Are you ready for this, it is going to be a long post!!! But it is of an amazing subject and there will also be many many photographs, so hang in there and keep reading! 🙂
A few days ago Lonely Planet revealed its Ultimate Travel List based on the votes of travel professionals. They have also released a new book based on this list, called ‘Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel: Our List of the 500 Best Places on the Planet – Ranked’. I fully intend to get this book, sound great, will be a great addition to my coffee table once we get home.
Anyway, the reason I mention this is because the number one place on this list (and I understand this was voted number 1 by a landslide) was the Temples of Angkor in Cambodia.
The rest of the Top 10 shaped up like this:
- Temples of Angkor, Cambodia
- Great Barrier Reef, Australia
- Machu Picchu, Peru
- Great Wall of China, China
- Taj Mahal, India
- Grand Canyon National Park, USA
- Colosseum, Italy
- Iguazu Falls, Brazil – Argentina
- Alhambra, Spain
- Aya Sofya, Turkey
As you can see The Temples of Angkor are in pretty good company, but what made this temple complex in the jungles of Cambodia snatch the top spot?
Well let me tell you, it is pretty darn amazing. I feel so privileged to have seen this place, to have experienced it, walked around and soaked up the atmosphere, the sights, the smells, the heat, the dust, and the mighty creations of man and nature all in one place – it was all just out of this world.
To be honest I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Of course I knew what Angkor Wat was, but I deliberately tried not to read too much about it or look at many photographs before our visit, so that when we finally arrived there I would not be disappointed or that I will still have the element of surprise. The only things I read upon was how to organize for tours, or what was the best way to see the place.
Getting to Siem Reap
The Temples of Angkor are located near the town of Siem Reap in Cambodia. Siem Reap has an international airport, so it is actually pretty easy to get to. In fact it is only a 6 hour flight from Bali, or a 2 hour flight from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore and a mere 1 hour flight from Bangkok. Really, there is no excuse not to go if you are in South East Asia. We travelled to Siem Reap from Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on a cross-country coach service. The trip takes about 6 hours, we chose a company called Mekong Express to take us there. The coach left from Phnom Penh at 12.30 in the afternoon and arrived in Siem Reap at 7 pm. The coach had one scheduled stop halfway, which was really welcomed as the aircon on the bus was rubbish… The journey was luckily event-less; there was wifi on-board and both Adam and I had a double-seat all to ourselves that we could spread out on. The road between these two major cities isn’t great (although as I understand it has already improved a lot compared to what it was like before). The coach cost us $13 each. You can also fly from Phnom Penh, it takes about 45 minutes and costs $100 per person. For us it was a no-brainer to save that money and at the same time get to see some of the Cambodian countryside.
We booked our accommodation in Siem Reap through Booking.com. We stayed at the Schein Guesthouse, which is a B&B led by a German/Cambodian couple. I thoroughly recommend staying here if you are on a budget but still want a nice place to stay. The hosts were so helpful and friendly, we had a great time here and they really helped us with planning out our stay in Siem Reap.
Firstly they sent us a tuk-tuk to the coach station to pick us up free of charge, which was great as it was already dark and the coach station is on the outskirts of the city. Then at their reception they have a list of tours that can be done straight from their guesthouse to the Angkor Archaeological Park and depending on how long you have in the area they can advise on which tour is the best to take. This was incredibly useful for us, and I hope most other guesthouses would do it the same way. We decided to spend one full day discovering the temples and then leave another day for doing something else in Siem Reap. We only had two full days here as we had already booked our flights onward to Bali.
Getting around Angkor Archaeological Park
Our host at the guesthouse then showed us the best way to see the temples in a day and arranged a tuk-tuk for us with a 4.45am start the following day. One of the most memorable experiences you can have in Angkor is seeing the sunrise over its most iconic temple, Angkor Wat. Our tour was to take us to Angkor Wat just in time for the sunrise at half past 5. The tuk-tuk ride from central Siem Reap to the entrance of Angkor Archaeological Park took about 10 minutes. Here you have to queue up to pay, get your photograph taken and receive a photo-pass which serves as your ticket to the park. A daily ticket costs $20, a three-day ticket costs $40 and a weekly ticket costs $60. Once you have your ticket you can get back on your tuk-tuk and proceed into the park.
