Although Cambodia is a part of my heritage, it is not the reason that ignited my interest of Angkor Wat. First, and foremost, I am very fond of history. Visiting historical sites around the world has always been the main reason for my travels. I love the thought of being able to walk through a time machine -step into another life, another world, another existence. So fascinating. To actually take a step that leads you back to 802 CE.
For other travelers of Cambodia, their fascination is more obvious, it the undeniably iconic Angkor Wat, built by the Khmer Empire. This ancient archaeological park is now one of the most visited UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world, attracting more than 2 million fascinated visitors each year. Angkor houses many large and smaller temples, each as unique and historically packed as the next.
With so many temples to explore, how do you go about exploring it all?
To fully understand Angkor, without feeling disconnected and lost while you’re standing there staring at ‘stone’, albeit beautifully, and intricately carved stone, understand a bit about Angkor’s background. The Kingdom, the Khmer people, their religion, and how it’s all connected.
What is Angkor, and Angkor Wat?
Built between roughly A.D. 1113 and 1150, and encompassing an area of about 400 km², Angkor Wat, is roughly translated to ‘City of Temple’. It is one of the largest religious monuments in the world, and represents the architectural pinnacle of the Khmer empire.
Its 65 meters central tower is surrounded by four smaller towers and a series of wall enclosure, recreating the image of Mount Meru -a legendary place in Hindu mythology said to be the home of the god laying just beyond the Himalayas.
Many people refer to the whole Angkor complex as ‘Angkor Wat’, but technically, that only refers to one temple. ‘Angkor’ is loosely translated to Empire, or City, and refers to the entire 400 km² complex, the site of the oldest civilization in Southeast Asia, the Khmer Empire. It is primarily temples, but the Khmer Empire used to be a city that housed more than 750,000 people.
Where would you find
the historic temple of Angkor Wat?
The city where the temple was built, Angkor, is located in modern-day Cambodia, and was once the capital of the Khmer Empire. This city contains hundreds of temples, and may had a population of over 1 million people. It was easily the largest city in the world at its peak.
The main temples are a close car ride from Siem Reap, which has its own international airport with connections from Southeast Asia’s main hubs. If you are in the Capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, the temples of Angkor are a five to six-hour trip by car.
Angkor Wat Religion
9th century – 12th century
Hinduism (Shivaism – Vishnuism)
The early Khmer kings worshipped Shiva, the god of regeneration and destruction. Each temple built was dedicated to a particular Hindu divinity. Later, in the 12th century Suryavarman II venerated the god Vishnu, a deity often depicted as a protector. To show his devotion, he installed a statue of the god in Angkor Wat’s central tower, and another devotion, a remarkable relief, southeast of the temple. It depicts a chapter in the Hindu story of creation known as the ‘churning of the sea milk’.
End of 12th century:
King Jaya-varman VII, a Buddhist of the Mahayana school ascended the throne in 1181, and made radical changes —constructing a new capital city, named Angkor Thom, a Buddhist temple currently known as Bayon, and many monasteries filled with statues of Buddha throughout the Angkor region (instead of Hindu gods). The concept of ‘God King’ was removed, replaced by the Buddhist ‘Englightened Being’, and ‘Lord Who Looks Down’.
Mahayana Buddhism, a later version of Buddha’s teachings was spread throughout Southeast Asia, and the Khmer Empire, placing a greater importance on the Bodhisattvas. Quasi-divine beings who would delay their nirvana to help others attain it. The main Bodhisattva is Avalokitesh-vara or Lokes-vara, was carved at Angkor Thom. The ‘face tower’ was constructed to show the religion’s four sublime states of mind –Compassion, Kindness, Equanimity, and Sympathetic Joy.
Middle 13th century
Brief reversal to Hinduism (Shivaism)
In 1243, when King Jaya-varman VIII ascended the throne, he proceeded to a systematic defacing of Buddhist sculptures in the temple, crudely altering them into Hindu images. The crude altering are visible at Preah Khan, and Ta Prohm.
End of 13th century
Theravada Buddhism from Sri Lanka was introduced in 1295 by King Sindra. It became more prominent in the royal court, and the local people, thus becoming the dominant religion in Cambodia today. Unlike Mahayana, the teaching of Theravada Buddhism taught people to seek self their own enlightenment, to abandon worldly desires, and to acquire merits by giving food to monks —making donations to pagodas and worshiping the Buddha. With this teaching, the attitudes of the people towards its Hindu gods and god-king changed, leading to the gradual weakening of the Khmer empire, and it’s eventual collapse in the first half of 15th century. Today, Angkor is a pilgrimage site for many Buddhist Monks. They are often seen in the Angkor complex adorning orange robes, while strolling around Angkor amid other tourists.
