There are so many temples to explore in the Angkor Archaeological Park that you won’t get to see them all in one trip.
The Small Circuit tour, which is the most popular tourist route, explores the top three sights: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, while the Grand Circuit and the Roluos Group take you further afield to smaller but no less enigmatic temples.
You will find no shortage of tours on offer in Siem Reap covering these routes, or you can do it yourself by organising a tuk-tuk and creating your own itinerary. Either way, you will need a visitor pass to get into the park and there are frequent check points. You can buy the pass online or on the day from the official ticket counter. For more information about the visitor pass, go to the official website: http://angkor.com.kh/
We picked up a tuk-tuk outside our hotel and negotiated with the driver to take us around the temples for the day for $15.
Our first stop was the official ticket office where we bought three-day passes for $62 each, a huge amount of money on our backpacker budget, but there is really no point in going to Siem Reap if you’re not going to see the temples.
A few things to remember when you are visiting the temples: dress modestly (cover your shoulders and knees); do not touch or sit on ancient structures; and be respectful of the monks. Sadly, there were many tourists not doing any of the above.
Angkor Wat (main picture)
The jewel in Cambodia’s crown, so much so it appears on the national flag, is the 12th century Angkor Wat. The temple is one of the largest religious monuments in the world and a UNESCO world heritage site.
It was originally built as a Hindu temple but gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple. It boasts 3,000 asparas (heavenly nymphs) carved into the walls, all of which are different, and 800 metres of intricate bas reliefs depicting historical events and mythological stories. There are many corridors and inner rooms to explore and the whole temple is surrounded by a moat.
We went to Angkor Wat the day after Khmer New Year and it was heaving with tourists, which did spoil it a little. Also, it was raining for most of the day! It was our second visit to Angkor Wat and I’m afraid to say it had lost some of its magic, perhaps because we were sharing the experience with thousands of other tourists. It was hard to approach it with any reverence when you were being shoved out of the way by kids running about and people posing for selfies. People had even scratched their names on the stonework.
It rained pretty heavily while we were there so we took shelter in one of the corridors and didn’t make it to the top level as the entrance was closed.
From there we headed to Angkor Thom which contains one of my favourite temples, Bayon. That didn’t disappoint. The enigmatic faces carved into the sandstone create an atmosphere which is quite surreal, serene and beautiful.
Angkor Thom was the last capital of the Khmer Empire, a fortified city which housed the residences of the military and palace officials and the priests. It also contains the photogenic Elephant Terrace. We’re pretty sure the last time we came, you were allowed to go right up to the stone elephants but this time it was roped off, so you could only see them from a distance. Again, it was busy, and as we were leaving, we were hit by a tour group and they were very rude, pushing us out of the way.
It is usual to combine the above two temples with Ta Prohm, a jungle-covered temple that featured on the film, Tomb Raider. However, we decided to do this a different day, so I will leave that for another blog post!