Along with the other million+ tourists that visit Siem Reap each year, we arrived with one thing on our mind. Angkor Wat. Two full days in the huge Angkor UNESCO site meant this quickly expanded to a hit list of 14 temples, and we were still not even close to seeing all of them.
Siem Reap does an excellent job as an Angkor base camp, refuelling temple-trekkers with good food, cheap drink, and fun times. For big budgets, there are plenty of 4 and 5 star hotels, interspersed with pricey-looking Japanese and French restaurants, souvenir shops and handbag boutiques. For backpacker budgets, everything centres on the main road north of the Psar Chaa market, backing onto the shaded river that flows through town. We never worked out the actual name for this road; both locals and visitors know it as ‘Pub Street’ (probably not the ancient Khmer translation…). Every hour is happy hour on Pub Street, and you can pick up 50 cent ice cold beers to go with Khmer curries, Khmer barbecues, or even Khmer ‘tapas’ platters.
Whether we were buying fresh fruit shakes, replacement hippy-traveller trousers (what do you mean £1 trousers won’t last more than a month!?), mangos or suncream, smiley shouts of “‘Ello, tuk tuk!” followed us round the market stalls. Nope, not a new nickname, just the drivers’ way of enticing you over for a free ride to your hotel… provided you promise to book them for a full day of temple-hopping the next day. Their going rate was about $15, roughly in the middle of the temple tour food chain; pricier than hiring bikes (but definitely easier in the 35 degree heat), and cheaper than a private guide and car combo.
We ended up spending our Angkor days with Pengkhun, a private driver who made sure we saw as much as possible, avoided the crowds, and saved us from getting templed-out with snack breaks of milk fruit, palm fruit, fresh mango, and barbecued banana sticky rice wraps back in his AC 4×4. Whilst he wasn’t an official Angkor tour guide (and so didn’t charge their high rates), Pengkhun had spent enough time driving guides and their customers around the temples to know the history, the different architectural styles, the best photo spots, and the routes to avoid the coach trip crowds. It was also great to chat to him about his childhood in Cambodia, family traditions and what it’s like to live there today.
Temples of Angkor
The Angkor site was the capital of the ancient Khmer empire. It covered a massive 1000 square kilometres and, between the 10th and 13th centuries when most of the temples were built, it was 10 times the size of medieval London – the largest city in the world at the time. Whilst the most famous temples like the majestic beehive-domed Angkor Wat, the ‘Tomb Raider tree’ at Ta Promh, and the gigantic carved faces at Bayon are all near the centre of the site, it seemed like a good idea to plan a route, and not such a good idea to walk. We decided on a 3 day pass at $40 per person – our hit list was definitely too long to see in 1 day.
Day 1: Buying Pass & Temple-top Sunset View
We picked up our pass on the first afternoon and headed straight to the sunset viewpoint at Bankheng Hill temple, overlooking the vast expanse of forests, lakes, and temple peaks.
Pengkhun’s Tip: Buy your pass the evening before. If you buy your pass after 5pm you can climb Bakheng Hill without it counting as one of your 3 visits, BUT only 300 people are allowed up to the temple each evening, so buy it before 4pm!
We got there at 3.30pm and the hilltop soon filled up. It was definitely worth going early and using up one of the 3 days on our pass; climbing back down the steep stone steps of the ruins we saw a huge queue of people snaking along the hillside who hadn’t made the sunset quota. It also meant a precious extra few minutes in bed the next morning, as we wouldn’t have to queue for a ticket when we returned for sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Day 2: Angkor Wat Sunrise, Ta Promh (Tomb Raider temple), Angkor Thom (ancient city) & ‘Small Circuit’
Angkor Wat Sunrise
Like a lot of other wonders of the world, the advice for Angkor Wat is to see it at dawn. Usually this tip is to avoid crowds, but you can guarantee half of Siem Reap are also getting up in the middle of the night to grab the best photo spots as soon as the site opens at 5.30am. Torches in hand, we power-walked past as many people as we could, over the pitch dark moat, to find our spot.
Pengkhun’s Tip: The far corner of the left lake is the place for the picture postcard shot.
He was right! The beehive domes lined up perfectly, framed by palm trees and reflected in the still waters of the lake, as the sky’s lit up by the sun rising behind the temple’s silhouette (…or in our case, as the sky got marginally lighter as the sun rose behind a thick wall of clouds).
After exploring Angkor Wat and climbing up to the inside of the famous towers, we started on the ‘Small Circuit‘ of temples, going anti-clockwise to try and avoid crowds.