Neak Ta are omnipresent guardian spirits of the land and water that populates the supernatural world of the Cambodian countryside. They are not just a kind of simple spirit, but rather a phenomenon or energy force that protects a village community. In Cambodia, they are revered everywhere, along with Buddhism.
Every village, pagoda and house have their own Neak Ta residing in a beautifully decorated little shrine, where people come to make offerings and pray. Neak Ta shrines usually contains small collections of natural or man-made objects such as old stones, wooden carvings, human-like figures and other object that represent land and spirit elements. Uniquely Cambodian, the energy force or guardian spirit of Neak Ta, unites the community with its earth and water and symbolizes the link between the people and the fertility of their land and their ancestors before them. Neak Ta does not fall within the Buddhist precepts. It is believed to belong to an ‘outside realm’, but lives alongside Buddhism in Cambodia –like Buddhism, it does not tolerate unsuitable conduct within the grounds, such as offensive language or act. Neak Ta shrines can often be found in the northeast corner of the grounds of a pagoda.
Things to Consider When
Planning Your Trip to Cambodia Angkor Wat
The Best Time to Visit Angkor Wat
Between November and March, there’s low rainfall, and reliable sunshine but with those perks comes higher prices, and heavier crowds. Considered dry season, the ‘greeneries’, are not as lush, and the air can get dusty due to the dry earth. The ‘green season’ or ‘wet season’ (June-October) offers lighter crowds, lower prices and lush photogenic landscapes. Explore early to avoid afternoon showers.
Angkor Wat Sunrise or Sunset Viewing
Watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat is the most common choice, and one I highly recommend, but it does require waking up around 4:00am. If waking up early isn’t your thing, you could watch the sunset at Phnom Bakheng instead. However, the later option is very crowded. But there is some good news recently. The hill at Phnom Bakheng became so popular over the recent year that the management team at Angkor, concerned about damage to the temple there, are restricting the maximum amount of visitors to 300 at a time. It’s an improvement, but still quite a lot of people.
“The authority has also arranged places for tourists to see the sunset on the hill without going up to the temple”. There is an option for tourist to see sunset at Angkor on a hand-propelled gondola on the moat of Angkor Thom, accompanied with drinks. A great option for those wanting a calming retreat after a long day of temple trekking.
The first time I saw Angkor Wat was during the wet season in July, as the sun was rising on a warm morning. It was absolutely gorgeous, completely surreal, and a bit sad –I didn’t have a camera at the time. Although the experience is worth every effort I placed to wake up insanely early, there are some other things you need to be aware of.
There’s always a crowd in Angkor Wat, no matter the time of day.
You will feel like guided sheeps, from buying your ticket to walking into the temple. Find parking will be a hassle, even for Tuk-Tuk drivers. But as soon as you find a spot, and is able to relax, a street food vendor will inevitably come up to you and tell you to come eat breakfast at their restaurant.
Whether you choose sunrise, sunset, or you’re superman/woman wanting to do both in one day, be sure you give yourself enough time, because there will be lots of people wanting to do the exact same thing.
It’ll all be worth it!
What to Bring to Angkor Wat
Bring a hat. Always. Bring enough water (at least 1.5 liter of water per person), sunscreen, and some light snacks with you. It is insanely hot in Cambodia and if you don’t protect yourself you will burn your skin (I’ve burned my skin, and my skin isn’t fair), or pass out from dehydration. Temple exploration is extremely exhausting, exaggerated by the heat, so it’s wise to take a little break now and then. If you don’t want to carry too much food or water, among the popular temples, there are many little shops that provides food and water –they accept both USD and Riel.
Be sure to dress appropriately for the temples by covering your shoulders and knees. Cambodia is still a deeply conservative Country, and especially in Angkor, you need to dress appropriately as it is a Buddhist temple.
How to Tour Angkor Wat
There are many tours you can book ahead online if you take the time to do your research, or read a blog post on recommended tours. However, if you’re an adventurous person who likes to go by the flow of the day, you will still have the chance to book tours on the street of Siem Reap. When you first arrive in Siem Reap, you’ll be bombarded with drivers offering many different types of temple excursions. You can book a tour simply walking around Siem Reap, and accepting one of these drivers’ offer. A few word of advice if you chose this path:
Be patient. Take your time to walk around and compare prices.
Bargain, you’re in Asia. Even-though I’m Cambodian, they’ve tried to rip me off a couple of time. I had to walk away for them to shout me an offer I’ll take.
Rely on your first instinct. Use your gut to determine if the person is trustworthy.
You can also book a tour through your hotel or guest house. In which case, they will often recommend trustworthy tuk tuk drivers, along with quoting a day cost.
There are multiple ways to travel around Angkor: by tuk-tuk, hired taxi, bicycle and motorbike, many of which you can book by speaking to your guesthouse staff. The two main options that I prefer for getting around Angkor are tuk tuks and bikes.
