Angkor, Cambodia Travel Guide plus Angkor tips in 60 Seconds video

Angkor, Cambodia Travel Guide plus Angkor tips in 60 Seconds video

After our colossal Vietnam tour we took a short flight from Ho Chi Minh City and headed over the border to neighbouring Cambodia. We spent 3 nights in Siem Reap, gateway to the ancient city of Angkor. We’d been waiting to visit Angkor for many years, so it was easily the biggest highlight of our trip, it felt like a pilgrimage of sorts. Garth had done lots of research, especially from the many travel blog posts to Angkor, to cut a long story short, our advice would be just make sure you do the ‘big three’ sights – Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, give yourself enough time for those and then anything else is a bonus.

 

Ancient Angkor

Ta Keo - Just one of the many temples inside the City of Angkor

Ta Keo – Just one of the many temples inside the City of Angkor

The City of Angkor was built in the 12th century during the height of the Khmer Empire rule, and was the largest pre industrial city in the world. It was absolutely vast in size, about 250 square miles, comprising hundreds of homes and a network of temples with a population of nearly 1 million.

The jewel in the crown of Angkor is Angkor Wat – originally built as a Hindu temple. Today Angkor Wat is a functioning Buddhist temple and remains the world’s largest religious monument. It’s the most visited religious site in the world and unsurprisingly a Unesco World heritage site. It took just 40 years to complete and was built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II.  Did you know Angkor Wat features in the centre of the Cambodian flag?

 

Angkor Wat

Getting to the great temples of Angkor

Getting to the great temples of Angkor

Siem Reap to Angkor Wat is a 4 mile Tuk tuk ride away. After picking up a 3 day pass ($40 each) we’re off! Our anticipation was now building!

Heading into Angkor is like entering a British country park with lovely tree lined avenues. There’s no public transport between the sites, so you’ll need to hire a driver or as most people do hire a tuk tuk driver/guide who will wait for you at each temple, expect to pay around US$30 for the day.

The moat and our first glimpse of Angkor Wat

The moat and our first glimpse of Angkor Wat

The main entrance gate to Angkor Wat

The main entrance gate to Angkor Wat

Timing is everything when you visit any of the Angkor temples especially in peak season like November when we were there, so expect lots of people! We first arrived at Angkor Wat in the afternoon, when most of the tourists had gone. Generally people arrive early to watch the sunrise, explore Angkor Wat in the morning and then move onto neighbouring temples. So afternoons are not a bad time to visit Angkor Wat.

The must have iconic photo of Angkor Wat reflected in the pond

The must have iconic photo of Angkor Wat reflected in the pond

The impressive 5 pineapple shaped towers and 2 tall palm trees either side is the iconic image we’ve seen countless times, and we imagined that we would stand here one day and take it the same view, and now we right there like two excited kids, feeling very priviliged at what we were looking at!  There’s not many times you can say somewhere is breathtaking but Angkor Wat and its surroundings really are!

Young monks at Angkor Wat

Young monks at Angkor Wat

So many details everywhere you look

So many details everywhere you look

An empty Angkor Wat

An empty Angkor Wat

We were impressed at how good everywhere looks, truly monumental especially when you think how old it is – over 1,000 years! It’s amazing the place is still standing, even the roofs remain in parts. The fact Angkor Wat is so well preserved we found out was partly down to the surrounding moat, because the water adds pressure to the earth, keeping the ground stable.

The never ending queue to climb the central tower

The never ending queue to climb the central tower

This is the picture you don’t see! We wanted to climb the central tower but the queue was horrendous! so we skipped it. The towers originally symbolised Mount Meru – home of the Hindu gods, also sacred in Buddhism.

Right in the centre we saw many monks giving blessings

Right in the centre we saw many monks giving blessings

Monks inside Angkor Wat

Monks inside Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat's impressive bas reliefs

Angkor Wat’s impressive bas reliefs

Close up of a bas relief

Close up of a bas relief

There are miles of bas reliefs on the richly decorated interior walls depicting scenes from Hindu mythology, again amazing condition when you consider they were carved in the 1100s!  There are many deities – gods and goddesses dotted all around with one scene seducing mythological demons.  Another relief depicts heaven and hell – scenes of what will happen if you don’t follow the religion and misbehave!

