Angkor Wat – the beautiful, towering Khmer temple just outside Siem Reap – is synonymous with Cambodia, even being featured on its national flag and currency, but there is much more to Angkor Historical Park than this famous site. And this is one of the challenges of visiting Angkor – how much to see, and how on earth to do it? We visited over 3 days (1-day, 3-day and 7-day passes are available), but for any visitor looking to maximise temple time and value for money, a great one-day Angkor itinerary covering the very best of the archaeological park is possible. The following is a suggested daytrip that will take you through a range of different temple styles and sites, retaining all the ‘must-see’ temples along with a few others, and building up to the big guns at the end of the day.
Controversially, I’m going to say head for Ta Prohm early in the morning and ignore the fact that most punters plump for Angkor Wat first thing. (Of course, you could always head here straight after watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat
with thousands of other tourists all waving selfie sticks in the air, but just remember you don’t *have* to do Angkor at the crack of dawn).
We visited Ta Prohm early in the morning, at around 7.30am, and thanks to our tuk tuk driver’s knowledge of a ‘special route’ we even managed to sneak in a few golden minutes of absolute silence in this temple before the first visitors arrived via the main entrance. It was utterly surreal, and very beautiful: the light is magnificent at this time, with all those crumbling ruins and thick arterial tree roots bathed in a peachy glow.
Ta Prohm is most famous for its role in Tomb Raider, but if (like me) this means very little to you, the temple and jungle here still hold a bewitching power. Even though both the built structures and jungle are now quite carefully managed, it remains one of the best sites for giving you a sense of how these overgrown ruins must have appeared when rediscovered.
The 12th-century site is that of a typical ‘flat’ Khmer temple style, with central structures bounded by galleried walls that create a perimeter. At one time, a decent-sized town would have surrounded the temple, but now this is largely lost to the jungle. The size of the trees here – and the ease with which their tendrils have entangled themselves in and around the temple structures – is staggering, and makes for some fantastic photos.
From Ta Prohm I would head to Eastern Mebon – a temple-mountain with a very different architectural style. Rising out of a clearing, this 10th-century temple is grand and imposing, and is one of the temple-mountain structures that made most of an impression on me.
It’s worth visiting this site earlier on in the day if possible, as very little shade is available – but crucially there is a gaggle of small shops and traders opposite the site if refreshments are needed.
Walking up the numerous platforms and steep stone steps eventually affords a great view out over the jungle canopy, and a wander around the edges of the structure will bring you to the two-meter high carved stone elephants on each corner of the building. The fact that a lot of this temple is still fairly intact also makes for some great photo opportunities,
Preah Khan was the first temple that we visited, and I can still remember our initial glimpse of it. After following our tuk tuk driver through the undergrowth, via another one of his ‘secret routes’, we came out of thick jungle to find one of the old temple entrances, pictured below.
The temple was sat in silence except for the hot hum of the jungle and occasional bird call, and the effect was magnetic. The headless statues and dark interiors only added to the mesmerising atmosphere, and for a second we could imagine what it must have been like for the first explorers who rediscovered the temples after they’d fallen into disrepair.
Another 12th-century temple similar to Ta Prohm in structure, Preah Khan has more of its interiors intact, and visitors can – to a certain extent – roam around its corridors and rooms. Be mindful that there are often official-looking guards here who will willingly talk to you about the ruins, show you certain sites and take your picture – all for a fee of course. If you’d prefer not to, just politely decline their services.
Preah Khan also exhibits certain architectural features that may look quite familiar to European visitors, but apparently the similarity of these columns with Greek and Roman constructs are purely by chance.
Angkor Thom (“Great City”) is probably next after Angkor Wat on everyone’s hit list, and it is a stunning site to visit. It incorporates a few different temples and structures of varying sizes, including the Baphuon (pictured below) and the Bayon. Practically speaking, it’s also a good site to visit after Preah Khan, as it’s very nearby and – crucially – has plenty of food and drink options, with shade.
Baphuon is a three-tiered temple in the ‘mountain style’, and it is a serious walk up to the top. Remember to take it slow, and drink plenty of water as you go. As the picture below demonstrates, you get a great view from above once you make it.
The other main attraction at Angkor Thom is Bayon, with its famous, impassive faces. These seem to be watching you at every turn, and the overall effect is quite astonishing. The temple also features notable bas-reliefs featuring carvings of mythological and historical events – as well as every day Khmer life.
The impressive central tower rises 43 meters above the ground, and looks at once both intricate and haphazard. Bayon is a great site to just wonder round and take your time – taking in the incredible carvings and construction.
Finally – the main event! I would highly recommend having Angkor Wat at the end of an itinerary rather than the beginning; the anticipation of building up to it will keep you going through temple overload, and the sheer size and scale of it will make any further temples that you see feel rather puny.
Angkor Wat is usually approached via the long causeway, and the first glimpse of those iconic towers is surreal. As with some of the other temples, there is a huge amount of walking and climbing of steps involved here as well as little shade, so come armed with plenty of water and either a sunhat or umbrella.
What I hadn’t realised was that it’s possible to climb right up inside the temple, and that the structure itself is comprised of several levels of galleries. The extent to which much of the structure is still sturdy and intact is stunning, and it is well worth the hike up to the higher levels. When I see pictures of Angkor Wat now, I still can’t quite believe that I was there at one point, right up at the top looking out of those towers.
To get that classic shot of the five towers you’ll need to head off the main causeway path either to the left or right. There may be little to no water present depending on the time of year you visit, so don’t be surprised if there isn’t a vast lake there to provide you with a picturesque reflection. The shot below required some clever positioning and cropping! Above all, try to make sure you experience the temples, as well as getting those great snaps to plaster all over Facebook or Instagram. Stop and really look at the carvings, the statues and the architecture. Stand still in the quieter temples, and listen to the jungle, and the birds. It is very easy to get ‘templed-out’, so every now and again head off the beaten path, find the corners without any other tourists, and just remember where you are. And enjoy.