Moon Angkor Wat
With Siem Reap & Phnom Penh
By Tom Vater
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- Strategic itineraries ranging from one to three days in Angkor to a week exploring the Khmer Empire, with suggestions on the most beautiful (and most secluded) temples to visit
- Top sights and unique experiences: Explore the sublime forested temple ruins of Angkor, remnants of the ancient Khmer Empire. Marvel at Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world, get up close to Angkor Thom’s carved bodhisattva, and wander among nearly 100 monuments deep in the jungle at Koh Ker. Immerse yourself in bustling city of Siem Reap, drink thick sweet coffee and sample barbequed meats from street carts in Phnom Penh, and stroll the colorful markets, quiet streets, and funky art galleries of Battambang
- Tips for the best ways to tour the temples to get the most out of this sacred and awe-inspiring site
- Focused advice and historical context from documentarian and journalist Tom Vater
- Essential insight on trip planning, health and safety, reservations, transportation (by tuk-tuk, taxi, motorbike, or bicycle), and accommodations ranging from hotels to homestays with local families
- Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
- In-depth coverage of Siem Reap, Angkor and all its temples, Phnom Penh, and excursions to other parts of Cambodia such as Banteay Chhmar, Sambor Prei Kuk, Preah Khan, Koh Ker, Preah Vihear, and Battambang
DISCOVER Angkor Wat
Planning Your Trip
The Temples of Angkor
CAMBODIA’S TOP 10 TEMPLES
The Khmer Empire in One Week
Two Weeks of Khmer Architecture and History
One Day in Phnom Penh
The first rays of the sun touch the central towers of Angkor Wat. A group of young monks, their robes a luminous orange, cross the causeway to the world’s largest religious building. A stone’s throw away, rice paddies and golden temple roofs shimmer in the morning sun. Old women, their heads hidden under red head scarves, rest in the shade of giant banyan trees, chewing betel.
I still vividly remember my own first glimpse of Angkor Wat. I was riding a motorcycle along the wide, tree-lined road from the ticket booths toward the temples. Monkeys swung from the trees. A couple of elephants stood in the shade, waiting for passengers. I turned and followed the road running parallel to the dark green water toward the causeway. Suddenly, across the moat, I glimpsed the massive central towers rising out of the dense foliage. I felt surprise, then disbelief, at the temple’s form and sheer size; the forest ambience induced a personal sense of discovery.
Mass tourism has discovered Siem Reap, the boomtown nearest the temples, but the monuments will always remain a sublime experience, even as they become more crowded. True marvels to behold, the temple ruins of Angkor—stone remnants of the Khmer Empire, which ruled much of Southeast Asia almost 1,000 years ago—have put Cambodia on the map and attract more than two million international visitors a year. No one leaves disappointed.
And you can add to the monuments the bustling markets, quiet streets, and funky art galleries of Battambang; the remote forest temples away from the main highways; and the lively riverside bars in Phnom Penh. Here, in the capital city, the smell of fried food wafts across the street, monks collect alms and police officers collect bribes, laughing children pass by on bare feet, and old men silently sit at roadside cafés nudging glasses of thick, sweet coffee. After sunset, the riverside turns into the world’s most chaotic traffic jam, young lovers race their bikes through darkened, potholed side streets, thousands of insects hover around flickering streetlamps, and sidewalk restaurants are crowded with travelers and local families.
A journey to Angkor Wat is an adventure, an experience, a moment in time. Above and beyond the magnificent sights, visitors are rewarded by the warm welcome of Cambodia’s people. Despite the country’s tragic recent history, poverty, years of isolation, and increasing political impunity, the sourire khmer—the Khmer smile—remains intact. Kampuchea, as the Khmer call their homeland, has a timeless, mysterious, and somewhat anarchic quality, quite unlike any land you have visited before.
Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
The temples around Angkor are Southeast Asia’s greatest architectural gems, bar none. The magnificent ruins of the Khmer Empire, located predominantly in the northwest of the country, are reason enough to visit Cambodia, though the bustling capital of Phnom Penh has come a long way from a dangerous slum-scape to a chaotic but quite beautiful riverside city. Cambodia’s many decades of conflict have ended, and while the country’s democracy has taken a serious beating in recent years, a return to all-out anarchy is highly unlikely. Armed robbery of foreigners is virtually unheard of, and unless you are looking for trouble, you are unlikely to find any. Several remote temples that have lingered in deep forest, virtually forgotten for decades, have also become accessible.
In the past fifteen years, Cambodia’s temple town has developed from a few blocks of crumbling colonial architecture into a bustling tourist mecca. Siem Reap, the jumping-off point for the main monuments of the Angkor Empire, keeps on growing, and while this can be a somewhat uneven process, visitors will find everything they need here—excellent accommodations for all budgets, a huge variety of food that includes local cuisine and Asian temptations as well as Western fare, and plenty of shopping opportunities, including attractive markets, with a few cultural draws thrown into the lively mix. Siem Reap remains the country’s cleanest, safest, and best organized town, though it is the temples a few kilometers away that are the real attraction.
Temples, temples, and more temples. Several huge imperial capitals of the Khmer Empire flourished in the northwest of Cambodia between the 10th and 15th centuries and ruled Cambodia as well as large parts of today’s Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Today, only temple ruins—magnificent dreams in stone—remain, and the Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is not only a tourist magnet attracting more than two million visitors each year but also the spiritual and cultural heart of Cambodia.
Several temple sites and attractive towns have emerged from a long slumber and now welcome visitors. Battambang, to the south of Siem Reap, is Cambodia’s second-largest city and offers a laid-back atmosphere, the best circus in Asia, excellent accommodations, great art galleries, and fantastic trips into the surrounding countryside. Elsewhere, remote temples such as Banteay Chhmar, Koh Ker, Sambor Prei Kuk, and Preah Vihear have become more accessible in recent years and are less crowded than the main sites, although this may change as time goes by.
Cambodia’s capital has come a long way in the last decade, from a dangerous backwater to a bustling, dynamic, and somewhat chaotic boomtown. In the process Phnom Penh has lost some of its old-world charm and is slowly giving way to futuristic chrome and glass high-rises. The streets are pretty safe—if seriously clogged with traffic—and hundreds of restaurants, bars, and clubs await visitors who can party around the clock against a background of colonial architecture and Cambodia’s newfound, if grossly uneven, economic regeneration. Add to that street markets, art galleries, and a few museums doing a good job at presenting both Cambodia’s Angkor era as well as its more recent catastrophic turmoil.
When to Go
Cambodia’s climate is tropical year-round, except for the highlands in the northeast where it can get cool. The best time to visit is in the cool season, between October and early March. But that’s also the busiest time of year around the Angkor temples. During the hot season, from late March into June, much of the country turns into a furnace, although the Khmer New Year in April is a special experience anywhere, especially around Angkor. Although it also often rains into November, the rainy season, June-September, is a great time to explore the temple ruins, as there are fewer visitors. Keep in mind that some of the remoter temples could be inaccessible due to terrible road conditions. In October, head to Phnom Penh for Bonn Om Tuk, the annual water festival with three-day boat races and a city bursting at its seams with visitors from the provinces.
Before You Go
Passports and Visas
All visitors to Cambodia must have a passport valid for at least six months. It’s possible to apply for a one-month tourist visa online or in person at any Cambodian embassy or consulate in your own country or another country. Alternatively, visitors are issued a visa upon arrival at Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville International Airports as well as at a number of border crossings from Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Overland travelers should note that being in possession of a visa when crossing into Cambodia can save time and hassle.
All adults should have up-to-date inoculations for measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, and polio whether they travel or not. Visitors to Cambodia should also be vaccinated against hepatitis A. Those intending to work in the health sector should get a hepatitis B vaccine. A typhoid shot is recommended if you plan to spend extended periods in remote rural areas, as is vaccination against Japanese encephalitis.