Bullet holes scar some walls

Bullet holes scar some walls

Until fairly recently – the early 1990s Angkor and Cambodia was a no go area when the country was embroiled in civil war. As we walked around we spotted many bullet holes in the temple walls from the final days of the Khmer Rouge.

The back entrance to Angkor Wat

The back entrance to Angkor Wat

Phil inside the grounds of Angkor Wat

Phil inside the grounds of Angkor Wat

 

Angkor Thom Sunset Cruise

Our gondola called a Kongkear - a traditional Khmer boat

Our gondola called a Kongkear – a traditional Khmer boat

Cambodia's distinct fan shaped Sugar Palm Trees

Cambodia’s distinct fan shaped Sugar Palm Trees

We ended our first day with a sunset gondola ride on the moat of Angkor Thom. It was a magical first day topped off eating our canopies and drinking glasses of champagne watching the sun go down, doesn’t get much better than this!

 

Pre Rup Sunrise

Pre Rup before the sunrise

Pre Rup before the sunrise

Magical sunrise at Pre Rup

Magical sunrise at Pre Rup

If like us you’ll have seen hundreds of photos of Angkor Wat at sunrise. It’s the classic Angkor thing to do, but in November it comes with a price – hundreds of people scrambling around at the small ponds in front of Angkor Wat trying to get that iconic photo.

We wanted a special sunrise experience and decided to skip the crowds at Angkor Wat and head to the lesser known temple of Pre Rup. Whilst it may not be as famous, it’s actually older than Angkor Wat and equally beautiful. The best part was just how quiet and peaceful it was – only us, our guide and 5 other people!

Pre Rup all to ourselves

Pre Rup all to ourselves

Ancient doorways create lots of photo opportunities!

Ancient doorways create lots of photo opportunities!

Pre Rup revealed in the light

Pre Rup revealed in the light

It was an absolutely magical experience and easily our favourite highlight of visiting Angkor. After an early wakeup call, we arrived in the dark – it was really exciting with just the light from our iPhones to guide us through the various entrances and steps, this really was tomb raiding, and we felt like we were Indiana Jones!  As we watched the sun come up, the light slowly lit up the temple, and all the detail we were looking down on became clear, it was a very special moment.

Our guide was hilarious, wearing a jumper because she thought it was cold – ok granted it was a little cooler before the sun came up, but it was still 25ºc! that’s absolutely tropical for us Brits!

 

Ta Prohm

Tree roots look like giant alien hands from the sky

Tree roots look like giant alien hands from the sky

Then we explored the famous ‘Tomb Raider’ temple of Ta Prohm. Probably the most photographed temple after Angkor Wat. Set deep in the jungle it’s vast and we lost all sense of direction. A spectacular sight seeing how nature has taken over these buildings, gigantic roots sprawl out covering ancient sandstone, and some roots squeeze through walls that are century years old prising apart terraces. The whole place is covered in green moss, which makes it incredibly atmospheric.  It feels really mystical and somewhat haunting.

Phil and Garth at Ta Prohm

Phil and Garth at Ta Prohm

During the 90s Garth was obsessed playing computer games especially Tomb Raider, so the temples of Angkor have been on his bucket list for a while now.  The computer game was turned into a movie with many scenes filmed in Ta Prohm. If you want to go to the temple that first appears in the film it’s Phnom Bakheng, which has a wonderful view of Angkor Wat in the distance from it’s elevated position, it’s also good there at sunset.

Bas reliefs at Ta Prohm

Bas reliefs at Ta Prohm

Moss covered ancient stones

Moss covered ancient stones

Spectacular roots!

Spectacular roots!

Ta Prohm is a fun place too as you explore little doorways and find even more incredible tree formations. These intertwining roots have formed a roof of this doorway that we are totally blocking in this photo!

