The extensive Angkor temple complex and Angkor Wat in specific have been shortlisted by many travellers and travel institutions as one of the must-visit destinations in the world. It has been on my own wish list for a long time, and now that the moment is here I am just as anxious for the tourist mass I will encounter as I am excited to visit the world’s largest religious temple complex.
Folding open the free pocket map of Angkor that I picked up in a Siem Reap café, the number of temples on it immediately make me want to go and explore. Surely, there must be an unspoiled temple waiting for us?
We set out on bicycles and it takes me only five minutes of cycling after passing one of the entrance gates, to realize that the complex is so much bigger than I already thought. The official name of the complex is Angkor Archaeological Park (though a lot of people think that Angkor Wat is the name of the entire complex) and had me expecting a secluded and protected area, but instead the roads that run through the park are asphalted and seriously busy with local traffic, tour busses and tuk-tuks driving around tourists. We pass schools and houses, and many small food joints and fruit sellers. Here and there we see a Cambodian flag waving in the wind, the silhouette of Angkor Wat proudly adorning the red and blue colour blocks.
In the wee hours of the morning, we witness the silhouette of the actual Angkor Wat temple standing out against a red and blue background created by the skies. The striking architecture of the temple, its five conical towers formed in the shape of lotus buds, make for a special place to watch the sun rise. We sit down on the sandy grounds and wait until the solid dark night skies are broken up by the reddish and yellow flare of the sun. Very slowly, daybreak turns the sky a pale blue. The big wait is now for the sun to come up just right behind the main tower. While my anticipation grows, I take in the nature surrounding me. Only half a metre away from where I am sitting – at the edge of one of the ponds in front of Angkor Wat’s entrance – a dragonfly makes its way from one water lily to the other. A bit further down, bright pink lotus flowers have opened up to show their splendour. The water surface itself provides a perfect reflection of Angkor Wat. I look up again to see the sun peeks out behind the central tower. It is an iconic sight, but not quite as romantic as it might seem since my partner and I are sharing this moment with hundreds of other tourists.
The temple itself boasts spectacular detail, with hundreds of carved figurines telling narratives, and colonnades of which each individual column and frame has been decorated with flowers and patterns. The walls are decorated with apsaras (divine nymphs) and dvarapalas (temple guardians) from Indian mythology dating from the time the structure was a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu. Angkor Wat was later transformed into a Buddhist temple and it is up in the central tower where we witness two monks saying their prayers, their orange robes in stark contrast with the greyish colour of the ancient temple. Smoke surrounds them as they place incense in front of a brightly dressed buddha statue. It is an intimate ritual that I watch with wonder, and at the same time I feel strange being part of this enchanting scene.
Enchanting is also the word that for me best describes the Bayon, a temple with a design unlike anything I have ever seen before. The temple was built about 100 years after Angkor Wat and boasts over a hundred similarly carved faces that according to the general opinion resemble the king and thus signifies the omnipresence of that very same monarch. I find it a strange way to make your presence clear, but at the same time cannot help but to smile back at the giant stone heads with their serene smiles.
Outnumbering all these King’s heads, are probably the recurring images and statues of elephants. These beautiful thick-skinned brown-greyish giants have played an important role in ancient battles and worker’s life in the past, and they are depicted on sculpted murals, shape temple columns and adorn temple walls. Their real-life counterparts move around the temple complex gracefully, their imposing bodies taking up all of the space inside the thousands year old entrance gate. It is a compelling sight, but it makes me sad to see that these powerful animals are now exploited to enjoy tourists that should not need any more entertainment given the fact that the temple complex they are visiting is considered by many to be one of the seven wonders of the world.
It doesn’t seem to fit either, as to me the biggest charm of Angkor is that culture and nature meet in a most impressive manner. Temples are renovated, but ancient trees that cover temples and make some walls crumbling down are left standing. The most famous example of which is the door in Ta Prohm that is completely covered in the roots of a tall tree. I was looking forward to see the jungle taking over the ruins of the temple, but when I am finally there it doesn’t quite feel like nature is taking it back – tourists are lining up in front of the porch to pose with it.
Luckily, Angkor offers so much more than ‘just’ the famous and touristy Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm temples. We will have plenty of opportunities to see the harmony between nature and culture once we leave the beaten track. There are temples to be explored without the crowds, located further off the asphalt road and into the woods. Beautiful forest where you would want to wander around even if there were no temples to be found. Giant trees stand tall against bright blue skies. Their trunks are supported by an intricate web of roots finding their way to the earth, enclosing pieces of rock on their way. Their branches fan out in the skies and form a gigantic natural umbrella, providing a welcoming shade to the people enjoying a stroll in nature and the animals who call this place home. Among these animals are curious monkeys that walk around the grounds and sit back on tree branches in what quite possibly is the prettiest playground they could desire.
A small path leads us into the forest. No fruit stalls at the entrance, no parked scooters or tuk-tuks. Our tyres slip in the loose sand as we cycle down the path that we can see leads to an open spot in the forest. The sounds of traffic and chatting tourists have now disappeared behind a wall of tall trees, and the only sound we hear is birdsong. The ancient trees are adorned with colourful leaves in green, yellow and orange. It seems to be just us, the forest and a deserted temple. We park our bicycles and look around in disbelief, the scene is right out of a fairy tale. Walking around the ruins in silence we find that it really is just the two of us here. And so we take our time to explore the remains of a once imposing temple and to seize this special moment.
