In my last post, I gave you a taste of everyday life in Siem Reap. But let’s be honest, if you’re headed to Siem Reap, it’s most likely because of one reason only: to see the ancient Angkor temples! So today, let’s get on to what you really care about and talk about temple hopping.
First, before I say anything, I have somewhat of an embarrassing confession: I honestly didn’t know anything about the temples. I mean, of course I’ve heard of Angkor Wat. And of course I knew that Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed there. And I was well familiar with the famous pictures of gnarled tree roots growing out of stones. But because that was all I knew, I honestly thought that it was the only temple to see. And I didn’t research further because I didn’t want to ruin the “wow” factor.
So when our tuk tuk driver, Sah-buah, spread out a map and asked where we’d like to go, I was like, “Uhhhh… isn’t there only one?!” Turns out: nope, there is actually about a couple dozen of temples scattered about Siem Reap.
Over the course of three days, we managed to hit up quite a few of them (cue temple fatigue). Some are forgettable as soon as we’d left, while some are truly spectacular and unique. I am probably the last person who should be writing a guide, and I never claim to be an expert on something I’ve only briefly experienced. But for those who are just as clueless as me about the Siem Reap temple scene, I thought this little guide of the most memorable temples may be helpful.
So here is my Angkor temple-hopping guide for dummies:
Angkor Wat: the big one
Chances are, this is the one you have heard of. Angkor Wat is the largest and most well preserved of the temples. Actually, Angkor Wat is the largest religious momument in the world. That’s crazy! It is also Cambodia’s pride and joy and its national symbol (it’s on the flag!).
Angkor Wat means “Temple City” and that is exactly what it was when it was built in the early 12th century. It was originally built as a Hindu temple (who knew?) for the god Vishnu and as the capital city of the old Khmer Empire. And it is HUGE… about a square kilometer, in fact. It seemed endless as we walked from one building to another.
The size of Angkor Wat is no doubt impressive. But what I found the most impressive is the level of detail in the wall carvings. It just amazes me that these intricate carvings are done almost a thousand years ago. I could have stayed for hours tracing every single detail to memory.
Bayon Temple: the other big one
Did you know that aside from Angkor Wat, there is another entirely different temple complex called Angkor Thom? What, you’ve never heard of Angkor Thom? Don’t worry, neither had I.
Back then, these temple complexes were literally tiny cities. Angkor Thom (literally “Great City”) was built in the late 12th century as King Jayavarman VII’s empire. This complex is far bigger than Angkor Wat, surrounded on four sides by 3-km long walls and only accessible through large entrance gates. There are a number of small ruins within this complex, and at the center of them all looms Bayon.
What’s really unique about Bayon are the gigantic stone faces adorning each face of each tower (you can just see a person at the bottom corner for scale). I just learned that there are 216 of these stone faces, and nobody can agree on who they are!
Ta Phrom: the Lara Croft one
This is the one made famous by Angelina Jolie. This temple is located deep into the woods. As soon as we stepped into the woods, the modern world fell away as we completely became immersed with nature. We became fully aware of everything – the scent of the trees, the chirping of birds and the songs of the cicadas.
This temple is every bit as beautiful and amazing as the pictures look (go ahead, scroll through them all!). It’s incredible to witness the man-made temple and the wild jungle now coexisting so naturally together… crumbling stones and tree roots entwining, merging into one being. This is nature taking back what was once hers.
But because of the fame, this temple, as peaceful as the setting is, is also one that is heavily visited by tourists. At the most popular locations, we had to wait for a long time in line to get our pictures. And some, we skipped over altogether because there were just too many people. Nevertheless, this temple is worth all the hype.
Ta Keo: the one with the really steep steps (also, my personal favorite)
Of course, in my typical “no planning, wing it” fashion, I didn’t know this temple existed until I read my friend Karyn’s post. She says she chickened out of entering it because of the extremely steep steps. As soon as I read that, I immediately thought, “Yes! Challenge and adventure? I’m so in!” So the next day, we made Ta Keo our first stop.
And don’t take it lightly… these steps are steeeeeep. At times, a single rise was almost as high as my knee! And there are no handrails. You do have to be somewhat sure-footed, or you can always make the climb on your hands and knees, like I did. :)
This temple will for sure satisfy the thrill seekers. After climbing the first set of steps to the second level, there are even more towers and more steps to climb. And best of all, this one doesn’t seem to be heavily visited. Besides us, there were maybe ten other people there. It felt like our own private little discovery. We spent a long time just sitting at the very top, enjoying the breeze and gazing out over the tree canopies. And of course, this made for some good photo ops:
It turned out to be my favorite temple of all. Thank god for travel bloggers. :)
Phnom Bakeng: The one where every single tourist goes to see the sunset
Sah-buah asked if we would like to see the sunset. Of course we did! So on our second day of temple hopping, he helped us plan a route that would take us to Phnom Bakeng at 5:00 pm, just in time for sunset.
What I thought we’d get: a romantic way to end the day by watching the sun set over the countryside from a hilltop temple. The reality: jam packed into a crowd of what seems like the entire Siem Reap tourist population. We ended up standing behind some girls who spent the entire time shooting selfies and “pinching the sun” pictures (*shoot me please*), while I stood on my tippy toes to try to see around them.
Banteay Srei: the little pink one (also, the one worth going far for)
This little temple is so cute! We commented to each other how it’s like someone took one of the large temples and shrunk it down. Banteay Srei (or Citadel of the Women) was built in the 10th century by women for women. This one is special because it’s made of a red sandstone which can be carved like wood (and also gives it a pretty pink color!). Indeed, this temple has some of the most beautiful and intricate carvings.
It was too bad that this was the last temple we saw. By then, temple fatigue had long set in and we weren’t too keen to explore this one in detail. But this is definitely worth checking out. It’s located a little further away, about 25 km away from the main cluster. I loved the drive through the Cambodian countryside and the glimpse of country life.
Also, it’s important to note that along the way, you’ll drive by the Cambodian Landmine Museum. This museum, started by a single man who is determined to rid his country of landmines, is a story of both heartbreak and inspiration. I highly recommend Karyn’s beautiful post for more information.
Last tips and practical info:
- Price: Tickets are US$20 for 1 day, US$40 for 3 day, or US$60 for 7 day. We did a 3 day pass.
- Hours: 5:00 am to 6:00 pm, although some temples close a little earlier.
- Transportation: Any tuk-tuk driver (your hotel can help you arrange) can help you plan your visit. Price for a driver for the entire day should be US$15.
- Dress: For the ladies, long pants and a T-shirt that covers the shoulders is recommended. Once inside a temple, there are some areas that can only be allowed into if wearing the proper dress code.
- And lastly, don’t worry about planning too much! Chances are, as you drive, you’ll see so many beautiful ruins that you’ll be spontaneously asking your driver to pull over. It’s how we found this randomly on the side of the road (and became one of our favorite pictures!):
Do you usually do a lot of research being going to a destination? If you’ve been to Siem Reap, which one was your favorite temple?