This past weekend's trip to Cambodia was an impromptu getaway that happened on a whim and I couldn't be happier that it happened - the temples in Angkor are some of the most stunning, majestic, breathtaking and unbelievable ancient ruins that anyone can get up-close to in a lifetime.
It's difficult to actually write about the temples as there are literally no words to describe the them. Deep history aside the intricate carving details and gigantic structures speak a lot about the past, all the way back to 1,000 years ago. You could almost envision the temples in their heydays being the sacred grounds to the ancient civilization and holding way more symbolic meaning than any studies can unearth right now. There is a bittersweet feeling seeing the state of the temples now and also the state of Cambodia in contrast what the country was way back then. What's more worrying is how the amount of tourists are allowed to get that close to all the temples and carvings actually meant that the ruins will look even more ruined in the many years to come.
Even with all that, one has to agree that a trip to Angkor Wat must be placed high on top of the bucket list. In Singapore we are lucky enough to be located close to Cambodia however, direct flights to Siem Reap are more pricey compared to Phnom Penh. First tip will definitely be keep an eye out for flight deals that let you travel to Siem Reap directly for below SGD$200 and skip that half day long bus ride from Phnom Penh. You can also do a road trip from Bangkok which will also take you about half a day. The dry season is December to April and another time other than that can be quite rainy but you will not see so many tourists.
Tip number two: when planning your itinerary, read up online on which temples you should go to and whether you wish to spend time watching and photographing the sunrise and sunset (one of the most touristy things to do). One day ticket costs you USD$37 while a three-day ticket costs you USD$62. If you plan properly you can complete the temple tours in one day. The ticket can be purchased at the box office that is near town before the day you decide to go to the temples, it is highly recommended instead of purchasing it on the day of your visit.
Another way to decide which temples you really should visit, head to a small art gallery featuring mostly black-and-white photos of Angkor Temples by John McDermott. It's located near the Royal Residence not far from town center at FCC Angkor, Pokambor Avenue, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia. The gallery is free admission and it gives you a good idea of the key temples to visit and even which spot to photograph them from
Tip number three: booking the right driver to bring you to the temples is important, ask the hotels or your friends who've been there for recommendations. The fee is around USD$20 for a day and if you are a group that's more than 3, try booking a car instead as it might get cramp in the Tuk Tuk and you definitely don't want that after climbing all the temples. The Tuk Tuk driver might not be the best adviser for which temples to go so knowing exactly where you want to visit with a map in hand goes a long way in making your trip fruitful. Our Tuk Tuk driver kindly reminded us that the floating village (another tourist trap) costs extra USD$10 to go and the boat ride is USD$20 per person. The money obviously doesn't go to the villagers so first instinct told me not to do it.
Here are the top 4 temples I personally strongly recommend:
This temple needs no introduction. Here is what people from all over the world fly in for. Built in the 12th Century and occupying 162.6 hectares, it is the largest religious monument in the world. Restoration works are on and off on the site but it is probably one of the most well preserved temples of all due to its significance and influence on tourism. Most people will climb up the top most tower to get an aerial view of the entire complex, it is worth the climb. The entire visit will take you about 1.5 hours.
When you do your research about the temples you will often find the word "Bayon" appear quite often - it is one of the most common style of temples to be found in Angkor. This temple which is located within Angkor Thom is simply called Bayon for a reason. The peaceful smiling faces can be seen protruding out of the stone structure through out the complex. Definitely one of the most fascinating temples to visit and a must-go in your itinerary. The Terrace of the Elephants nearby is rather underwhelming, skip it and go straight to the next temple.
Angelina Jolie made this temple famous, literally. When I spoke to the locals they mentioned that shortly after Tomb Raider happened, which showed Lara Croft walking through Ta Phrom, tourism sky-rocketed in Siem Reap. It is understandable why people call this the Tomb Raider temple. What so special about Ta Phrom is that the temple is literally swallowed by the jungle, huge gigantic trees mercilessly tore through the already shaky walls with their unstoppable roots. Most parts of the temples are still in shambles, which make it look even more mysterious and magical.
This temple had special purposes which explains why it is so unique: it sits on an artificial island in the middle of a large rectangular lake. The temple was built for medical usage, like a hospital but with healing water in four separate pools all linked to a central, larger pool. The board walk to the temple is extremely scenic - the water of the lake is so still that it is a direct mirror reflection of the sky above. Simply breathtaking.