Exploring the Ancient Angkor Wat Temples in Cambodia

Sep 11, 2014

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Situated just outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia, Angkor Archaeological Park houses several temple remains that were once the grand Khmer Empire, dating back to the 12th century. TPG Foreign Correspondent Lori Zaino guides us through exploring this UNESCO World Heritage site.

I felt like an true explorer trekking through Preah Khan.
I felt like an true explorer trekking through Preah Khan.

Wandering around completely alone in the deserted, ancient Preah Khan Khmer temple in the middle of the jungle at sunrise is a magical and awakening experience. The temples at the Angkor Archaeological Park are a serene and magnificent spot, and if you can manage to escape the heaving crowds of tourists, you can have a very peaceful experience exploring them.

The deserted Preah Khan temple
The deserted Preah Khan temple

History: The Angkor Wat temples are part of what was once the ancient Khmer empirea kingdom that in the past has covered parts of modern-day Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. Most of the temples were built as Hindu shrines, but as rulers came and went, several were converted to Buddhist temples, then some back to Hindu again. What’s left is one of the largest religious ruins in the world. 

Logistics: The Angkor Archelogical Park is situated about 20 minutes from the town of Siem Reap. Entrance to the park is as follows:

  • One-day pass: $20
  • Three-day pass: $40 (can be non-consecutive and used in a seven day period–I would recommend this option)
  • Seven-day pass: $60

Note that you can enter at 5 p.m. the day before your pass is technically  “valid”  in order to see the sunset or have an hour to wander around. Cash only, no credit cards

A face in the Banyon temple, the last temple to be built and the only one built as a Buddhist temple
A face in the Banyon temple, the last temple to be built and the only one built as a Buddhist temple

Getting To The Temples:

  • Bikes: This is the cheapest option, and some hotels have bikes you can use for free. However, just arriving to the temples is a bit of a hike in the serious heat and humidity and expect to bike around 10-20 miles while seeing the temples. $0-$3 per day.
  • Motorcycle: This is a good option if you’re traveling solo. $5-$10 per day.
  • Tuk Tuk: This is probably the best option for a couple or small group. $10-$20 per day.
  • Car: This is the priciest option, but the most comfortable as it offers AC. $25-$35 per day

For the motorcycle, tuk tuk, and car options, the drivers will wait for you as you explore the temples and then take you to the next one. However, make sure to agree on a price ahead of time, wait until the end of the day to pay and make sure your driver doesn’t seem too shady, as a typical scam is to take you to the temples, insist you pay in advance, and then leave you there stranded. Booking your drivers through a hotel can often be slightly pricier, but safer as they most likely won’t scam you.

Guides: Many locals walk around the temples asking if you’d like a “guide”. I would advise against this, as they probably aren’t credited tour guides. Instead arrange a guide with your hotel, or get a guided tour with Angkor Tour Guides. You can also easily get by without a guide if you prefer that.

Ta Phrom, featured in the movie Tomb Raider
Ta Phrom, featured in the movie Tomb Raider

Routes: For those with a  one-day pass, I would recommend seeing the following temples: Angkor Wat, Banyon, and Ta Phrom (the “Tomb Raider” Temple) which is considered the short circuit. If you get the three-day pass, start out on day one with the short circuit. On day two, take the long circuit, which includes Preah Kahn, Neak Pean, Ta Som. On day three, head out towards the further temples and see Bantay Srei and any other small temples you might have missed on the first two days.

Eats: Some people head back to town for lunch, but you can maximize your time by eating at one of the local restaurants in the complex. Ask your driver to take you his favorite spot, or simply find a little one nestled in the jungle.

Sunset/Sunrise:  During the rainy season, it is near impossible to see the sunrise or sunset, as the cloud cover prevents it. I did wake up at 4 a.m. to witness what I heard would be a magical moment, and unfortunately due to weather, there wasn’t a sunrise. Make sure to check the weather before you plan on doing this, as it usually costs a few dollars extra for transport at this time.

These were some of the only people I saw while exploring some of the lesser known temples
These were some of the only people I saw while exploring some of the lesser known temples

Tips and Tricks

  • Make sure to bring water, a raincoat, sunscreen, mosquito repellent and wear the appropriate “temple” clothing (cover your legs and shoulders) and comfortable shoes.
  • Although sunrise at the Angkor Wat main temple may not work out due to weather, consider that seeing other temples at this time of day ensures they will be nearly empty. As most tourists are either asleep or at the main Angkor temple, this is the perfect opportunity to almost-privately tour the other temples.
  • Rainy season is hot and humid, but there are less tourists. Although the weather wasn’t great for sunrise viewing, there weren’t many people around apart from the main Angkor temple, and I was able to see several temples by myself or with very few others around.
  • Ask your hotel to pack you a breakfast box if you are heading to the sunrise viewing. This way, you won’t miss your morning refuel.
  • Temple burnout is real. If you have the three day pass, take a day off in between to hang out in Siem Reap, do a different type of excursion or relax by the hotel pool. You will appreciate that third day of temples so much more.
  • Don’t buy things from children or give them money, no matter how much it pulls on your heart strings. By doing this, you are depriving them of the opportunity to go to school. If you want to help out in a positive way, try eating at an NGO restaurant, like Marum, which helps underprivileged children train to be chefs.

For more info on where to stay what to do in Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, see the following posts:

Destination of the Week: Siem Reap

Hotel Review: Le Meridien Angkor

Video Trip Report Siem Reap

Hotel Review: Park Hyatt Siem Reap

 Any useful tips you might have for seeing these magnificent temples? Share in the comments section below.

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