Distances in Cambodia are short, but the roads, though improving, are bad. The main population centers are connected by paved highways, but out in the provinces, roads are often graded or ungraded laterite dirt, which creates dust storms that turn clothes red and destroy cameras. The journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh can be done by plane, boat, bus, or taxi. The rest of the country is mostly reachable by bus or taxi, although some of the remoter corners of Cambodia, depending on weather, can only be reached by pickup or 4WD vehicle, or even just by motorcycle.
Driving yourself is possible, if risky, given the local driving culture, state of the roads, and limited medical facilities. But it is a great adventure exploring Cambodia in or on your own vehicle, and in most places in the countryside, locals welcome anyone passing by with open arms.
Visiting the Temples of Angkor
Experiencing Angkor is easy. There are really no advance arrangements to be made, other than booking a hotel room, particularly in high season.
The Temples of Angkor
The main temples of Angkor can be seen in a day, but that hardly does justice to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Three days in Angkor gives you enough time to soak up the main structures at your leisure and get a good impression of the former might of the Khmer culture.
Visitors to the Angkor Archaeological Park use Siem Reap as a base. Tickets to the park—one-day, three-day, and seven-day—are available at a new, enormous ticket office a few kilometers to the east of town.
There are a number of options for getting to the temples (and traveling between the temples). You can get around by bicycle, in a tuk-tuk, on the back of a motorbike, on an electric bike, or in a taxi or minivan. It takes 30 minutes to get from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat by motorbike, tuk-tuk, or taxi. On a bicycle it takes about 50 minutes. Whatever mode of transport you choose, be sure to negotiate everything in advance.
One Day in Angkor
One day is not enough to absorb the power and beauty of the Khmer Empire, but it does allow for some fleeting glimpses of its architectural highlights.
Start very early and catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, then proceed to the South Gate of Angkor Thom and enter the royal city to take in the recently restored Baphuon, the intriguing Terrace of the Leper King with its hidden corridor, and, of course, the Bayon, the most spectacular structure within the walls of Angkor Thom. The Bayon features the carved faces of the bodhisattvas, among the most iconic sights of the Khmer Empire.
Return to Siem Reap and the Old Market for lunch, or proceed to Ta Prohm and grab a bite there before exploring the forest temple in the early afternoon. Then make your way back to Angkor Wat for a longer visit before heading to the hilltop temple of Phnom Bakheng for the sunset.
Three Days in Angkor
Three days are enough for most visitors to take in all the major sites in the Angkor Archaeological Park at their leisure.
Start your journey at the South Gate to Angkor Thom and explore the royal city for the rest of the morning. There is enough time to take a close look at the Bayon (the city’s most spectacular structure) as well as the Baphuon, the Terrace of the Leper King, the Terrace of the Elephants, and Phimeanakas. Have lunch at one of the food stalls near the Bayon before heading to the Victory Gate in the afternoon. Proceed to the fantastic forest temple of Ta Prohm, with a stop at Ta Keo, a simple but imposing sandstone pyramid, and explore Angkor Wat before catching the sunset inside the temple complex.
Try for an early morning start and catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat before proceeding to the quiet but mesmerizing temples of Preah Khan and Neak Pean as well as the temple mountain of Pre Rup and peaceful Ta Som. Head back to Siem Reap for lunch. In the afternoon, take the 30-minute ride out to the Roluos Group of temples, the remnants of the first major Khmer capital, and try for the sunset at Phnom Bakheng if you don’t mind the crowds. (It’s a 30- to 40-minute ride from Roluos to Phnom Bakheng, an hour if you are on a bicycle.)