Some visitors rent bicycles to tour Angkor, some attempt it on foot, some go as part of a mini-bus tour. But most will hire their own tuk-tuk driver and pay them for their time, which is what we did, and I personally think this is the best way of exploring Angkor. The local guys have amazing knowledge and they know the park like the back of their hands. Our driver didn’t speak much English but he had a map of the park and we could just point at each temple we wanted to visit. I would not have attempted getting around the site on foot – this is an archaeological park stretching over some 400 square kilometres – it is VAST!! It is mainly jungle and there are around a thousand temples, shrines and tombs scattered all across it.
Itineraries and must-see temples in Angkor
There are two main things to consider when seeing the temples of Angkor: how much time you have, and how interested you are. And by interest I mean that if you are not a history or theology or archaeology buff, you might find trekking from ancient temple to temple in the 40 degree Cambodian heat a little bit wearing. So if you only have one day (like we did) or if you are only interested in the most iconic temples of the park, here is a shortlist of must-see sites – visiting these will fit very nicely into a day:
- Angkor Wat – visit the most iconic temple early in the morning and watch the sunrise
- Angkor Thom – the old capital city of the Angkor empire
- Bayon – the temple of giant stone faces
- Baphuon – temple mountain with an enormous reclining Buddha
- Ta Phrom – the jungle temple
This is the itinerary that is suggested a lot of the time to tourists, however visiting the sites in this order will also mean you are moving with the crowds of tourists who are all following this itinerary or are taken along this route by their guides.
If I can give you just one tip, it would be to turn this list upside down: visit Ta Phrom first thing in the morning, then move unto Angkor Thom and finally visit Angkor Wat towards late afternoon with the view to catch the sunset.
Here are a few photographs and some snippets of information on the must-see temples:
Most people will come here for the morning to watch the sunrise, but I would advise you to go against the mold and visit this iconic Hindu temple in late afternoon. And why? My photographs below will show you exactly why I say this. First of all, if you are after a solitary sunrise experience, this isn’t it. It’s like when you look at photographs of Angkor Wat on Pinterest and you get the feeling that this is an undiscovered place of epic proportion; where you can come to reflect on things, as the sun slowly makes its way up the sky. And instead this is what you will experience:
Not exactly the solitary experience many of us were after. But to be fair, having so many other visitors there at sunrise also added something positive to the experience: the collective anticipation, knowing we were all there for the same reason, and everyone enjoying the moment together as the first sun-rays appeared behind the towers of Angkor Wat.
Another reason why I would suggest you to go here later in the afternoon is to get prettier photographs. I can honestly say the light, as amazing it is at sunrise and early morning, is not fantastic to take photos in. Once the sun has made its way up higher in the sky it is actually very difficult to photograph the temple from the front, a lot of the detail is lost. I am quite disappointed to say I don’t have one photograph of the front of this magnificent temple that I actually like. Of course there are loads to look at on the internet, but we all want our own, don’t we…?! 🙂
Of course missing the temple at sunrise would be a great shame, so perhaps you can start here for the sunrise and also return here for late afternoon / sunset. That way you might just get the best of both worlds. If you go for sunrise, prepare yourself, it gets super hot by 7 am. Just like in any other South-East Asian country, you have to dress modestly and ideally wear long trousers or skirt and a top with sleeves. You should also wear something that is easy to move in and climb huge steps. A lot of huge steps.
One thing to be aware of when you visit Angkor Wat (and quite a few of the other temples as well, but mainly Angkor Wat): there are a LOT of vendors and hawkers and it can be a bit difficult to shake them off. Don’t get annoyed, just learn to kindly say no. There were also many school aged children there trying to sell us postcards, fridge magnets, etc, and as difficult it is, please don’t buy from them out of compassion. Buying from them will just encourage their parents to keep sending them out to beg / sell. This is the advice amongst travellers anyway, so there, I’ve passed it on… 😉
This is a walled, moated, ancient city that acted as the last capital of the Angkor Empire. Within the walls there are some amazing structures, palaces and temples. You can enter the city via 4 gates, most visitors enter through the South Gate coming from the direction of Angkor Wat, and this is what we did as well.
