At the top of many a Bucket List is Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument. But what is Angkor Wat and what is it not?
- In fact, Angkor Wat is not a temple at all, it’s a city containing hundreds of temples, towers, spiral structures, colonnades, and courtyards, many lavishly decorated.
- It was originally built as a Hindu Temple, not Buddhist, despite Cambodia being a Buddhist nation.
- Angkor Wat faces east, not west, as most other temples in the region, the sun rising behind it.
- And although most people have heard of Angkor Wat it’s not the only temple in the area worth seeing, only the most famous.
I recommend hiring a tour guide to learn about the history and culture. In one day my group went to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat (more on that in a moment), had breakfast, went back to Angkor Wat for a tour and saw Angkor Thom’s Bayon and Ta Prohm. You can keep going if you are up for it, but we were ‘templed-out’ at about 2pm.
Since I was with a large group, we hired a tour company for transport and a guide and each paid for a One Day Pass (you can buy more days) to enter, $37.5USD. Each person must be present to purchase their own pass, as you are photographed. Credit cards accepted.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
To go or not to go? I say definitely GO, but keep these things in mind:
- The day we went it was overcast and drizzling. So, no sunrise. But it was my first time so I wanted to go.
- It’s about a 4am departure from Siem Reap to get your tickets and head over to the temples.
- Be prepared for a crowd, and if raining, lots of umbrellas. In other words, don’t expect to get a spectacular photo. Especially without proper equipment.
- If it is overcast, rather than stand outside with all the other tourists and their umbrellas, go inside and explore; you’ll nearly have it all to yourself! Just be sure to keep an eye on the time if you are meeting up with a group.
- Buy a postcard to remember your not-so-great-photographic-expedition.
Watch my short movie explaining all this!
Angkor Thom, literally “Great City,” is yet another complex of temples, hosting the popular Prasat Bayon where you’ll see more impressive mythological, historical and everyday bas-reliefs and the gigantic “Face Towers.” Only 37 of the 49 towers remain featuring over 200 unique faces.
Thanks to the filming of Lara Croft Tomb Raider in 2001, Ta Prohm is is now on the map as one of the most visited temples in Siem Reap. It’s mysterious vine-covered temples sure do make an appealing Hollywood backdrop.
It’s also famous for a dinosaur carved into one of the temple’s stone walls. How did they know centuries ago?
BEYOND ANGKOR WAT
There are many other temples to see outside of Siem Reap if you are willing and interested. Your hotel should be able to arrange a tuk tuk or car to take you, with or without a guide. I pre-booked a tour with a local professional guide for myself and two friends for an entire day. We chose to explore temples around Koh Ker and Beng Mealea. It was wonderful to get out into the beautiful countryside for a day.
Once the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire built in the 11th Century AD there are many temples along the Ring Road of Koh Ker. So many in fact that you can’t see them all and would have a hard time remembering one from another!
The main temple at the Koh Ker complex, Prasat Prang, is most interesting. It’s seven terraced pyramid shape reminded us of Mexico’s Chichén Itzá.
It’s not a demanding climb to the top and you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views and a place to have a wee sit.
Among the many smaller temples found at Koh Ker are these lovely towers, three of which are Prasats, shrines for idols, with the two other towers being libraries. Some of the towers have been completely taken over by strangler figs, giving the entire monument the appearance of emerging from the jungle, unique to Cambodia.
Prasat Kra Chap
Thanks to the surviving inscriptions on the doorframes of the well-preserved gopuras (monumental entrance towers) we know this temple was dedicated in 928 to the Tribhuvanadeva, a linga representation of the Hindu god Shiva.
This is a spectacular temple complex, overgrown with vegetation and surrounded by a massive moat. It takes on a distinct Indiana Jones-like appearance, providing lots of opportunities for you to pretend you’re an ancient explorer yourself.
*You can see very well that time, natural forces and human contact have not been kind to many of these great and historic monuments. Thankfully efforts to preserve them have helped but take care when you are enjoying them, so that others after us may do the same.
[PRO TIP: Ask your guide to stop for some coconut sticky rice steamed in bamboo. It’s a wonderful local treat and every driver or guide seems to have a favorite stall.]