Growing up, I used to stare at pictures of Angkor Wat in the pages of a National Geographic Magazine. Imagining what it felt like to walk within those walls and reliving its history and grandeur. That is why seeing Angkor Wat for the first time with my own two eyes felt like a surreal moment. One magical day in January 2015, I got to experience the UNESCO heritage site from sunup to sundown.
Join me as I recount the highlights of my temple run.
Greeting the sun in Angkor Wat
Reaching Siem Reap from Bangkok proved to be quite eventful. However, experiencing tuk-tuk scam on our first night didn’t deter us from sampling Pub Street. The next morning, as we were heading out to Angkor for sunrise, we discovered we were in for another surprise. A setback that woke me up from my stupor, sending my senses into overdrive. Still, this didn’t prevent me from getting caught off-guard at the picture-taking in the entrance booth! My face was the complete opposite of the excitement I was feeling within. 🙂
Relying on our tuk-tuk’s headlights, we navigated our way from the multitudes of parked tuk-tuks to get to the causeway. We were stumbling in the dark, too lazy to use our phones as flashlights. I navigated as best as I could to get us to the left pond. I read somewhere that this is the best spot for sunrise. Clearly, a few hundreds of people had the same idea. We all waited with bated breath as the dark sky slowly transformed into a myriad of colors. From violet to orange and red, with the sun slowly peeking in from behind Angkor Wat. As the temple towers are silhouetted against the rising sun, one can hear the gasps, camera shutters, and sounds of nature. It was definitely a sight to behold. The symmetry created in the temple’s reflection in the pool was nothing short of astounding. To my amazement, I almost forgot that I should be clicking away like the rest of the visitors. It was a memory worth savoring.
Soon enough, the crowd dispersed with the sun shining in all its glory. Most of them continued forward to explore Angkor Wat. But I had other plans.
The Many Faces of Bayon
At the center of one of the biggest Khmer cities sits this temple famous for its face-towers. The state temple is said to be the symbolic center of the universe and the empire. We were one of the first visitors in Prasat Bayon, managing to escape the crowds.
We walked in amazement inside its maze-like structure. Trying our best to decipher the bas-reliefs. In the upper areas of the temple, it is quite easy to get a crick in the neck from looking up. The face towers are a sight to behold, giving off a different aura in the early morning light.
The Pyramid Temple of Baphuon
Baphuon temple is another representation of Mount Meru and a sandstone temple dedicated to Shiva. Crossing the long stone bridge to get inside the temple, I imagined what it felt like for royalties doing the exact same thing years ago.
The pyramid was quite steep but offers a good view at the top. Baphuon’s bas-reliefs are also something to behold. With some panels displaying scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Elephant Terrace and the Terrace of the Leper King
Overlooking the Royal Square, two magnificent structures delight visitors with the amazing sculptures found on the terraces. Like Thailand, elephants have also played a major role in Khmer history. They have been used to parade royalties, especially the king. They were even used in battle by the commanders of the army. The Elephant Terrace was used as a viewing stand for public ceremonies and for the king’s returning army.
Exploring the trenches of the Terrace of the Leper King, I suddenly felt a bit claustrophobic. The air was thick and the high walls blocking the sunlight, casting an almost eerie glow inside. As much as I would have loved to examine more the hidden reliefs, I needed to get out for some air. On top of the terrace is where you will find the “Leper King”.
Nature vs Temple in Ta Prohm
Easily one of the most popular temples inside Angkor Archaeological Park. The temple monastery of Ta Prohm was left in its “natural state” to reflect what Angkor looked like when it was discovered in the 19th century. Silk-cotton trees and strangler fig trees have grown intertwined with the temple structures, creating a shadow-cloaked, other-worldly experience. The trees have become both the savior and destruction of some of the buildings. Inside the enclosures, one could see jumbles of rocks and a few surprises if one knows where to look.
Visiting Ta Prohm was a shock in itself. The Tomb Raider movie made it even more famous but didn’t do much justice. It was amazing to behold in real life. But the number of Chinese tourists was definitely overwhelming. And the real shocker was their behavior. Never in Asia had I experienced such rude tourists. Elbowing their way, not respecting the lines nor the people who they might hurt. I almost fell down because of that. Especially the selfie-sticks-laden tourists who forgot that there are other people around them.
Bantay Kdei and Srah Srang
Our receptionist spoke highly of Bantay Kdei, saying that this is her favorite among the Angkor temples. I found it to be similar in structure with Ta Prohm minus the overgrowth. Just across the street, Srah Srang proved to be a respite. Despite not packing too many temples for the day, we found ourselves a bit templed out. And exhausted from the heat. The platform flanked by lions and nagas provided a serene view and a refreshing feeling. The name “Srah Srang” means royal bath but it has been said that this water is for everyone except the elephants.
