How To Visit Angkor Wat – Siem Reap
Angkor Wat is known to most visitors to Cambodia. It is an amazing example of Cambodia's rich heritage and is a must visit for everyone. What a lot of people don't realise however is that Angkor Wat is more than just the main temple. While that is incredible the park is huge and there are many more things to see.
This article will help you plan how to visit, what to see and when to go to Angkor Wat.
About Siem Reap
You expect a small sleepy town that primarily services the surrounding temples, but MAN were we mistaken! On the way into town there must be conservatively 15-20 5 star hotels. All concrete monstrosities that have maybe 10% Cambodian flavour and 90% Korean influence. The minute you step outside your hotel (or for us tiny little guest house), you are accosted with Tuk Tuk drivers, restaurant hosts, money changers and the like.
While this is most definitely Asia, and you have to expect these things, what I didn’t expect was the jump off point to Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom to be so so so overly commercialized. I can’t believe that people come to Cambodia and expect, actually no DEMAND, a 5 star level of service. I’m not sure what came first – The hotel or the Tourists!
I can fully appreciate that a lot of people don’t like to travel like we do but it seems a little strange to me to come to see 1200 year old temples in a community still so devastated by war and want to go 5 star all the way. However everyone has the right to travel in the manner they wish to. My only hope is that Siem Reap and Cambodia itself can get head of the stress to the community, environment and of course the historical sites that this level of tourism can cause.
About Angkor Wat
Regarded as the largest religious complex in the world, the Angkor Wat site is over 162 hectares in size. That is over 400 acres.
Its evolution is quite interesting. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple and dedicated to Vishnu, it evolved to be a Buddhist temple which is still is today.
The name “Angkor Wat” roughly translates to “capital temple grounds”. The main temple was built to reflect Mount Meru which is home to the devas in Hindu religious mythology. If you stand back and look at it purely from a shape perspective it does resemble a mountain for sure.
In saying that, the temples themselves are AMAZING! The similarity (while I’m sure anyone with any kind of Archaeology interest would disagree) to the Incan and Mayan cultures seemed very significant to me. Same central courtyards, same time frame of building, same quality of stone masons (actually the Incan’s had it all over everyone in that department) is eerie indeed. It's so interesting to me to see ruins of roughly the same era that are on opposite sides of the globe but have such striking similarities.
Angkor Wat is the main symbol of Cambodia and even appears on their flag. They are the only country in the world whose flag bears a building.
Make sure you read up on Angkor Wat before you visit. This will mean you visit with an idea of what the buildings were, what they were used for, who lived here and why they exist.
Visiting Angkor Wat for The Dawn
Our local tour guide Fila organised his dad to pick us up for the day in his little tuk tuk which we were so grateful for. We got up at 4am to head out to Angkor Wat and did the whole reflection pool photo with all the other early risers.
While I love photography, my mandate is always the experience, not necessarily the shot, so while all the other photographers were still waiting for the perfect shot over the reflection pool, we headed off with our miners light on our heads into the gloom inside the temple.
Going inside the temple at this point turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. For about an hour or so we were the only people inside the temple. In the dawn, as the sun rose and the colours changed, and the silence dropped away, for about 60 minutes we had it all to ourselves. It was just us and Angkor Wat. An unforgettable hour for sure.
Once you are inside the temple you can immediately imagine the life that must have gone on inside these walls. I look around the main square and you can see from the bollards along the side of the walkways that this was a covered in water. Not very deep but clearly the floor of the outside parts of the temple was underwater. I wondered if it was just monsoon protection or the water held some kind of significance. Sadly I couldn't find anyone that knew.
Visiting More Sites In Angkor Wat National Park
I think what a lot of people don't realise is that the Angkor Wat park is more than just that one temple. The ruins are enormous and you could easily spend an entire day (including the 4am start) exploring. We were very lucky to stay ahead of the crowds and had most of the ruins to ourselves.
Ta Prohm lives up to the Tomb Raider mystique with ease and is a photographic gem! The moss covered, vine strangled ruins are exactly as you imagine and its hard not to pretend, for just the smallest time, that you are Lara Croft.
