of touristic circus? For me was 100% “worth it”!
What is Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat, built between 1113 and 1150 by king Suryavarman II, is the most important temple in the Angkor area which is located in the north west of Cambodia. During the most glorious years of the Khmer empire, between the 900 and 1200, it was here that the capitals were placed. In this time, the various kings put effort into building some of todays greatest architectonic masterpieces. At the beginning the empire was following Hindu religion and the complex of temples and monastery were planned accordingly and decorated with reliefs narrating stories from Hindu mythology. Over the years, the empire religion shifted to Mahayana Buddhism before, to Theravada Buddhism which is the main religion today, and the buildings have then been adapted to the new customs.
The end of Angkor arrived in 1431 following the invasion from Ayutthaya and the Angkor region was gradually, but never completely, abandoned and covered by the forest. Throughout history the site have never been completely forgotten, in the 1907 a restoration process slowly started by France and was interrupted in the 1970s by the civilian war. In 1993 UNESCO, India, Germany, and Japan finally collaborated in a big restoring campaign. Today, the archeological park of Angkor extends for 400 square Km, including forested areas and local villages inhabited mainly by farmers. The nearest city is Siem Reap, which offers a vast choice of accommodation, restaurants and an easy access to the site.
How to visit Angkor archeological park
To enter the park there is a $20 daily fee, and multi-entry tickets are available: 3 days for $40 or 7 days for $60. We chose the 3 days ticket and I think it was perfect. The benefit of this is you can use the three entrances within a week rather than in consecutive days, which allows you to break up your temple-visiting marathon if you prefer.
Getting around is pretty easy, and can be done either by renting a bicycle or hiring a tuk tuk. If you decide to go with the bicycle consider that the park is about 7 km from Siem Reap, plus you will have to cycle around it and the temperature can get pretty high. We were there in December, the cooler season, and the temperature was perfect, if not too cold in the early morning, but warm enough in the middle of the day that cycling under the sun could have been a struggle for unfit people like me. We hired a tuk tuk and and were glad we did.
The prices vary based on itinerary you choose, but unless you go to the farthest temples, it costs between $15 and $20 depending on the time: you pay extra for sunset and sunrise.
Our 3 days itinerary.
We landed in Siem Reap in the late morning and visited the archeological park in the afternoon, which allowed us time to visit a couple of temples and enjoy the sunset.
Preah Khan Temple
This temple was built by king Jayavarman VII in the 12th century on the site of his victory against the Cham invaders (the population that was occupying the area that is today middle and south Vietnam). The complex is not completely restored and when walking through the corridors, you can see pile of fallen rock blocks behind windows, making you feel more like the first explorer in the area (you wish!). At the very end there is a 2 story building whose purpose is still unknown, but I bet that have been used by Moogly and Baloo at some stage. Maybe it’s because this was the first temple that I saw, but I loved it. I think I repeated a series of ‘wow’, ‘where are we?’ and ‘can you believe it?’ an endless number of times.
Always built in the 12th century, the Neak Pean temple is built on an artificial island and is surrounded by four artificial ponds. This temple was likely used for medical purposes: the structure is like the one of Anavatapta, the lake on the Himalaya whose water is said to cure illness. To get to this temple you need to cross the lake on a wooden bridge – here is the real beauty – the lake reflection is incredible, and with the white trees emerging from it, creates a surreal atmosphere. The spot is very popular with local teenagers who go to take “selfies”, so you might have to take a couple of pictures to blend in with the locals.
Prae Roup Temple
This temple is older, built around 961, it was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It is a popular location to admire the sunset, but if you want a good spot to enjoy the view, you need to be there at least half an hour early.
Our second day of exploring started very early: our tuk tuk driver came to pick us up at 4:45 am, so by 2:30/3:00 pm we were ready to head back.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, and the symbol of Cambodia. It was built at the beginning of the 12th century by king Suryavarman II, who was following Hindu religion. The temple was then dedicated to the god Vishnu and was planned to be the king’s mausoleum. The walls around it are 3.6 km long and are decorated with riliefs with episodes from the Hindus mythology. Later in history, the building and its decoration have been gradually adapted to the Buddhist belief.
