Angkor Wat has been on my bucket list for quite some time now. Any time I saw pictures, I knew I just had to go there sometime – that time was in January 2019 and I have to admit, it blew my mind.
Angkor Wat and how to get there
What is Angkor Wat: Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia and easily one of the most photographed temples, as well as the largest religious monument on earth, on a site measuring 162.6 hectares (I grabbed that from Wikipedia). Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, it was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple over time. This means two things – first: it is ginormous! Second: you won’t see a lot of Buddha statues you typically see in South East Asian temples, but more statues of Hindu gods like Vishnu, Shiva and their huge family tribe. Many people believe that Angkor Wat is only one temple (shown in the picture above), but that’s just one of the most frequented ones and in my humble opinion, not the most stunning one in the lot. There are over 72 major temples and countless smaller temples in the area and you can easily spend weeks in the Angkor Wat area. We opted for the 3-day pass (cost: US $62.-), which was perfect for our needs. You can use the pass on 3 days of your choice within the time frame of 10 days. This gives you the opportunity to have a day off in-between, in order to avoid that you’ll be too overwhelmed (which you will most probably be by the end of your first day, but there’s still so much to see and explore, so you’ll want to come back).
How to get there: The main Angkor Wat temple lies about 8 kilometers outside of the old city center of Siem Reap and is one of the closest temples. You will need to rent a either a tuk-tuk, car, mini van, or a bike to get there and around. Before you go ahead and rent a bike, bear in mind that it’s most probably going to be HOT and humid (and I mean really freaking hot!). We were there during dry-season, but were drenched in sweat by 9 a.m. anyway. The most economical option is to rent a tuk-tuk driver for about 18-40 US $ (depending on where you want to go). To rent a car with A/C would cost you around 35-40 US$ and a minivan will be even more expensive, but fits about 10 people comfortably. I don’t have the exact prices on the different options but I recommend to talk to the staff at your hotel/guesthouse. The prices stated above don’t include an English-speaking guide and drivers are not allowed to act as guides. I highly recommend getting a guide for at least one day, because there’s so much more to the Angkor Wat temples than you can see. A guide will give you ALL the information you could possibly think and will point out interesting details. They usually also know the best photo spots and will happily assist you in getting a good shot. We got an excellent driver and guide organized by our guest house The Orientation Lodge and we paid $35 for the guide and $18 for the driver for one day (inner loop) and tipped both the guide and driver in the end, because we were very satisfied with the tour.
Recommended Itinerary for one day: As soon as you enter the Angkor Wat area you will notice that there are about a gazillion people in there, which had the exact same idea as you – and this really shouldn’t come as a surprise, because Angkor Wat is number one on Lonely Planet’s Top Ten Sights in the World. And this is, if you happen to only stay in the inner loop with all the popular and well-known temples. Our guide therefor took us to Ta Prohm first, because he said it was going to be even busier later in the day. Ta Prohm is in much the same condition in which it was found with trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors. It also became famous with the movie Tomb Raider, so don’t expect to ever be alone there. If you want to take pictures without a busload of people being in your shots, you either have to get a creative angle or come VERY early. I had to make with creative angles, because I’m no friend of early mornings.
The next point on your itinerary should be Angkor Thom, which covers an area of over 9 km2 in which you can find the Terrace of the Leper King, the Terrace of Elephants and Bayon Temple. The latter being my absolute favorite temple, but also the most disappointing one at the same time. My favorite temple, because of the sheer beauty of it and the many dragonflies flying around the stone faces making the place almost magical. Most disappointing, because as hard as I tried, I was not able to capture this temple’s beauty on camera (which is probably why Angor Wat Temple has made the race). Every picture will look blunt and just doesn’t this place justice. I tried anyway, but be sure to check this place out in person if you ever have the chance!
Angkor Wat: We reached Angkor Wat in the afternoon, after we had some lunch at one of the restaurants close to the temple complex, which seems to be where all the tourists eventually have to eat (the food was ok, but don’t expect the meal of your life here). Many people come to Angkor Wat either for sunrise or sunset – sunrise being more popular, but not less crowded. What I didn’t know – but probably should have guessed by now – is that you can actually go inside and even climb up the Angkor Wat temple. Only this one temple and the many carvings on the walls of the temple can easily keep you busy for a week. I recommend visiting the Angkor Wat temple with a guide, because they will be able to explain all the stories carved in the walls and point out interesting facts and details you will otherwise miss.
Banteay Samre/Banteay Srey and Preah Khan: These temples are located further out. A tuk-tuk ride can easily take an hour to reach the first one. We visited those temples without a guide on our second day. Those temples weren’t as impressive as those from the inner loop, but scored with far less people.
We let the other 65 temples be seen by other people and called it quits after those temples, as the they tend to look very similar to the inept eye after a while.
What to see and do around Siem Reap
So you’re all templed out and wondering what else you could do in Siem Reap? Here’s a list of other things worth visiting:
APOPO Visitor Center: As you might know, Cambodia used to be heavily bombed and over the course of wars, thousands of landmines have been hidden. Nowadays, nobody remembers where they put them nor will anybody openly admit to having scattered thousands of landmines. So they’re usually found be accident. By children playing in the countryside, by farmers tending to their fields, by women accidentally cooking over an unexploded bomb… Here’s where APOPO comes in. They have trained what they call HeroRATs to detect mines. They’re light enough so the mines won’t explode and they’re extremely efficient. In this visitor center you can see the HeroRATs in action and discover the history of conflict in Cambodia, and the impact of landmines on local communities.
Get a massage: There are some excellent SPAs around town and you can treat yourself to a well-deserved massage after all those kilometers you’ve walked in the heat.
Visit the local market: As with any other market around SE Asia, you’ll either spontaneously decide you’ll live a vegetarian life from now on or you’ll love it. Around the market you can find many souvenir stalls.
Visit the Cambodia Landmine Museum: In case you haven’t already visited a similar museum elsewhere, this museum will be well worth your time.
Many tour agencies will try to sell you a trip to Tonle Sap lake and villages. Besides it being dry season when we were in the area, I have read very mixed reviews about Tonle Sap and decided not to go there. You might want to do the same in case you’re considering to go.
Where to eat
That’s it. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask away!