Angkor means ‘capital city’ in Khmer and was the capital of the Khmer empire between the 9th and 15th century. It stretches over 400 km2 and welcomes 2 million tourists every year. Despite the efforts to preserve and reconstruct the temples, they keep falling into ruin. The faces of Bayon and the elephants of the Terrace of Elephants are barely recognisable. The walls of the towers are held together by wires and the roofs are supported by to pillars. If you ever want to see Angkor be quick because it is unfortunately slowly disappearing.
How to visit Angkor ?
The temples are a bit far from Siem Reap so you will have to rent a bike or a tuk-tuk. You can rent a tuk-tuk for the day for $15-20. The driver will drop you from one temple to the other, and wait for you while you visit.
The first thing you need to do is go to the ticket office, which is 5 km from Siem Reap, and buy a $20 one-day pass, $40 three-day pass or $60 seven-day pass. There is another 8 km before you reach Angkor Wat and you will be stopped on the way and at the temples entrance to show your pass.
Tourists are required to dress respectfully, meaning that you should cover your knees and shoulders. Angkor is often thought of as a tourist attraction but it is first of all a religious site.
When to visit ?
The main temples are open from 5AM to 6PM. It is almost impossible to avoid the crowds in Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm, as tourists come by the hundreds. Try to visit those temples before 9AM if you don’t mind waking up early. But don’t expect to see the sun rising behind Angkor Wat with only a few people around you. The area around the lake is more crowded than in a sardine tin.
Weather wise, the best period to visit Cambodia is between December and March. Avoid the summer unless you don’t mind feeling your blood boil in your veins.
Angkor Wat was built between 1080 and 1175. It is the largest religious monument in the world and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1992. It faces the setting sun, a symbol of death, which is very unusual for Khmer temples. The walls are covered with beautiful carvings of the apsaras, or dancing girls, and its towers are featured on their national flag. The dress code is particularly strict in the Central Sanctuary where you will have to cover your knees and shoulders and take off your hat or cap.
Angkor Thom is a fortified city that spread over 10 km2 and enclose eight sites, including the South Gate, Terrace of Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King, Phimeanakas and the Bayon.
Bayon (1175 – 1240) is well known for all the faces sculptured all over its towers. Unfortunately, the temple is so eroded and damaged that it becomes more and more difficult to see the faces and from the distance it just looks like a messy pile of stones. The upper terrace is pretty narrow and packed with groups of screaming Chinese that don’t mind pushing other tourists to be alone on their pictures. The bas-reliefs in the easter gallery are well-conserved and represents scenes from the struggle between the Khmers and the Cham.
Ta Prohm (1178 – 1220) is also very famous for the strangler fig trees and their enormous roots that grow on the temple. One of the columns is carved with animals, including what seems to be a stegosaurus. Go explain that ! Ta Prohm is a real beauty and should be visited early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the hordes of tourists.
Preah Khan (1181 – 1215) served as a monastery and religious college with over 1000 teachers. It is my favorite because it is less visited. And when I say less I mean a lot less. While we saw hundreds of tourists in the other temples, there were maybe 20 in Preah Khan. That temple is huge, quiet and beautiful and is a must-see.
Prasat Kravan is 3 km far from Angkor Thom and is one of the smallest temple. The bas-relief of the goddess adorning a brick wall is worth the detour. The bricks were cemented with a kind of vegetable compound.
There are obviously a lot more temples and each of them have their own particularities. In my opinion, you should spend at least 3 days to really enjoy the charm of Angkor. There are also plenty of shops around the temples but those around the smaller temples will be the cheapest. Don’t buy anything from children because it encourages them to stay in the streets instead of going to school.