Exploring Angkor Wat

I had been dreaming of a visit to Angkor Wat for years before I finally booked our trip over the New Years Day holidays. I had imagined how impressive and exciting it would be to wander through the beautiful and historic temples … and for all my expectations, they were blown away!

Angkor Wat actually means temple city, and was constructed during the 12th centre by the ruling Angkor King of the time as the capital city and state template of his Kingdom. Following his death, the succeeding King constructed a new state temple and capital city, Angkor Thom.

Prior to the trip I spent a lot of time researching; I wanted to get the most out of our time in Siem Reap but i didn’t know anything about the layout of the temples or how to get about. I’ve summarised my research and any tips we learnt along the way, and hopefully this makes your trip planing all that much easier!

Must see

Sunrise at Angkor Wat: this will require you to leave your hotel by 4.30am, but trust me it’s well worth it. Once the sky turns from pink to orange to daylight, you’ll totally forget you were tired, and excitement to get a closer and explore this majestic temple will take over.

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The reflections on Angkor Wat’s moat is almost as beautiful as the outline of the temple. Hard to believe that this HUGE expanse of water was man made.

We decided to use a tour guide to show us around Angkor Wat on our first day at the temples, and it was a great decision. We booked with Happy Angkor Wat Tour and were extremely happy with the service provided. Refer below for further details on the tour.

Most hotels will offer a picnic breakfast to take to the temple with you, so make sure you ask your hotel, but best to give them advance notice.

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The view from the top: only a limited number of people are allowed to enter the upper level of Angkor Wat at a time, but as you can see, the views are worth the queue!

Angkor Thom: A much larger temple city than Angkor Wat, it contains two key temples of interest; Bayon and Baphuom (see below).

Bayon: the most famous temple in Angkor Thom, with over 200 huge stone faces, this temple is an impressive sight. Take your time to walk around the lower and upper levels of this temple and don’t forget to constantly look up to see the stone faces at every turn. It can get rather crowded at this temple, but if you are lucky you might stumble out of a narrow passage and into a quiet little nook of your own.

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The many faces of Bayon

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The main attraction of Angkor Thom: Bayon temple

Baphuon: its hard to choose a favourite temple and it’s not even that this temple was the most impressive of them all … but there was something really tranquil about this temple. I think it had something to do with there being significantly less people here, and the ability to climb up and enjoy the views from the temple above. The stairs are very steep, but trust me the climb is worth it.

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Stairs to the top of Baphuon temple …

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… and the incredible views over the temple grounds from the top!

Ta Prohm: located outside both the ‘temple cities’ (ie outside of both Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom), this temple is hugely popular with tourists after being made famous by the original Tomb Raider movie. Ta Prohm is a beautiful ruin, with the jungle slowly taking over the temple, evident by the tree roots growing over and throughout the temple. Have your camera ready; you will want to take photos at every turn. A  word of warning: this was THE busiest of all temples we visited. If you were going to choose only one temple to time it right to avoid the crowds, then let it be this one. I would recommend early morning, or around lunchtime when a lot of the tourist buses break for lunch.

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Ta Prohm aka ”the Tomb Raider temple”

Banteay Srei: I had read about this temple while researching “temples without the crowds” which is possibly due to its location being a one hour drive from Siem Reap. It is also known as the lady temple; it is assumed that the intricate carvings decorating the temple could only have been completed by the delicate hands of a woman. That or possibly because it is carved from a pinkish coloured sandstone. We timed our visit for dusk as the light was softening, giving the pink sandstone a beautiful glow. It also meant there were only a handful of other tourists at the temple with us so we could enjoy the quietness and beauty without having to dodge the crowds. I would definitely recommend  adding this to your temple itinerary.

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Finding peacefulness at the temples … Banteay Srei just prior to dusk

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The intricate decorations on Banteay Srei

Practicalities / General tips

Getting your ticket: you can purchase a 1 day ticket, 3 day ticket, or a 7 day ticket. Personally, there is far to much to see to fit into a one day ticket. I would highly recommend a 3 day ticket as the best option; the 3 day ticket also allows you to choose 3 non-consecutive days over a one week period. This provides great flexibility and allows you to plan ”rest days” in between, to ensure you don’t get all templed out.

Your ticket must be collected from the ticket office, about a 10 minute drive out of Siem Reap (or halfway between Siem Reap and Angkor Wat). You will be required to have a digital photo taken at the ticket booth, so during peak times the queue can be quite slow.

We also discovered a nifty little trick; if you purchase your ticket after 5pm, then you get to see a free sunset at Angkor Wat that evening, as your ticket admission will begin from the following day. Win Win! However you have to be pretty efficient in the ticket line as the temples close at 6pm sharp.

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South Gate entrance to Angkor Thom

How to plan your time: this will depend on the number of days you purchased on your ticket. Regardless, make a list of the places that are an absolute must see for you, and those that would be nice if you have the time. Priortise those that are must see, and see how you go. Keep in mind it is very hot out in the sun at the temples, so I would recommend getting out to the temples early!

For those with a 3 day pass, I would definitely recommend breaking your temple days up with non-temple days. You really will appreciate the downtime, and it will give you an opportunity to explore the beautiful town of Siem Reap. See my Siem Reap blog for what to do on your non-temple days.

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The moat around Angkor Thom

How to get about:  There are a few options available. Get a private guide to drive you around, get a tuk tuk to drop you at the temples, or ride a bike to the temples.

We really wanted our first day to be informative, teaching us about the history of the temples and what the iconology decorating the temples means. It was for this reason we decided to book a private guide for the day, and our guide was excellent!! We booked with Happy Angkor Wat Tour which picked us up at 4.30am for sunrise at Angkor Wat and took us through to 2pm in the afternoon. As well as Angkor Wat, our tour covered: Ta Prohm, Ta Nei, Angkor Thom South Gate and Bayon.

For 4 adults we paid USD $30 per person and were driven around in air-conditioned transportation between the sights. Our guide, Sathorn, was extremely knowledgable having studied Khmer history at University, so not only did he take great photos for us, and help us to beat the crowds, he also taught us so much about the history. Considering how much we got out of the whole experience, it was fantastic value!!

For the other two days, we simply hopped on a Tuk Tuk and negotiated a price for a driver to take us out and back. You just need to agree a pick up time with them for your return journey. Once dropped off, you can then choose a few temples in close proximity to visit on foot. Warning: its crazy hot, which is precisely why i wouldn’t recommend bike riding out to the temples. You’d get half way, and be wishing you could change your clothes from the sweat dripping through your layers!

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Taking a stroll in the grounds of Angkor Thom

What to wear:  Key to remember is that this is a religious monument, so please dress respectfully with shoulders covered and clothing to the knee. The sun is also very strong so make sure you wear suncream and a hat. Comfortable walking shoes are a must; the ground is uneven and very dusty (or if its been raining – muddy) and you will likely be  climbing stairs and walking a lot!

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Feeling on top of the Wat … or world, whichever you prefer

Where to stay: For information on where to stay, see my Siem Reap blog.

Other: You will probably see a lot of Cambodian children about the temples trying to sell souvenirs. Although your instinct will be to contribute, this is not the way to do so, as it perpetrates the practise of pulling children out of school to earn money by begging. The best way to help is to support the NGOs running community projects in the region.

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