|Angkor Wat – the world’s largest single religious monument
Angkor – no other word conjures the power of our imaginations as the name of Cambodia’s expansive temple complex, built by generations of Khmer royalty across centuries, an enigmatic landmark that draws travelers far and wide to its captivating epicenter – the Angkor Wat – most especially when its spired silhouette is graced by the velvety halo of dawn or dusk. So from sunrise to sunset, our tuk-tuk toured us around the highlights of Central and Eastern Angkor, so we can maximize our one-day tourist pass to the temples. We only had two full days to explore the temples of Angkor. To make the most of our time and money, we decided to explore the central temples first, then go to an awesome but distant temple (with a separate entrance fee) on the second day.
|Battle scene depicted on a bas-relief mural at Angkor Wat
|Smaller temples like Chao Say Tevoda
offered moments of peace and isolation
Covering an area of over 400 sq km, the temple complex is believed by some archaeologists to be the largest preindustrial city in the world. There are over a thousand temple ruins from between the 9th and 15th centuries within the park, from nondescript piles of rubble to well-restored ones like the Angkor Wat, considered to be the world’s largest single religious monument. These magnificent edifices were built by Khmer kings as testaments of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths. In terms of grandeur and number, the only other temple complex that rivals Angkor would be the over 4,400 temples of Bagan in northern Myanmar (Burma), which I got to visit last year.
Angkor’s superlatives, however, are stifled by its sheer popularity. Last year, 2.5 million tourists visited the temples, that’s four times the number only five years back! Consequently, absorbing the tranquil beauty of the temples may prove challenging with a babel of tour groups shuffling through the corridors and walkways. Angkor Thom – in particular, the smiling face-towered temple of Bayon – also draws hundreds of people daily. And, in Eastern Angkor, Ta Prohm – the temple made famous by the Angelina Jolie action flick, Tomb Raider – is strangled more by snap-happy tourists rather than picturesque tree roots!
Seeking for a breather from the crowds, I really appreciated the smaller temples we visited in between the major sites. The minor temples in Eastern Angkor, such as Thommanon, Chao Say Tevoda and Banteay Kdei offered moments of peace and isolation that’s near impossible to enjoy amidst the hordes of tourist who gravitate to the most popular sites. Some temples in Angkor Thom like Baphuon and Phimeanakas were more enjoyable to explore as well.
Apsaras at Leper King Terrace
Other memorable spots were the Elephant Terrace and Leper King Terrace at Angkor Thom, a bas-relief labyrinth of elephants, apsaras (celestial dancers), demons, and garudas (mythical birds). These bas-reliefs – including those found within the perimeter corridors of Angkor Wat – are just as incredible as the ones in Borobodur Temple in Java, Indonesia.
All in all, we visited around 13 sites, and were, as warned, templed out by nightfall, after the piece de resistance of ascending the hilltop temple of Bakheng to watch the incredible sunset over Angkor Wat. According to our tuk-tuk driver, no more than 300 visitors are allowed to watch the sunset at Bakheng, so it’s advisable to ascend the hill at around 4 PM.
A temple we regretted not being able to visit was Banteay Srei, an outlying temple with the finest bas-reliefs, that can only be visited if we had an extra day to spend (i.e. paying for the 40-dollar three day pass instead) at the central temples.
On the other hand, our second day in Angkor brought us to the temple ruins of Beng Mealea, located 1.5 hours away from Siem Reap, which turned out to be the Angkor we were searching for and the temple that deserves a separate blog post altogether.
|One of the most photographed sites – the ‘Tomb Raider’ ruins of Ta Prohm
HOW TO GET THERE: Several airlines fly to Siem Reap. Or one can arrive overland from tourist hubs such as Bangkok or Saigon. There are many buses connecting the town to other destinations in mainland Southeast Asia. Our Virak Buntham bus (13 hours) to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), via Phnom Penh, costs USD 20. It leaves daily at 7:00 PM. Another option is to go by ferryboat… We arrived in Siem Reap from Battambang via a scenic boat ride (USD 20, travel time: 4 to 9 hours, depending on the season) across the Tonlé Sap lake-river system.
Now, how does one get to the temples? The Angkor Archaeological Park is 5.5 km north of Siem Reap, and can be explored by bicycle or tuk-tuk. Entrance: USD 20/40/60 for one/three/seven day passes. They’re printed instantaneously with your photo, using a webcam, at the park entrance. Tip: Tickets purchased after 5PM are valid the following day, so one can watch the sunset at the temples for free! To maximize our one-day pass, we opted for a full-day tuk-tuk tour from sunrise to sunset, which we got to haggle down to USD 18 (or USD 6 per head). We decided not to hire a tour guide, and bought an extremely helpful and comprehensive full-color book guide entitled Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques . These are sold by vendors at the temples for USD 15, but can be haggled down to USD 5.
|Our tuk-tuk in front of the Leper King Terrace in Angkor Thom
WHERE TO STAY: There are numerous budget options in Siem Reap. We stayed at Palm Garden Lodge at 132 Tepvong St, only 15 minutes walk from Pub Street. Triple fan room at USD 12 only (i.e. only USD 4 per head!), with simple breakfast (egg and toast, or noodle soup) and free pick-up. Some staff can be pushy with their tuk-tuk tour offers though, but we found cheaper options by negotiating with drivers outside ourselves. Email email@example.com for reservations.
Other cheap accommodations we considered are Bou Savy Guesthouse, with rooms starting at USD 8, and Garden Village Resort, where dorm rooms start at USD 1 and private rooms at USD 3!
|Sunset at the hilltop temple of Bakheng, overlooking Angkor Wat