Ta Promh (the one from Tomb Raider)
First up was Ta Promh, where minimal restoration work, and crumbling walls swallowed by enormous tree roots, give a sense of what the first European explorers saw when they stumbled across the forgotten temples, and how it’s possible that the dense forest completely took over what was once a bustling city of over 1 million people. At times, in shadowy tumbledown courtyards and boulder-filled stone corridors, we felt like Indiana Jones. At other times, patiently waiting for a picture with the famous tree from the Lara Croft film, we felt like Indiana Jones at the Boxing Day sales. The huge muscle-looking tree trunk wrapped around and on top of the temple wall was really impressive.
Angkor Thom: Victory Gate
We entered the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom, the heart of the ancient Khmer capital built by Jayavaraman VII, through the Victory Gate, getting our first glimpse of his trademark giant face carvings. We stopped just inside the gate and we climbed up a bank to the top of the ancient city wall for a great photo spot perching in front of one of the carved faces. This stretch of wall is really well preserved and wide enough for people to cycle along the top of the wall! People who can drag their bike to the top of an 8m wall, that is.
Angkor Thom: Bayon
All four entrance gates in Angkor Thom’s city walls lead to Bayon temple in the centre. This is where you get to see just how much Jayavaraman VII liked giant face carvings. After a climb up steep, narrow stone steps to the top of the temple we snaked our way around the towering carved pillars with huge stone eyes following us from every angle.
Angkor Thom: Dead Gate
Our final stop of the day was the final stop of all Angkor Thom residents, the Dead Gate where bodies were carried out of the city to be cremated. It’s not a usual stop on the tour routes (it was Pengkhun’s first time there too!) as it’s hidden away down a quiet forest track and only partially restored. It was nice to have a final chance to see the face carvings with some shade, without the crowds.
Other Small Circuit Temples
We stopped at three temples built by Surayavaraman II, the king who built Angkor Wat; Banteay Kdei was built to honour his teachers, Thommanon to honour his father and Chau Say Tevoda to honour his mother. Between these is Ta Keo, built a century earlier and unique because it’s unfinished; during construction it was hit by lightning which was considered an evil omen so work was abandoned.
Every temple shows Cambodia’s mix of Buddhist and Hindu traditions, but Baphuon – near the Royal Palace temple Phimeanakas – is one of few to have been both. It was built as a Hindu temple in honour of Shiva, but a later king converted it to Buddhist temple.
Day 3: Banteay Srei & ‘Big Circuit’
Our last day began with a bleary-eyed 6am breakfast to get to Banteay Srei at 7:30am. The temple was an hour’s drive north of Siem Reap, enough time for T’s takeaway coffees and R’s en route nap to take effect.
Pengkhun’s Tip: Leave Banteay Srei before 9am when the coach trips arrive!
Arriving here early was really worth it; the carvings are immaculately preserved, incredibly detailed, and stunningly beautiful – really worth taking some time to enjoy away from crowds and midday heat. When we arrived we were sharing the temple with just 5 others. There was also an interesting exhibition explaining the different building styles, translations from ancient Chinese travellers’ descriptions of Angkor, and photos taken by the first discoveries and excavations in the 1930s.
The Big Circuit involved, unsurprisingly, more driving and fewer temples than Day 2. We weren’t too concerned about this, given the heat outside and our temple intake the day before.
Pengkhun’s Tip: Do the Big Circuit in reverse to stay ahead of crowds coming in opposite direction.
We started with the floating temple of East Mebong. The temple was impressive, but we had to imagine the ‘floating’ part as the Wat that was once accessible only by royal boat, is now a short walk across a rice paddy.
Neak Peam, on the other hand, involved a long walk along a narrow boardwalk dodging visitors coming in the opposite direction. Temples often had other uses than worship, doubling up as universities, or in this case a hospital; 4 connected pools, representing earth, wind, fire, and water, were thought to cure disease by ‘balancing the elements’ in patients.
Pengkhun’s Tip: To get the same undiscovered experience of trees growing around temple ruins, but without queueing at designated ‘photo points’, go to the ruins at Preah Khan.
Preah Khan pre-dates many around it (1191), and was actually a separate city of 100,000 people. It’s been left much as explorers would have found it, and is huge. Getting lost walking through low doorways between layer on layer of crumbling walls was a memorable highlight and a great place to save for last on an agenda of 14 temples in 48 hours.