I’m not usually one to relay on first impressions, heck, apparently I give horrible first impressions. But after years of traveling I have noticed that first impressions of countries can be a powerful thing. From the moment I step off a plane and into an airport, or whatever form of transportation I was using, I get a sense of that country and can already start to decide if this is going to become a favorite destination. Most of the time I end up really liking a place, I consider other locations in country I would like to someday visit and then have a sentimental goodbye once its time to leave. Rarely I decide once is probably enough for a country and I make peace that I may never be back again. But the most scarce and precious, like gold dust, is when I enter a country and it makes me believe in love at first sight. Maybe it’s them smells or the vibes or whatnot, but I instantly become enamored and enthralled with a place and it feels like a home I have been searching for. I dream of when I get to share this magical place with family and friends and will forever sing it’s praises to the world. I had only had this feeling twice before, my two favorite countries.
And then I touched down in Cambodia. Lucky number three.
Cambodia had been high on my bucket list for a long time. I don’t remember exactly when or why but for years I had been dying to visit. Cambodia was the entire backbone of this holiday, I made all my plans around it and I only wish I had made more time for it – but I have zero doubts I’ll be back.
Upon arrival in Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor Wat, I quickly went through customs. And by quickly, I mean I was the first thanks to getting an “Evisa” in advanced. Most countries can get a visa on arrival. You fill in a form, pay a fee, wait your turn, and then receive a sticker that takes up a page in your passport. With the Evisa everything is done in advanced and you just hand it over, get a stamp in your passport and you’re off.
I was staying at The Siem Reap Hostel, which I cannot recommend highly enough. I may write a post simply telling you how amazing that place is, no doubt my best hostel experience ever. I had arranged to have airport pick up (about $3, I believe) and my driver was waiting outside for me. His name was Mr. Moy and was the perfect example of the friendliness of the Cambodian people. The Siem Reap Hostel employs their own tuk tuk drivers which means they make a good wage, have fixed rates, are always available outside the hostel to take you places, and are totally reliable. Mr. Moy ended up being my driver for my entire Angkor Wat experience of 2.5 days. Just the drive from the airport to the hostel was enough for me to feel an immediate kinship to Siem Reap. As much as I love Indonesia, it isn’t really what I expected, and I realized that Siem Reap was more of what I had in my mind when I moved there. I especially loved the separate roads they had for cars vs motorbikes and tuk tuks, I wish Surabaya had that!
My flight arrived at about 3:00pm and he said he would be back to pick me up at 4:30 to take me to watch the sunset at Angkor. Once we made it to the hostel I changed and sat on my bed. After a few minutes another gal, named Ciara, arrived and we started chatting. She was also a solo traveller for this leg of her trip and hadn’t made any prior plans. We hit it off so well that she decided to join me for sunset that evening and we ended up spending the rest of our time in Siem Reap together. How’s that for an instant hostel friendship?
You can buy a variety of Angkor Wat tickets:
One Day: $20USD
Three Days: $40USD
Seven Days: $60USD
If you buy your ticket after 5pm then you can still enter the complex that evening at watch the sunset without using up one of your days. I feel that one day wouldn’t be nearly enough, but if it’s all you’ve got then I guess it would have to do. But really, if you come all the way to Siem Reap, MAKE TIME! I ended up with the three day pass but only did two full days plus the sunset the first day. I saw a lot and was really tired by the end, but there is still so much more to see. The three days don’t have to be used consecutively, as long as you use it within a week of the first usage, so you can spread them out. If you can manage the 7 day, I would say go for it! You can take it slow and go see the further out temples as well, and you don’t have to use all seven days, of course. Also, you can visit 7 days or times in a one month period, so if you’re traveling slowly, this is a great option.
Mr. Moy was a great driver and he got us to the ticket building and to the temples before the mass crowds arrived on all our days. I was there in June which is the beginning of the wet season and so there were much fewer crowds, but there’s going to be people no matter what.
As we drove into the complex area we were immediately greeted by an enormous temple. Now, I’ve lived in Asia for years and have seen my fair share of temples. Honestly, I was kind of thinking that the Angkor Wat temples couldn’t be that much better then what I had seen in the past but thankfully I couldn’t have been more wrong. The air literally escaped my lungs and my stomach dropped at the sighting of the first temple. There is nothing like this place, I promise. I haven’t seen the pyramids of Eygpt but I imagine it has a similar effect.
We drove on and made our way to Phnom Bakheng, which is one of the two most popular locations to watch the sunset, the other being actual Angkor Wat*.
*Incase you’re confused, as I was, Angkor Wat is the name of one temple in the much larger city of Angkor that stretches for miles and miles and is composed of hundreds of temples. Most people call the entire area Angkor Wat only because it’s less confusing.
Once we arrived at Phnom Bakheng we took a short stroll up a hill and was met by a line of people. At first we had no idea what this line was for but soon discovered it was for the sunset viewing area, on top of the temple. They only let 300 people up at a time and we had to wait for others to exit before making our way up. We waited anxiously for a bit, hoping we wouldn’t miss the sunset, but were finally admitted. There was a crowd, but it wasn’t to bad, and we settled down to watch the sky change colors. It was lovely, of course, and really set the mood for the rest of our time.
We got up at 4:30 the next morning to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Mr. Moy again had us leave just a bit earlier to ensure we got a good spot. I would highly, highly recommend going for sunrise. Screw sleep, this is important! Angkor has a pond in front of it (although I think it may dry up at some points during the dry season) and the magic is watching the temple and sunlight’s reflections. You can stand either on the left or right side. I had read that one side is usually much less crowded even though they are only meters apart. It is true! The right side is much less crowded and yet there is really no discernible difference. Stand on the right. We stood around, admired the colors, took some photos and then headed inside.
