Siem Reap, Cambodia: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Temples on the Angkor Small Circuit Tour
I visited Siem Reap and the majestic Angkor temple ruins exactly 10 years ago. I remember braving the hot sun, and visiting temples after temples; and I told myself back then, one visit to Angkor was more than enough to last a lifetime. I guess I was wrong. 10 years on, I am back in Siem Reap and all set to go for another Angkor temple run.
The Angkor Ruins
Siem Reap is located in northwestern Cambodia and is the gateway to one of the most important religious archaeological sites in the world, the Angkor ruins. The most famous of the temples is the magnificient Angkor Wat — everyone visits Siem Reap just to see it! The temple, along with many other capital remains of the Khmer Empire (which is now extinct), was built from the 9th to the 15th century. They make up the Angkor Archaeological Park, which stretches over almost 500km2 — with the ruins scattered around villages, lakes and forests.
In 1992, the Angkor Archaeological Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many of the more popular temples (ie. Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Phrom) are filled with visitors every day, so I specifically timed my visits to each temple to try and avoid the massive crowds.
The Temple Tours (Small Circuit Tour)
The temple tours offered around Siem Reap are almost fixed. They are divided into a couple of circuits — the small circuit that encompasses some of the more popular ruins like Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom; the big circuit that covers other temples like Preah Khan and Pre Rup (will write about that soon). There are other clusters of temples as well, like the Banteay Srei and the Rolous temples.
During my first visit 10 years ago, I only did a one day tour of the temples and visited the main ruins. This time round, I wanted to see as many as I could! On the first day, I did the small circuit tour. The small circuit tour starts with sunrise at Angkor Wat (extra cost), followed by visits to the temples in Angkor Thom (Bayon, Baphuon, Leper King Terrace), Ta Keo, Ta Phrom, Banteay Kdei, Prasat Kravan, Angkor Wat again, and ends at Pak Bakheng. Here’s a run-down of my tour!
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
To catch the sunrise, I had to leave the main town of Siem Reap at 5am in the morning. It is about a half-hour tuk tuk ride from the center of town to Angkor Wat, with a quick stop at the ticketing building to buy the temple passes (more info on tickets at the end of this post). The ticket counter was packed to the brim in the wee hours of the morning as everyone had to line up for their own tickets — pictures are taken and printed on the tickets.
Upon arrival at Angkor Wat, I followed the massive crowd and made my way into the temple compound. The place was packed — people were standing on the temple walkway and gathering around the lake, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sun. Unfortunately, the weather was not ideal to view the sunrise that morning, as the sky was gloomy with the clouds in the way. So by 7am, with the sky brightening up and still no sign of the sun, I decided to leave Angkor Wat and head towards the first temple I wanted to explore — the Bayon. I wanted to beat the crowds.
P/S: I witnessed the sunrise on my last visit to Angkor Wat 10 years ago and it was absolutely breathtaking. Watching the sun rise from behind the towers of Angkor Wat is truly a sight; and I felt that it was still worth the effort waking up early in hopes of catching the sunrise again — even though I didn’t get to see it this time.
I arrived at the Bayon a little too early — it opens at 7.30am. So instead of waiting around, my tuk-tuk driver was kind enough to drop me off at one of the many stalls inside the Angkor complex for a quick breakfast. I ate my fill and was back at the temple when they opened the gates. There were just a small handful of visitors then, so I almost had the temple all to myself.
The Bayon is a Khmer temple that stands at the centre of the ancient capital of Angkor Thom. Built by King Jayavarman VII around the late 12th century, this temple’s most distinctive feature is the many towers of peaceful and smiling stone faces carved onto them. There are many theories of whose face is on these towers (apparently over 200 faces) — but to me, it just gives the temple such a calm and serene atmosphere. It is definitely my favorite Angkor temple.
Tip: Best to visit the temple at opening time, before the tour groups and other visitors come in after 8am.
Angkor Thom is said to be the last capital city of the Khmer empire, established in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII. I had to pass through one of the 5 city gates of Angkor Thom before heading to the Bayon, at its center. The city gates have towers with faces similar to the Bayon; and a pathway with a row of deities on its left and right, all holding onto a naga (serpent).
Within Angkor Thom, I also visited the Baphuon temple that was built before Angkor Thom in the 11th century. Located to the north of the Bayon within the Royal Palace area, Baphuon is in a poor state with lots of ongoing reconstruction works. Next to it is Phimeanakas, built at the end of the 10th century. It is a pretty impressive pyramid-shaped Hindu Temple ruin; with a myth about a serpent lady living in the tower that the Khmer King had to see every night, failing to do so meant death and calamity.
I also stopped by the Terrace of the Leper King. It is a flat U-shaped terrace with dramatic bas-reliefs on its walls, and a statue of the Leper King on its platform. There are many myths on how the statue got his name — some say it is a Khmer King who had leper, some say it is the God of Death, and some say it is from the moss that grows on it. To me, it just adds to the appeal of the Khmer history.
Tip: Take some time to walk around the Royal Palace area in Angkor Thom. All these temples and terraces are within the area and close to each other.
Towards the east of Angkor Thom is the unfinished temple of Ta Keo. Ta Keo is a 5-tier pyramid temple built around the year 1000 by King Jayavarman V. It is said to be the first Khmer temple made entirely out of sandstone. The temple doesn’t have many carvings or decorations as construction was stopped halfway — a lightning strike on the building was believed to be a bad omen.
The one thing I remember most about Ta Keo is its absolutely steep stairs, and how my legs got all jelly-like when I looked down from the top of the temple. While most of the popular ancient ruins with steep stairs (i.e Angkor Wat) has now been fitted with wooden steps, Ta Keo’s is still the original uneven and slippery sandstone steps.