Just for a minute…
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My Recommendations for Your Angkor Wat Visit
Angkor Wat is so much more than one temple. The entire park is mind blowing. The architectural styles, along with the quality of the actual buildings are really something you have to see.
If you can, spring for the Sky Venture microlight experience. We had done microlights before but to be flying over Angkor Wat in not much more than a hang glider with a motor is an experience in itself. Take a jacket that day though – its cold up there.
My Top 7 Tips for Visiting Angkor Wat
1. Get There For The Dawn
I know it means a 4am start but lets be honest, you are getting up for a pre-dawn start at Angkor Wat. It's worth it.
People are usually amazingly quiet and it really is something to see going from pitch black to seeing the sunrise over the roof of the temple. Please note that people can get very competitive over the best reflection pool spot, so take care and remember where you are. Just because someone else acts like a tool doesn't mean you have to.
2. Take Note Of The Scale
Let yourself we awed by the shear scale of it all. Stand in a corner and appreciate the size of everything around you. The details are infinate but it's the scale that is really mind blowing.
Can you imagine what it must have taken and how long it must have taken to build something like this?
3. Get Inside Early
If you are a good photographer and you are wanting the perfect shot over the reflection pool, sure stay there and snap away. HOWEVER if its the experience you are after, leave the pool, head in around the back and go into the temple when you are the only ones there.
We managed to get at least an hour inside the temple, on our own.
Angkor Wat main temple all to ourselves. How many times is that going to happen in your life. Get inside. It's worth it. Don't waste the time either, find a spot and for at least 10 minutes sit and contemplate whatever you want to but just enjoy the serenity and the location.
4. Pay Attention To The Details
Once you are inside Angkor Wat there is so much to see. Its easy to get lost in it all and dismiss the little details. Take this carving for example. I was looking at this for a few minutes before I could see the people. I thought it was just a pretty filagree carving but once I saw the people I saw EVERYTHING.
Originally a Hindu temple build to honor the god Vishnu the main temple was eventually changed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. The various influences over the temple aren't immediately obvious, however as you move through you can see instances of items that don't quite seem to belong. You will understand what I mean once you are inside.
5. The Plant Life
While the buildings are amazing the plant life and how its taken hold of some parts of the park completely is quite something to see. From the waterlilies flowering in the lakes to the strangler figs taking over Ta Phrom, the vegetation will blow your mind.
6. Take Time For The Whole Park
The Angkor Wat park isn't just for the main temple. There are many many more temples and ruins inside the park. Getting yourself a good map or driver will ensure you don't miss the main sights and if they time it correctly you can see almost all of it in a day.
Some of the lesser ruins are actually pretty educational as to what life might have been like at Angkor Wat's peak. A lot of people hired pushbikes but I do think that a tuk tuk is your best option. Negotiate a day rate and stick with the driver.
7. Brand Your Driver!
When your driver leaves you at the first temple, get out of your Tuk Tuk and tie something you will remember around the bike. Trust me when you come out of that temple at 9am and there are hundreds of Tuk Tuk's in the carpark – you will be glad to recognise yours. Make sure you ask your drivers name and record it somewhere.
It is so embarrassing to be scouting for your driver, who you only met for 20 mins, in the dark not even knowing his name. Make note of what he was wearing, or his hat or something significant so that if he is not at the Tuk Tuk, you can go looking for him with some hope of actually finding him.
I hope these tips will help you to make the most out of your day at Angkor Wat National Park. Please let me know what you loved the most and of course any of your own tips to get the most out of this beautiful UNESCO Cambodian site.
Making the most out of your day at Angkor Wat
Plan to spend the entire day in the park and decide whether you would like to get the most information you can by going with a tour guide, or if you want to find a local tuk tuk driver to hire for the day. Either way is great, however if you do decide to just hire a driver for the day make sure you get a map of the site and research where you want to go and what you want to see.
Make sure you take some snacks (for your driver as well) as you never know when you can time it right for a stop. If you have food with you, you can sit under a hundred year old tree like we did and eat some lunch.
HAVE SOME RESPECT! When we were coming out of Angkor Wat we saw so many young people in singlets and bum freezer shorts. This is a spiritual place for the Cambodians. Be Respectful. Cover shoulders and knees.