Cambodia’s Best Temples: Two days in Angkor, Wat to See?
Published 30 March 2016
Cambodia. The name alone is magical enough to send any traveller weak at the knees, hunting for extra stamp space in their passport for a new stamp. But of course any destination needs a hook, an irresistible draw that encourages you to part with your pay-cheque and jump on that long-haul flight. For Cambodia, it is undeniably the iconic Angkor Wat that draws the crowds. But do you want to hear the best part? The region is littered many more with ancient temples, each as individual and as history-packed as the last. With so much to see, where do you start?
By far the easiest way to see the temples is to hire a tuk-tuk driver from your hotel. The temples are far larger and further apart than they appear on the map and in the muggy heat of the blazing Cambodian sunshine, you won't fancy walking from one to the other. Part with US$18 and they'll cart you around the inner temples of Angkor in authentic style.
Our friendly driver greeted us with a huge smile and asked us to call him Sam, as it was easier to remember than his real name. Visiting Angkor is simple enough, the drivers will create a route around the temples for you if you don't have one in mind and are happy to change it if you have a preference. Then you'll be dropped off at each temple in turn and they'll wait patiently for you at the exit. Many then while away the time by stringing up a hammock in the back of the tuk-tuk and taking a nap. Sam always managed to spot us in the crowds as we made our way towards an indistinguishable mass of waiting tuk-tuks and would wave us over with his permanent smile. Despite our early start that morning, he even spotted us later that evening going for dinner in Siem Reap, and ran over the road to give us a high five.
Here’s how our journey went…
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat needs little introduction, but certainly the best way to get acquainted with the world's largest religious site is by visiting at dawn. We hopped in our tuk-tuk at 5am and beetled off through Siem Reap, paying US$40 for a three-day pass en route, before arriving at the west gate bridge ready to see Angkor Wat at its most spectacular time: sunrise. We hurried along the bridge with the other eager spectators and turned right immediately after we entered the gate, vying for the perfect perch on some crumbling stone steps. The next half hour was nothing short of majestic. Angkor Wat's three iconic peaks rose, silhouetted perfectly against the sun as the sky shifted through vibrant shades of yellow, to orange, to blue.
The lazy mist lingering over the grounds soon lifted and, even at 6am, we could already feel the heat as the sun split the clouds and its powerful rays shot through from the horizon. Angkor Wat stood tall, casting impressive shadows along its grounds. The heads of the ancient stone Buddhas have all been removed, and the intricate bas-relief stone carvings are in dire need of continued restoration, but Angkor still remains wholly impressive and humbling to visit.
Many tourists then head deeper into the Angkor Wat ruins and, based on its convenient location, we joined them. Still early in the morning the crowds had not yet gathered in full force so we had the space to wander, climb and explore the temple at our leisure.
This temple should be high on the itinerary of any Lara Croft buff, as fans of the Tomb Raider movies will recognise the temple as part of the film set. The jungle has reclaimed the temple as its own, with tall trees bursting through the heart of Ta Prohm and vast winding root networks pushing up through the floor and walls in a slow but triumphant battle of nature against construction. It immediately became my favourite spot and I felt as though I could spend hours exploring every crevice of the temple, clambering over each root and vine, marvelling at the sheer determination and size of the trees. But at 9.30am it was already a bit too late: soon we got caught up amidst tours and large groups brandishing selfie sticks. Try visiting just after sunrise to enjoy the peace before the crowds descend.
The ever-entrepreneurial locals have of course set up a swathe of tented restaurants and are ready and waiting with a bowl of fried noodles. Oh so conveniently, our driver led us through the confusing mass of calling restaurant owners to one in particular, where he was greeted as an old friend and received a hearty portion for his troubles. Don't be fooled by the simple exterior and think you're going to snag a bargain here, the market stalls still charge the average restaurant prices of about US$7 for a meal and soft drink.
This vast complex houses many spectacular temples within its crumbling stone walls, making Angkor Wat seem like a back garden in comparison. An impressive back garden with one of the world's oldest UNESCO World Heritage sites in, that is. With so much to explore you run the risk of missing some of the more hidden ruins buried in the now-jungle-clad grounds, so a private tour with your own tour guide is well worth it.
Although we did not opt for a tour, we ended up with our own guide. A young boy named Juin struck up conversation with us as we ambled around the many-faced temple of Bayon. Before I knew it we knew we were following this eight year old as he clambered nimbly up thin steps and round twisting corners, being taught about the images of Buddha and the third eye as we went. While a very interesting tour and certainly a memory we will forever enjoy, I wasn't at all surprised when he led us to a remote corner and asked us to donate money to his school. His well-practised puppy eyes and charming attempts to show us the hidden parts of a temple he clearly loved earned him US$5, and we left satisfied in the knowledge that we had seen carvings other tourists had not, and the vacant (if not naive) hope that we had not been scammed.
Kbal Spean Waterfalls
Some of Angkor's best-hidden gems lie further afield and are worth a day to explore in their own right. We met Sam once again and, if we hadn't gotten to know him the previous day, I would have been convinced we were being kidnapped. An hour later though, thundering along an empty, dusty road past endless fields of rice and cattle, through tiny remote villages, we finally saw another tuk-tuk carrying tourists. Our faith in our driver was restored. He led us to Kbal Spean, an archaeological site tucked away in the Kulen Hills, with Angkorean carvings etched into a stretch of the riverbed leading to a waterfall. The stroll along the river is well worth the 1,500-metre clamber uphill through jungle terrain, and you'll deserve a refreshing dip in the cool waterfall when you arrive.
To the north of the central Angkor temples, Banteay Srei is more commonly known as the Lady Temple. “But, why?” I hear you ask. Was it designed specifically for women? Were ladies the only ones allowed to visit? Experts can’t say for sure, but the most probable answer lies in the crumbling stones themselves. The carvings that line the walls and archways were far more intricate and detailed than any we had seen at previous sites, so ancient Cambodian legend suggests that this temple was actually carved by women. The beautiful temple is suited perfectly to its peaceful surroundings; with traditional farmers wading and boating through nearby rice paddy fields and quiet viewing platforms built to gaze over nature reserves.
All the temples close at 5pm, so in the evenings you can fill your time by visiting the Siem Reap night markets for colourful crafts, souvenirs and an bustling atmosphere, filled with the heady scents of local spices and a backing track of chatter and friendly bartering. Before dinner in the enticingly named Pub Street we ventured into the large tented market near the river to find ourselves stood with a butcher on the left, a mobile hairdresser on the right, and a silversmith buying his groceries directly ahead.
The Angkor temples are as majestic as travel icons get, and two days is ample time to explore the highlights – and then some. But remember to linger a little if you can. There’s more to Siem Reap than temples after all: why not hop on a Tonle Sap Boat tour to the spectacular floating village that lies on this vast lake in the heart of Cambodia? The watery settlement is home to many people who have never (and never will) set foot on land. While it might be difficult to see how poverty-stricken the villagers are, the visit provides an insight into a different side of Cambodia, one you won’t encounter in the cities.