Cambodia is known as the Temple Capital of Asia for good reason. Near modern-day Siem Reap city is the former capital of the Ancient Khmer Empire, Angkor (in Khmer: អង្គរ, "Capital City"). There are over a thousand temples in the Angkor area, ranging from ruins scattered across rice fields, to the impressive Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious building (pictured above, photo by: @tte_experience).
In its heyday (from around the 9th to 15th centuries), Angkor's population was over a million people (for reference, London had about 50,000 residents at the time). The hundreds of temples surviving today are a relic of what was once the political, religious, and social centre of the Ancient Khmer Empire. It is the largest concentration and most significant site of Khmer Architecture, protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Over 2 million people visit the temples each year, and spend even one day there and you will know why.
With so many incredible things to see, it can be daunting trying to plan a visit to Angkor, and you might be tempted to book a tour from home or through your hotel -- bad call! Here's why:
From 1975-1979, somewhere between 1.5-3 million Cambodians were murdered in the Cambodian genocide. The Khmer Rouge Regime, led by Pol Pot, committed these atrocities against their own people, anyone who opposed the forced labour and relocation conducted by the regime. Scholars and academics were murdered immediately, and in many cases, even speaking a second language or wearing glasses brought on the death penalty. Today, Cambodia is a beautiful country, whose ancient history is fascinating and beautiful, but the genocide is a dark stain that still affects them today. Cambodia is still in financial recovery, and sadly, there are no laws to prioritise Cambodian-owned business over foreign investments (as other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand have). The best thing you can do to help the country recover is to put money directly in the hands of the people. Here's how:
If you're arriving by bus to Siem Reap, you'll probably meet a Tuk-tuk driver who will offer to take you to your hotel for $5USD. It's pretty likely you'll be about a kilometer away, so this isn't exactly a good deal. Truth be told, he probably just wants to negotiate with you. Chances are, he will tell you that he'll drop you off at your guesthouse for free as long as you promise to book your Angkor tour with him. It's best to have a date in mind, but if not, he'll give you his number, and ask you to contact him yourself.
$15 is a fair price to pay your Tuk-tuk driver for a one-day tour (with a max of 3 people - maybe 4-5, if you have small kids). He will meet you at your guesthouse at whatever time you ask (4:00am is not a strange request if you're trying to see Angkor Wat at sunrise), drive you to each location (including somewhere for lunch), and wait for you. You pay at the end of the day, but more details on that in a moment.
So now that you've arranged a date and a ride, you just need one more thing -- an itinerary!
What are the ticket options?
The Angkor ticket booth is open from 5:00-17:30 daily, and don't be surprised if you arrive first thing in the morning and there's an incredibly long line. If you are hoping to catch a glimpse of Angor Wat at sunrise, it's advisable to purchase your ticket in advance.
1-Day: US $20 **tickets issued after 17:00 (for sunset viewing) are valid the next day**
3-Day: US $40 **3-day passes can be used on any 3 days over a one-week period**
1-week: US $60 **1-week passes are valid over the course of a month**
Children under 12: FREE!
The fine for not having a ticket in a temple? $100USD
Which ticket should I buy?
If you're on a long journey and you're spending a month in the city, or if you plan to return to Siem Reap a few times over the course of a month, and you really love temples and ruins, the 1-week option is perfect for you. It's the best way to get the full Angkor experience!
If you're spending a week in Siem Reap, and you're a Type-A traveller who needs to see everything, feel free to get the 3-day pass. You can still see a whole lot in 3 days!
If you only have 3 or 4 days in Siem Reap, the 3-day option may seem like great value, but I don't suggest it. Visiting Angkor is downright exhausting, most people need at least a day or two to recover, so if you're spending 4 or less days, it's a bit of a shame, but I suggest the 1-day ticket. Don't worry, you can easily fit plenty the very best in your day!
Things to remember:
-dress respectfully; no bare shoulders, midriffs, or knees, as these are sacred sites
-be respectful of monks; ask to take photos and women should be careful not to touch them
-toilets are pay-to-use, and don't generally come equipped with toilet paper or soap, so bring your own if you need it
-bring water, sunscreen, and a hat!
Where do I start?
Angkor Wat at Sunrise
(Photo by @adventure_with_ana)
Behold the glory that is this magnificent temple in the pink and purple hues of the rising sun!
To see this for yourself, you'll have to begin your day early. Really early. "It-still-feels-like-the-middle-of-the-night," early. The ticket office opens at 5:00, and it takes about 40 minutes to get from Siem Reap town to Angkor, so keep that mind when arranging your pick-up time. You should also note that there will be a lot of people waiting at the office well before 5, so unless you like standing in line, I suggest buying your ticket in advance. Bonus: tickets issued after 17:00 (for sunset viewing) are valid the next day!
