Angkor Wat (Siem Reap, Cambodia) is the largest religious monument in the world and an unmissable part of a visit to the beautiful country of Cambodia.
It was first constructed as a Hindu Temple before becoming a Buddhist Temple at the end of the 12th Century. The sheer scale and historical significance is second to none and it immediately became one of the most magnificent and breathtaking places that I’ve ever been fortunate enough to visit.
To put the size into perspective: when you google how many temples there actually are at Angkor Wat, no definitive answer seems to exist. I’ll say this though, it’s that epically proportioned that some people go on a weeks holiday just to explore the site every day.
If you’re not a complete temple geek though, then 1-2 days is recommended to see some of the most signifiant, most impressive, and best preserved of the vast selection.
The best way to explore the site is by tuktuk, of which there is no shortage in Siem Reap. You can hire a tour guide speaking almost any language you desire, or you can take the cheaper option of hiring a local tuktuk driver and exploring each temple yourself – under the drivers guidance and direction.
Literally every hotel in Siem Reap will have some sort of regular tuktuk driver to take you on the tours and booking in advance isn’t necessary at all. We decided to go on a sunrise tour at 3am the next morning and told our hotel at 11pm the night before and this wasn’t an issue. On that note – nothing is an issue for the Cambodians, they are the friendliest and most upbeat people I have ever come across, which is another of many many many more reasons to visit.
As the archeological site is so intense and the majority of travellers will never manage to get round all of it in the time they have, your hotel and your tuktuk driver will be able to guide you in the direction of the best selection for your specified time frame.
Something that I absolutely loved is that although all tourists pay a fee of $37 (US dollars as that’s the main currency they use) for a one day pass (a very fair price in light of Cambodia’s history and how incredible the site is), Cambodian nationals can enter completely free of charge. This means that all of the local tuktuk drivers have literally grown up on the site. They all have their own favourite temples and their own tips on the best order to do things in which makes them invaluable to tourists.
We chose to do a sunrise tour with a tuktuk driver which cost us $20 from our hotel pickup at 3am to a ‘half day’ tour of all the main temples. (Note: by tour, I mean that the driver dropped us from one temple to another and waited outside while we were free to explore each one for as long as we wished).
Sunrise over Angkor Wat itself (the most spiritually significant and impressive temple remaining) was something that Nathan and I had dreamed about for a long time so even with the 2am wake up call it was a no-brainer. I was SO happy that we went with our hearts because the sight of that sunrise was one of the happiest and most special moments of my life.
When we arrived we sought out a ledge on a smaller temple facing Angkor Wat, looking over the water, and within half an hour the sky was starting to brighten up.
Obviously, I took about 8,692 photos of the sunrise so here’s a lovely little montage from start to finish…
It was one of those sights that photos could never do justice and you can’t even really explain. Please just do a sunrise tour if you ever visit – you will never regret it.
By the time the sun came up at around 630am, it was already well into the 30s and the heat was absolutely stifling. Although by the end of the day of exploring I was more sweaty and exhausted than you can imagine, this was another huge benefit of doing a sunrise tour. The heat was scorching enough when we left around 230pm- I dread to think how bad it would feel if you had only arrived at midday.
I believe we explored 12 different temples in this time and I can’t remember exactly which they all were – I’m going to blame heat exhaustion at the time, but I actually just have a really terrible memory.
Angkor Wat was of course the main one and definitely the best-preserved. It’s huge, commands your attention, and blows you away with its intricate design details.
If Angkor Wat was my second favourite, then Bayon is my ultimate favourite. It is dubbed as the temple with all the faces as, in the words of Lonely Planet:
” Its 54 Gothic towers are decorated with 216 gargantuan smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, and it is adorned with 1.2km of extraordinary bas-reliefs incorporating more than 11,000 figures.”
Which results in the coolest building I’ve ever been in. The King that built this one must have been eclectic, eccentric, and uber sassy, and I just absolutely love that.
My other favourite that I just have to mention is Ta Prohm, which is very popular with a lot of tourists as it is where Tomb Raider was filmed.
Although the film reference didn’t hugely excite me as I haven’t actually watched it, this temple felt quite different from the others. It’s very sprawling with tonnes of almost hidden doors and different chambers with something exciting around every corner.
They have let the surrounding trees grow right into and through this temple over hundreds of years so the walls are now half tree-half brick which looks unbelievably cool.
By the time we visited this temple, the heat was getting unbearable and we had been on our feet in it constantly for 6 hours so when we spotted a few rocks in the shade of a big tree we were very happy to take a rest. But, I’ve never seen Nathan jump up so fast in his life! The tree was covered in thousands of tiny thorns that had gone straight through our thin elephant pants and were now embedded into our skin!
We hid in the corner for ages trying to pick the thorns out of each other, much to the bewilderment of the security guards who kept checking on us. We were finally getting somewhere when the Thai ladies who we had previously made friends with on the coach from Thailand to Siem Reap appeared around the corner- literally the best timing ever for this encounter.
These incredibly sweet women were so happy to see us and they had made friends with some monks as well. As we gritted our teeth through the pain and chatted to them, the ladies suggested that we get a picture with the monks – RIGHT UNDER THE TREE AND ON THE HORRIBLE STABBY THORN ROCK! And being the awkward British people that we are, we didn’t know how to explain to the monks that it wasn’t safe to sit there… so we just let them go ahead… We are definitely going to hell.
It made for a great grumpy faced monk picture though.
Although I apologise for the Thai lady’s shaky photography skills and I can’t explain to you why the monk has taken his shoes off for the picture…
Besides the heat, the stabby thorn rock, and the unfortunate encounter with the monks, this was one of the most memorable and special days of our whole trip and of my entire life in all honesty. It is a magical, enthralling place which epitomises the term ‘wanderlust’ for me and is everything that any travel-lover could ever dream of. Active, enticing and so totally different to anything in the Western world, it’s a place that would fulfil even the most adventurous explorers.
But I did learn a couple of things through hindsight which are worth noting.
So, here are my top 6 tips for visiting Angkor Wat:
- Check that there are no thorns before sitting down anywhere- this is 100% NOT something that you want to learn the hard way
- The Sunrise trip is a must!
- A full 2 litre bottle of water each isn’t even nearly enough for a day here – bring gallons and gallons of the stuff
- As a sign of respect rather than anything else, wear longish pants and cover your shoulders
- Bring a hair bobble- this country is NOT made for girls with long hair
- Make sure you have enough storage for 70,000 pictures
And most importantly, DO NOT bring a bag of banana chips because there are monkeys and they will rob you of them…