The Angkor Wat temple is synonymous with the country of Cambodia itself. The largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat was constructed in the 12th century by Khmer King Suryavarman II. It is so iconic that the national flag of Cambodia has the temple depicted in its centre! Our primary objective of this trip to Cambodia was this.
Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer Empire, and Angkor Wat is just one among many sites in the Angkor Archaeological Park. The park is spread across 400 square kilometres (including the forests)! You can easily spend an entire day exploring the park – if you are really into ancient temples and architecture, even 3 days can get by before you know it.
Entrance Fees and Ticket System
The ticket to the park – the Angkor Pass needs to be purchased at the official ticket counter. It is located about 4km away from the Siem Reap town. The counter opens at 4:30 am and you can buy tickets till 5:30 pm. You have the option of buying a 1-day, 3-day or 5-day pass. They accept USD, Riel and credit cards. If you buy a 1-day pass at 5:00 pm on a particular day, it remains valid for the next day as well – you can use this option if you want to avoid buying a ticket at 4:30 am!
We booked a tuk-tuk from our hotel and the driver, Nup, picked us up at 4:00 am.
The ticket counter was crowded even at that time – luckily, the lines moved fast, and we were quickly on our way to catch the sunrise! Also, we picked the 1-day pass and had made our plan for the day such that we covered all the main spots.
Our first stop was the main attraction – Angkor Wat. Our tuk-tuk rushed as fast as it could to one side of the moat (which outlines the temple) and we waited for the sunrise. It was very peaceful – even though we were accompanied by another 20-odd people who were also waiting for the sunrise, there was no sound as everyone was savouring the moment. A cool breeze was flowing – the temperature was at least a few degrees lower inside the park thanks to the dense forest cover. As the sky turned from dark purple to dark blue with shades of red and orange, we got our first glimpse of the silhouette of the temple. There were a lot of lotuses on the water. Oh yes, and the birds – with every minute, more birds of various kinds joined the morning chorus. It was a beautiful experience – worth waking up at 3:30 in the morning! We got some decent shots of the temple and once the sun was up, we proceeded to the temple.
Khmer King Suryavarman II dedicated this Hindu temple to Lord Vishnu and it depicts the mythical Mount Meru – the abode of the gods. There are 4 towers surrounding the central tower which are said to depict the peaks of the mountain.
You can find stories on bas reliefs throughout the temple – the battle of Kurukshetra and the churning of the Ocean of Milk (this one is truly epic!) are a few of them.
There are devatas and apsara motifs which still endure in their original splendor to this day.
We can only imagine the sense of wonder experienced by the French explorer, Henri Mouhot, who popularized this temple in the west. Think about it for a second – there you are, walking through dense forests, occasionally hacking through vines when – lo and behold – you come across this architectural wonder! Mind = Blown!
Pro Tip: there is a sunrise viewpoint inside the complex where you can see the temple in a reflecting pond. This place is insanely crowded, and you literally need to fight for space. Unless you are a professional photographer, we would recommend the view on the moat-side (where we went) instead so that you can enjoy the tranquil as well as the view.
What else to visit in Angkor / Planning your 1-day itinerary
There are many more spots which you can visit on the same day or split into multiple days. Some people prefer to leave once the sun gets too hot, chill at their hotel and get back for the evening. This totally depends on the amount of time you have. In our case, we had only 1 and we were on a 1-day pass. Here are some must-visits in the order that you should visit them:
Bayon Temple: As you leave the Angkor Wat area towards the Angkor Thom area, you will be greeted by a beautiful gate with enormous smiling faces and statues lining up the bridge over the moat. First stop – the Bayon temple. Located at the centre of this ancient city, the capital of King Jayavarman VII, this temple has 216 smiling faces of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (the king was Buddhist). Some people say that it is likened in an image of the king himself. Though it doesn’t look like much from afar, it is a splendid monument.
Baphuon: This temple is a three-tiered temple-mountain dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. It was almost entirely dismantled in the many years of religious upheavals (switching between Hinduism and Buddhism) and more recently the purge of the Khmer Rouge. Through the efforts and donations of multiple countries, sites like these are being restored to their original glory.
Terrace of the Elephants: This is a long terrace decorated with statues of elephants, lions and garudas.
Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda: Right outside the east gate, these temples are situated on opposite sides of the road. Worth taking a short stop to explore and take a few pics.
Ta Keo: Another temple-mountain depicting Mount Meru, it makes for a particularly steep climb up to the top tier.
Ta Prohm: This one is probably the most popular temple after Angkor Wat – the temple is completely overrun with trees. It made an appearance in the movie, Tomb Raider. The temple itself is in bad shape and is still in early stages of restoration.
Srah Srang: After a quick peek into Banteay Kdei, you can rest your tired feet at the Srah Srang lake. It is the prefect end to a long day of temple hopping and temple-mountain climbing.
Make sure you fix your itinerary with your tuk-tuk driver before you start the tour. Our driver skipped a few of these (we assumed we would cover it on the way back) but on reaching Srah Srang, he mentioned it was time to head back. But we insisted that it was part of the agreed tour plan and went back to cover the rest. And thanks to this, we got to redo our most favourite part of the trip – driving through the gates of Angkor Thom!
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