Sunrise at Angkor Wat. Photo by David Sim.
Angkor Guide, how best to see it
Angkor is the ruins of the ancient capital of the Khmer Kingdom and one of the greatest archaeological treasures in the world. The ‘Home of gods and kings’ is today known more prosaically as the Angkor Archeological Park, 400 square kms (250 sq miles) encompassing over one thousand temples ranging from a piles of rubble to the magnificently preserved and restored Angkor Wat.
Angkor is a ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site in Danger’ due to a declining water table, frequent looting/theft of artifacts and overwhelming tourism.
Ta Prohm in Angkor Archeological Park. Chinese girls in party outfits were swarming Angkor in 2017.
Make sure you dress appropriately for Angkor!
Short shorts, short skirts, tank tops and shoulder-revealing dresses are a no-no, but otherwise tourists need to dress for heat (30C+/86F+) and activity, with lots of climbing up, down and over, constantly, all day long.
So…long, lightweight shorts are good, sarongs can be good if worn correctly. Loose clothing, preferably light cotton. Skinny jeans are a bad idea. Also good walking shoes/sandals. Me, I’m a fan of rugged, washable, grippy sole, all weather Teva sandals and wore them all the time in Cambodia. And no socks please!
Length of stay recommended
Minimum worthwhile stay, not including flights:
2 days for the major temples. Recommended: 4 days.
Early starts are vital, then chill out around midday (a swim is ideal) and try not to rush to see everything.
Enjoy the ambience or you will end up with temple overdose PDQ.
Angkor Wat on level two looking up to level three. Visitors lining up in 33C sunshine for an hour or so to see…almost nothing.
Angkor Wat has three levels and I feel that the first level is by far the most interesting, namely the bas reliefs (which are equalled or bettered by Bayon). The third level in particular is a time waster, literally, as tourists have to line up in the very hot sunshine for around an hour to climb the steps up to….a couple of small statues and a bit of a view over the vegetation. Just say no.
• There is no accommodation near Angkor Park so Siem Reap town is where most visitors stay, 6km/4miles away. The most economic way to travel between the two is by pre-arranged taxi, mini tour bus or motorbike.
• Temperatures range from hot and humid to absurdly hot and humid. Christmas 2016 (the coolest season) daily temperatures ranged from 25C to 33C daily with 80% humidity. Even Cambodians were sweating!
• City sidewalks – especially Siem Reap – tend to be used for parking by cars and motorcycles with total disregard for pedestrians, so you can expect to be dodging from uneven sidewalks onto the road for a few metres, back to the sidewalk for a few metres, road again, and so on.
• The great temples of Angkor are not only disabled-unfriendly but we would also advise anyone with leg problems – dodgy knees/ankles/hips – to avoid this as a holiday destination.
The great temples are mainly in stepped pyramid levels with strangely inconvenient stair heights, but also lower levels – galleries for example – are always separated by doorways with 30-50 cm sills. You step up onto the sill, then down (not over). In Preah Khan yesterday I felt like I was in a hurdle competition, endless up/down, up down….
• Cambodia is the world’s most land mined country with millions of land mines and unexploded ordnance around the countryside. The Angkor and Phnom Penh areas have been cleared thanks to both international and domestic organizations’ de-mining efforts, but always seek a local guide going off for a walk or crossing the border and never stray off paths.
Angkor Wat view from level three. Photo by Diego Delso.
Angkor Viewing Strategy
To avoid large tour groups, start your day before dawn and head for the temples when they open (normally 5 a. m. ) with snacks, stay until 9: 00 am when many tourists go back to their hotels for breakfast.
Then have brunch while mooing herds graze the sites, then head for more temples around mid-day when coach folk are having lunch.
The smaller, less visited temple are better in the afternoon. To avoid getting ‘templed out’, do your homework, pick temples that attract you for whatever reason and plan your itinerary thoroughly. Pace yourself and take plenty of rest.
Ensure you have your Angkor Pass before setting off!
Angkor Archeological Park Map
There are two routes used by tour operators and known as the Small/Little Circuit (17 kms) and the Grand/Large Circuit(26 kms).
This starts at Angkor Wat and continues for seventeen kilometres, visiting Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, and Banteay Kdei, and some of the minor but interesting temples such as the Baphoun, The Terrace of the Leper King, The Terrace of the Elephants, the Twelve Prasats, Spean Thma and Sras Srang before returning to Angkor Wat.
An unusual bas-relief of animals attacking a column of soldiers (and slaves?) on the exterior wall of the first level of Angkor Wat. Most of the temples reliefs involve battle scenes so it’s good to see animals participating in the carnage.
Angkor Wat’s bas-reliefs total 600 m and travel counterclockwise. The highlights are the mythical Battle of Kurukshetra in the South wing, the west Gallery, the historic parade of the army of King Suryavarman II, ‘Heaven and Hell’ in the East wing of the South Gallery and the famous ‘Churning of the Ocean Milk’ in the East Gallery.
