When people think of Cambodia they’ll probably think of Angkor Wat first and foremost. There are, however, a great deal of additional awe-inspiring ruins surrounding this most famous of temples which are likewise well worth a visit. The preservation of these sites varies wildly – some are in a state of utter disrepair, others are holding up amazingly well considering their age and long abandonment.
To enter Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples you are required to buy an Angkor Temples Pass. You can purchase these in three different variations – one day for $20, three days for $40 and seven days for $60. As my stay in Cambodia was a short one (damn you, work!) and I had planned for a day around the hotel pool to recover after a frantic few days in Japan the previous week, I plumped for the one day pass.
Your tuk tuk driver will take you directly to the ticket office on route to the temples where you will have your photo taken and must wait briefly for your ticket to be printed. I arrived early in the morning in an attempt to avoid the mad rush but the queues were already long by the time I arrived. Luckily there is an efficient system in place which means your wait should be minimal even if there are a lot of other people being processed at the same time. I was in and out within ten minutes which was pretty fast considering the crowds on my arrival.
Braus, my tuk tuk driver, dropped me off at Ta Prohm first. Be sure to have your ticket ready as you enter the temple as employees will be waiting to check it. Don’t wave them away thinking they are hassling you for money or something as you will find yourself feeling highly embarrassed – I speak from experience on this point!
Ta Prohm is most famous for its appearance in the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider movies. You will likely notice it for the huge trees that have begun to grasp the complex with their massive and intricate root systems, attempting to assimilate these manmade objects into the voracious jungle. There are some fantastic photo opportunities at Ta Prohm and, as such, you should expect larger crowds and some sizeable waits if you wish to snap the perfect shot. The sight of these trees is really quite astounding; they climb high into the sky, towering over the temple ruins and lending an eerie Gigeresque otherworldly appeal to the surroundings. Obviously these trees have caused some damage to the temple structures but considerable efforts are being made to support them so that they can be admired by future generations. The etchings that cover most of the walls are unbelievably intricate and have withstood the elements rather well considering their age.
At the suggestion of my tuk tuk driver Ta Nei was my next destination. Ta Nei is a tiny, mostly ruined temple quite a ways off the beaten track. The journey there will take you through a thick jungle canopy and down some very narrow and uneven dirt tracks that will bounce you about like nobody’s business. Thanks to Braus’ expert driving skills we managed to make it to Ta Nei in one piece. The site is very small and, compared to some of the other complexes I visited, quite unremarkable. You will, owing to its location, likely be afforded the freedom of the site and a moment of peace and quiet away from the crowds. There was only one other small group present while I was there. On our way out of the jungle a giant leech managed to fall on me from the jungle canopy and I admit to screeching like a little girl as I scrambled to flick it away, much to the alarm and eventual amusement of Braus.
Ta Keo was our third stop. During my visit there was quite a bit of restoration work being undertaken which unfortunately limited the areas I could get to. Ta Keo is a pyramidal structure which affords some impressive views once you’ve battled your way to its top. The stairs have seen better days and are very steep and uneven meaning care should be taken as you climb them. I’m quite fit but I still felt the burn in my thighs as I reached the summit! The views of the encroaching jungle and distant temples from the top is worth the effort and the smell of burning incense from the uppermost chamber lends an almost spiritual feel to the moment. If care is to be taken on the way up, your concentration should be doubled on the way down as one misstep when dodging the upcoming tourists could lead to a pretty serious fall and subsequent injury.
The nearby Baphuon was our next destination. Set in the middle of a wide moat, you will enter the Angkor Thom complex via an intricately designed bridge and pass under an intimidating arch adorned with giant heads. It’s hard not to feel like you are being judged as you enter but luckily I was deemed worthy enough to pass. Be careful upon entering of tuk tuk drivers passing through from the opposite side – I almost witnessed a couple get wiped out as one inconsiderate driver flew through the gate at top speed. Just beyond the gate lies the Terrace of the Elephants, a long wall filled with elephant carvings once used by king Jayavarman VII to observe and congratulate his returning armies. Just beyond lies the Baphuon, a temple pyramid on a much grander scale than Ta Keo. Reached by traversing a long walkway, the summit is reached by climbing tall flights of narrow wooden steps placed to protect the temple beneath when the lengthy reconstruction of the site was completed in 2011. The Baphuon is popular with tourists so expect some lengthy waits when trying to use the stairs if arriving during peak periods. The views from the top are again spectacular.
I eventually made my way back down and headed towards the Bayon by foot. On my way I spotted a few monkeys by the roadside and accidentally spooked one of the babies who ran into its mother’s arms in a charmingly childlike fashion. Nearby there stands a large Buddha encircled by numerous locals who were more than happy to chat (or gesticulate at least) with any curious foreigner who passed by.
