For most people, their first glimpse of the famed temples of Angkor, Cambodia was most likely on the big screen thanks to Hollywood blockbuster ‘Lara Croft’. More than just a great film backdrop however, this incredible place remains to this day is one of my travel highlights.
Set just 6km outside Siem Reap, Angkor, meaning ‘capital’ or ‘holy city’, was once the home of the ancient Khmer Empire and more than a million people. An incredibly advanced society, it isn’t until you arrive and see it yourself that you begin understand the true scale: the site of Angkor covers more than 400 sq km, and has over 1000 temples.
“That’s a lot to see”, I hear you say. Well, there are some prime examples that shouldn’t be missed. I suggest your starting point is mapping out a rough ‘temple itinerary’. As dull as that sounds to those who don’t get a secret kick out of planning like I do, it is essential – you can establish which are near each other, how to avoid the crowds (vital thanks to more than two million visitors a year) but also identify those that appeal most to you to maximise your limited time. From my personal experience, here are my top five – the ones I consider as temples ‘not to miss.’
Angkor Wat (Hindu, built in the mid-12th century)
If you speak to anyone, Angkor Wat is most likely the temple that comes to mind. The biggest, most spectacular of all of the Angkor temples, this is the world’s largest religious monument. Approaching from across the moat, it is imposing: the scale, the symmetry and the detail are incredible. Put aside a good hour minimum to explore should you visit, as the intricate maze of corridors, passages and doors take time to appreciate. Angkor Wat is also one of the best place to witness sunrise, but it does attract the corresponding crowds so be aware and get there early to stake a spot. Take note as well of the heat: my boyfriend and I foolishly visited in the middle of the day to try and further escape the crush of people, but the temperature was unbearable, so it is best to go earlier or later in the day.
Bayon (Buddhist, built in the late 12th century)
Bayon is known as the temple of many faces, with 200 carved carefully into the rock yet no two being the same. Representing the intersection between heaven and earth, at the centre is a column with four dominating faces looking out at each compass point, with further 51 smaller columns branching out from this. Bayon is also surrounded by two long walls featuring bas-relief scenes of legendary and historical events, with a total of more than 11,000 carved figures over the 1.2km of wall. The temple itself sits within Angkor Thom, the old walled centre of the city, and is just a short walk from many others which makes it an easy part to do by foot.
Ta Prohm (Buddhist, built in the early 13th century)
Aside from Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm (also referred to as the ‘Tomb Raider temple’ by our tuk-tuk driver) was famously visited by Lara Croft. Having succumbed largely to nature over time, the temple is a glorious maze of stone archways, piles of stone blocks, tree roots creeping across the rock, and trees casting dappled shade over the site. As you appreciate the detail and work in the structure, it is little wonder to discover that according to inscriptions, approximately 80,000 people helped to build the temple originally. One word of warning: Ta Prohm is heaving, making it a struggle to move around with the number people. However, when we decided to revisit it on day two shortly before 6am, it was glorious to find only two other people there; a definite reason to set an alarm!
Preah Khan (Buddhist and Hindu, built in the late 12th century)
One of the largest complexes in Angkor (covering almost 5 sq km), like Ta Prohm it has been left largely untouched in the modern-day, only rediscovered in the 1920s. Unusually it is a temple that is both Buddhist and Hindu, fusing the two religious cultures, and once having acted as a centre for learning. The structures inside are beautiful, including a two-tier pavilion unlike any other we saw during our visit.
Ta Keo (Hindu, built in the early 11th century)
Ta Keo is a temple we saw most people drive straight pass. From the outside it might look unassuming, but venture close and you will realise just how steep it is! The temple is one of the oldest in all of Angkor, and is believe to be the first built entirely of sandstone. Despite appearances, it was never finished with legend being it was struck by lightning and all remaining building work abandoned. As such, the five-tiered pyramid design might not have the same level of carving as others, but it does enjoy fantastic views. In fact, it was my boyfriend’s favourite temple of the entire trip.
Now you have a suggested ‘hit list’ for your temples, here is what else you need to know:
How to go: You must hold an Angkor admission pass to visit the temples and sites in the Angkor Archaeological Park. Passes can be purchased at the main entrance on the road to Angkor Wat, with one ($20), three ($40) or seven day passes available ($60). The three day pass is valid for one week, i.e. 3 days to be used within the week, not necessarily consecutively. The seven day pass is valid for one month, i.e. 7 days to be used within the month, not necessarily consecutively.
Remember, you must bring a passport photo with you to be put onto your pass, and then you must carry it at all times: it will be checked by staff each time you reach the entrance of a temple. Also be advised, if you are clever and purchase your ticket after 4pm, you can get a free sunset out of your ticket before your first day officially starts the next morning!
When to go: November through to February offers the coolest and most comfortable time of year to visit Angkor, but also the largest crowds. Regardless of the time of year you visit, make sure to set an alarm early one day to catch the sunrise over the temples. Another bonus? If you hang around after the busloads of people head back to their hotels for breakfast, you will be rewarded in having some of the temples almost to yourself. The heat of the day however is brutal, so we broke our day up into two sections – early morning, and mid-afternoon – returning to town for lunch or a swim at the pool during the day.
What to wear: I lost count of the number of backpackers in tiny shorts and vest tops wandering around the temples. While it is not always enforced, it is important to remember these remain active religious sites with an undeniable importance to local people. Out of respect, we chose to follow advice and cover our knees and shoulders at all times. This had the added bonus of preventing sun-burn as well, as many of the temples are in direct sunlight. On your feet, wear comfy shoes with sturdy grip. You will do a lot of walking and climbing to explore the temples, so it is important you are comfortable.
How to get around: Forget organised coach trips – the best and easiest way to get around is hiring a tuk-tuk driver. Their expertise in the best times/order to visit temples is invaluable, and we found ourselves learning such a lot from our fantastic driver Set. He would drop us wherever we wanted to go, and be ready to pick us up again straight after. It felt like a far more authentic experience than an air-conditioned car. Expect to pay a rate of between $15-20 per day. Most hotels can organise a tuk-tuk service for you, which leads me neatly onto my next point…
Where to stay: For friendly and genuine service, delicious food and a free private tuk tuk thrown in, then the Pavilion d’Orient is the obvious choice. Starting from around £70 per night, the colonial architecture is beautiful and nothing was too much trouble. The spa at the hotel is also well-worth booking into between temple visits, with an incredibly cheap yet extensive menu of treatments. The hotel is set on the outskirts of the town centre, but your tuk-tuk driver is available from dawn until 10pm to take you wherever you want to go.