Well, it’s easy to see why there is so much hype surrounding the literal Angkor Wat temple. It it massive, very well preserved, and truly makes you in awe of how people a thousand years ago were even able to construct it. A recurring theme throughout your day at the complex will be the breathtakingly detailed carvings at every turn. The temple is pretty much free to explore wherever you like and if you don’t feel like Indiana Jones for at least part of your day then you’re clearly doing something wrong. In the center of the temple is a tower called Bakan. They let a limited number of people up at a time and so you may have to wait in a line for a bit but it is very worth the wait. The tower itself is impressive but it also offers a stunning view of the surrounding areas and you can more easily notice the head to toe detail of the area from a bird’s eye view.
Angkor Thom – Bayon
The second most famous area of the complex is the “temple city” of Angkor Thom. We took our tuk tuk there (which offers a refreshing breeze from the growing heat of the day) and upon entering from the South Gate you go across a bridge of sculptures holding the ancient beast called the Naga. The sculptures’ faces were my favorite part all eternally holding a facial expression filled with disdain for either the Naga or the tourists gawking at them. Maybe both.
The main attraction in Angkor Wat is the temple, Bayon, also known as “the one with all the faces.” I think this one was my personal favorite. We opted to get a guide here. For pretty much every temple there will be guides (some official, some not) outside the temple entrance offering their services. They all seemed to speak pretty good English, although the accents are quite strong in Cambodia. Usually the tours are around an hour and you’ll pay anywhere from $10-15USD. I can pretty much guarantee you can get it for $10, just act slightly interested, but not totally convinced. I’m really glad we got a guide for this temple, he explained a lot about the history which I will share in a moment, and I would recommend considering a guide for a few of the larger temples.
Our guide told us we would start in the library, sounded good to me, but he then led us to the most terrifying staircase in human existence. Well, it’s gotta be in the top ten, at least. If you have a weird fear of staircases, Angkor Wat may not be the place for you. Ciara and I crawled up slowly as our guide bounded up in flip flops. From the top we had a great vantage point of the entire temple, so it was worth it in the end.
Bayon has almost 200 faces carved into the almost 40 remaining towers and is totally unique in the complex. All the temples in the area were originally Buddhist but then were taken over by Hindu’s and either destroyed or modified. Throughout most of the temples you can either see where carvings or statues of Buddha were demolished or changed into Shiva. The faces were kept the same because apparently the Hindus decided Buddha and Shiva have very similar faces. You can see evidence of the changes, however, in the photo below. The original, and more faded, carving of Buddha had his legs flat and arms down whereas when it was changed into a Hindu temple the legs were carved up and hands up.
We could walk to the next temple, which involved a jaunt over the elephant walk bridge, a bridge with intricate carvings of elephants on parade. Once we arrived at Baphuon we were greeted by more staircases and a view to make your jaw drop. The area is so heavily forested that no matter how close you are to another temple, you won’t be able to see it. It makes for a very secluded and exciting atmosphere. Remember the bit about Indiana Jones?
This temple was unique because the entire back of it is laid out like a reclining Buddha. See it?
On the walk to Thommanon we followed a trail which lead us into the forests and to a few smaller and in much more disrepair. We never figured out the names to the smaller temples, but the free range exploration you have allowed us to taken them in at our viewing pleasure.
Thommanon had far fewer crowds, and a more intimate feel. There is constant reconstruction and preservation on the temples, although it doesn’t take away from the experience in the least. It’s quite amazing to see how accurately the replacement stones are, as seen below. On our last day in Siem Reap, Ciara and I actually went to one of the workshops where the Cambodian artists reconstruct the carvings and it is remarkable. More on that in a later post/video.
Thommanon was also the only temple where I was greeted by all eight legs of this enormous creature.
Ta Keo was very tall and had about three scary staircases to traverse. Really, there is no shame in the “climb up on all fours” technique. Once we were almost at the top the was a tower with a staircase on all four sides. Unbeknownst to us, we actually chose the most eroded and difficult path according to a guard later on. But, we survived and I think deserve a badge or something. Safety procedures aren’t a big thing in this part of the world, everything you do is at your own risk. So, Angkor Wat is also not a great place for the irresponsible or stupid.
Ah, Ta Proum. Besides Angkor Wat, this is the most famous of the temples due in no small part to a little film called “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” It’s a bit sad that a mediocre film is what made this place famous, but it is what it is. This temple is especially magical, with the enormous trees growing within the walls of the temple. Ta Prohm is also huge, so huge in fact that despite the crowds, Ciara and I actually got lost in this one. We had been instructed to make our way straight through but somehow we got a turned around and lost our way. It can happen.
This was also the tempe where we became the attraction to a group of Chinese tourists. One Chinese woman asked for a photo, for which we obliged, and then suddenly the rest of their tour group was forming a que. I’m just surprised they could tell we were even human after hours and hours of sweating.
It was a recurring theme of our day that we underestimated how big each temple was going to be. They are deceptively large. Banteay Kdei was the worst offender. This temple was one of the more dilapidated and offered a beautiful view over a pond at the end, complete with cows.
Our final temple of the day was actually small and had little more than one building left standing. This was the oldest of all the temples we saw on that day and differed in look and color. The stone was a more orange hue than grey and inside the walls were some of the most intrigue and exquisite carvings we had seen yet.
*Disclaimer – I’m only writing what I remember and so there very well be some mistakes either in names of places or in history. I did my best with the notes I had and google, but if you see any incorrect information please feel free to correct me in the comments and I shall make the changes! Thanks, y’all!