Not Just Angkor Wat: A Guide to Cambodia’s Ancient Temples
First of all, let’s get the confusing part out the way. Usually when people say they are going to Angkor Wat, they mean they are going to a huge complex of temples at Angkor Archaeological Park, one of which is called Angkor Wat. This was our last stop in Cambodia, and long anticipated before we even stepped foot in the country! We’d just spent the last few weeks in Phnom Penh, Kampot, Koh Rong Samloem, and Battambang. It was really easy (and cheap!) to book buses throughout the country, via 12go.asia or bookmebus.com.
A Guide to Angkor Wat: Planning Your Trip
To visit this huge complex you can choose a 1, 3 or 7 day pass ($37, $62, $72). You can use the 3 day pass over a period of 10 days. Being massive history geeks, but on a backpacker budget, we were so torn about which pass to choose!
I’d heard from so many travellers that it gets painfully busy at the main temples. I’d heard there were lesser known ones a bit further out that are much quieter. For this reason (and you’re only going to visit this complex once – right?), I opted for the 3 day pass. Joe got a one day pass, mainly due to the steep price, but partly because everyone had told us you get ‘templed out’ after one day. We tried to see if we could fit in the small (main) circuit, and some lesser known ones in one day before buying. This is definitely possible with some of the closer ones in the grand circuit, but we were mainly interested in Bantaey Srei, and Kbal Spean which are over an hour away.
We stayed at OneDerz Hostel in Siem Reap. You get so much for your money; rooftop pool, sparkling dorms, and bathrooms – you can’t go wrong. I put up an ad to recruit someone who wanted to split a tuk tuk, and to explore with me, for my first day, whilst Joe lounged by the pool.
The honesty of the tuk tuk drivers in Cambodia was such a relief and always amazed me. They always quoted the price we knew it should be from swotting up on guide books and blogs. This was novel to us, having been in other parts of Asia, constantly being frustrated at being ripped off!
Bantaey Srei & Kbal Spean
We went to Kbal Spean, just over an hour from Siem Reap and best paired with visiting Bantaey Srei. At Kbal Spean, there are carvings underwater in the riverbed.
This river was an important water source for the ancient capitol, so they carved the river bed, making the water which flowed over them, and down into the city, sacred. It was a 45 minute hike up, and it was just us and a couple of others there! Not at all like some of the more well known temples (Ta Promh, I’m looking at you!). I felt like a real life explorer, because we had to work to find the carvings, unlike being directed to where they were by following all the selfie sticks.
We’d been up there a while getting our Indiana Jones on, when we were surprised to see our tuk tuk driver arrive at the top of the hike. He had his phone out excitedly ready to take pictures, and looked so disappointed when he saw we were on our way back down. It became clear he actually hadn’t seen this place before, so we said we should all go back up together. At first he politely insisted he take us to our next stop, but we took him to see the waterfall and carvings. We all had a great time, and it absolutely poured down monsoon-style as we climbed back up the rocks, adding to the adventure. I was one of those really great moments of a trip that you look back on with a full heart.
Sunrise Tour: Angkor Wat, Angor Thom, Bayon, Ta Promh
The following day Joe joined me, using his day pass. We did the small circuit sunrise guided tour, which includes Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, and Ta Promh. It was a cloudy morning because of rainy season, so not the colourful sunrise you see plastered all over Instagram. It was still beautiful though, and the better option to avoid the blistering heat, and (some) crowds! Our guide also took us in a different order to other tours to avoid the crowds. He even managed to find us one quiet spot in Ta Promh, making him some kind of wizard.
I’d definitely recommend a guided tour, so you actually understand what you’re looking at. There is so much symbolism in the carvings, that I would have missed without our guide. Many people complain of being ‘templed out’, but I think this is because they see them solely as temples. That gets a bit samey. A guide really pumps life into the temples, telling you about the everyday lives of the Khmer people 1000 years ago, the people responsible for building these monumental temples. Don’t miss the entire wall of the Bayon temple, which is dedicated to carvings of everyday life in the 12th century.
Later Joe and I took a tuk tuk to visit Preah Kahn temple, despite being knackered. I agreed to go, helping Joe make the most of his day pass (remember this for the next part- I certainly will!). This was a much quieter temple, and the jungle temple experience we both wanted.
A Guide to Angkor Wat: Cycling the Circuit
I had rented a bike ($3!), and the next day I got up early to avoid the heat, to cycle back to the site to see any last bits I wanted to catch. If you rent one and want to set off early, make sure you rent the night before, as most of the rental places don’t open until 7am in low season.
Joe decided to come with because he loved the day before so much. So we had to try to find him a bike before 7am (a challenge!). We eventually found one which was right at the bottom of the main street. See below picture of where to locate it on maps.me – you’re welcome!
From here, we had to cycle to the ticket office first, and he had to buy another day pass. Of course this cost more than if he had bought a 3 day pass in the first place, and he got one fewer day! Nonetheless, we had a brilliant time cycling through the ruins.
It is definitely doable to cycle the small circuit. We are no athletes, and didn’t struggle. The roads are flat, just stay hydrated! If you only have a one day pass, I’m not sure I’d recommend it unless you don’t mind looking a sweaty mess in all your photos. However, we absolutely loved the freedom the bikes brought us and had an amazing day!
The Angkor temples were fascinating, and a good way to end our month in Cambodia. They are just a tiny part of what this incredible country has to offer; from an insight into their dark past in Phnom Penh, to pepper plantations (who’d have thought it!) in Kampot, to paradise island getaways. Not to mention the FOOD, and the spirit of the wonderful people there. Cambodia, we will be back!
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