Mention Angkor Wat and others will nod almost instantly, well informed “aah yes” resonating, accompanied by a vague sense of familiarity with this far-away, fabled destination. Throw Bayon, Phnom Bakheng, or Ta Prohm in to the mix and you’ll be met by perplexed silence… Cambodia’s cultural capital, Angkor, is expansive and consequentially, quite a few colloquial misconceptions have entered the equation. Before tackling the temples, it’s common to assume Angkor Wat is the only thing to see; this couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, Angkor Wat will occupy no more than a slither of your time spent in Siem Reap.
Let’s begin with Angkor, the ancient city and one-time capital of the Khmer Empire; Cambodia is the anglicized name referring to the modern-day nation, however you’ll notice that locals still use this western identifier interchangeably with the traditional term, Khmer. At the centre of this once sprawling urban hub, you’ll find the famed myriad of temple complexes, of which Angkor Wat is just one of many ruins tourists flock to… But I will get to these in a bit. Built by a succession of extravagant monarchs all looking to eclipse the previous’ grandiose, from the 9th century through to the empire’s fall to the neighboring Siamese Empire- roughly translated, Siam is Thailand’s predecessor- during the 15th century. Originally abiding to the teachings of Hinduism, the intricately ornate ancient walls mark the empire’s colorful transition to Buddhism. At its height, Angkor is said to have supported up to one million people; at least 0.1% of the global population at the time. The surviving ruins housed only royalty and the elite within their formidable confines.
Angkor and its endless temples are now collectively protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and as a result tourist access is vigilantly monitored. With the number of annual visitors well surpassing two million, continued conservation is paramount; tourists must purchase passes at a ‘checkpoint’ before entering, costing $20 for one day or $40 for three days. Back to the temples and the big questions. Which temples should be prioritized? How much time is enough to see it all? The general consensus is that at least one full day plus a half day is sufficient, but opt for two full days if looking to be on the safe side. My verdict? Two nights in Siem Reap with a half day on either side allows for you to comfortably fit it all in, spacing it out at a leisurely pace. Tour guides and companies are abundant- official guides are well versed in a list of languages- and a full day of sightseeing- including a guide, driver, and private car- costs $50-$70. You can also always do it yourself, with Tuk-Tuks from Siem Reap to the temples costing $10 and upwards return journey, depending on how long you want to spend exploring.
It’s easy to see why Angkor Wat has emerged as the pinnacle, garnering international awe. Not only is it the largest religious monument in the world, it’s Angkor’s most preserved offering. Everything from the perfectly still pools that flank the central structure, forming an intricate reflection, to the Buddhist monks and novices floating along the hallways draped in shades of orange, earthy hues of burnt sienna, contributes to the echoing space’s intangible serenity. You’ll want to wake-up early and catch sunrise from the temple grounds; try to nab a spot at the banks of the lefthand side pool, as the sun rises from the left corner behind the temple, illuminating the skies and casting a mirage across the glimmering water. Gates open at 5am, and as it crowds up quickly, aim to leave Siem Reap at around 4:30am.
Neighbors with Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom is home to multiple highlights, including Bayon, the Elephants Terrace, the Terrace of the Leper King, and Baphuon. Bayon can’t be missed; the 216 painstakingly detailed smiling faces of Buddha carved to form a part of the temple’s structure are each individually an incredulous feat, combined the effect is mesmerizing. Still within the walls of Angkor Thom you’ll find another temple, Baphuon. Notable for its sets of steep, and somewhat perilous, stairs, a climb to the top will reward you with sweeping views over the complex. Baphuon’s recently completed extensive conservation efforts mean that it is in prime condition, and has the added bonus of being off the beaten track, leaving you reasonably undisturbed as you escape the hordes.
Perched atop a hill, Phnom Bakheng offers an unrivaled vantage point from which to absorb the vistas. Whilst it does offer sight of Angkor Wat and other temples, whether the 20 minute hike to the hilltop is worth it in the relentless heat is up for discussion. Albeit beautiful, viewing the sunset falls short of spectacular given that so many cram in to the compound to see it, somewhat compromising the whole experience. Nevertheless, if you’re going to watch the sun fade away in to the horizon, this is the spot.
Channel your inner Lara Croft as you make your way through the arched hallways of Ta Prohm, even if in somewhat of a less glamorous fashion than that assumed by Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. Much of the temple’s structure is intertwined with the roots of a vast arboreal system, the shrubbery cloaking the walls in dappled shadows. Ta Prohm exudes fantasy and adventure, the formidable jungle slowly swallowing the ruins, coming together, rather poetically, to create an unparalleled atmosphere. It is said that the ruins can no longer stand without the support of the trees, some of the tangled courtyards and narrow corridors now impassable. Understatedly impressive in all its rugged beauty, Ta Prohm cannot be skipped.
Angkor evokes all the mystery and glory of a bygone era. Statuesque yet elegant in design, everything from the stately hallways to the walls covered in meticulously sculpted stories are resplendent of a forgotten opulence. The walls are bedecked with narratives that have withstood the tests of time. The encroachment of the jungle and fungi to the bullets of bloody battles fought during the recent Khmer Rouge regime have all been met by resilience, enriching the walls already so laden with history.
Travel Notes: Known as the gateway to Angkor, Siem Reap is where visitors will find themselves based; apart from being the only sizable town, it is also home to the area’s international airport. A twenty and some minute drive from the Angkor complex, the town centre is home to the notorious Pub Street- a vibrant strip teeming with restaurants and bars, pulsating well in to the early hours. Veering off this, a labyrinth of streets filled with market stalls selling the usual offering of tourist paraphernalia, leading down towards the river where you’ll find the old market. Don’t be surprised at the fact that almost all prices are displayed in US Dollars, often cited as the nation’s common currency. Whilst a local currency- the Cambodian Riel- exists, given inflation and lack of global traction, foreign currency is preferred. The long-short of it: opt not to exchange you’re dollars at the airport, instead come sufficiently stocked with $1 and $5 bills, as most general purchases will tend to fall within this price bracket. Now boasting 700+ hotels, Siem Reap’s accommodates all, from the 5 star luxury lover- Michelle Obama chose to stay at the Sofitel during her 2015 visit whilst Angelina Jolie et al spent their most recent stint in town comfortably camped out at the Amansara Resort- to the more budget conscious traveler and backpacker, reasonably priced options aplenty.