Angkor Wat was without a doubt, the highlight of our trip to Asia. We went there to view the incredible ruins of the Angkor Wat complex and found that there is so much more to this region of Cambodia than the remains of the ancient Khmer Empire. The hospitality and warmth of the Cambodian people is what sets this place apart. From the moment we arrived and were greeted by our hotel’s staff at the airport we knew we were in for something special.
The Temple of Angkor Wat
We got up bright and early on our first day to witness the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Left the hotel at 5:00 AM sharp while it was still dark outside. Took a quick stop to purchase our tickets to the site and finally arrived at the side of the outer most moat roughly 20 minutes later. We were not expecting to see so many people there already! Literally hundreds of tourists and photographers had already set themselves in front of the small moat around the temple in order to grab a great spot to catch the sunrise. We were still able to grab a great place though and take it all in. This is definitely a once in a lifetime experience.
The temple itself is astonishing and quite large. The sheer mass of the multi-level temple is quite a site. At the same time, the fine detail of the various sculptures within the temple are very inspiring. Even though there are hundreds of people around, we felt a sense of peace and mysticism that is indescribable. Throughout the temple, you will see Buddhist monks in prayer. We found Buddhism to be a very inclusive religion and thus you can easily take part in their worships. By the way, taking pictures of the monks is fine as long as you ask for their permission. You are asked though not to touch the monks.
Keep in mind that this is an active place of worship. You should plan ahead and dress accordingly for the visit. Basic rule is to cover your shoulders and legs (preferably below the knee). There are certain areas within the temple where the guards will not let you in if they deem that you are not dressed accordingly. We found this to be true in the main temple of Angkor Wat. Was not really an issue in the rest of the temples though.
This is probably one of the temples you will spend the greatest amount of time in. We spent a bit over 2 hours here alone. But Angkor Wat is only one of literally dozens of temples scattered around the area. After a quick breakfast in the nearby restaurants, we were off to explore the many other temples in the area. Before the trip, I used Google Maps to map out which other temples were must do’s. For some reason, the distances between one temple and the other seem a lot shorter on the web than in real life!
We had a driver take us around the temples while we were there as part of the hotel package we reserved. We highly recommend you do get a driver. Not only is it the fastest way to get from one area to another, but also a good way of learning a bit about the different places you are visiting. Our driver was great! The cool towels and ice cold water he kept in the truck were a welcoming site every time we returned to the car after a long walk within the complex. If you do not have a driver, it is fairly easy to grab a tuk tuk between one temple and another although you may be challenged to find one in the more remote ones. The cost of taking a tuk tuk is actually very economical!
Lara Croft moment…
Our next stop was the temple of Ta Prohm. This temple is known for the huge trees that grow right out of the ruins. It’s a spectacular site. This temple was also the setting for the original Tomb Raider. We had an improv guide (I believe he was actually a guard at the complex) that was great. He pointed out the spots within the temple that were perfect for a snapshot or two. This temple is filled with small niches with Buddhist and Hindu statutes and relics. Keep an eye for the small face peeking out from one of the overgrown trees in the area. Quite a site. This is a smaller temple and you should be able to go through it in about an hour or so, but don’t rush it!
The temple of Bayon and its smiling faces
This is probably one of the most elaborate temples within the Angkor Wat complex. The multilevel temple is crowned with multiple towers containing the smiling faces of Lokesvara. The layout of the towers and accompanying faces have this peaceful look to them that will inspire you profoundly. After viewing this specific temple my wife and I then road on the back of an elephant that took us on a quick tour around the temple. Actually quite fun! It also allowed us to gain some very interesting vantage points to see the temple in all its splendor. No matter from which direction you view it, the temple is astonishing.
Right next to the temple, on its northern side is the Terrace of the Elephants. This is basically a very long wall belonging to the Angkor Thom complex that has some very interesting bass reliefs depicting a parade of elephants, lions and Garuda statutes guarding the entrance to the city.
Shop, eat, drink and see…
There are plenty of other temples in the complex and you will definitely need more than a day to take it all in. We did two full days (three nights) and probably would of have not minded staying one more. Temples such as the East Baray and Pre Rup are definitely worth a visit. And there is plenty more to Angkor Wat than just the temples. In the city there are various stores selling arts and crafts made by the locals. We specially liked Les Artisans d’Angkor which not only has an ample and beautiful selection, but also teaches local artisans the art of the trade to improve their living standards.
The food in Cambodia is also incredible. Very similar to Thai, but with an interesting twist. Probably a little bit less spicy. One of the best dinners we had was actually in our hotel, the Borei Angkor resort, while viewing a performance of a traditional Cambodian dance. Not only was the food delicious but the event and surrounding atmosphere made it a very special night. You should also plan on visiting Pub Street at night. This area is a very lively part of Siem Reap filled with food stalls, restaurants, night markets and as its name would suggest… bars. Probably not your best bet in terms of food, but you can’t beat the $0.50 beer on tap! If you dare, try the scorpions on a stick or even worse the infamous durian fruit.
Getting there and some other useful tips:
Cambodia, or more specifically Angkor Wat, will most likely be a stop-over in a greater Asian trip. Krong Siem Reap (REP) will be a quick 1 – 2 hour flight from most of the major destinations in Southeast Asia such as Thailand, Vietnam and Laos or even Malaysia and Singapore. There are many low cost airlines that serve the Siem Reap airport. You can actually find many deals that will get you there for under USD$100.00 on a single trip basis.
Cambodia requieres most of its visitors to apply for a visitors or tourist visa. If you are arriving by air, you basically have two options: apply for a visa upon arrival at the Siem Reap airport or plan ahead and obtain an e-visa prior to your arrival. We opted for the second option and were very glad we did so once there. The line for the visa upon arrival basically was conformed of practically everyone on the plane (who was not either Cambodian or a resident from some Southeast Asia countries). Ours in turn had none, zilch, nada… Probably saved at least 30 minutes in the entry process. The procedure for obtaining an E-visa is pretty straight forward and as its name implies, can be done in a matter of minutes through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation’s webpage. By the way, there is also an app for that…
So should you buy Cambodian Riels to pay for your purchases and entries to the various sites while in Siem Reap? If you are traveling from the US or have US currency on you, the simple answer is no. The US dollar is widely accepted practically everywhere in the country. Most of the shops and restaurants will even have their prices in USD rather than in the local currency. I would advise that you should make sure your dollars are in good shape. For some reason or another, Cambodians are very picky on which dollars they will take. Any dollar with a slight imperfection such as a small rip or stain will be rejected. So try to get access to brand new crisp bills at your local bank or money exchange store prior to arriving. When paying in USD you may or may not receive change back in USD. Often times you may get Riels, which of course you can use anywhere. Cambodians do not pay as much attention to the condition of the Riels as they do on the US dollar.