As the sun slowly sets it sheds a golden light on the tree tops we cycle down another unpaved side road to find ourselves alone in the forest again. A picture perfect and peaceful golden hour awaits us.
Many accounts of other travellers and guidebooks describe Angkor as the film set of Indiana Jones, but for me it is the peace and quiet that stands out and make this place unique. You just have to go explore and find it.
Say yes to exploring Angkor yourself: top tips for visiting Angkor Wat and the rest of the temple complex
How to escape the crowds in Angkor?
Angkor is a crazy popular destination and with good reason. The most famous temples such as Angkor Wat, Bayon and Tom Prah are busy all day but the less famous and smaller ones that are in between or on the grand circle are a completely different world. Most people who are not part of a group book a tour around the complex by tuk-tuk. This is obviously the more relaxing option, but cycling gives you freedom and a better chance to enjoy nature. That being said, be aware that the roads inside Angkor are also quite busy with tourist tuk-tuks and locals driving around. Temperatures and humidity are high, but cycling is still comfortable because the centuries old trees provide shade and a breeze will give you a bit of a cool down while pedalling to the next temple.
Tips for renting a bike to visit Angkor
- There are plenty of places in Siem Reap where you can rent a bike, so just ask at your hostel or just walk around town. Although our hostel was not a partner of this initiative and so we did not use them, I do like to mention the non-profit charity The White Bicycles.
- Thoroughly check if at least your brakes work and your saddle stays in place.
- You can either rent a mountainbike or city bike and if you cycle frequently you probably already have a preference. Dutch girl as I am I’m used to driving a city bike and that’s what I find most comfortable. A big plus is the basket in front to store your bag. So much better than carrying it on your back in the heat (do keep your valuables on your body though so you don’t lose them in the rare case of someone snatching your bag from the basket).
- If you would like to cycle but are worried about the distance, you can also choose to rent an e-bike instead.
What to bring when cycling to Angkor?
- Headlight (safety first, in the hectics of Siem Reap’s night traffic you want to make sure you are visible between buses, cars, tuktuks and motorbikes)
- Tissues/clean wipes (to be used aa toilet paper and to clean your hands if you have to adjust bicycle settings such as the height of your saddle)
- Sun screen (bring it with you, as you’ll need to re apply after sweating it off)
- Mosquito repellent (they liked my legs especially at night whem making our way back to Siem Reap)
- Sun glasses (against the sun as well as to protect your eyes against dust on gravel roads)
- Long pants (unless you’re fine with cycling in long pants in the heat you might want to bring a loose fitting pair with you that you can just put on over your shorts when entering a temple).
How to get to Angkor from Siem Reap? Where to buy the entrance ticket for Angkor?
- The route is pretty straight forward, but there’s one important thing to note: you cannot buy a ticket at one of the park entrances. The ticket booth is located somewhere else. So first navigate to the ticket booth and then continue to a park entrance.
- The ride is about 7 km to the nearest entrance and 10 km to Angkor Wat. Quite a distance so take a map or download maps.me – better be safe than sorry.
How many days to visit Angkor?
You can either buy 1, 3 or 7 day ticket to visit Angkor and these do not have to be consecutive days. We opted for 3 days and that’s what I recommend. Angkor is the world’s largest temple complex and spans 400 square kilometres. Visiting just one day would definitely not do it justice. Three days provide you the time to explore the main sights at your leisure and see both sides of Angkor: the crazy busy but must see tourist highlights with waiting lines, and the calm and hidden temples waiting to be explored by just you. Seven days might be a bit too much of the same, although the complex also has lovely walking paths and picnic spots in the forest as well as options for boat rides on the Neak Pean lake.
What are the clothing prescriptions for Angkor Wat?
For women: shorts, skirts and dresses should cover your knees (they’re not always that strict but I had a big discussion at Angkor Wat about the fact that my dress was 1 cm too short) and you should wear a top covering your shoulders in full. Note that covering your shoulders with a scarf will not do the trick.
For men: for you guys shorts and a t-shirt are fine, although I wouldn’t push it by wearing your swimming shorts.
What is the best spot to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat?
Let me first say that witnessing the sun rise over Angkor Wat is not as romantic as it may seem in pictures. Yes, it is a pretty sight, but it is also a long wait together with a crazy big crowd of other tourists. Now, if you still want to go, here are my tips:
- The best spot is in front of the pond, so you can capture the reflection of Angkor Wat in the water.
- To sit front row all the time, you have to get here as early as the temple opens (at the time of writing that was 5 AM). HOWEVER: most people leave their spot before the sun actually shows itself behind Angkor Wat’s main tower. Strangely enough people tend to think that the sun will never show once the skies have already turned a daytime blue. I have seen this in many places already, and it’s the same in Angkor. So this means you can also just lay in your bed a little longer, join the crazy crowd for a shorter period of time and still see the sun come up from behind the temple. Just get there 30 minutes before sunrise, unless you want to see the silhouette become clear against the dark early morning skies.
- Bring a scarf or towel you wouldn’t mind getting dirty, as the front row means sitting right next to the pond on muddy ground. You could of course also take a garbage bag, though that’s obviously less sustainable.
- Bring a tripod as you need a steady hand to capture the sunrise. If you don’t have it, get creative with your backpack, guide book etc.