I go through my 485 pictures of Angkor: fabulous temples, stunning natural scenery and friendly local people. A truly magical place.
This is the first of three posts about our favorite Angkor temples. The one you are reading right now is mainly talking about the main temple of Angkor Wat and also provides general tips for visiting the Angkor area. The other two posts are (1) Magnificent Angkor Thom: a city within Angkor and (2) Trees and temples: the famous Ta Prohm.
The beauty of Angkor; a masterpiece of humankind
The local Siem Reap town guide calls Angkor a “Masterpiece of humankind”. And it is. Angkor offers you the impressive remains of the Khmer Empire and therefore is one of the most important archeological sites in South-East Asia. The temples at Angkor were built by a succession of Khmer Kings between the 7th and 13th century. Angkor is marvelous!! We could never have imagined how much impact Angkor would make on us.
It’s not only the awe of every single temple showing the astonishing Khmer architectural achievements. It’s also the immense area with scattered temples everywhere (you drive/bike at least 20 kilometers for seeing ‘only’ the main highlights), the opportunity to explore and step on every stone you want, and the way some of the temples have literally merged with the jungle. If you can, you have to visit!
What you need to know before visiting
- People call it Angkor Wat. Actually Angkor Wat is ‘just’ the main temple of the Angkor complex. Angkor is the overall name of the area, and its huge!! It stretches over 400 square kilometers so it’s really not just a group of temples situated on walking distance from each other.
- Traveling with kids? Make sure to bring their passports, especially if your child is between 10-12. Children up to 12 have free access to the park, but people checking your ticket sometimes don’t believe your child is under 12! Our daughter is quite tall and we really had to take out her passport several times to prove her age!
- Angkor tickets can be bought at the entrance of the park. A one-day pass is USD 20, three-day pass USD 40 and a seven-day pass will cost you USD 60 (but that one is for temple die-hards…we went for a three-day pass).
- Angkor is not a park with fences around it. It’s a huge area and the park is actually inhabited. There are several small villages scattered around the area where people practice agriculture (mostly rice cultivation). Take your time to explore!
- You can rent a bike and explore Angkor….you indeed can. I’m not sure if that’s such a good idea however. I mean, you can rent the famous ‘1-dollar-bikes’ that are o.k. to get around in the city. But these cheap bikes will make sure you have a sore behind before you have even reached the first temple! If you want to go on a bike, make sure to rent a mountain bike or something.
- More comfortable is to rent a Tuk-Tuk for a day (costs between 8-15 USD, depending on your negotiation skills). The driver will wait for you, even when you get totally lost in the splendor of a temple, forget about time and return after 3 hours. No problem, he will take you to the next one with a big smile on his face. And by the way, yes, an average visit to one temple will take you about 2 hours.
- What still strikes me: you are allowed to walk (almost) everywhere and to step on each stone. That’s quite amazing when you know Angkor receives more than 2 million visitors annually! It comes as no surprise that the whole park is on the UNESCO heritage list and lots of work needs to be done to restore some of the temples. Luckily, some places will be retained as ruin, just to show how explorers (re-)discovered the temples back in the 15th century.
Remarkable story: at the main Angkor temple it was not allowed to climb one of the spires in order not to further accelerate the deterioration process. There were even guards walking around. But pro-actively they tried to earn some money, so if we would pay them 10 USD we could climb upstairs. Of course we didn’t…
The little town of Siem Reap
All these 2 million Angkor visitors stay in and around the small town of Siem Reap. Can such a small town handle that? Well, it is not as bad as it sounds. True, Siem Reap has its own Khao San Road (called Pub Street), but beyond the tourist markets and pubs the town offers so much more!
Details of the Angkor Wat temple
Most people start their visit to Angkor at the main temple of Angkor Wat: the most famous temple of the area and one of the largest religious monuments ever constructed. You don’t have to, pick whatever temple you like to start with. It might be good to know that early morning (around 9am) is extremely busy at Angkor Wat when all busses arrive to start their day tour.
But the temple area is huge, so after you entered via the stone causeway called Terrace of Honor, the visitors quickly spread. Just walk around, get lost, enjoy whatever you encounter. Look out for beautiful details, like the famous apsaras (female spirits of the clouds and waters). There should be more than 3,000 of them carved into the walls of the temple!
A famous bas relief at Angkor Wat is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, depicting a story from Hindu mythology about the nectar of immortal life….It’s part of a gallery running around the main building, and actually completely covered with bas reliefs.
The Central Sanctuary was the most sacred place of the temple, directly in line with the vertical axis of the central spire, providing the connection between heaven and earth. Yes, also at Angkor astronomy was important when constructing the temple. If you are interested in the astronomical aspects of the architecture, you should really google to read more about it!
The most beautiful Angkor temples: Angkor Wat is only the beginning
There are dozens, maybe hundreds of temples scattered around the area. In two other posts I will show you our most favorite places: Angkor Thom and the Ta Prohm temple.
Every single temple (or what has remained) is interesting to watch, as well as the local people that walk around, pray or just trying to sell you postcards. The little girl in the picture below followed us at Ta Som temple….she was so determined to sell us bracelets and postcards….
All these temples in the middle of the jungle made me wonder how they all could have been built that long ago? Archeologists have found traces of a series of canals that were used to transport the 5 million tonnes of sandstone needed to build the temples.
I can promise you: when you visit Angkor you will be impressed so many times…. for us Angkor was certainly a highlight of all our previous South-East Asian travels. Have fun!
“We travel not to escape life, but so life doesn’t escape us.”
Great write up and beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing. About to get ready for our second day of exploring the Angkor temples and I’m sure we will be as impressed as after seeing Angkor Wat and Banteay Kdei temples yesterday. Cambodia is really impressive.
Pleasure and thank you for leaving a comment. I trust you had another marvelous day with great discoveries! Enjoy your time in Cambodia!
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Emiel, what lovely photos from one of my favorite places in Southeast Asia! I rented a bike to explore that 20km ‘small circuit’ and it was a great experience. At some temples, I arrived before buses loaded with tourists did. It could be quite eerie sometimes when I found myself as the only one around, yet at such a special place like Angkor, I was amazed more than I was intimidated.
Thanks Bama. It must have been great to wander around by yourself, wow. And on a bike! You are tough 🙂
One of my favourite places! The only other thing I’ll add with respect to kids (this time young kids) is that they may find the temples a bit spooky. I wasn’t expecting that. Our (at the time) was very reluctant to enter any of the temples so we ended up a) giving him a scavenger-hunt style list to distract him and b) taking turns to enter/entertain the kids in the grounds outside. Luckily, lots of room to run around in!
Our nearly-2yo was fine, but she’s our adventurous one!
Sorry, that should read at the time four year old. Not sure what happened there?
Really? I didn’t think of that, but mostly because our kids were so interested and just running around to be the first one to discover something new..but then again they are a bit older than 4.. Thanks for your comment!
So fascinating to think of that kingdom and all its temples. Also very interesting to hear about the lack of preservation and the fact that you can pay that guy to break the rules. Hmm. That will have to change in the future, especially with the large number of people visiting Cambodia nowadays.
True Jenna. But the day they will start closing certain parts of the temple and have people walk only fenced-off areas, the experience will be very different I guess. Make sure to visit before that…
Very good point. It may take some educating with simple signs to discourage climbing on the rocks but still allow people to walk around at least some areas without being separated or fenced off.
I recall a visit to Japan (I think it was Himeiji castle) that you could visit but you could only walk one route. Completely fenced off, very structured and organized like we know from the Japanese. I felt very uncomfortable to be honest, there was no room for spontaneous discoveries. I am sure they will find some kind of balance.