Watching the sun rising from behind the majestic building is a must do on your trip to Angkor! Bare in mind though, that you will be there with a couple hundred people who are going to line in front of the pond to have the best shot of the the temple and it’s reflection on the water. We left our hotel at 4:45, and once there we managed to snag the very last spot in the first row, which was available just because there was water coming out from the pond and my tripod kept sinking in the mud. If you don’t care about taking pictures, you can get there later, sit somewhere farther back and just enjoy the beautiful moment.
Surprisingly, once the sun was up, not many people actually visited the temple, which was very good for us, and we enjoyed strolling within the tunnel in the misty morning light.
North of Angkor Wat, there is Angkor Thom, which was established as the capital of the Khmer Empire at the end of the 12th century. The complex of buildings cover an area of 9 square km and include many well preserved buildings, such as the very popular Bayon – the ‘temple with the big stone faces’. The faces are probably portraits of king Jayavarman VII, under whom the temple and the monumental city was built.
Inside Angkor Thom, there’s Baphuon: built before the 11th century it was still following the Hindu tradition and was later adapted to the Buddhist one to become the former temple of the capital. This was one of my favorite: I enjoyed reaching the top and walking through the corridors with a nice view.
Just a few steps away from Baphuon is the Royal Palace, which incorporate a previously Hindu building, and in front of there is the terrace of the elephant that was used for public ceremony and has been decorated with some well-preserved reliefs.
Hidden behind those buildings is the very small-but-worthy Preah Palilay. There is not much information about this building and the coexistence of buddhist and hindu elements make hard to date. Again, the fallen rocks and the trees all around it, make you feel like a real explorer.
Last but not least was the famous temple used in ‘Tomb Raider’. Due to trees and vegetation growing on it, and its series of half-collapsed tunnel, this temple is probably one of the most photogenic in the area. It was also built by Jayavarman VII as part of its big public construction program.
This was our last temple for the day. We arrived at about 1:30 and there was barely anyone else around. An hour later, when we left, it was really busy. It might be a good idea to visit it during lunch time.
On our last day pass we left the hotel around lunch time and we got to the more remote temples.
The temple is located about 45 Km from Siem Reap with a 2 km walk up a hill through the forest where you will find some stone carving hidden behind trees. At the top there are sculptures partly covered by water with waterfalls running through them. The site have been discovered late in the history and have been open to the public as recent as the early ‘90s. The walk to reach the top is an easy hike that also offers some panoramic views.
Last but not least, this is my absolute favorite! The temple is the oldest that I have visited (10th century), it was built with red sandstone and it is covered entirely with beautiful carvings. It is also known as the ladies’ temple because of the detailed small carving that must have been done by ladies’ hands, and because of the many dancing girls that are portrayed in them.
Banteay Srei is about 35Km from Siem Reap (an hour by tuk tuk) and is on the same way as Kbal Spean, which is why it is good to visit them in the same day. Both the temples are a bit far away and a tuk tuk there and back will cost you about $30 but they are both worth the ride.
We never did an entire day full immersion, but I think that is the best way to be able to appreciate and understand what you are actually visiting.
Something that I definitely would not want to miss is the sunrise in Angkor Wat, not only for the sunrise itself, but also for the visit of the temple in the early morning light. The other one would have to be Banteay Srei: the beautiful carving and the whole structure of the temple was incredible.
Where to stay
In Siem Reap there are plenty accommodations for any budget. We stayed at the Rose Royal Boutique hotel and I really loved everything about that place. For $35 a night you have the best service I have ever experienced, a big and nicely decorated brand new room with balcony, and the pool is clean and beautiful. It is on a very quiet street but still 5 minutes away from the night market. Excellent!
Here you can find more accomodation in Siem Reap