We were just about ‘templed out’ by the time we got to Cambodia, having travelled through India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos, but felt we should go and see the ancient city of Angkor.
Tickets to the temple complex are reasonably priced, with a choice of tickets giving access for one day, three days (valid for a week) or seven days (valid for a month) for US$20, $40 and $60 respectively. All tickets have your photo printed on them so are not transferable. We got a one day ticket but bought it the day before around 5pm for no extra cost, which allowed us to see the temples at sunset.
We decided to visit a temple called Pre Rup for sunset. It was crowded on top of the temple and from there we couldn’t see the sun set behind the temple, so we climbed down and took some photos at ground level. We didn’t realise that the crowds on top of Pre Rup were ushered out of another gate after sunset and somehow we got left behind in the temple after everyone else had gone. It was pretty special having the whole temple to ourselves at twilight, but the security guards weren’t very happy with us!
The next day we were up at sparrow’s fart ready for our tuk tuk driver, Mr Solee, to pick us up at 5am. We’d hired him through our guest house to take us on a ten hour tour of the temples for a very reasonable US$28. It was early March and we knew the heat would be unbearable by noon, but our host had recommended that we include a visit to Banteay Srei, which adds a couple of hours to the tour.
When Mr Solee dropped us off near Angkor Wat it was still dark but there were hundreds of people milling around. We got a coffee and chocolate croissant from a stall doing a roaring trade then followed the masses to the pond in front of Angkor Wat. This is the spot where everyone waits to see the sun rise behind the temple. Some people were eagerly scanning the horizon for early signs of the sunrise, others were taking selfies or photos of the barely discernable outline of Angkor Wat, most were talking, but all were jostling to get into better position for when the magical moment arrived.
When the sky started to lighten at around 6am it didn’t look as though the sunrise was going to be too spectacular.
He agreed and we escaped the crowd and skirted around the pond to the temple. It was still pretty dark but I’d brought a torch and it was getting lighter by the minute. When we got there we had the world’s largest religious building virtually to ourselves. We spent a couple of hours wandering around Angkor Wat looking at the carved friezes then returned to the tuk tuk.
Our next stop was Banteay Srei (Citadel of the Women), which is made of pink sandstone and said to have the best carvings of all the temples. However, we hadn’t realised how far away it was – it’s about 27km from the main temple complex and took about 45 minutes by tuk tuk. We stopped for lunch on the way at a little café where we were the only guests. I expected such a remote site to be empty, but when we arrived at Banteay Srei at about 10.30am we discovered it was very commercial with stalls, toilets and a visitors’ centre. Also, a few coachloads of Chinese tourists had just arrived. As well as being crowded, it was hot and there was little shade so we didn’t stay long. In hindsight, it would have been better not to have included Banteay Srei in the itinerary so we had more time at the main temple complex and could have finished the tour earlier.
Although Angkor Wat is the iconic Angkor temple, my favourite was Ta Prohm where we went next. This is the temple featured in ‘Tomb Raider’, with the massive trees growing over and out of it. It’s a great illustration of the power of nature. Many of the walls have fallen down and you have to climb over rubble to get to some sections. I laughed when I saw a small area of man-made stone blocks cordoned off and labelled as ‘unsafe’. Why someone thought that area deserved a sign when the whole place was like a building site escapes me! I’m often amazed by the things you are allowed to do on public sites in third world countries. There is obviously no fear of litigation that has led to first world countries stifling their children and the closure of many activities, such as horse riding stables, parades, because of the exorbitant cost of public liability insurance.
After wandering around Ta Prohm for a while, we went to Angkor Thom, the main complex. This was the site of an ancient city that had a population of up to 150,000 and serviced about a million people from the surrounding area. The main temple we saw here was Bayon, the one with the massive faces carved into the rock. By this time it was about 2pm and very hot. I’d had enough and so had my camera, which had run out of charge. Now we were definitely ‘templed out’!
- Make sure your camera has plenty of charge and take a spare battery if possible.
- Take a torch with you if you’re going to be there for sunrise or sunset.
- Unless you’re a temple junkie a one day ticket should be enough, but I wouldn’t recommend including Banteay Srei in a one day itinerary.
- Get your day ticket the day before around 5pm so you can see the temples at sunset.