Exploring ancient temples in Cambodia

Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples of the Angkor precinct are Cambodia’s most well known tourist attractions. Just outside the town of Siem Reap, they are certainly a beautiful set of buildings well worth seeing for any traveller.

We woke early for our day at the temples, on to a tuk tuk and on our way to the temples. We had thought about getting bicycles to ride to the temple complex but I was really glad that we didn’t as it would have been difficult to navigate on the ride there through the dark. The night before we had asked a friend about what he thought of the bicycle idea and he simply said, “No, you will die.” Feeling the heat and humidity later in the day he was definitely right.

The streets of Siem Reap were eerily calm pre-6am which made for a refreshing change. About halfway to the temples we stopped at the museum where there is a large ticket office. Tickets require a photo to be taken and the whole process was pretty efficient. Soon we were back on the tuk tuk and getting ever closer to the temples.

The sky was beginning to get lighter and lighter and the crowds increasing as we drew closer. We were soon treated to our first glimpse of the top of Angkor Wat, the largest and best preserved temple in the complex. We crossed the moat and walked through the outer wall and were treated with our first decent view of the temple. We walked past the touts offering guidebooks and into the temple itself to begin to look around. It was mesmerising at this time of the morning. Many people were still waiting out the front for the sunrise photo so it was surprisingly quiet inside. I decided to join those outside and left Chancey and our friend Michelle to explore some more.

The crowds were particularly drawn to the lakes either side of the main entrance to get reflection photos, though a hot dry season had left water levels fairly low. I did my best to snap some photos I would be happy with, settling on some cool silhouette style shots mostly.

With the sun now rising above Angkor Wat I returned inside to explore. There’s so much to see and appreciate here. The intricate carvings on almost every surface, long and photogenic hallways, symmetrical outdoor areas, big sets of stairs, the towers, and the good thing is that it is so big that it is possible to find your own space quite easily to appreciate where you are.

I spent some time out the back of the temple watching a monkey harass a kid and then returned to find the girls and we had our hotel-prepared breakfast of croissants and bananas outside. We walked over to a small cemetery-like area off to the side before heading out to continue our voyage around the Angkor area. There are two tour routes generally, big and small, which most people do over two days. Being adventurous we decided to see if we could crack it all in one day!

We crossed into Angkor Thom where there are several more temple sights to see. Parasat Bayon was one of Chancey’s favourite temples to explore, famous for its engraved faces around the different sides of the temple, while nearby Baphuon offered a neat view from the top. Prasat Preah Palilay was more in the ruins style, with trees growing out and more rubble around. The temples around Angkor in general have either been reconstructed, sometimes with new stone, or left in the slightly ruined state. Many of the stones in the reconstructed temples have numbers on them and scars from where they have been lifted back into place. It really is awesome the way you can just clamour around on the temples to your heart’s content, though some areas are sectioned off for preservation or for safety reasons.

The second most popular temple after Angkor Wat is Ta Prohm, also known as the Tomb Raider Temple. This has been left much as it was re-discovered, with massive strangler figs growing from the rubble. There are plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, though the photo of the strangler fig above the door is extremely popular and though it looks like no one is around, there is a queue of people waiting to take the same photo. The trees are actually so popular that they are marked on a map. Chancey and Michelle took the opportunity to enjoy cold Angkor beers while walking around these ancient monuments, how appropriate.

We enjoyed an okay lunch at an air conditioned restaurant (the cool air felt amazing) and with full bellies returned to the heat and humidity outside to keep exploring. By this time of the day our energy was starting to be sapped, and it is obvious why people choose to go back to town and their hotel pools for lunch. But we powered on, climbing up massive pyramids and savouring the sights. One temple started to look like the next, but the last one we looked at (I think it might have been Preah Khan) was refreshing, with some cool shaded areas and a neat interior that included this obelisk of sorts.


With the sun shining in it looked like it was lighting up on top, very mystical. A nearby security guard commended me on taking a photo without any people in it. “All the Chinese always want themselves in the photo!” he remarked. We also had a short discussion outside with a Cambodian policeman who was practicing his English. We took our time exploring this temple and rested for a while at the back where it was nice and quiet and we could just appreciate the building and the sounds of the surrounding jungle. You may notice the heads of the statues are missing, that is because much of the temples’ treasures and more artistic parts were taken by various raiders over the years.

We traced our path through Angkor Thom, stopping in to watch the monkeys that hang out by the side of the road. Oh funny story! Earlier in the day we had stopped at the same place, when all of a sudden another tuk tuk slammed into the back of us. Thankfully no one was hurt and the damage to both tuk tuks was not so bad. After watching the monkeys, we would ascend Phnom Bakheng, the final temple of the day. This one required a walk up the mountainside and then a wait in a queue as only 300 people at a time are allowed to the top. The view from the top was nice, though the haze made it difficult to see very far and we did not spend long up there before returning to the bottom and getting aboad our tuk tuk for the final ride home. It felt so nice to have the air rush past my face after sweating around the temples, not to mention the cold bottles of water our driver always had stashed away. And the hotel pool felt like heaven itself. Obviously we rushed through the day so we were left exhausted, but it was that good kind of exhausted where you realised what an amazing day it has been. Overall a visit to this part of the world is highly recommended. I would say that if you are thinking about a Bali holiday but want something a bit different, why not try Siem Reap? The resorts are cheap, the airfares are similar, there is good food around and you have an amazing historical site to visit. Definitely worth thinking about.