Our Experience at Angkor Wat
A lot of people do not consider Cambodia a prime vacation destination, but if you happen to be in the area you should really consider visiting Angkor Wat, the famous and mysterious crumbling temple hidden from the outside world for centuries! Of course, it hasn’t been a secret for a long time. Thousands of tourists flock to see it every year and so should you!
Angkor Wat is a huge complex of over 40 temples of all different sizes. Each temple has its own name, however, most people refer to all 40 temples under one name: Angkor Wat. The most famous, of course, is the Angkor Wat temple because it is the largest. So if you plan on visiting Angkor Wat, not only are you seeing arguably one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but you are visiting the many smaller temples surrounding it.
Guess who didn’t know any of the above information before they got to Siem Reap, the town next to the famous Angkor Wat complex? Any guess? It was us, we didn’t know!! So when we arrived in Siem Reap, after one of the most exhausting and terrifying multi-day bus rides of our lives, we were thrilled to find out that our scary bus experiences would be really worth it!
You can purchase a one-day, three-day, or seven-day pass to the temples, each is a little more expensive than the last. We figured one day would not be enough. Seven days would be a bit too long. Three days would be just right! Our three day passes cost $62 USD each, maybe one of the most expensive attractions on our trip, but we figured you’re only in the middle of Cambodia once, so either you’re doing it, or YOU’RE DOING IT!
But, before I begin on our day-by-day Angkor Wat adventure, I think it is valuable to explain our means of travel for the next 3 days. The temples are FAR from each other, so walking is not an option. The best option if you’re on a budget and want an experience you will NEVER forget: hire a tuk-tuk driver!! We stayed at a hostel that had reserved drivers they knew well, so we asked if we could hire one for the next 3 days. They were happy to help us and negotiated a good price.
Since there are so many different temples, they suggested taking specific routes each day to help us maximize our time spent driving and sightseeing. There are 2 routes that stay rather close to the main temple, and one that goes way far out there, and the farther you go the more it costs you. So the price to hire a tuk-tuk driver for these 3 days averaged out to be around $13 USD each day, not bad considering we used him for at least six hours each day!
We set out a little late, almost 10 AM. Our driver, the most adorable little Cambodian grandpa in the world, took us to buy our tickets first. The building is huge, you go in, get in the correct line, they take your picture, print your ticket, good to go! So after we bought the tickets our driver suggested we take the main route but go in the opposite direction so we wouldn’t run into ridiculous crowds. We loved the idea of skipping the masses of people all visiting the same temples in the same order at the same time, so we agreed. The first temple we went to was Banteay Kdei, then across the road to gaze over Sras Srang pool. Next was Ta Keo. This temple is filled with trees that have taken back as much as they can. It was really cool to see how a root system and even a whole tree can grow around something you think it shouldn’t be able to!
After only two temples, we were a bit tired. Cambodia is GOD AWFUL HOT. It is so so so so so so body shatteringly hot that after only a few hours we were pretty exhausted and drenched in our own sweat. Ew, but we persisted! The next temple was Zach’s favorite, the Bayon. This is the second largest after Angkor Wat, and in our humble opinion is more interesting than Angkor Wat because of its intricate carvings, and your ability to really search every corner of it. You can even explore underneath the structure which is very tomb-raider-esque. Very cool. It feels like you shouldn’t go down there because most of the people explore the upper portion, but no one and nothing is stopping you from going down, so do it!
After the Bayon, we decided not to visit the Angkor Wat completely, but instead, we gazed from the outside and took a look at the grounds surrounding it. We were simply too tired to explore the temple, so we decided not to go in. We had 2 days ahead of us to see it anyway.
We planned to meet our driver outside our hostel at 5 AM so we could see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. The sun did not fully rise until around 6:35, but by the time you get to the grounds, walk inside, and find a spot to stand it is nearly 6 AM. Thankfully the sky was clear this morning and as dusk became dawn the sky turned every color from blue, purple, red, orange, and yellow. Most people line up around the two small ponds just in front of the temple to get a good picture. However, we didn’t want to fight the crowds and try to get a good spot just to take a photo. We wanted to LIVE this moment without phones and cameras (Ok, we took a few!) and at 6:15 AM we entered the temple. We were one of the very first people to enter; it was absolutely perfect. We practically had the whole place to ourselves for the first 20 minutes! You could spend an entire day exploring Angkor Wat; the big temple, the smaller temples, the great walkway, the grounds, and you can even walk the entire perimeter of the outer wall. We wish we had spent more time doing all of those things for the rest of the day (or at least before it became overwhelmingly hot), but unfortunately, we did not.
After sunrise and exploring for about 2 hours, we set out for the larger loop. An HOUR tuk-tuk ride later, we arrived at this tiny temple made of crumbling red sandstone. It was pretty interesting, and the framed doorways made for great pictures, but it was a bit underwhelming compared to what we had just experienced.
We then went another half hour beyond it towards the mountains. When our driver stopped he motioned toward a path going into the jungle. In his rather good English, he told us the temple was about 1500 kilometers walk. Great! A nice walk would be fun, but it turned out to be more of a 40-degree CLIMB the entire way. AND what you’re working so hard to get to is less of a temple and more of a boulder adorned with Buddhist carvings. The river that flows through the area has a stone bottom, and if you look closely you’ll see the intricate carvings laid by monks centuries ago on the river bottom. It is pretty cool, but in our opinion, it isn’t worth the trip. Especially if you are an older traveler with achy knees and ankles I would steer clear of this one. My knees hurt a lot after the hike back down. It is not easy. I do not recommend it.
Once we got back to our driver, exhausted, we had another hour ride back to the main complex. He took us to East Maybon which was a great climb, and a very fun temple to visit. Then on to Pre Rup. These two were fun, and I feel like we didn’t get to explore them as much as we would have liked because we were too exhausted, and it was late enough in the day that the sun was mercilessly beating down on us. We called it quits around 2:30 PM, we had melted and desperately needed some AC!
We began with another early visit to Angkor Wat starting at 7:30 AM. This is a good time to arrive, but keep in mind that the big tour groups shuffle in around 9:30, so make sure to get there before 9 AM. If you can make it up to the very top of Angkor Wat you get a great view of the entire grounds, it is amazing! The climb is steep, and you need to be appropriately dressed (they actually check), and there can be a long wait if you get there too late, so go early! Since we spent such a long time here the day before, we moved on to the Bayon again. The Bayon was Zach’s favorite so we wanted to end our experience there.
We gave up on the temples around 11:30 AM because we were pretty templed-out. Three days is a long time to spend looking at anything so we decided to end it early. Plus, I had a fever this day so it was an easy decision to call it quits and go back to our room and sleep! (22 hours of sleep to be exact!)
Some advice I would give anyone going to the temples of Angkor Wat would be this:
- Bring LOTS of water – you will get dehydrated! This is not a joke.
- No need to visit the temples FAR away, although one was pretty cool. The most amazing structures are close by.
- Don’t give money to the local children, no matter how adorable they are, technically you’re not supposed to!
- Hire a tuk-tuk driver! If you stay at the Naga Angkor Hotel, ask for Ni Seth, you can distinguish him by his cute little hat. He was a magnificent guide, spoke pretty good English (and French apparently!), and was 100% adorable!
Hopefully, this will help you plan your trip to the beautiful and awe-inspiring Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Looking back at it, we wish we could have done it a little differently, but we feel lucky just to have been there. Thanks for reading!
-Leah & Zach