When Ta Prohm was rediscovered, a decision was taken to leave it exactly as it was found

When Ta Prohm was rediscovered, a decision was taken to leave it exactly as it was found

The roots are from Strangler Fig Trees

The roots are from Strangler Fig Trees

Phil and Garth at Ta Prohm

Phil and Garth at Ta Prohm

Seek out this hidden face at Ta Prohm

Seek out this hidden face at Ta Prohm

We arrived here at 4pm just as all the big Korean and Chinese tour groups were leaving, and had the place to ourselves with just a handful of other people. We stayed until they closed at 5.30pm, which is when it starts to go dark. Exiting Ta Prohm dozens of small children offered us fridge magnets and postcards for sale along with stories about how poor they are. Yes they are poor, but it’s important you don’t give them money, as it’s encouraging a culture of parents sending their children to work instead of going to school.

They won't let you take photos like this at Stonehenge!

They won’t let you take photos like this at Stonehenge!

Phil and Garth at Ta Prohm

Phil and Garth at Ta Prohm

 

The Royal City of Angkor Thom

The many faces of King Jayavarman VII on Angkor Thom's South Gate

The many faces of King Jayavarman VII on Angkor Thom’s South Gate

Faces on the bridge of South Gate

Faces on the bridge of South Gate

Angkor Thom is another walled city within Angkor. It was the last capital city of the Khmer Empire housing the Royal family, military and administration houses.  We entered through the South Gate which has the King’s famous face carved in stone, it’s one of five giant gates that guarded the Royal city of Angkor Thom.  There’s loads to explore here, the two main sights are The Bayon Temple and the Terrace of Elephants.

 

The Bayon Temple

The famous Bayon Temple

The famous Bayon Temple

The Bayon Temple is at the centre of the Angkor Thom.  216 giant stone smiling faces of King Jayavarman VII and more bas relief carvings are on many of the 54 towers in varying states of decay. The faces are lovely as they smile back at you. We went a couple of times to the Bayon to see it in different light. The towers look great when you can see it in the evening sunshine, as the faces really stand out with long shadows.

We even saw a couple of random pigs roaming around outside, which our guide took great delight saying “pig today, pork tomorrow!”

The faces are much smaller than we expected.

The faces are much smaller than we expected.

The Bayon's faces really stand out with shadows from the sunshine

The Bayon’s faces really stand out with shadows from the sunshine

Built like a jigsaw in sandstone blocks

Built like a jigsaw in sandstone blocks

Phil and Garth inside the Bayon Temple

Phil and Garth inside the Bayon Temple

We learnt how Angkor’s ancient cities went into decline after watching a BBC documentary which told us after the death of King Jayavarman VII the area suffered decades of severe droughts and then extreme flooding, making day to day living impossible. The decision was taken to relocate and build a brand new city on the coast which is what we call Phnom Penh today.

Phil nose to nose with King Jayavarman VII

Phil nose to nose with King Jayavarman VII

Garth and Phil at the Bayon Temple

Garth and Phil at the Bayon Temple

The grounds of the Bayon Temple

The grounds of the Bayon Temple

It may look big in these photos, but it's actually quite small and compact

It may look big in these photos, but it’s actually quite small and compact

Check out the exterior bas reliefs and cheeky monkeys

Check out the exterior bas reliefs and cheeky monkeys

The nearby Terrace of Elephants - a viewing platform for the Royal Khmers to watch public events

The nearby Terrace of Elephants – a viewing platform for the Royal Khmers to watch public events

 

One Last Temple – Banteay Srei

Stunning temple of Banteay Srei

Stunning temple of Banteay Srei

The 10th century Banteay Srei Temple

The 10th century Banteay Srei Temple

About an hour’s drive from Angkor Wat and 20 miles from Siem Reap is one of the best preserved temples – Banteay Srei, it’s also one of the least visited.  Very different to the other temples we visited, Banteay Srei is incredibly rich in decoration and every piece of stone is covered with amazing decorative carvings, said to have some of the best examples of Khmer art. The whole temple has a distinctive pink colour, it’s pink sandstone and said to have been built by women, Bantreay Srei means ‘Citadel of Women’.