Tip: Brave those steep stairs — the view from the top is quite spectacular.
Just down the main road from Ta Keo is the temple of Ta Phrom, famous for being featured in the movie Tomb Raider. It was built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII as a university and monastery, and dedicated to his mother. Unlike the other Angkor ruins, Ta Phrom has been left nestled within the jungle with trees growing out of its ruins.
Walking through Ta Phrom is like entering another world. The leaves of the towering trees filter the light that shines on its ruins, covered by the thick roots, vines, creeping plants and moss. 10 years ago, I remember walking up to the roots to touch and hide under them — but with the recent restoration; steel beams, wooden platforms and roped railings have been placed to protect it from further damage. Ta Phrom is extensively ruined with blocked corridors, fallen piles of stone blocks and thick foliage around the site. Walk with caution while admiring this masterpiece of men and nature.
Tip: Get your driver to drop you off at the west gate, and pick you up on the other side. You’ll get to wander off the platform path away from the guided tours for a little bit — for some peace and quiet, and to explore a different side of the ruins.
Banteay Kdei & Srah Srang
Southeast of Ta Phrom is the ‘Citadel of Chambers’, Banteay Kdei. It is a Buddhist temple, also built during the mid 12th century by King Jayavarman VII. The temple is now undergoing restoration, as it is crumbling due to the soft and low quality sandstone used for its construction.
Banteay Kdei is filled with many passageways, enclosures and galleries — they are mostly ruined, which to me, makes the temple feel like a maze with random pillars and arches. Opposite Banteay Kdei (towards the east) is Srah Srang, a reservoir dug out in the 10th century by King Rajendraverman. King Jayavarman VII renovated it with steps to the water’s edge and statues of lions, serpents and garudas; and reserved the use of the pond for himself and his wives.
Tip: Srah Srang is another great place to view the sunrise or sunset, if you want to stray away from the crowds at Angkor Wat.
Towards the south of Srah Srang is the small Hindu temple complex of Prasat Kravan, built in the 10th century. The temple is made of reddish bricks and has been heavily restored with new foundations, bricks and interior walls.
The main draw of this temple is the beautiful bas-reliefs in the interior part of the towers — they depict the Lord Vishnu and Lakshmi. There are also ancient Khmer writings on the walls inside the towers. I couldn’t get enough of admiring the impressive carvings.
Tip: Head to the temple in the morning, as the bas-reliefs are best viewed when the east light shines through the tower and brightens up the interior. I visited in the late morning.
After my visit to Prasat Kravan, it was finally time to explore Angkor Wat. Constructed in the early 12th century by King Suryavarman II, it was built as a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, but was later used as a Buddhist temple. It is the largest religious monument in the world, and Cambodia’s pride — it is even on the country’s flag.
It was a looooong walk (and climb) to get to the central chambers of Angkor Wat. The temple compound is so vast, with so many beautiful carvings, sculptures and statues to appreciate. I loved strolling through the galleries of bas-reliefs, admiring the views from the central towers, witnessing the monks in prayer, and soaking in the calm atmosphere within the cooling sandstone walls of the temple. It helped that there was hardly anyone around during my 2 hours in the temple.
Tip: Time your visit at about 12.30 in the afternoon — it is lunch time for tour groups (and most people), so there are less people in the temple. Also, I believe the midday sun makes beautiful photographs.
Sunset at Phnom Bakheng
I had a late lunch just outside the Angkor Wat complex. After that, I headed to my last stop for the day, Phnom Bakheng. Phnom Bakheng is dedicated to Lord Shiva, built in the 9th century during the reign of King Yasovarman. It is a popular spot to watch the sunset; so to protect the temple, the number of visitors have been limited to 300 at any one time.
Getting to Phnom Bakheng requires a 30-minute hike up the Bakheng Hill. At the entrance, the temple guards passed me a tag (to keep track of the number of visitors) before I climbed up the stairs to the temple. It was already packed by the time I arrived. I got myself a nice little spot, and waited for the sun to disappear behind the horizon amidst different shades of red and orange — ending my day of temple-running.
Tip: Get to Phnom Bakheng at about 4pm, and stay until the sun sets. During my visit, the passes ran out by 4.30pm.
Things to Know When Visiting
Here are a couple of important information to help you plan your visit to the Angkor Archeological Park:-
I paid US$20 for the day’s tuk-tuk ride around the small circuit, with a US$5 top-up to see the sunrise (I heard that prices can go lower than that). You can also hire a cab to bring you around, or you can choose to rent a bicycle and cycle in the heat!
Tickets to the park costs US$20 (1-day), US$40 (3-day), and US$60 (7-day). I took the 3-day pass; and because I made a last minute decision to spend another day temple hopping before I left, I got an extra 1-day one.
This dress code basically applies to almost all the religious sites around Asia — long pants below the knees and shirts that cover the shoulders. If you’re wearing shorts or sleeveless shirts, wear a sarong or drape a scarf within the temple grounds. It’s also advisable to wear comfortable shoes for the long walks.
There are plenty of food stalls and restaurants within the Angkor park grounds. I had breakfast at one of the numbered stalls in Angkor Thom, dropped by the Blue Pumpkin Cafe for lunch, and had some Cambodian coffee at one of the restaurants opposite Angkor Wat.
Bear in mind that it is going to be hot, very very hot. The Southeast Asian sun is merciless, and it’s going to make you all bothered and sweaty. And if you’re not ready for the crazy crowds, it’s only gonna get worse (so remember to time your visits)! Also, you’ll need to be in relatively good shape, as visiting the temples require lots of walking and climbing — pace yourself and take it easy.
So if you’re down and ready for all that, enjoy the temples! I had a wonderful, and pretty educational time — it was all worth it. More about the other temples in my next post.
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