After a recent stint filming in Cambodia, I managed to wangle a few hours off to explore the country’s most iconic attraction – the majestic Angkor Wat, often referred to as one of the 7 wonders of the world. A UNESCO world heritage site and the world’s biggest religious site, if you’re in Siem Reap then it’s not to be missed. According to Tourism Cambodia, ‘Angkor Wat, in its beauty and state of preservation, is unrivaled. Its mightiness and magnificence bespeak a pomp and a luxury surpassing that of a Pharaoh or a Shah Jahan, an impressiveness greater than that of the Pyramids, an artistic distinctiveness as fine as that of the Taj Mahal’. Not that Angkor Wat needs a sales pitch, but this description is no exaggeration. It’s a spellbinding place which could be explored over the course of several days. But if, like me, you only have one to spare – this guide might offer some useful pointers as the site is vast and it’s difficult to navigate your way around given the sprawling temple complex occupies over 400 kilometres sq.
On a par with Macchu Picchu, I spent 9 hours exploring this magical place. For some ‘a temple’s a temple’ and it can be ‘done’ in one day. I’d strongly disagree. But with just one day off, I had to focus on just 5 temples and decided to avoid the main tourist circuit and do the normal route in reverse. It paid off – I hardly encountered another tourist all morning.
Here are my top tips for making the most of a day at Angkor Wat and avoiding the hoards of tourists who descend on it each day…
- You’ll soon find a friendly Tuk Tuk driver who will become your ‘regular’. He’ll offer to pick you up after dinner or return the next day to take you sight seeing. Make friends with a couple, if you have a local sim card then take his number. I asked the guy who dropped me home to come back at 4.30am to take me to Angkor Wat. We agreed $10 for the whole trip – there, back (3 kilometres from where I was staying) and for him to take me from temple to temple.
- Make a note of your tuk tuk driver’s number and memorise what he and his vehicle look like so you can identify him amongst the hundreds waiting outside each temple. Or agree an exact place to meet when you’re done exploring each temple.
- Backpack packed – bottles of water (I left these in my Tuk Tuk and just took a small one round with me), 5D and one lens (my trusty 24-70mm was perfect), iPhone (I did it solo so wanted a couple of selfies!), suncream (sun can be relentless), notebook (it’s the perfect place to just find a shady spot in the grounds of a temple and have some time to soak it all in and update your journal) and a torch if you’re going before sunrise. Also take $20 for the day entrance fee and money to buy cold drinks, lunch, ice cream, souvenirs as you go. I did it on a shoestring as I took my own snacks / water but you could spend a fortune here. Be warned – some cafes near Angkor Wat are 3 times what you’ll be used to paying in the city. But still a bargain by Western standards.
- Dress appropriately – if you want to climb up Angkor Wat and pay your respects to Buddha, you won’t be able to in skimpy shorts and low cut tops. Cover up – not only to stay cool but to be respectful, you’re visiting a religious monument. I wore ‘happy pants’, a t shirt and flip flops. Comfy footwear a MUST – trainers or flip flops. I walked 12 kilometres in my 9 hours there!
- Get there for sunrise. It’s a painful thought when you set your alarm for 4.30am but it’s worth it and the excitement will get you through the day.
- Avoid the tourists. Most people head straight for Angkor Wat after watching the sun rise over it but actually, I’d dash back to your tuk tuk and go to the other sites first – I had the first 3 temples virtually to myself. It’s better to return to Angkor Wat later when the early morning rush is over.
- Ta Prohm is one not to be missed (it was made famous after Angelina Jolie filmed Tomb Raider here) – it gets super busy so I’d head here early. It’s only of my favourites – enormous tree roots entwine crumbling facades of buildings and some of the bigger trees are being supported by metal scaffolding to stop them engulfing parts of the ruins completely. Just walking around the parameter of the site is atmospheric – it’s nice to go when it’s quiet to fully appreciate the soundtrack of birds and the tranquility of walking around the overground jungle its set in.
- I hit
around midday which was an error, this is the temple you climb to the top of for extraordinary views. It’s a short but steep climb (not advised if you have vertigo!) but at the top, you’ll want to find a spot and just gaze out at the ancient city below. I’d perhaps go earlier in the day, even immediately after sunrise.
- Bayon is another popular choice. It didn’t take me long to explore it but I took dozens of photos of the eerie faces varied in stone – it’s estimated there were about 200. In the middle you’ll find a shrine to Buddha with intense wafting through the walls. It’s a magical place to explore early on when the tourists are still at Angkor Wat.
- Banteay Srei is well worth the distance. Your tuk tuk driver will probably add another $10 to his rate for taking you here and back but it’s worth it. The trip alone allows you to take in the size of the park – you’ll pass lakes and villages, children washing in wells and buffalo wallowing in mud baths. The journey is a good chance to cool off after seeing the first couple of temples, take photos on route of rural Cambodian life and stop off to see women cooking up vast cauldrons of sugar which they sell in plastic jars as candy. Banteay Srei is about 30km away but the trip takes only about 20 minutes or so. It’s a very different site to the others you’ve seen – red sandstone is embellished with intricate carvings. It’s less a colossal site to climb or get lost in but a place to appreciate Khmer artistry and the detail of their work. There are loads of souvenir shops, clothing shops, cafes and nice toilets on site.
- Return to Angkor Wat later in the day and explore inside. Definitely take the time to climb to the top – it was the highlight of my day. You’ll see monks and monkeys sharing the grounds – it’s a photographer’s dream and impossible not to come away with stunning photos.
- Don’t get overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place, you can always come back. I’d say 5 temples in a day – max. I’ve only spent one day there but am desperate to return already. It’s a magical, restorative and deeply spiritual place – explore it and make the trip your own, ignore my advice completely if you want and go completely off-grid. There are hundreds of temples to explore so no doubt you’ll want to create your own itinerary – you’ll be in awe of it, whatever route / plan of attack you take.