The city of Angkor, home of the impressive Angkor Wat, was the capital of the Khmer Empire until it was abandoned in the 15th century. According to Wikipedia, it is believed to have supported at least 0.1% of the global population between 1010-1220! Now it’s just the temples that remain in various states of repair covering a huge area just outside of modern-day Siem Reap and the entire site is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Needless to say we needed longer than a day to get the full experience!
We decided to spend three days exploring Angkor so that we could cover all of the sites we wanted to see. We were staying at the Central Suite Residence hotel in Siem Reap and were able to book everything through the front desk which made it really easy and all we then had to do was buy our 3-day passes at the ticket centre. We opted to get a driver and an air-conditioned car rather than a tuk tuk as Siem Reap is hot – really hot – and I know how slow and dopey I get if I’m too hot for too long! We also got a tour guide, Naga, for all three days which I’m really glad we did as he was able to tell us all about the area, the history, and the context around the beautiful carvings that you see. He was also great at taking us to great spots for photos, avoiding the busiest times at certain temples, and he was really funny!
There are two main tour routes around the temples of Angkor. The small circuit takes you to the big hitters like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, the Terrace of the Leper King, and others like Ta Phrom where they filmed part of Tomb Raider. The small circuit gets pretty busy as everybody wants to see Angkor Wat so you get everyone whether they’re coming to Angkor for one, two, or three days. The big circuit takes you a little further out on a wider loop to see temples like Pre Rup, East Mebon and Ta Som, which is still a popular route and so also gets fairly busy. To really get a sense of peace and serenity you need to head even further out to some of the more remote temples.
We spent the first day doing the big circuit and seeing the crumbling towers of Pre Rup and the beautiful trees growing in the grounds and the walls of Ta Som. We ended the day with sunset at Phnom Bakheng which meant getting there around 4pm to be one of the 300 people they let in to the temple at the top of the hill.
Our second day began with the spectacular sunrise over Angkor Wat where we arrived just after 5am and just about got a decent spot. I’m so glad we made the effort to get up (anyone who knows me knows I’m not a morning person – at all!) because it was absolutely magical standing in the dark with Angkor Wat gradually appearing as a dark silhouette until the sky was full of colour.
Aside from the incredible sunrise, my highlight of the small circuit was seeing Bayon, a beautiful temple at the centre of Angkor Thom with faces carved into its many towers. Despite the busy crowds, the faces are so peaceful, so you can just look up towards them and ignore the kerfuffle around you.
Our day ended where it had started, at Angkor Wat at sunset when the warm light bounces off the temple and the towers become golden. It only lasts for a short time but is stunning.
On our third and final day exploring ancient Angkor, we ventured further afield to Banteay Srei. Built in red sandstone and surrounded by a moat, it’s a beautiful setting and the temple’s intricate carvings have been really well preserved.
Finally we drove all the way out to Beng Mealea, which actually isn’t part of Angkor city (and so you need a different ticket). This temple must have once been huge and grand, but has now mostly fallen down. Still there was something beautiful, peaceful, and haunting about walking amongst the piles of stone, seeing how the moss and trees have slowly yet defiantly made their mark. Apparently there are plans to restore the temple which will mean removing the trees which will definitely change the feel of the place.
There are a few things to be ready for if you visit Angkor, especially in the high season. The heat and sun are no joke! There isn’t a lot of shade, and the sun heats up the stones of the temples so they act as huge heaters themselves. We got through bucketfuls of water and regularly topped up our sun protection. It helps that the dress code across the whole site means that you’re mostly covered up anyway. The crowds were actually not as bad as I expected, but the hustle and bustle can impact the atmosphere at times and it is a bit frustrating. In my view these are ancient, spiritual sites that should be treated as such and that is what the signs say too. Having said that, it was sometimes quite funny watching all the Instagram poses. But that’s why it’s great to get out to some of the more remote temples. The last thing, which I hadn’t read about anywhere, is the circadas. I’ve heard circadas in Japan and they made a fair din, but the ones at Angkor are next level! They make a serious amount of noise which is ear splitting like a shrill alarm sounding right next to your ear. I’d even recommend taking ear plugs as my ears were numb by the end of the day. Why didn’t I read about this anywhere?!
A visit to Angkor is an unforgettable experience even with the crowds and the heat. I find it remarkable that such a site still exists considering the troubled history of the country, particularly under the Khmer Rouge. I may even go back someday in the rainy season to see the same temples covered it bright moss and other greenery.
Have you been to Angkor? Share your experience in the comments!