Once the largest city in the world, Angkor is a place filled with incredible history. The city is thought to have been home to a million people in the 12th century, and the capital, Angkor Wat, was the seat of power for most of Southeast Asia. The Khmer Empire ruled much of Thailand, present day Cambodia, Laos, and southern Vietnam, and Angkor was the heart of the vast empire.
Present day Angkor is visited from the nearby tourist city, Siem Reap, which is filled with thousands of visitors, budget accommodations, five star resorts, cheap bars, and food from every corner of the world. Comfortable accommodation starts under $10 per night for a double ensuite room and beer on the popular Pub Street downtown goes for 50 cents a glass. When we visited, admission to Angkor, which you’ll need to pay to see the temples, had just doubled in price, and now costs $37 for a single day, $62 for three days, and $72 for seven days per person. The main tours you’ll have tuk tuk drivers offering to take you on are the Small Tour (or little circuit), which should cost $10-$15 for a full day including waters in a cooler on the tuk tuk, or the Big Tour (large circuit), which should be around $20 from our experience. Banteay Srei is it’s own separate trip, which is generally $20-$25.
Angkor Wat is the obvious highlight of many people’s trip to Angkor, and was the most important temple in the ancient city for hundreds of years. This is the massive monument that once served as the capital of most of Southeast Asia, and is depicted today on the Cambodian flag. It’s incredibly popular to visit the temple before sunrise, and our tuk tuk picked us up at 5am to start our trip. After walking across a stone bridge and passing through a large outer wall, you’ll continue on toward one of the two man made ponds that sit in front of the temple. There are usually a few hundred people or more crowding around these small bodies of water, so any romantic notion of visiting a desolate temple at sunrise should be saved for a place like Bagan in Myanmar, as you won’t find it here. That being said, there’s a reason everyone shows up so early and groups together by the ponds, it is really a beautiful way of seeing Angkor Wat for the first time. If you haven’t had breakfast yet don’t worry too much, there are dozens of food stalls, lots will even deliver the food to wherever you’re standing.
Once inside, you can use your imagination to fill the empty stone pools with water and imagine the temple bustling with activity almost a thousand years ago. The carvings in the stone are still remarkably well preserved, and the temple looks as impressive as any ancient ruins we’ve seen. If you want to visit the top of the temple via the steep staircase it may take a while, especially just after sunrise. The wait time was about 45 minutes when we visited in the morning, and went down to a half hour when we revisited after lunchtime. If you plan to climb to the top you’ll need to wear a shirt that covers your shoulders (sarongs over the shoulders aren’t enough) and shorts/pants/dresses that go past the knee.
Monks will bless you for a small donation if you’d like, and it’s easy to wander the ancient halls for quite some time. Headless Buddha statues can be found within the halls, and various theories were offered for their existence. Angkor was originally a Hindu temple, and contains an interesting mix of Hindu and later Buddhist sculptures and carvings.
Not far from Angkor Wat is the later capital of Angkor, Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom covers a larger area than Angkor Wat, and is a collection of temples as opposed to one massive site. In the center of Angkor Thom is arguably the most impressive temple in all of Angkor, the Bayon.
The Bayon has faces, thought to be depictions of King Jayavarman VII, carved on each side of each tower in the temple. Some of these faces are incredibly well preserved, and still smile at you wherever you roam. While the temple doesn’t compare in size to Angkor Wat, the architecture and the faces made it one of our favorite temples. Built near the end of the 13th century, the Bayon was one of the last temples to be built in Angkor.
While in Angkor you may feel a little bit like Lara Croft or Indiana Jones, minus all of the tuk tuks and other visitors around you of course. Preah Khan is a great place to nurture that feeling, since you can walk among ruins that are a bit more spread out, and see tree roots swallowing the temples in front of you. Imagining being one of the explorers that rediscovered this site, with massive stone structures being consumed by huge trees is a fun way to explore the temple.
The temple hasn’t been restored the way some others have, giving you a pretty clear image of what the first westerners to explore the temple must have felt like. Preah Khan is quite large, and navigating through and around the collapsed hallways, you can start to believe that there were indeed tens of thousands that used to live here.
If you want to further slip into your Lara Croft mindset, a visit to Ta Prohm will surely do the trick. The temple is being consumed by even more massive trees than Preah Khan, with roots the size of elephants enveloping walls. We found ourselves getting turned around more than once since the temple is so large, and we couldn’t help but admire every giant tree we found pulling down on the ancient architecture.
Ancient structures that have avoided being attacked by the trees still stand defiant within the walls of Ta Prohm, looking even more grand due to their ruined surroundings. The movie Tomb Raider shot the bulk of its scenes here due to the eerie look of the place. Spending an hour in this temple alone is an easy thing to do, and even after our long visit we found ourselves revisiting the next day.
Ta Som is a small temple with a few nice faces, similar to those at the Bayon. The temple is compact and beautiful, and if you walk to the opposite end from the entrance, to the far rear of the site, a tree can be found consuming an old stone gateway. While you may think seeing trees tear away at stone structures would get old, it oddly never did for us. Something about seeing some of the greatest structures mankind has ever built being pulled back to the earth they came from is humbling and strangely hard to turn away from.
A 38km drive from Angkor Thom, Banteay Srei is a smaller but incredible temple, which warrants its own post, which can be found here.
-Stick to the guidelines of $10-$15 for a small tour (little circuit) and $20 for the big tour (large circuit) per tuk tuk and then tip if you feel like it. Often drivers will ask for double or triple the going rate and wait to be bargained with.
-Buy your Angkor pass only at the government building. We didn’t see it, but heard of people selling tickets out of shops, which are counterfeit and will land you in a lot of trouble.
-If you’re on a budget you can grab sandwiches from mobile food vendors (the ones with motorbikes welded to carts) for $1+ and fruit shakes for the same at most major temples.
-Read up before visiting the temples and watch a documentary or two if possible, it will enrich your visit immensely.
-Cambodia uses USD as their official currency alongside Riel. Virtually all ATMs will dispense USD, so if you need any for Visa fees further on along your trip you can get it here.
-The three day pass was about right for us, one day would’ve been too rushed, and four or more days would’ve left us feeling a bit exhausted with all of the temples.