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Making the most of the temples of Angkor

July 9, 2010 | Advice, Cambodia, Travel | 11 Comments
Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat.

Even the name conjures up a sense of wonder and mystery, an appreciation of both the incredible feats of mankind over the millennia and the inexorable power of nature in equal measure.  Or maybe that’s just me.  In any case it would be fair to say that I was rather looking forward to my time at the vast Angkorian temple complex near Siem Reap in Cambodia, albeit tinged with a slight concern that perhaps it wouldn’t live up to the picture already formed in my overhyped imagination.

I needn’t have worried.

If your first view of the towers of the main attraction, the smiling faces of Bayon or the encroaching jungle at Ta Prohm don’t leave an indelible impression on your consciousness, I’d suggest double-checking for a pulse.  It really is that sort of place, and one that you owe it to yourself to visit at least once during your lifetime.

Here are a few things I figured out while I was there to help you make the most of your time in this unbelievable part of the world.

 

Avoid high season

 

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Apparently the most popular time to visit Angkor is between the cooler, drier months of November and February.  As a result, I’d highly recommend avoiding being anywhere near the place during that time.  For me there’s nothing that takes the shine off an amazing place like this than sharing it with a few thousand of your closest friends.

Traipsing along behind yet another chattering tour group, all of whom are vying to get photos of themselves in identical ‘crazy’ poses before climbing back on the bus and being whisked away to do the same thing again at the next spot, is not the ideal way to see the temples of Angkor.  If you can stand the heat and the risk of rain in the late afternoon, a visit in the early monsoon months of June or July will see far few visitor numbers and a much more enjoyable experience all round.

Similarly, each of the major temples has peak times of the day associated with it, due either to the views at sunrise or sunset, or based on the times that the tour buses roll up.  If you can make sure that you are somewhere else at that time, you may well end up with many of the less famous temples virtually to yourself.  I know I did.

Take a different path

 

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Even when crowds are unavoidable a little lateral thinking could give you a surprising amount of solitude.  Sure, spend a couple of minutes taking the eponymous sunrise shot of Angkor Wat over the reflecting pool, but then hightail it inside and climb up to the inner courtyard as soon as there’s enough light to avoid falling down the steep sets of narrow stairs that lead there.

The above picture was taken just after sunrise and other than a couple of local guards who were too busy shooting catapults at the bird life to notice me, there wasn’t another soul in sight for at least half an hour.  Of the entire time that I spent clambering around the temples, that memory will undoubtedly be one of my favourites.  There’s simply no way describe the feeling of being alone in such a wonderful place.

Thirty minutes later, it was completely different.

Give yourself enough time

 

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This may seem obvious, and yet I have been astonished by the number of people who only allowed themselves a single day at Angkor.  It simply isn’t enough.  Even the inner temples cover a vast area, while the total complex is in excess of 160 square kilometres and some of the most interesting ruins outside the ‘big three’ lie a fairly lengthy motorbike or tuk-tuk ride away.  It is impossible to rush through most of the temples without doing them a complete disservice, and the oppressive heat of the late morning and early afternoon will slow you down even further.

Give yourself an absolute minimum of three days here – you can buy a pass that provides access for three days out of seven for $40 USD, and it will take at least that long to appreciate the diversity and brilliance of the dozens of temples on offer.  If you have to cut something else from your itinerary to achieve this, so be it.

Vive la difference

 

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Although the ruins of Angkor are lumped together in the guide books because of their similarities in geographic location and construction material, many of them share virtually nothing else.  Design, orientation, purpose and date of construction varied dramatically from one temple to another, and the changing political and religious overtones of the Khmer kingdom are reflected in the monuments to its rulers and gods.

The qualities of many of the less famous temples are much more subtle than the main attractions, and as result are worth seeing first to give yourself a chance to appreciate them.  Anywhere else in the world ruins like Preah Khan, Pre Rup and Banteay Srei would be considered historical highlights in their own right, but after spending a morning engrossed in the grandeur of Angkor Wat and the royal city of Angkor Thom pretty much anything tends to pale in comparison.

Look after yourself

 

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Exploring Angkor is likely to be an experience that you remember for the rest of your life.  Taking a few simple precautions will help ensure that the memory is an entirely positive one.

  • Sun protection is vital.  Temperatures and humidity are both very high, especially when wandering around some of the more open temple complexes.  Wear a hat and shirt, and use plenty of sunscreen.  Don’t forget to keep reapplying it, as you will almost certainly sweat it off within an hour or two.
  • Carry enough water and keep drinking it.  When you run out, there will be no shortage of vendors trying to sell you some more so don’t feel a need to conserve it.
  • Sturdy footwear helps a lot.  While you can explore the ruins in flip-flops, the combination of steep narrow steps, uneven ground and significant amounts of walking means they aren’t the greatest choice.
  • Wear insect repellent – the mosquitoes and other bugs can become a little annoying, especially near bodies of water (of which there are many).
  • Pack a light rain jacket during the monsoon season.  While you’re likely to call it a day if the rain gets too excessive, you don’t want to have to curtail your exploring just because you’re getting a bit damp.