The bricks of Prasat Kravan
On the way back to Angkor, we passed by Prasat Kravan. It was not initially on our list but seeing the brick towers in one row, my curiosity was piqued. It didn’t look as old as the other Angkor temples. The temple is dedicated to Vishnu, showed by the bas-reliefs found on some of the towers. The five towers are aligned from north to south and facing west.
Enlightenment and Sunset in Angkor Wat
A few hours before sunset, we finally managed to get back to Angkor Wat grounds. Clutching my Ancient Angkor guidebook and my camera, we made way to the back entrance. Seeing the five towers brought back my strength. At long last, I will get to explore the inner galleries of the world’s largest religious monument. The architectural masterpiece is so vast that it would be impossible to truly inspect every nook and cranny. But I surely tried my best to immerse myself in the grandeur and history of this magnificent structure.
The three-tiered pyramid is best enjoyed slowly. Perusing the galleries filled with bas-reliefs and taking a good look at the multitude of apsaras along the walls. The climb towards the highest temple is quite steep, mimicking the ascent of a great mountain. The four vestibules are filled with a statue of Buddha. It was fascinating to watch the young monks playing and visiting in the inner courtyard of the central tower. Gazing out the windows from the top, one is given a glimpse of the vast horizon, with hot air balloons in the distance, ready for sunset. It must have been truly majestic in its heyday.
Exploring Angkor was definitely the highlight of my short Siem Reap trip. It made me realize a lot of things, like the fact that we don’t really remember our days working. Instead, what remains in our memories are the experiences that push our boundaries. Experiences that made us feel alive. For me, it was adventure and travel. It made me feel like a kid again, wide-eyed with wonder and ever so curious. For the longest time, it made me feel like me again.
Being in a new country, where I am the foreigner instead of a local, tested my limits. I learned that some people no matter how good friends you are, some friends are just not suitable to your traveling style. And so you must learn to adapt.
For sure, I have left a fragment of my soul in Siem Reap. But as the five towers glow orange from the setting sun, now it’s clear to me what I must do next when I get back home.
Quick Guide to Angkor
CURRENCY: USD is widely accepted but KHR is also still used
ANGKOR PERMIT: 1 day is 20$, 3 days is 40$ and 7 days is 60$. No need to buy in advance, but if you buy it around 5 PM you are free to see the sunset for the day and can still use the permit for the whole day tomorrow. If you buy it before sunrise, be sure to get to the ticket booth early as there will be a long queue. Always carry your permit with you.
***UPDATED: February 1, 2017
New entrance fees:
One day pass: $37 (valid on day of purchase)
Three day pass: $62 (valid for 7 days from date of purchase)
One week pass: $72 (valid for one month)
**Note: Ready exact cash! Be sure not to lose your pass or you will be asked to pay the fines!
GETTING AROUND: Best to hire a tuktuk in Siem Reap. You can also opt to rent a bike or hire a van. Your hotel receptionist can usually recommend a trusted driver. We hired a tuktuk for 15$ from sunrise to sunset (Price as of January 2015).
WHAT TO BRING: sunscreen, mosquito repellant, hat, bottles of water, good pair of shoes for walking
PEAK SEASON: November to March
WHERE TO EAT: There are lots of restaurants in Siem Reap and near the temple area but the most popular area for food and drinks is at Pub Street
WHERE TO STAY: Lots of options around Siem Reap, from hostels to luxury hotels.
Reminders in visiting Angkor World Heritage Site:
(As seen in numerous signages around Angkor)
- Do not climb on the structures.
- Do not touch the bas-reliefs and sculptures.
- Do not write graffiti on the stones or trees.
- Do not collect any material such as stones or fragments.
- Do not eat or smoke inside the temples or the surrounding areas.
- Do not use loudspeakers in the temples and their surrounding.
- Do not bring animals in the temples and their surrounding.
- Weapons (guns, explosive, knife, etc) are strictly prohibited in the temples and their surrounding.
- Filming or taking pictures with professional equipment or for commercial purposes requires a permit.
- Angkor World Heritage Sites is a sacred area. Please respect this cultural site by wearing appropriate clothing (bare shoulders and shorts are inappropriate).
SAMPLE ONE DAY ITINERARY AT ANGKOR ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK
- Sunrise at Angkor Wat
- Angkor Thom
- Royal Palace and Phimeanakas
- Elephant Terrace
- Leper King Terrace
- Ta Keo
- Ta Prohm
- Bantay Kdei
- Srah Srang
- Prasat Kravan
- Angkor Wat
- Sunset at Angkor Wat
Read my other travel stories about Siem Reap here.
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Planning to visit Angkor Archaeological Park?
How was your Angkor experience?