This tour starts the same way as the Small Circuit but adds Preah Khan, Preah Neak Pean along with the various monuments of Ta Som and Pre Rup.
One of Preah Khan’s four entrances.
Best times for photography
Most temples face east so the best lighting conditions are in the morning, except for Angkor Wat where the best light is in the afternoon because it faces west. Temples embedded in jungle such as Ta Prohm and Preah Khan look good when the sun is directly overhead and shining through the foliage.
Angkor’s main attractions
A Ta Prohm tree embracing temple, Angkor. Trying to get a tree/temple photo without someone/a crowd posing in pole position is impossible in Ta Prohm, but possible in Preah Khan, a little further away.
***Angkor Wat is most famous for its outstanding location and awe-inspiring architecture.
It is the world’s largest religious monument, with the world’s greatest series of ornate reliefs in astonishingly detailed sandstone.
This was originally a Hindu funerary temple in early 12thC, then converted to Buddhism.
It it essential to go in the afternoon if you aim to take good photos since the temple faces west, tho’ it’s great at sunrise, too.
***Angkor Thom complex was the Cambodian capital around the end of 12th century. It is surrounded by a stupendous wall with five entrance gates. The highlights are:
The Bayon, a Buddhist temple with 54 towers, each with four enigmatic smiling faces carved on them. It also has fine reliefs differing from those at Angkor Wat, depicting life in the city.
The Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King are also stunning.
***Ta Prohm, a Buddhist temple ruin entwined with towering trees where some of the scenes of the film Tomb Raider were shot. This place has a real ‘lost world’ feeling.
**Tonlé Sap Lake, the largest lake in Southeast Asia, with remote floating villages scattered around. A boat trip is a popular excursion from Siem Reap (12km).
*Phnom Bakheng, a 75m high hill with a ruin on top is said to be the best place for sunset but in reality it is a far from mystic, tranquil moment since it is packed with tourists as well as locals gathering for the view.
The crack of dawn over Angkor is a better bet.
A bit off-the-beaten-track
***Banteay Srei, a small pink sandstone temple, host to exquisite and well-preserved carvings based on the Hindu ‘Ramayana’.
**Kbal Spean, the pleasant site of ‘River of the Thousand Lingas’, riverbed carvings, at the foot of holy Kulen Mountain. A 10 km dirt road from Banteay Srei, or 60 km from Siem Reap. If you go thru hotels or a tour operator it’ll cost a lot so hire a taxi for a modest amount (including visiting Banteay Srei) and a local guide at the site for less than half the price!
**Phnom Kulen (Mt. Kulen), is the the most sacred place in Cambodia for Khmers, with riverbed carvings, a massive reclining Buddha at the top and a waterfall. It’s a peaceful picnic/bathing spot, popular with locals.
50km from Siem Reap. (take a taxi and include Kbal Spean, Banteay Srei)
Check the water condition towards end of dry season, there may be very little.
Massive faces in Bayon, along with sizeable crowds in one of Angkor’s most popular temples.
A superb bas-relief of a Tonle Sap lake battle between the Cham (Vietnamese) and Khmer, with dead Khmer warriors in the water. Bayon temple. Photo by Markalexander100.
One of Angkor Thom’s gates.
Terraces of Elephants and Leper King
Terrace of the Elephants and the platform of the Palace of Phimeanakas, which is sadly missing most of the original building.
Having searched the Terrace of the Leper King I found no indication of the King himself, so this dirty old man is my best bet. Maybe Cambodians are not exactly proud of this unattractive character groping his neighbour? The Terrace of the Leper King next to the Elephant Terrace, seen above.
When to visit Angkor
Best Weather: November – February.
Worst: Easter, particularly late March (hot and sticky, herds of young people on spring holiday hit Cambodia), June to August (extreme heat 35-40C with humidity, it could have heavy rain and impassable roads).
OK: the rest, particularly September – October (May-Oct is monsoon season but can be good in terms of clear air, greenery, full moats, less crowds and lower price. )
A few useful words in Cambodian/Khmer: Prasat means palace or temple. Preah means sacred. Vihear means shrine.
Bon Om Tuk festival
Full Moon day at beginning of November is time for Bon Om Tuk (the Water Festival), Cambodia’s biggest and most important festival. Locals go bananas celebrating a natural phenomenon (the reversing of the current of Tonlé Sap River), with boat races and fireworks. Nationwide but Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are the places to be.
Tourists have to buy an ‘Angkor Pass’ to visit the sites in Angkor Archaeological Park. These can be purchased at the main entrance on the road to Angkor Wat or one-day tickets can be acquired on the airport road near Angkor Wat and at Banteay Srey.
Passes are sold for one-day ($20), three-day ($40) and seven-day ($60) blocks that must be used on consecutive days.
Visiting hours generally are 5: 00AM – 6: 00PM, but Banteay Srey closes at 5: 00PM and Kbal Spean at 3: 00PM.
Always carry your ticket. It will be checked on each park entry and at major temples. There is a separate entrance fee of to visit Phnom Kulen, Koh Ker and Beng Melea.