Cambodia Travel

Seeking Enlightenment in Angkor

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. πŸ™‚

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.

sunrise angkor thom south gate

Through the south gate of Angkor Thom

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.

face towers of Bayon

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.

top view prasat baphuon

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 β€œLeper King”.

front of elephant terrace

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 β€œnatural 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.

tra prohm

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 β€œSrah 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.

prasat kravan

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.

angkor wat psw

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.

sunset in angkor wat

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.

Check Room Rates in Booking.com.

Reminders in visiting Angkor World Heritage Site:

(As seen in numerous signages around Angkor)

  1. Do not climb on the structures.
  2. Do not touch the bas-reliefs and sculptures.
  3. Do not write graffiti on the stones or trees.
  4. Do not collect any material such as stones or fragments.
  5. Do not eat or smoke inside the temples or the surrounding areas.
  6. Do not use loudspeakers in the temples and their surrounding.
  7. Do not bring animals in the temples and their surrounding.
  8. Weapons (guns, explosive, knife, etc) are strictly prohibited in the temples and their surrounding.
  9. Filming or taking pictures with professional equipment or for commercial purposes requires a permit.
  10. 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
  • Bayon
  • Baphuon
  • Royal Palace and Phimeanakas
  • Elephant Terrace
  • Leper King Terrace
  • Thommanon
  • Ta Keo
  • Ta Prohm
  • Lunch
  • Bantay Kdei
  • Srah Srang
  • Prasat Kravan
  • Angkor Wat
  • Sunset at Angkor Wat
angkor map canby

credit: canbypublications.com

Read my other travel stories about Siem Reap here.

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    October 3, 2016 at 1:55 pm

    […] in. Carried over from years of watching National Geographic and History channels. The other two, Angkor Wat (Cambodia) and Shwesandaw Pagoda (Bagan, Myanmar), I already had the privilege of seeing last year. So when by […]

  • Voyager
    April 22, 2016 at 12:57 pm

    Angkor Wat has always haunted us in our dreams, its such a lovely place. Great post with valuable information.

  • Bernard Tan
    April 21, 2016 at 7:06 pm

    Thanks for sharing such an awesome guide! I am heading to Siem Reap in July, and would be using your guide! Thanks

  • Adina M
    April 20, 2016 at 8:20 am

    Your photographs are so breathtaking. I need to go there ASAP. Angkor Wat is a must on my travel bucket list! So much to explore in that region.

  • Aika Loraine
    April 18, 2016 at 5:49 am

    They said if you visit a certain country, make sure to visit a Unesco heritage site. I love your photos. Angkot wat looks sooooo ancient

  • Aika Callora
    April 18, 2016 at 4:04 am

    I’ve read several blog posts about Cambodia already and this place has convinced me even more to visit the place! Angkor Wat is amazing! It feels like walking in history. Hope I can visit this place too.

  • Jessica
    April 16, 2016 at 9:37 pm

    So magical – both the Angkor Wat itself and the feeling of shifting the dream in photo from the book into seeing it in real. I am fascinated with UNESCO Heritage sites and so I should visit this soon.

  • Jaymee
    April 16, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    Your photos are amazing! I really appreciate the tips you gave for tourists, I really need that since I am newbie at traveling. Me and my family are planning to travel next year that is why I am putting this post in my bookmark. I will definitely try to remember your tuk-tuk scam and Chinese tourists.

  • Kat
    April 16, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    Even before I started traveling, it has always been in my bucket list to see Angkor Wat. You’re so lucky you’ve already seen its beauty in person. Even in photos, the structures in Cambodia look remarkable.

    Re: Chinese tourists, I haven’t had any bad experience yet, but if you read international news there are always items about their rude behavior. πŸ™

  • Cai Dominguez-Travelosyo
    April 16, 2016 at 10:29 am

    Reading this brings back a lot of memories from SR. The sunrise is so magical and watching it over the towers of Angkor Wat was amazing. I think I should follow your itinerary that after watching the sunrise I didn’t get i at angkor wat, instead proceed somewhere. I think that’s better. Every people I know who went to SR experience being scammed and myself is not an exemption. Hahaha πŸ™‚

  • Sabine - so far so Sabine
    April 15, 2016 at 8:49 pm

    This place looks just fabulous. So much to see! The elephants looks fantastic. This must be thrilling to see. Your article is a true guide! You don’t need to look up anything else anymore, well done! The perfect travel agency online ha ha. Gorgeous pictures, I would love to travel there and experience the temples myself. http://Www.sofarsosabine.com

  • Marge Gavan
    April 15, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    I asked one backpacker whom I met in Ho Chi Minh if seeing the sunrise in Angkor Wat is worth it because I didn’t really want to deal with the crowd. He said that it is. Unfortunately, my tour guide fetched me at 7AM, not that I could demand ’cause he only took me for a tour out of the goodness of his heart. So maybe I have a reason to go back to Cambodia and catch that sunrise or maybe the sunset.

    I wasn’t able to go to Elephant Terrace, wow it looks amazing.

  • Maerose JS
    April 15, 2016 at 5:33 pm

    What an informative and entertaining post! I’d love to visit the Angkor Wat as well. Unfortunately, I have to tighten my purse strings in the next couple of years for my studies. So I really do enjoy when people share their travel experiences. Couldn’t agree more on what you said about being a foreigner and having to adapt. That pushed me to try solo traveling, and that’s something I’d never ever regret! Cheers to more travels!

  • Hang Around The World
    April 15, 2016 at 5:18 pm

    Never seen something like this before! It seems to be amazing…

  • ROBERT LEE
    April 15, 2016 at 4:49 pm

    Oh my… I want to see Angkor Wat too! You are so luck to have visited this UNESCO Heritage site!