Thoughts on Visiting Angkor
Angkor Wat and the surrounding historic city of Angkor is both an impressive monument to ancient Khmer civilization and a fascinating adventure movie set. If you’d like to appreciate either aspect fully, imagination must be used.
In other ancient cities like the Roman Forum, Machu Picchu or Chichen Itza, you must both imagine the site in its original glory along with the people who lived in it – their dress, language and way of life.
For the adventure movie you must imagine other aspects of the scene – the dry ice being used to make the mist, the streaming beams of light coming from lighting kits just off set, the mounting beat of the background music or the clever villain in the jungle with the ever arching plot line looming overhead.
So in real life, no matter how impressive a site may be, more work must be done to experience it in the fullest. For us this involved doing research, going to a museum to understand the site and hiring a guide. We did not hire a villain to chase us through the jungle or a crew to create special effects, we just rewatched the relevant clips of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Getting to Angkor
The best place to fly into is Siem Reap, where the park is located. You can either purchase a tourist visa online ahead of time or one can be provided at the airport for a fee. The airport is a few miles outside of town, so plan transportation accordingly. When some hotels in the area say they will provide transportation from the airport they mean via tuk tuk, so if you have a lot of bags you may want to obtain your own taxi. Otherwise, our ride in via tuk tuk only added to the adventure.
There are many hotels of every level available in the city, if you are looking for creature comforts you might want to choose a western one. We chose a local one which looked great online but didn’t really deliver in person with a bed that felt like a wooden plank, a lack of air conditioning in common areas and poor coordination or our breakfast for the early day at the park. We were repeatedly tempted to transfer to the Courtyard Marriott or the Sofitel in town but this one was already purchased. Live and learn.
Siem Reap will be a stimulating mixture of noise, smells and local merchants trying to sell their wares. You will be accosted by sales pitches on every walk, whether it be for t-shirts, tours or tuk tuk rides. If you are seeking such an environment stay near the pub street where you will be able to walk around in the evenings, if not, choose a hotel off on its own. In most cases you will need a ride to the archaeological park as it is a few miles outside of town.
Since 90 percent of Cambodians work on farms, tourism to Angkor is a major source of revenue for citizens here that they would not have otherwise. Tourism is seen as a good thing, you are helping the locals tremendously. When the guide we chose is not working as a guide he works on his family’s rice farm outside of town. A short drive into the provinces will reveal the local life here. You will understand the constant sales pitch, not just in town but by local women and village children at each of the Angkor sites.
Amazingly, US dollars are the preferred form of currency in town which is ironic because US tourists are not even in the top 5 visitor groups to the area – it is mostly people from Asia and Europe. You can even obtain US dollars directly from bank machines in Siem Reap. I am told this is not the case in the rest of Cambodia.
Every tuk tuk rider you hire would like to be your tour guide for the entire time you are there. They usually try to extend their service. The rates are reasonable at $15 a day and they bring you to the best spots. If you’ve done your prep work by researching the park ahead of time this is a great option. We chose this on our first day but already had a 2-day tour booked for the rest of our trip.
Angkor National Museum
To fully understand the archaeological park, you should visit the Angkor National Museum first. Here you will have the ancient city and its customs explained through exhibits, models and movies. You will see temples, kings, Buddhism, Hinduism, architecture, carvings and statues. In one room you will see the temple of 1,000 Buddhas reconstructed to imagine the former glory of the upstairs chambers of Angkor Wat. Going through the museum will take a couple of hours but it is time well spent before entering the park.
Tickets to the Archaeological Park
Once you are finished you can buy 1-day, 3-day or 7-day passes to the park at the main sales center a few miles away. For most, 3 days will suffice. Angkor is very serious about these tickets, they will include your photo and be checked every time you enter the park entrance or one of its temples. There are more than 80 temples in the area, we will focus on our top five.
Our Top 5 Temples of Angkor
1.Angkor Wat or City Temple
This temple is the most widely known set of buildings in the city, and the name by which most refer to the entire area, but the historic city of Angkor is more than just its iconic temple. It’s a large metropolis of ruins, 400 square kilometers in size which includes palaces, terraces, civic areas and other temples. As a historic ruin it is in good condition, not too much damage was incurred by war, weather has been a more consistent opponent. This was the main or city temple of Angkor.Originally created as a Hindu temple by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat was later converted to a Buddhist temple, the state religion. It is considered a mountain temple, meant to symbolize Mount Meru, with 5 temples at the top floor. It is a very steep climb to the third floor which looks out over the entrance of the park.
The intricate carvings of Angkor Wat are impressive whether it be the dancing apsara women, the panels or the large mural of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. This legend comes from Hindu mythology where good and evil work to turn the ocean into milk to find the elixir of immortality. This is an often repeated theme in Angkor and the in tact elaborate carvings are unusual.
Photos of Angkor Wat
Popular tourist activities start at sunrise. It is common to wake up at 4:00 a.m. to take photos of the sunrise. The temple faces west so the sun rises behind it. You will see this digital pilgrimage take place twice each day – the same thing happens at sunset when the temple is best lit, and these are the most sought after photos of the site. One popular place to stand is the reflecting pool with lotus flowers – this was not as crowded while we were there as it was off season and dry season so the water was low. The other favorite spot is outside the moat which offers plenty of water for reflective purposes.
2. The Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom
The Bayon Temple or Temple of Faces was one of our favorites. There are over 200 large faces that Jayavarman VII built in Angkor Thom, the capital city which means “great city.” This was the last large temple built by a king in Angkor and it was dedicated to Buddha. It is thought that the growth of Theravada Buddhism ended the building of more large temples here. 59 towers had these unusual faces on them with many having them on 4 sides of the tower and they are thought to represent Lokeshvara.
3. Ta Prohm or “Tomb Raider” Temple
The next 3 temples are known as “jungle” temples because they are being overtaken by the jungle. Built in 1186 by King Jayvaraman VII to honor his mother, Ta Prohm, which means Ancestor of Brahma, is known in popular culture as being the location used in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. While you are wandering around inside of it, you will often hear Asian languages interrupted with the words: tomb raider.
It is known the world over for this movie and tourists spend extra time taking selfies here because of it. It is also known because of the jungle trees which are invading the buildings. This gives it a mysterious and beautiful feel. India is contributing money to help restore this amazing temple but care is made to keep it looking untouched as it did when French explorers first discovered it in the 19th century.
4. Preah Khan
Preah Khan is another jungle temple, accessible by a long shady path with similar features as Ta Prohm. This temple was built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII to honor his father. It is named after the sacred sword of King Jayavarman II and once functioned as a monastery. The temple has had a lot of restoration and rebuilding work done and has trees invading it similar to Ta Prohm.
5. Ta Som
Built by King Jayavarman VII at the end of the 12th Century, some say for his father, others for his teacher and still others for his ancestors. This is a small temple which has faces similar to the Bayon Temple mentioned above. It’s another jungle temple set in the woods with invading trees.
There were other temples which we toured but these were by far the most interesting, beautiful and photogenic. The added benefit of shade in the jungle temples made the hot weather a little more bearable as well. It is important to schedule a few days in Siem Reap to be able to see more than just Angkor Wat. The size and impact of the buildings in the archaeological park can not be overstated. It is truly worth a visit on your UNESCO World Heritage tour.