The name is legendary. The temple is spectacular. But Angkor Wat is simply one in a vast array of temple ruins from the former great Khmer city of Angkor. The city was the capital of this empire, and was in working order from the 9th to 14th century, when it was abandoned due to war and strife. The ruins were discovered centuries later by traveling Buddhist monks. Word of an incredible ancient city lost in the jungle circulated in the region until western explorers showed up and began documenting the ruins.
The Khmer Empire was one of the greatest in Southeast Asia, ruling at one time or another over Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Myanmar. Various rulers adopted Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism and finally Theravada Buddhism. A trip to the ancient city of Angkor allows the visitor a look back in history as different temples were built by various rulers and reflect the time period in which they lived.
Siem Reap is the city where visitors stay while exploring the Angkor Archeological Park. Daily flights arrive from both Bangkok and Vientiane. It is possible to come overland from both, but the state of the roads makes this option inadvisable. Visas are available upon arrival at the border or at the airport. Taxis are plentiful, and the array of accommodation is astounding for a small village. This is the number one tourist sight in the country. Many visitors don’t see anything of Cambodia beyond Siem Reap. This beautiful country is definitely worth a closer look, but Siem Reap is a necessary stop.
For those looking for luxury, some of the best hotel chains in the world are present here, from Amansara of Aman Resorts to Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor and the Sofitel Angkor. For those looking for mid-range or budget options, there are so many the best option is to do a web search and find one to match one’s personal taste. Or simply walk around the main road and look at a few until finding one that suits budget and taste.
Exploring the town doesn’t take long. A small village that has built up to service tourists, there are western style restaurants and bars for those looking for nighttime entertainment. But the main attraction is the UNESCO world heritage site right outside of town.
Travelers will want to look at a map of the Angkor complex to decide how long they would like to visit and what temples, as they are too many to explore all in depth. Guides abound. Most hotels will arrange for a guide. Another option is to simply walk outside and tuk tuks will zoom up with eager drivers stating their expertise as the best guide in town. They are generally hired for a half or full day. If they are not up to par, it is easy to simply find somebody else for the next day.
Upon entering the Angkor Archeological Park, 1,2 or 3 day passes are purchased. This is the only place where valid tickets are purchased. The 3 day pass is highly recommended as there are far too many temples to explore them in less time. Keep in mind that the Cambodian sun is brutal and a midday rest will be necessary. Starting early in the morning will avoid a little bit of the crowd. Most tourist buses show up at 9 and start at Angkor Wat.
A good way to avoid this is to take the main circuit counterclockwise rather than clockwise. This will avoid wating hours simply to get a picture. . Banteay Kdei is a good place to watch the sunrise. Angkor Thom is a main sight. Spend the first day in the Angkor Thom area. Start at the south gate, then move on to Bayon, the Terraces and Baphuon. Taking a break from the heat is easy as there are many drink vendors and lunch spots. Most people head back to their hotels for a midday rest as well. Angkor Wat can be explored in the afternoon, followed by sunset at Phnom Bakheng.
The second day can be spent exploring the Little Circuit of Banteay Kdei, Sras Srang, Ta Keo, Prasat Kravan and Ta Prohm, a personal favorite. This beautiful temple is best known from the movie Tomb Raider and is very popular. Its serenity and oneness with nature (strangler vines engulf parts of the temple) give it a unique mystical quality that allows for a magical experience for the patient visitor. The outlying temple of Banteay Sray is well worth a visit, though it is quite a drive and makes for a half day visit on its own.
The third day can be spent exploring the Big Circuit. This consists of Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, Pre Rup and East Mebon. Those with extra time may want to explore the Rolous Group. One sunset and one sunrise are recommended at the temple of Angkor Wat. Most visitors explore the main temple at least twice. Its symmetry and carvings take more than one visit to explore and appreciate.
Take time to simply take in the natural beauty of the area and marvel in these buildings carved by hand over a thousand years ago. Hours can be spent exploring one temple, so this is obviously just a guide. Some people are happy spending 20 minutes at a site, some take half a day. Above all, enjoy walking through history and appreciate such incredible feats of artistry.