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.
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?
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
Angkor Thom Sunset Cruise
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
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
The Royal City of Angkor Thom
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 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!”
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.
One Last Temple – Banteay Srei
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’.
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.
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.
On the way back we were treated to a magnificent sunset set against silhouettes of the distinctive fans of the sugar 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
- 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.
How We Did It
- We paid for a tour of Cambodia (Vietnam & Cambodia Uncovered) with Inside Asia Tours.