The Kingdom of Cambodia has a long and tumultuous history and its historical peak was the Empire of Angkor. The Empire was a great and powerful force in Asia between AD804 and the late 14th century. The Temples of Angkor near the town of Siem Reap, like the Pyramids in Egypt and cathedrals all over the world, are monuments to the Gods and tombs of kings. When you step on their stones, you step on history that is a millennium old and the most visible remainders of this once great Empire.
The Temples of Angkor are one of the most visited tourist sites in the world. These stunning temples have survived natural disasters, civil war, the collapse of the Kingdom of Angkor and it’s re-birth as the Kingdom of Cambodia. For the last century they have been invaded by tourists, with over 2million people visiting the Temples in 2013.
To clarify a common misconception: Angkor Wat is just one temple in this huge complex of temples that has stood for centuries. Glad we got that sorted out.
Busloads of visitors move around the temples every day. Interestingly, they are hugely popular amongst Chinese tourists who may fly into Siem Reap, stay three days and fly out without seeing any other part of this wonderful country.
The best way to see the temples is slowly. It is so easy to get cultured-out, when you visit too much of one site in a day and after 6 hours it all starts to feel meaningless and same-same-but-different. There are over 72 major temples and buildings in the Angkor Archaeological Park, so there is a lot to take in.
If you have the time, stay in Siem Reap for a four or five days, buy a three-day temple pass and enjoy three days exploring the temples at a slow pace and with a day or two break in the middle. Siem Reap is a tourist town, so there is plenty to see and do away from the Temples.
For our first day, we drove past but did not enter the complex of Angkor Wat. Instead we skipped past it to the larger but less famous Angkor Thom, starting at the incredible Bayon, where hundreds of serene faces stare down on visitors. We spent all day around the temples, visiting the ‘must-see’ locations such as Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei.
On our second temple day, we were out of the hostel by 3:30am and into our waiting tuk tuk to drive out to watch sunrise over Angkor Wat. This is another must-do and I’m glad we did it, though the sunrise itself wasn’t that spectacular. The only problem of course is that you are experiencing it with several thousand other people and at least a couple of them are going to irritate you with their inconsiderate behaviour. But that is a problem at all major tourist destinations all over the world.
For our third and final day at the Temples, we decided to book a proper tour through our hostel for the grand cost of $18 for the tuk tuk. This ‘grand tour’ took us out to see some really different styled temples and buildings, such as Preah Khan and Kbal Spean amongst others. The outstanding sight on the day was Banteay Srei, the ‘pink’ or ‘feminine’ temple. The stone was the most wonderful rust-red and the carvings more florid and delicate, supposedly carved by women who had greater patience and delicacy than some male carvers, thus the intricacy of the designs. Well worth the long detour.
The tour cost so much more than average because we were taken an hour out of Siem Reap to the waterfall of Kbal Spean, famous for the carvings made into the river bed. The site itself was lovely, tucked away in a rainforest but it was also wonderful to get out of town and see more of rural Cambodia.
The Temples of Angkor are incredible. They are a sight you will never forget and it is well worth taking the time to see and explore them all. Seeing Angkor was the most wonderful end to our travels in Cambodia. I don’t know if I will ever make it back but I am so glad we came.
If you’re travelling to Cambodia, check out the other places we visited: Phnom Penh, Kratie, the Elephant Valley Project, Kompong Cham, Siem Reap and also our tips for visiting the Temples. We also bookended our trip with visits to Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.