I love biking, but don’t forget that this is a HUGE complex, and you will be walking around a lot inside each temples you choose to visit. If you have a whole week excursion, consider biking, but for a 3 day pass or more, I highly recommend a tuk tuk because of how much energy you’ll be exerting just walking around the temples. If you’re staying at a hotel, they will offer you tours which will cost you a good amount of money, so if you’re like me, and want to spend the money on the local economy, and save at the same time, step out of the hotel, and walk the street.
Most tuk-tuk will accept $15-20 per day for your Angkor excursion, and you decide when and where you want to go, for the whole day. I always find one tuk-tuk driver that I trust, and build a relationship with him for the whole week that I’m there. He’ll be the only one I hire. I find that this way, they always give great recommendations (mine lowered his daily fee as a bonus). I remember asking my tuk-tuk driver what he recommends, and he said, “Wherever the crowd’s not going.” I agree, whatever temples are popular during that time of the day, just go to the least popular one.
If you choose to bike, there are plenty of options for bike rentals in Siem Reap. I recommend The White Bicycles, a non-profit that helps fund clean water, and education. And at $2/day, it’s a steal. If you’re planning to bike, plan your route in advance and be sure to bring a really good map. Its fun to get lost, but not in a complex this large, on a hot and sunny day!
Romantic Couple Options: There’s an option to get an aerial view of Angkor Wat via helicopter or static hot air balloon. The helicopter starts at around $90 USD for an 8 minute flight. I’ve been to Cambodia many time, but never with my boyfriend. When we do have the opportunity to go together, I’m taking this option during the sunset, after a hard day of exploration.
Tip: Save money, don’t book a tour. Avoid the crowds.
With more than a million tourists visiting Angkor Wat each year, it is inevitably crowded, no matter which tour you take. And large or popular tour groups tend to follow similar timetables. In my experience, it is better to avoid tours if you want to avoid crowds. Book a tuk tuk driver with your guest house, or someone off the street, and set your alarm to wake you before dawn. The Angkor complex is so much more serene when there are fewer visitors and temperature and humidity are at their lowest. Arrive at the temples when doors opens at 5:00am.
After sunrise, most tourists and tour groups head back to their hotels for breakfast (I know, it doesn’t make sense). Don’t follow the crowd, instead, pack up some snacks and water so you can stay out until 9:00 am, when the temples are remarkably peaceful. After a fun, and secluded exploration, return to your hotel for a late breakfast, before heading back to the most popular temples at noon. Angkor Wat, or Angkor Thom would be a good option as most tourists are having lunch during that time. Afternoons are best spent at the smaller temples. At dusk, head to the East Mebon or Pre Rup, to witness the brown stonework turn fiery-red at sunset. Or like I’ve mentioned above, do the opposite of the crowds. Your tuk tuk driver would know where the crowds will be at, at whatever time of the day.
Get a private guide instead
If you don’t know your Khmer Empire history, a well educated guide could fully explain many things to you. The differences between each temples, their history and significance. Full details about the Khmer civilization, from its ambitious beginning, its influence in many parts of Southeast Asia, to its inevitable demise. As well as current Cambodian culture, and religion, and how everything is connected. I know while travelling, we’re all on a budget, but it’s well worth it to get a guide. You need to bring context into what you’re seeing, feeling, and experiencing, or throughout the whole trip, you will feel disconnected.
Be Get creative with photos
The first time I went to Angkor Wat, many years ago before Angelina Jolie made Ta Prohm popular, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the crowds. There weren’t any. The second time, the whole Angkor Archeological Park was crawling with people, pushing their way through to get the best selfie, or the best shot. Needless to say, I moved through the main temples quickly because a) I had already seen them b) I was playing the shoving game (so annoying, I almost started playing the biting game) and c) It’s frustrating trying to get photos of the temple, only to have a crowd of people in said photo.
So my advice is, get creative. Try different angles. If you see the crowd all in one location, go the opposite direction and play with different angles. Mess with editing tools. For example, turn lacklustre photos into black and white classic pieces, and most of all, try to be patient.
Buying your tickets for Angkor Wat
Ticket office are open from 5:00am to 5:30pm, but any tickets sold after 5:00pm are for the following day. Rather than making the ticket office as the first stop at 5:00am, I recommend you make a separate trip out to the office the evening before your Angkor complex excursions as it gets busy there.
No matter when you head to the ticket office, be sure you bring your passport and cash. Recently, ticket prices have doubled in price as of February of this year, from $22 to $37 for a single day pass. Three-day tickets rose from $40 to $62, and week-long tickets rose from $60 to $72. Price quoted are in US dollars. Sharing a pass or not purchasing a pass is not an option. Your picture will be printed on your ticket, and there are multiple ticket checkpoints.
Maps of Angkor Wat