Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer Empire. It houses the magnificent Angkor Wat, one of Cambodia's popular tourist attractions. The ruins of Angkor are located amid forests and farmland near modern-day Siem Reap city. The temples of the Angkor area number over one thousand, ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the Angkor Wat, said to be the world's largest single religious monument.
Visiting the site of Angkor
Although I rented a bicycle in Siem Reap quite often, for the temples I decided to rent a tuk tuk driver who would drive me around. As this was organised from my hotel, I trusted the service. From the center of Siem Reap to the famous Angkor Wat temple it’s roughly 4.3 miles (7 kilometers) and I knew it would be very tiresome to ride that distance on a bicycle on such a hot day. Using a service that drives you around was a tempting option. Besides, I hardly saw any cyclists in Siem Reap, to be honest, and the traffic didn’t seem to encourage that. So I booked a tuk tuk tour.
There were 2 types of tours: the small circuit for 15 dollars and the big circuit for 18 dollars. I chose the small circuit, as I would visit the main temples I wanted to see which I considered enough for the day.
I was picked up from my hotel in the morning and we drove through the city north. First, I needed to buy a ticket that gave me access to all the temples for a period of 3 days, so we drove to the Angkor pass ticket counters in the east of Siem Reap. Once I bought the ticket, we continued back and northwards on the Charles de Gaulle avenue through the rainforest towards the first station of my tour: the Angkor Wat temple.
Angkor Wat lies on a small square island, surrounded by a water reservoir. The main bridge and gateway lies on the western side of the island. My tuk tuk stopped just before the bridge, a place which is surrounded by many sale stalls and restaurants. There were many crowds and lots of traffic around the main gates to Angkor Wat which gave you a clue about how famous the temple has become. I was free to move around and come back whenever I wanted. The tuk tuk driver would be waiting for me at a designated area and I had the whole day ahead of me. So I jumped straight onto the bridge and made my way slowly towards the temple complex.
I was very excited. That’s one of those rare moments in life when you are at a special place that you might visit probably just once in your whole life. I crossed the gateway and was still halfway on the main road towards the temple entrance. You quickly realize the sheer size of the whole plateau. It was May and the heat was merciless. I took out my SLR camera, but my lens got steamed up due to heat and humidity. The photos looked pale and foggy, so for a while I had to use my iphone camera only.
At some point I entered the temple and passed through the corridor until I arrived in the inner yard. The whole temple complex is huge. You need good 2 hours to experience the place properly. I proceeded around the inner square clockwise. On the eastern side of the inner yard I climbed on a higher level and moved into the inner temple - the central place of Angkor Wat from which you had a great view of the surrounding and especially of the main road and gates that lead to the temple from the west. The view is amazing, and so is the temple itself. One forgets easily that it’s basically ruins. I can only imagine how impressive the entire place must have been when it was used for its actual purpose by the state and priests hundreds of years ago.
There’s ornate images of various figures and patterns in many places on the walls within the temple and on its outside walls in various galleries and corridors - who knows what kind of stories these pictures are telling.
I slowly made my way back through the temple and onto the main avenue back to my tuk tuk driver. It was time to visit another amazing place. We drove straight northwards into the rainforest and towards the Angkor Thom temple. It’s a complex with lots of towers in the shape of faces and already from afar the structure looked highly elaborate. We stopped at the eastern entrance. I entered passing a small statue of the Buddha. The temple is well structured, but from inside it feels very labyrinthine.
To be honest, while walking around the complex appeared much bigger than from outside. You can walk around towers and the inner yard of the central Bayon temple and also step down on a lower level on the edges of the square plateau which has chambers and spaces hidden in shadows. You can have some peaceful breaks and find shelter from the heat. There’s something mysterious surrounding the temple and it can definitely hold up in comparison to Angkor Wat.
After finishing the second temple tour around Angkor Thom I felt already tired, although I considered myself quite fit. And there were still three more temples for me to see! This was supposed to be the small circuit, but the hot southeast asian sun started to show its impact. But never mind, a bit of tiredness shouldn’t discourage me from experiencing those amazing places, the reason why I actually came here. We continued to Ta Keo, a much less famous Hindu temple ruin in pyramid shape located a 10-minute drive east of Angkor Thom.