We arranged a pick-up for 4:00am, which we thought would help us beat the crowds. Hah! Speeding down the dirt road, literally racing dozens of other tuk-tuks full of tourists, felt right out of an episode of the Amazing Race! By the time we made it to the grounds, there were hundreds of people already crowded around the pond. Everyone is vying for that perfect photo spot, so if that's your aim, you need to get there very early. Just remember to enjoy the ride. There is no way to experience this moment without plenty of people all around you, but if you're lucky enough to catch a good sunset, it's worth all the commotion. Who knows? Maybe you'll make a friend ;)
After sunrise, you can get breakfast and coffee at one of the local stands. Make sure not to buy any souvenirs from the children peddling goods, especially if you want to help. The temple's official stance is that if child pedlars come home with money, it encourages their parents to send them peddling goods every day instead of to school. Also, they are just children, not business owners; they will not understand why you might buy something from one and not the other, and it skews their concept of self-worth. Be kind but firm, and only by goods from adults.
Now that you've seen the sunrise and had your morning coffee, you can explore Angkor Wat. The temple grounds are the Khmer's national symbol, the epicentre of their civilisation, and a source of fierce national pride. Unlike many of the other monuments of Angkor, the grounds have been in continuous use since being built, never abandoned or left to the elements. Do take your time exploring, and make sure to visit the upper level, which is once again open to modern pilgrims for a strict 20-minute visiting limit.
Ta Prohm: Filming Location of Tomb Raider
From Angkor, head to the legendary temple grounds of Ta Prohm.
(Photo by @o.r.orlova)
Remember watching Indiana Jones as a kid and wanting to explore ancient, crumbling temples and ruins? You will 100% channel your inner adventurer at Ta Prohm, where they filmed scenes from the movies Tomb Raider and Two Brothers.
The Ta Prohm grounds are truly magnificent. This Buddhist temple, built by Jayavarman VII in 1186, has been reclaimed by nature. All around you, crumbling towers and walls are trapped in the embrace of centuries-old trees. Moss grows rampant, passageways are impassable, and the massiveness of the tress is as awe-inspiring as the monumental porches they've toppled over. Ta Prohm is just as much a testament to the power of the jungle as it is to the sacredness of the site.
Do yourself a favour and veer off the regular course. Explore the corridors and passages --at least for as long as you can, until a giant tree root stops you! Many areas are sectioned off, but several others are not. But beware, this is not for everyone--explore at your own risk!
The Walled City of Angkor Thom
Break for lunch (your driver will likely have a place in mind), after which you can make your way to Angkor Thom.
(Photo by: @ashdando)
Angkor Thom (Great City), is the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer Empire. Established in the late 12th century, Angkor Thom was built by Jayavarman VII partly in reaction to the shocking and unexpected sacking of Angkor by the Chams. Jayavarman resolved his empire never be in danger at home again, and the Walled City of Angkor Thom was built.
The south gate is the best preserved, and you can approach it from a 50 meter freeway across a moat. Flanked on either side of the road is a famous Hindu story, The Churning of the Ocean, depicted in statues. 54 Devas (guardian gods) are on the left side of the road, pulling the head of Shesha the giant snake, while 54 Asuras (demon gods) pull the snake's tail on the right. The story goes that the body of the snake wrapped around a central mountain, and in their tug of war, the demons and guardians caused the ocean to churn and milk, forming the earth and cosmos anew.
Within Angkor Thom are many temples and sites to see, including the Terrace of Elephants, a 350m long terrace, decorated with parading elephants. You can also take your pick of which temple to climb in order to be rewarded with the view above. But perhaps Angkor Thom might be most famous for the enigmatic faces of Bayon.
The Faces of Bayon in the Late Afternoon Light
(Photo by @adventure_with_ana)
At the heart of Angkor Tom is the 12th century mystical Bayon Temple, famous for its 54 gothic towers that are decorated on each side with the face of Avalokiteshvara. Everywhere you turn, the 216 enormous, smiling faces surround you. Astonishing at any time of day, but truly is a remarkable sight to behold when the late afternoon light hits the coldly smiling faces. This temple is my personal favourite, perhaps in all of Southeast Asia. You truly feel at a loss for words here.
Surrounding Bayon is a 1.2 km stretch of extraordinary bas-relief carvings that incorporate over 11,000 figures. The images depict life in the region during the 12th-century.
Fun fact: the faces of Bayon bear quite the resemblance to the legendary king who created it, Jayavarman VII. Was the temple meant as a testament to Avalokiteshvara or perhaps the great king's own ego? Go see and judge for yourself.
Now you are probably exhausted, and hopefully quite happy with all that you saw. Your driver will drop you back off at your accommodation, and if you're happy with the day, tip the guy! The $15 I mentioned before is a standard price, but we had an especially long day and an especially friendly driver, so we paid $20. And if you are looking to find an English-speaking driver who knows all the history and doubles as an unofficial tour guide, they are easy to find, but you should be willing to pay a little more.
Hope you enjoy your visit to Angkor :) Tune in next time for a guide to Phnom Penh!