Going to Cambodia without visiting the temples of Angkor is like going to Egypt and skipping the Pyramids. More than two million visitors swing by the temples each year, and for good reason. With hundreds of temples in the area there’s plenty to choose from, and they’re all so different that it’s hard to pick a favorite.
Entry to the park costs $20 for a day, $40 for three days, and $60 for seven days, so I bought a three-day pass although I only spent two days exploring the temples and used the last day to go ziplining inside the park.
The tuk tuk costs twelve to fifteen dollars for the day, so if you can go with a group of people it’s kinder to your wallet. There are two main trips that most of the tuk tuk drivers will know, the small circuit and the big circuit. After consulting Lonely Planet I went with the big circuit first, as this has some of the less popular temples and I wanted to work my way up to Angkor Wat.
While I had visited a few temples in Bali, the temples of Angkor blew them out of the park. Built through the 12th century, the sheer age is staggering to me, especially considering how young New Zealand is as a country. Here are some of my favorites:
Preah Khan was the first temple I visited, and it was a good choice-grand enough to be slightly overwhelming, while quiet enough to simply enjoy my surroundings and take some time to explore. It was once a university for monks, and it’s one of the larger temples in the park.
The doorways into the temple all get progressively smaller so that those entering were forced to bend low and bow to the King. After taking the advice of a local boy I climbed up the back of the temple and was treated to this view:
I loved Preah Khan because it was slowly being consumed by nature:
This is where everyone goes to watch the sunset, although trying to get a photo without a stray head in it is hard as it’s especially popular with huge Chinese tour groups. I went in the middle of the day as well, and although it’s a bit of a climb the view is well worth it at the top.
The steps at these temples are also made for teeny tiny ancient Cambodian feet, so while getting up them is ok, coming back down is no joke and I slid down more than a few stairs on my butt.
We were a bit late for the sunset, but the views are gorgeous anyway:
Bayon is my favorite temple, and I can’t wait to go back and spend more time taking pictures of the 216 huge faces placed around the temple. Built by Jayavarman VII, Bayon is made up of three levels with the faces situated on the third.
From far away it looks like nothing special, and it’s not until you get up close that you see the creepy serene faces smiling back at you.
Wherever you look you meet the gaze of one of these smiling faces which must have been even more disconcerting in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.
It’s easy to get “templed out” in the Angkor Archaeological Park, and I think the reason I love Bayon is because it’s so different to the other temples.
And finally, Angkor Wat. I have mixed feelings about Angkor Wat. It’s incredible that something so massive was built without cranes and trucks, and everything else that we take for granted today. It’s believed that over 300,000 people were working on Angkor Wat, and it’s definitely impressive that it’s still standing and in such good shape.
The sheer grandeur is breathtaking, but I wish I had done more research before I visited so that I could appreciate it more.
When we finally visited Angkor Wat we were exhausted. We dragged ourselves in there and then proceeded to sit down every five minutes to take a break because it was so hot. I do wish that I had explored Angkor Wat on the first day, as by the time I visited it I had seen so many temples that all I could think was “Bayon’s better”.
Don’t get me wrong, I mean the place is seriously cool. The detail on the bas-reliefs and the view from the upper level of Angkor Wat was “pinch yourself to check if you’re actually here” awesome. But now that I’ve learned a bit more about Angkor Wat I would definitely like to go back.
To get up to the top part of Angkor Wat you need to be dressed appropriately which means legs and upper arms covered. I borrowed a cardigan, and after dragging myself up the steepest stairs yet (thank god there’s a hand rail) I took a moment to simply sit and enjoy being there.
On the way out we were treated to the sight of a Cambodian baby squatting and pooping on Angkor Wat as her mother looked on indulgently, even though there was a large patch of grass less than a metre away. Just goes to show: one persons architectural marvel is another’s bathroom.
There were so many temples that I would like to explore further. Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider temple) was under construction or restoration while we were there so I haven’t seen much of it at all. The Roluos Temples are further out but meant to be well worth the 13km drive, and of course I would like to spend more time in Angkor Wat.
Two days for the temples was definitely not enough time, so I’d like to return to Siem Reap on my way to Bangkok to spend at least another day among the surviving temples of the ancient Khmer empire.