Beautiful ornate carvings

Beautiful ornate carvings

It was discovered in 1928 and restored to as it once stood. Because temples were built in blocks and the art carved in place, reconstruction was made slightly easier because the stone pieces are like one giant jigsaw puzzle.

Modern day monks with their iPads

Modern day monks with their iPads

Phil and Garth at Banteay Srei

Phil and Garth at Banteay Srei

Getting to Banteay Srei we passed through some amazing countryside and small villages, with plenty of photo opportunities. We stopped lots of times and met a lovely family in the rice fields who kindly posed for photos.

A farmer and his water buffalo in Angkor's rice fields

A farmer and his water buffalo in Angkor’s rice fields

Basic living accommodation - walls made from palm leaves to keep them cool

Basic living accommodation – walls made from palm leaves to keep them cool

This farmer's wife doing some weeding in the rice

This farmer’s wife doing some weeding in the rice

The farmer's children kindly posing for photographs, people are so friendly here

The farmer’s children kindly posing for photographs, people are so friendly here

Lovely sunset in the countryside

Lovely sunset in the countryside

On the way back we were treated to a magnificent sunset set against silhouettes of the distinctive fan palm trees.  It’s quite hard to imagine amongst this beauty, this area is still full of unexploded land mines.  We passed the Landmine Museum but it was closed, a shame as we would have liked to have learnt more. We remembered Princess Diana and Angelina Jolie campaigned hard to ban the use of them. Apparently it’s going to take 100 years to clear landmines in Cambodia.

We didn’t get that all templed out feeling like we did when we visited Kyoto in Japan, probably because each temple was so different to each other, plus we felt like Indiana Jones exploring! Just like Maccu Piccu or the Egyptian Pyramids, Angkor Wat is one of the world’s greatest sights, a true architectural wonder and will be on millions of bucket lists, as it was ours. We can finally tick off what was an intoxicating few days exploring lost cities, temples and tombs in a once in a lifetime trip, we’ll treasure the magic of Ancient Angkor forever.

 

Phil and Garth’s Top 5 Angkor Tips

Phil and Garth infront of Angkor Wat

Phil and Garth infront of Angkor Wat

  • Tip #1: You must dress modestly – knees and shoulders should must be covered at temples.
  • Tip #2: Want to photograph the sun exactly behind Angkor Wat’s central tower? Go 23rd March and 23rd August.
  • Tip #3: May to October is the monsoon season, you’ll get the place to yourself, but there may be some flooding.
  • Tip #4: November to April is nice weather – drier and cooler, but it’s peak season with the biggest crowds.
  • Tip #5: The heat here is something else, drink loads of water and cover yourself in sunscreen.

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15 Comments

  1. ThriftyTrails
    4th July 2017

    It’s incredible how much can survive after being uninhabited for centuries. I’m glad that it was decided to leave Ta Prohm as found – I think it gives it a nice touch. All the temples are worth visited and jaw-dropping but I think Banteay Srei stands out from the bunch. So much detail is added with the intricate carvings and the color really makes it pop from its surroundings. Great photos as usual Phil and Garth! Thanks for the tips!

    Reply
  2. Travel4lifeblog
    30th June 2017

    What a great and honest article! We visited Siem Reap about 10 years ago but we really enjoyed reading your article and looking at your amazing photos! We wished we had done the one with the nose to nose pose! Very cool 🙂 Seems that you still enjoyed it even though it was crowded! Keep up the great work and thanks again for reminding us how we loved that place. patron and Cecile

    Reply
  3. James
    30th June 2017

    The 60 second video is very useful for first time visitors to Angkor Wat, Cambodia. The sunrise you experienced looked magical, it was good to read about a sunset at Angkot too. The Angkor Thom Sunset Cruise looked so picturesque. You photographed everything beautifully and it’s good to see the set of the Tomb Raider movie, arriving at 4 pm when the tour groups are leaving is an invaluable tip.