I passed through the walls of the square plateau and from there you could go up the stairs which lead from 4 directions to the top of the temple. Climbing up would be a better description, as the stone stairs were very steep. I saw a guy running up very quickly and was amazed that he didn’t trip. I took my time to enjoy the scenery of the thick forest surrounding the structure and sat down on the stones once I got to the top level. I needed a break to enjoy the halftime of this entire temple tour.
Inside the central tower at the top platform of Ta Keo there was a chamber with a very high ceiling and a square hole in it through which light was coming in from outside. It looked very majestic and I took a nice panorama photo of the interior. Then I climbed down and returned to my driver to continue a few minutes further south towards Ta Phrom temple. And this temple turned out to be another big highlight of the day.
The driver left me in front of a wall with an entrance in the form of a face, looking just like one of those from the temple of Angkor Thom. I showed my ticket to the guard and passed the gateway into a forest alley. It was a short 5-minute walk through the thick forest to reach the entrance to the temple, but it was an exciting walk. You really feel like an explorer in the jungle who is going to uncover some mystery lying depp in the woods. While walking on the path, there was a musician playing some local music somewhere halfway on the path, so I could hear the sounds coming from a distance which greatly contributed to the mood of exploration and mystery.
The temple itself appears much bigger from inside than when looking at it from above on Google Maps. I could easily tell that the whole complex is basically ruins. The stones lie separately on the ground, there’s a lot of rubble and stone debris around the impressive buildings which also look old and crumbly. There were crowds of tourists everywhere, so although the place is very reclusive, it doesn’t really feel like that because of the people. I followed the tourist tracks inside the temple through inner courtyards, niches and rooms, and it all appeared very messy and labyrinthine. As the buildings are reclaimed by the forest and overgrown with trees, the whole surroundings look a bit otherworldly. There was one very picturesque spot inside the temple walls with a huge tree growing out of the roof of a building where many tourists were taking pictures. It gave you a good impression of the whole place in one shot - an ancient, run-down sanctuary lost in the jungle, hidden from the world, forgotten by the people and only rediscovered in our modern times.
I spent quite some time at Ta Phrom as the whole complex is gorgeous and you can lose yourself in the multitude of spaces, galleries, corridors and courtyards. I wandered in a circle so that eventually I returned the same way I arrived which is through the beautiful forest alley with the music playing in the background. I left this magical place enriched with new experience that I will never forget. I hope it wasn’t just a one time visit and that I’ll be back one day to refresh my memory of this absolutely mind-boggling place.
Now it was time to explore the last temple of the tour. The Banteay Kdei temple lies very close to Ta Phrom. We drove southeast on the road and arrived opposite a big rectangular water reservoir called Srah Srang. On the other side of the road to the west was a wall with the entrance just like the one leading to Ta Phrom. Once I passed it, there was a forest path leading to the temple. The whole experience was very similar to that from Ta Phrom. I walked on the path and there were sale stalls lining up on the left side of the road. They shouted at me trying to catch my attention as they wanted me to pop by. I actually bought a coconut juice there as I was thirsty and craved for some sweet refreshment.
When I arrived at the first temple building, which looked very crumbly, I took a photo of my backpack and the coconut with the temple in the background. I just found this place so picturesque. The rest of the sightseeing was similar to Ta Phrom - an old and complex temple area with lots of rubble, niches, rooms, corridors and galleries to walk around.
I took many photos, filmed some videos and returned to my driver passing the sale stalls on the forest path. I felt my experience for the day was complete and I was ready to return to Siem Reap and back to my hotel. I needed some well-deserved rest. In front of the hotel I paid the driver 18 instead of 15 dollars, so actually the price for the big circuit tour. I wanted to give him a tip and felt that giving that bit extra for the whole day service would be a good thing to do. After some retreat into my room I relaxed on the veranda in front of the hotel and let my memory review the amazing experience of the day. I realized the objective for my stay in Cambodia, so I could take it easy and relax for the remaining days ahead before my return to Bangkok.
On the 5th day I took a tuk tuk to the airport and flew away leaving behind this fascinating town with its magical temple ruins that have now become a part of me. It was time for a very short break in Bangkok before proceeding to a new adventure in southern Thailand!