The temples of Angkor are undoubtedly Cambodia’s number one tourist attraction. Angkor Wat is the most famous and best preserved of more than 100 temples that remain in the vicinity of Siem Reap. Most were built between the 9th and 13th centuries in honour of a succession of Khmer kings.
There are various itineraries you can decide on but the following is ours which resulted from our own research plus the opinion of our driver.
Day 1: Angkor Thom (consisting of Bayon, Baphuon, Royal Enclosure & the Terrace of the Elephants)
After our first morning at Angkor Wat we met our driver at 10am and headed the 1km north to Angkor Thom. The approach is particularly impressive as you cross a bridge at the south gate with statues of gods to your left and demons to your right. Watch out for the elephants as you go through the gate. Angkor Thom consists of various temples within what was a walled city.
The first, a most impressive, is Bayon with its selection of enormous heads staring down at visitors. After a visit to its central area we wandered all around its outside looking at the Bas-Reliefs which tell the story of life at Bayon over the centuries. From a photographers point of view it’s far better to visit Bayon in the early morning or late afternoon to fully appreciate the beauty of the faces in the rock.
On the northern side of Bayon walk through the woods which brings you to Baphuon about 200m away. This temple was undergoing reconstruction when civil war broke out and all plans were destroyed. The architects were left with the impossible task of trying to restore it to its former glory. Little of the main area is open to the public as restoration attempts continue.
We continued north to the Royal Enclosure & Phimeanakas then went east to the Terrace of the Elephants (next to Terrace of the Lepers) which once served as a viewing gallery from where the King watched processions go by. There are more temples to see in Angkor Thom but we stopped after visiting these main areas. It was now 2pm and we’d been sightseeing for six hours already. The call of the hotel swimming pool and fresh pineapples (2 for $1) was stronger than the desire to see any more in what was now intense afternoon heat.
Day 2: Ta Prohm, Ta Keo, Banteay Kdei, Sra Srang, Pre Rup, Eastern Mebon, Ta Som, Preah Neak Pean & Preah Khan
Having seen the sunrise over Angkor Wat we met our driver in the usual place at 8am and headed east to Ta Prohm, a stunning place to visit thanks to the multitude of trees that have grown within its ruins. Their roots have forced many parts of the temples to collapse as nature once again demonstrates its power over the work of man. It was here that part of the film Tomb Raider was filmed.
As you approach Ta Prohm and at several other temples you might see groups of land mine victims who play music in return for donations, an activity which is encouraged to try and reduce the amount of begging going on around the Siem Reap area.
To get to Ta Prohm the driver followed the same route as yesterday heading past Bayon then east through the Victory Gate (opposite the Terrace of the Elephants) with a stop at the unfinished Ta Keo on the way.
From Ta Prohm we continued east with stops at Banteay Kdei and Sra Srang on the way. Many young children are around trying to sell the usual tourist stuff. A typical interaction went something like this:
Child: “You want postcard?”
Us: “No thanks”
Child: “You want t-shirt (book, scarf, etc…. you get the idea)?”
Us: “No Thanks”
Child: “Where you from?”
Child: “Capital Edinburgh”
I tried various country of residency answers and they always knew the capital. Kirsty gave in eventually and bought two scarves (for $1 like everything else!).
Next stop was Pre Rup with its great views over the surrounding countryside. Eastern Mebon was similar to Pre Rup but by now we were pretty much ‘all templed out’. Ta Som had an amazing tree in its centre and a little girl who couldn’t have been more than two years old selling postcards whilst another recited the numbers one to ten in most European languages.
Our final stop today was at Preah Neak Pean which was quite distinct as it’s a pond with four statues around it with water spouts coming from it. The range of styles at each temple stops the visits being boring but that was enough for one day.
Logically we should have stopped at Preah Khan next but decided to leave that for another day which was a good move as it’s well worth a visit when you’re fresh. It consists of a seemingly endless corridor which goes on all the way to a courtyard where the trademark tree is growing where you’d least expect it and there are mounds of fallen stones throughout the complex. You could easily miss out a couple of the smaller ones mentioned above and visit Preah Khan instead or extend your sightseeing a little longer for this day.
Day 3: Banteay Srei & Kbal Spean
Today we arranged for our driver to collect us at 9am and take us to two locations outside Siem Reap. It cost $40 for the day. The first part of the drive was stunning as we travelled on paved roads through small villages and beautiful padi fields as far as the Hindu temple of Banteay Srei which was already packed with tour groups. This 32km drive took us an hour. Some tuk-tuks were making the same journey but with all the potholes it was a far nicer option by car.
To avoid the tour groups we continued on to Kbal Spean where a 40 minute walk from the car park takes you to a bridge over the riverbed which has perfectly maintained Hindu carvings at water level. There’s also a fish carved underwater and a crocodile in a rock overlooking the river. If you give one of the local lads up there a few riel he’ll point out these hidden treasures. The walk isn’t too difficult though the humidity can prove quite trying.
The road from Banteay Srei to Kbal Spean is horrendous. It’s only 18km away but with potholes all the way it took us 45 minutes and that was on a dry day. It would be impossible to get through this stretch during the wet season. A few tuk-tuks had somehow got through but this is definitely not recommended (some Korean tourists had paid $60 for the pleasure!). We also saw a tourist fall from his motorbike taxi on this stretch of road.
On the return journey back to Banteay Srei we proceeded very slowly and found that the morning tour groups had already departed. This left us almost alone to admire the intricate stone carvings throughout this Hindu temple which are considered to amongst the finest examples in the world. We were back at our hotel by 3pm from this day excursion.
If you’re pushed for time then you should aim to see Angkor Wat, Bayon in Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm.