The Angkor Temples are most people’s highlight of a trip to Cambodia. They are huge, varied and very impressive. There is so much to see that working out an itinerary is a bit daunting. According to the guidebooks, there are temples you should visit at sunrise, temples you should visit at dusk, temples you should visit in the afternoon approaching from the West, temples that you should visit twice, temples that are at their best at a certain time of day but also crowded with tourists at that time. We soon abandon the idea of deducing the perfect schedule and decide to just go with the flow.
You can get a one-day, three-day or seven-day ticket. We go for the three-day, which we don’t have to use consecutively, so we incorporate a day off to prevent temple-fatigue.
We book a tuk-tuk and, having completely given up on the idea of working out our own schedule, ask our driver just to take us to the best places. He took us on the standard “Petit Tour”. Back in the day, when the site was opened to tourists about 100 years ago, this and the Grand Tour were established as the standard routes. If it ain’t broke.
We start in Angkor Thom; the temple city containing several monuments. The gate is over a moat and is flanked by a line of gods and a line of demons engaged in a giant tug-of-war. There are monkeys on the grounds, living off the rich pickings left by the tourists, and elephants giving rides. Elephant was the standard mode of transport back in Petit / Grand Tour days and although they have been largely usurped by the tuk-tuk, you can still get a little ride.
The first main temple in Angkor Thom is Bayon. This has dozens of massive stone faces and bas-reliefs depicting battle scenes.
Next are Baphuon and Phimeanakas, which involve climbing lots of steps.
Then there’s the Terrace of Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King, which provided the kings a vantage point to watch great processions of troops, horses and elephants.
Then we’re off in the tuk-tuk out of Angkor Thom to Ta Keo. It’s called the temple-mountain and is based on the mountain of the gods, a sort of Khmer Olympus. More steps.
Next is Ta Prohm, which is one of the most famous temples thanks to being prominently featured in Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie (which I’ve not seen, but now want to watch so I can spot the locations). This is one of the temples that got lost a bit to the jungle and there are huge trees growing out of the temple’s ruined walls.
Finally we loop back round to The Daddy – Angkor Wat. The guide books make a very big deal of this one; “spine-tingling”, “life-changing”, “awe-inspiring” etc etc. It’s the biggest and most detailed temple, but frankly everything we have seen today has been fantastic and Angkor Wat doesn’t strike me as being head and shoulders above the other temples.
We get up at silly o’clock to see sunrise over the site, so it’s back to Angkor Wat for 5.30 am to watch a pretty weak sun emerge behind the clouds. We get the obligatory photos then head off on the Grand Tour.
Our first stop is Banteay Kdei and we’re getting more familiar with the imagery of the temples and are now bandying around terms such as Apsara, Gopura and Naga, which have entered our vocabulary via the guide book.
Next is Pre Rup, which looks like it needs a hair cut as it is sprouting so much foliage from its upper towers.
Then it’s a little way out of the main temple complex to Banteay Srei, which is famous for its pink stone and delicate carving. It’s also our breakfast stop, as we’ve been up since before dawn.
Not normally on the Grand Tour, but definitely worth the detour is Kbal Spean, the River of a Thousand Lingas. This is not exactly a temple, but a waterfall where the riverbed has been carved with lots of lingas (phallic symbols), gods and animals. It’s a nice half-hour hike to get up there, and since it is the end of the rainy season the waterfall is at its most impressive. The water level is high so only a few carvings are visible, but there’s still some to see and it’s a bit different to the other temples.
It’s now early afternoon and after the early start and our little hike to and from the waterfall I must confess to have a little nap in the tuk-tuk on the way back to the main temple complex. I wake up for East Mebon, the swiss-cheese temple that is full of holes.
Ta Som, which is another one that is less well-preserved and has been somewhat overtaken by the surrounding jungle.
As we head to Neak Poan, the heavens open and we have to huddle for shelter from the torrential rain under a little hut. It’s only for half an hour and then things clear. The path to the temple is on a raised walkway through a flooded forest (which has just become slightly more flooded). It’s only a small site and would usually be a little underwhelming compared to the others we’ve seen. But as we approach the sun comes out and huge clouds of mist rise from the flood waters surrounding the site. There’s nobody else around as everyone has been cleared out by the rain, and it’s a beautiful and slightly eerie moment.
Preah Khan is next, which has Ta-Prohm-esque trees intertwined with the ruins.
Then finally, we go to Phnom Bakheng. This is up a hill and offers views over the complex and is the traditional place to watch the sunset. We go up an hour before sunset and it is already heaving with tourists staking out their sunset-spot (those that can make it up the very steep steps, that is). We take in the views then head back down. We’ve had a long day and prefer to get home (and let our tuk-tuk driver go home too) rather than hang around for sunset. We are rewarded for our early exit by being in time to see a rainbow over Angkor Wat on our way out.
Most people use the final day of their three-day pass to visit the Roulos group of temples which is separate from the main site. Instead, we decide to re-visit the main complex, but on bikes instead of the tuk-tuk. We hire a couple of rustbuckets and tour round the main area of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, taking another look at some of our favourites and visiting some other minor temples that don’t make top billing on the main tours; Prasat Suor Prat, Chau Say Tevoda and Prasat Kravan.
The roads are very flat, but are badly pot-holed and flooded in places. There are big puddles and no way of knowing how deep they are, you just have to go for it. I get (metaphorically) cold feet at one particularly deep puddle, and (literally) soggy, muddy feet a second later, so I spend most of the day squelching.
If you are planning to visit Angkor Wat, you will read a lot of superlatives about how amazing the temples are. I’ll add my own recommendation and say that they are really magnificent and after three days I wasn’t in the slightest bit bored of temple-hopping. My highlights were:
- The waterfall at Kbal Spean
- The sun coming out after the downpour at Neak Poan
- The faces of Bayon
- The rainbow over Angkor Wat
- The trees growing out of the ruins at Ta Prohm.
Lots and lots more photos on Mr Beet’s flickr page.