You should allow at least 2-3 hours to visit this magnificent old city, there is so much to see! But the most popular site in the whole of Angkor Thom is undoubtedly the temple of Bayon. In fact this temple is the 2nd most visited and loved temple in the whole of the Angkor Park. It is most famous for its dozens of giant stone Buddha faces, all of them carved with a smile that radiates happiness, calm, peace and a sense of fulfillment.
The other major attraction within the walls of Angkor Thom is the Baphuon, which is a tall mountain-temple. A lot of stairs to climb! This temple recently underwent a restoration project with the help of UNESCO and is now in pretty good condition. I especially loved the HUGE reclining Buddha which was built into the back wall of the temple in the 16th century; see if you can spot it in my last photograph!
From photography point of view it is best not to come here at sunrise or sunset as the temple is surrounded by jungle and so there isn’t much light to illuminate the glorious stone faces (although according to Lonely Planet the Bayon is pretty magical as it emerges from the morning mist). The light is better in the morning for Baphuon, so a mid-morning visit should be ideal, after visiting Angkor Wat or Ta Prohm first. There is no question about it though, it will be incredibly busy! Especially the Bayon. And make sure you are dressed appropriately. There was a tourist who got turned away at the Baphuon when we were visiting for exposing her shoulders.
Some other interesting things we found while walking around Angkor Thom:
I have to say Ta Prohm was by far my favourite temple out of all the ones we visited in Angkor. The only thing that perhaps took away from our experience of this incredible place was the crowds. And the heat. I know I already mentioned both these factors, but I cannot stress how important they both are when planning your itinerary here. We got to Ta Prohm at around 1pm, after having walked around for the past 7 hours in increasing heat and by the time we got to Ta Prohm the crowd were ridiculous, we could only move around the temple inch by inch which further increased our intolerance of the 40 degree heat. If you want a more pleasant visit here, come early in the morning and have the temple to yourself when everyone else is watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat!! 🙂
Unfortunately I ran out of memory card just as we got to this temple, so I had to make do with going back and deleting older photos to make space for new ones… 🙁 So not many photos I’m afraid. Make sure you are armed with memory cards and camera batteries when you visit Angkor!
This is the temple that was featured in Tomb Raider and Angelina Jolie filmed here on location. The locals are incredibly proud of this and only refer to this temple now as the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’ or ‘The Angelina Temple’. The temple was pretty much left in the condition that it was found in the 18th century by French explorers as it was so atmospheric as trees of the jungle were taking over the man-made structures. If you are visiting Angkor, you simply cannot miss this temple!
So these are the must-see sites in Angkor, and all these are doable in a day. If you ask your driver they will also stop at any other temples you wish to explore. We stopped a few times in between the major sites:
And with that we could walk no longer and returned to our Siem Reap accommodation. I definitely feel like I will be back to Angkor at some point in my life. That one day just wasn’t enough. I knew it then, but we had to move on. Next time I will probably get a 3 day pass for $40 – the three days can be used over the course of a week. This is definitely the option I would recommend to anyone visiting this amazing place. If you have the time, don’t try to do it all in one day. Take your time and marvel.
I know this has been a very long post, but I simply could not have described our day amongst the Temples of Angkor in fewer words or with fewer photographs. Anything less would not have done justice to the Ultimate Travel Destination of the world.
So why did Angkor win this coveted spot? As Nick Ray (Lonely Planet’s Cambodia guidebook author) summarizes in this video:
The most important thing to stress about Angkor is the embarrassment of riches: this is not just one site, it’s so many sites. You think of one place in the world, it’s normally one iconic building. Here, we have Angkor Wat, the mothership: this is the most important temple here. However look how many more there are! We have Angkor Thom, the great old capital with the Bayon, the famous face temple; we have Ta Phrom, the jungle temple… but that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
So when you put all of these temples together and bring them as one destination – that’s incredible!
Individually most of them might stand up, possibly even making the top 10. Angkor Wat’s a contender for the Top 10 on its own. The Bayon’s a contender for the Top 10 on its own. Even Ta Prohm is a contender for the Top 10 on its own. Put them all together, there’s no debate: it’s number 1.