one of the absolute highlights of my time in se asia was visiting siem reap. not only did it include a long-awaited reunion with alex, but we spent our time visiting the angkor temple complex and marvelling at the architecture and present-day ruins.
while the temples of siem reap are collectively known as angkor wat, angkor wat is actually the name of just one of the many temples that are part of the unesco world heritage site. in reality, it is a large complex with numerous temples in various states of ruin and disrepair spread out over 400 square kilometers. when the temples were first discovered they were in rough shape, but with care and preservation, we can now visit the temples and see them for ourselves.
for a history student, these temples are amazing. to walk amongst ruins that were built over 500+ years ago and to think of the millions of people who have walked those paths before is truly staggering. i cannot imagine what they looked like when they were first built, but they definitely took my breath away at nearly every turn.
because we were in town for 5 days, alex and i decided to buy a 3-day pass for the complex and take our time visiting each temple. although there are some similarities in architecture, each temple is unique, and it was nice to have the time to explore each one.
day one: pre rup, east mebon, ta som, neak ean, preah khan
on our first day, we picked up our tickets and decided to hit up the five smaller temples around angkor wat, wandering around each and taking note of where they have been rebuilt, where they have been left in ruin, and where temple and tree have been growing together for hundreds of years. my favourite from day one was ta som — i couldn’t stop staring at the spot pictured above.
day two: angkor wat, bayon
our second day began ridiculously early, with a 3.30am wake-up call so we could get to angkor wat in time for the sunrise. we had both heard how stunning the sunrise was, and it definitely did not disappoint. i was also happy with our choice of the day, because in speaking with other travelers in sounded like the day before and after were quite cloudy, so we definitely lucked out. once the sun was up we took a walk around angkor, hurrying ahead of the crowd and finding a quiet spot to camp out and people watch.
after angkor, we visited bayon, which was my favorite of the main temples. it was so cool to wander around the top and see all the different faces carved into the stones and to see the various states of survival and repair.
day three: beng mealea
on day three we took a break from the angkor complex and rode about 40km outside siem reap to visit beng mealea. my friend jane mentioned to me that it had been her favorite spot in cambodia, so we knew we had to see it for ourselves. because of the distance from the city, we were some of the first ones there when we arrived at 7am and had the place nearly to ourselves. much of beng mealea is in disrepair, but it was so much fun to wander around and over various piles of rubble and through the middle of the temple. this was a definite highlight for both of us.
day four: bantey srei, ta prohm
on our last day, we visited bantey srei and ta prohm, the famous temple where tomb raider was filmed. ta prohm is unique because during restorations, it was decided that this temple would remain in the state in which it was found, with only minor renovations taking place over the years to prevent further ruin. today it looks much the same as it did when it was first uncovered, and it is pretty cool to walk around and see what archaeologists saw all those years ago.
some things to keep in mind
the temples of angkor are stunning to see up close, and i cannot recommend a visit highly enough if you are lucky enough to find yourself within proximity. below are a few things alex and i discussed during our visit that i would like to share with you today:
- if you have the time, get the three-day pass. one day is not enough to do justice to all the temples, but three days was perfect for us. you can do a one-week pass for $60 as well if you’re in town for a longer visit or spending more time in the country. i think you have 30 days to complete your visit.
- time your visits thoughtfully. cambodia is hot and humid, especially in early may, so time your outings accordingly. most days we were out of our hotel by 6.30am and back around 11.30 to swim, eat, and nap while the day was at its hottest.
- the sunrise at angkor is worth the hype and the early alarm. neither alex nor i are morning people, but waking up at 3.30am to catch the sunrise over angkor was one of the best decisions we made.
- angkor and ta prohm see the most visitors, so get to those two early and have a wander before the crowds show up in droves.
- be courteous. i really shouldn’t have to mention this, but i lost track of the times we got stuck behind groups with their selfie sticks or got pushed out of the way because others wanted better shots. take your pictures – alex and i took plenty – but be aware of your fellow tourists and be polite. i don’t think it’s too much to ask.
- get in touch with meas if you need a tuk-tuk driver. jane put me in touch with her friend meas, a local guy who drives his own tuk-tuk and car. he took us to beng mealea and to bantey srei and ta prohm on our last day, and he is such a sweet guy. he is also great at responding to messages and is very prompt and professional.
- offseason travel = cheaper hotels. since we visited in early may, crowds were much more manageable than i imagine they are in december and january, and we had the added bonus of scoring a really sweet hotel for about 30% of their peak season rate. we stayed at the borei angkor resort & spa and loved it — the staff was so friendly, the rooms were great, the food was delicious, the pool cannot be beaten, and when split between the two of us we got a great deal.
have you ever visited the temples of angkor? what was your visit like?