    Reply
  4. Siddharth and Shruti
    30th June 2017

    We are yet to visit Cambodia. Although the photos look amazing, we are a bit wary of the crowds. It seems to always be popular with tourists. Did you have any bad experiences like pickpocketing, scams, etc? The temples look beautiful but we are in awe of your shots of the locals as well.

    Reply
    • Garth
      30th June 2017

      Yes it’s busy with tourists, but no bad experiences. Bag snatching is a reported issue, so don’t carry things over your shoulder. When started travelling around Asia, as a precaution we bought a special camera strap with metal strips in it, to avoid it being cut, which is another way of snatching cameras. We received great hospitality in Cambodia, and everyone was very respectful of each other, you shouldn’t have a problem.

      Reply
  5. Lauren Barratt
    28th June 2017

    Wow- the photos and the video really capture the culture of Angkor! It feels like I have just stepped back in time, I need to visit it now!

    Reply
  6. SamH Travels
    28th June 2017

    Wow! These photos are amazing and what a wonderful trip. I would really enjoy visiting these temples and have added this trip to my bucket list 🙂 The tree roots at Ta Prohm make fascinating photos! As always, I enjoyed reading your post and look forward to your next one 🙂

    Reply
  7. Julz
    25th June 2017

    Awesome Picture. I so want to go!

    Reply
  8. tracy collins
    25th June 2017

    Oh my…..I am beginning to regret not fitting in a few days at Angkor Wat in August….it was the weather that put me off (or potential of it not being great) but wow wow wow your photographs make me want to go! It is a bucket list destination without doubt. I can’t wait to visit Cambodia! (My daughter and friend are visiting in August and I have a feeling I am going to really wish we went!!) Thanks for the great video and tips as usual. I really always enjoy reading your posts. 🙂

    Reply
  9. Samantha (Vibrant Yogini)
    25th June 2017

    I love all your photos! I recently visited Siem Reap for 6 days! We visited the Angkor Wat femples for 2 days! It is one of the most incredible tuktuk rides I have ever had as the ambience and temples are stunning and so interesting. It was lovely to have a look at and read this blog. I am still yet to combine all my photos as I am writing a yoga and meditation visit to the Angkor Wat temples 🙂 You will probably reminisce once I do too! Thanks so much for sharing!

    Reply
  10. Michael - The Boys Abroad
    24th June 2017

    These photos of the temples are amazing! You did a better job than us of avoiding the hordes I think. We were there in January and had to fight the masses for sunrise at Angkor Wat. Very good call opting for another temple.

    Reply
  11. Paul and Carole
    24th June 2017

    This is a great post, your photography is superb, particularly loved the nose to nose! Crowds are an issue and great decision to spend your sunrise experience at Pre Rup, looked perfect! #feetdotravel

    Reply
  12. Stephanie (1AdventureTraveler)
    23rd June 2017

    Just love your photos and video on Angkor. I did notice from the time I was there a few years ago to your recent adventure, there seems to be more ropes keeping people away from some of the structures. I do know at the time of my visit a lot of rebuilding and preservation going on by other countries. Loved your Pre Rup Sunrise photo and I definitely missed Angkor Thom’s sunset cruise. Great tips and thanks for sharing 🙂 #feetdotravel

    Reply
  13. Maria
    23rd June 2017

    Absolutely love your photos!! Angkor Wat and the rest of the temples of that region are moving higher and higher on my bucket list. They look amazing, and nice to know that you can do it as a quick side trip from Vietnam (want to go there too..!)

    Reply
  14. Angie (FeetDoTravel)
    23rd June 2017

    We recently visited Prambanan in Java which is older than Angkor Wat but not quite as well known or as well preserved. I do love a good Temple though (just as well, we have seen quite a few now on our travels) but Angkor and the few you have mentioned in Cambodia, are the ones I have yet to visit! Pre Rup for sunrise is a fantastic tip so thank you! I love all the information you have provided and your tips throughout the post as well as the Top 5 at the end will be most helpful, thank you so much! Awesome photography as always! Pinned for when I visit. #feetdotravel

    Reply

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