The Bayon is quite a large structure and is instantly recognisable for its numerous smiling face towers. You can spend a lot of time wandering around the Bayon and, even though there are a lot of areas that are out of bounds, you can discover hidden areas with astonishing regularity. The inner gallery is a perfect place to hole up for a brief respite from the unrelenting Cambodian sun. The upper terrace is architecturally busy with a lot of complicated towers and chambers to discover and explore and nearly every wall is covered in beautiful bas-reliefs – there is literally a wonderful photo opportunity at every turn. Of all the temples I visited on my day around Angkor, I definitely spent the most time at the Bayon. There is just so much to see and I would say any visit to the Angkor complex would be incomplete without stopping off here. When I finally could drag myself away from this wonderful site I took half an hour or so aimlessly looking for Braus. Eventually I found him snoozing on a hammock in the shade of some trees absolutely miles away from where he had indicated we meet!
By this time I had been out and about for between four and five hours and I was starting to feel the strain of so much walking and climbing in the unforgiving midday heat. I decided to cut out a few of the minor temples I had planned to visit and asked if we could head straight to the apparent jewel in the crown – Angkor Wat itself.
Set in a huge square of land engulfed on three sides by thick jungle and surrounded by a wide moat flanked by protective lion and naga statutes, Angkor Wat is the biggest of all the temples I visited and easily the busiest. Expect people to encroach upon the majority of your photos. At the entrance there are a multitude of food stalls, tuk tuk men vying for your business and persistent beggars to be navigated before you reach the temple itself.
Compared to many of the temples in the area, Angkor Wat has survived incredibly well. The mythologically rich friezes and bas-reliefs on show are remarkably well-preserved (or lovingly repaired) and extremely photogenic. Within the more central areas are mausoleum style chambers that stand on well manicured grass verges, begging to be admired. Like the previous temples I visited, the higher you climb up the structure, the more exquisite the views become. While the sights from Ta Keo and the Baphuon are something to behold, the views from Angkor Wat pip them both and are incredibly special. Looking out over these monumental, impressive structures and recalling how old and intricately designed they are really takes one’s breath away.
People wishing to proceed to the topmost tier of the central structure must be respectfully dressed, women especially from my experience. I witnessed a female being refused entry for wearing revealing attire and shorts or skirts above the knee or visible tattoos will likely see you turned away. I suggest packing garments in a bag that cover as much skin as possible if you would like to guarantee access to this area – you can always take them off again after you leave. The top tier is accessed via a large set of steep stairs once an attendant has okayed your clothing and handed you a free pass. Be aware of scams in this area. Loitering Cambodians will attempt to force incense sticks into your hands and say a prayer before revealing nearby high-denomination banknotes and demanding a cash offering from you. Angkor Wat is vast so plan to spend anywhere from one to three hours exploring everything it has to offer. Once I’d finally seen all there was to see, I headed back to Braus feeling brutally fatigued and returned to my hotel for a snooze around the pool.
Was the $20 I paid for my pass worth the expenditure? Undoubtedly so. Considering the sheer number of historical points of interest you can take in for the price I’d say it was a bargain, actually. I’d long wanted to see the temples of Angkor Wat and would have paid a far greater price for the privilege. If you’re here eagerly researching a trip to Cambodia then $20 will obviously seem like a small price to pay for access to some of the most wonderful sights available in Southeast Asia.
I must take some time here to mention the honesty and good nature of the Cambodian people despite their evident poverty. Before we set off from the hotel Braus and myself agreed a price for the day which included all the temples in my itinerary. Seeing as I cut out a few of them and decided to head home early, Braus attempted to adjust the amount due which I thought was an absolutely outstanding gesture from someone who (without meaning to sound rude or condescending) obviously needed the money more than I did. I offered him the previously agreed amount and pretty much had to force him to take it from me. At last he relented and we shook hands warmly, never to meet again. I spent two incredible days in Braus’ company and I will never forget him. I still often find myself wondering what he is doing and how he is getting on. Forging unlikely and unexpected bonds such as this is, in my opinion, one of the greatest pleasures to be taken from travelling.
I enjoyed my manic day exploring Angkor and the surrounding temples although towards the end I must admit to finding myself a little ‘templed out’. My suggestion would be to purchase the two day pass if you have the time and try and spread out your sightseeing to avoid overloading yourself. Additionally, the extreme heat if you are visiting during the summer will wear you down eventually, even if you make use of the ample cover afforded you by your tuk tuk. In hindsight returning to the hotel a little earlier to recuperate and then continuing the following day might have been beneficial.
Finally, I wouldn’t spend a great deal of time planning out which temples to visit and in what order to do them (like I did) as you would be just as well off letting your tuk tuk driver lead the way! I eventually abandoned my well-laid plans and let Braus decide where to take me next as he obviously had far more experience of getting around the Angkor complex than I did!