It’s not just about the temples

 

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While the temples are obviously the main attraction, they aren’t the only thing worth looking at in the area.  The Angkorian complex doesn’t exist in isolation – it is part of a vast ecosystem of birds, animals, plants and humans living and competing for resources in a setting of stunning natural beauty.

Take the time to look beyond the worn sandstone and bas reliefs while walking around and between the temples to call out a greeting to local fishermen, spot the myriad range of butterflies and dragonflies flitting amongst the ruins and marvel at the awesome power of the jungle as gigantic trees rise into the canopy in front of you.  The ruins are undoubtedly incredible, but they are just a part of the story.

Visiting the temples of Angkor is an incredible and unique experience.  Book a plane ticket, grab your guide book and go.  It will be one of the best decisions you ever made.

11 Comments

  1. Reply

    I'd like to 2nd good footwear. Flip-flops are just not going to do it exploring @ Angkor.

    Great tips!

  2. Reply

    ayngelina

    July 9, 2010

    I will always remember my time there, it was so amazing.

    The site is so large there's really no need to follow the crowds, I had marked a few that I wanted to see and our tuk tuk driver knew which ones would be empty. I got some amazing photos.

  3. Reply

    Andrew

    July 10, 2010

    When you say three days, are there hostels/hotels nearby? How far from a major city is it? Tour buses and the size you quote make me think it is several hour trek into the jungle. How do you get around inside of the complex?
    I spend most of my time in Europe and haven't really researched that end of the world at all, but it sounds awesome.

  4. Reply

    Dave

    July 11, 2010

    @Dustin - thanks mate. :) Amazing the number of people wandering round in flip flops there hey?

    @Ayngelina - absolutely! A good tuk-tuk or moto driver is worth their weight in gold around Angkor...

    @Andrew - Angkor Wat is only a few km from the city of Siem Reap, which has many tens if not hundreds of guesthouses, hotels etc ranging from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars a night. Although the complex is huge, the roads are probably the best anywhere in Cambodia and a tuk-tuk or motorbike driver will be able to take you from Siem Reap all around the temples and back again (waiting for you at each place) for $10-$20 depending on distance, number of passengers etc. There's certainly no need for the tour bus or minibus experience unless that really is your thing. And yup, it's totally amazing!

  5. Reply

    Elise

    July 11, 2010

    We really enjoyed the Temples as well. Truly breathtaking. We managed to find some little places too where we were the only people or a little (although only 10 minutes!)

    Great article, with some insightful information (especially about the flip flops-or thongs as us Aussies call them!)

    Where are you now? We would love to catch up for a few beers if you're keen!

  6. Reply

    Dave

    July 12, 2010

    Thanks Elise! Given my heritage I should have called them jandals, but I'd like other people in the world to have some idea what I'm on about! ;-)

    I'm in Laos, just finishing up in Pakse now and heading to Vientiene on the overnight bus. Where are you? ;-)

  7. Reply

    Dan

    August 13, 2010

    I've been there both in the low and high season. The crowd issue at Angkor is way over exaggerated, the worst you will see is on the main causeway leading up to Angkor Wat. The sunrise/sunsets from some vantages seem to get pretty crazy though.

    Still I 2nd you off season recommendation. It is much more beautiful at that time of the year.

  8. Reply

    Bessie

    October 23, 2010

    Thanks for the tips :) So far from what we've seen, even at the sunrise at Angkor Wat, in October the crowds aren't so bad. The biggest annoyance are the bus-loads of people coming all at once, but they also seem to move through rather fast - so no problem there!

    I agree I can't imagine people exploring it all in less than a few days. 1 is so little time!

  9. Reply

    Amer

    January 10, 2011

    Amazing tips. Can't wait going there in April, so thanks for the heads up. I'm gonna have 3-4 days there. I hope its enough time for me to explore aswell as possibly doing some sketches. Great article btw.

    • Reply

      Dave

      January 10, 2011

      Hey Amer, thanks for commenting :)

      3-4 days should be enough to have a pretty good look around both the main attractions and some of the less visited temples, with a bit of time thrown in for doing some sketches. I actually bought a very cool little sketch when I was there, from a local guy who was sitting in one of the temples quietly drawing away. I'm not usually one for souvenirs but it was such an idyllic scene that I just had to - and his artwork was pretty darn good too!

  10. Reply

    Paul Phillips

    July 30, 2012

    We just returned from Angkor and I have to say that its a fantastic place, we will be writing an article on our adventures very soon! Thanks for sharing yours


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