No visit to the Angkor Archaeological Park would be complete without a walk around Banteay Srei (a 30- to 40-minute ride from Siem Reap), an exquisitely carved sandstone temple. Arrive before 8am to beat the crowds. During or just after the rainy season, Kbal Spean, a nearby riverbed full of stone carvings, is worth a side trip. Grab lunch at Banteay Srei on the way back from Kbal Spean, or if you are skipping the riverbed, the food stalls in front of Ta Prohm are adequate for a modest meal and a chance to cool down. From Banteay Srei, take the 40-minute ride to the Eastern Mebon, built on an artificial island in the middle of the now-dry Eastern Baray, and the rarely visited Banteay Samre, almost a miniature version of Angkor Wat, then check out the smaller temples of Banteay Kdei and Prasat Kravan in the afternoon. Enjoy a last sunset at Angkor Wat before heading back to Siem Reap.
The Khmer Empire in One Week
If you have a week in Siem Reap, you can see all the main temple sites in the Angkor Archaeological Park at your own pace and also take in a couple of the remoter and far less visited Khmer monuments.
Day 1: Angkor Archaeological Park
Explore the imperial city of Angkor Thom in the morning. In the afternoon, head to the spectacular and gigantic Ta Prohm, with a stop at Ta Keo, and then catch the sunset at Angkor Wat.
Day 2: Angkor Archaeological Park
Catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat before heading to Preah Khan and Neak Pean, a couple of overgrown temple compounds, as well as the temple mountain of Pre Rup and Ta Som. In the afternoon, take the 30-minute ride out to the Roluos Group of temples, then head back to try to catch sunset at Phnom Bakheng.
Day 3: Beng Melea and Koh Ker
Rent a car and driver and start early in the morning for Beng Melea, perhaps the most spectacular temple outside of the Angkor Archaeological Park, lying 70 kilometers to the northeast of Siem Reap. (Depending on the state of the road, it takes 1-2 hours to reach the temple by car, longer by tuk-tuk.) If you get there by 8am, you might well have the entire complex to yourself for an hour. Grab drinks and a modest lunch in front of Beng Melea. Press on to Koh Ker, 60 kilometers from Beng Melea. Check out the former royal capital’s central pyramid temple and spend the night in a local guesthouse.
Day 4: Koh Ker, Return to Siem Reap
Spend the morning checking out the many other smaller structures of Koh Ker and enjoy a modest lunch by Prasat Thom before slowly heading back to Siem Reap in the afternoon, passing small villages and cassava fields. In the evening, consider a visit to the Phare: The Cambodian Circus for exceptional acrobatics.
Day 5: Day Off in Siem Reap
You might be templed out by Day 5, so relax in Siem Reap, shop in the Old Market, or take a boat trip around the northwestern shore of Tonlé Sap Lake.
Day 6: Day Trip to Banteay Chhmar
Rent another car and driver and head to Cambodia’s lost temple, Banteay Chhmar, 100 kilometers west of Siem Reap. (It takes 2-4 hours to get to the temple, depending on the state of the roads.) Hardly visited, this temple will probably be Cambodia’s next big attraction in the coming years, but for now you might have it virtually to yourself. Return to Siem Reap in the evening.
Day 7: Angkor Archaeological Park
Head out to Banteay Srei, a true architectural gem, early in the morning to beat the crowds (it’s a 30- to 40-minute ride from Siem Reap). During or just after the rainy season, consider a side trip to Kbal Spean, the nearby riverbed with carved linga. From Banteay Srei, take the 40-minute ride to the Eastern Mebon and Banteay Samre, and check out Banteay Kdei and Prasat Kravan in the afternoon. Take in a last sunset at Angkor Wat before heading back to Siem Reap.
Two Weeks of Khmer Architecture and History
This extensive and intensive schedule is for visitors with a deeper interest in Khmer architecture and history. You’ll base yourself in Siem Reap (except for Day 12, when you’ll be overnighting near Koh Ker).
Day 1: Angkor Archaeological Park
Visit Angkor Wat for an early morning sunrise and explore the bas-relief galleries at length. Have lunch in front of Angkor Wat (options range from shoestring fry-ups to an air-conditioned restaurant near the temple). In the afternoon, head to shady Ta Prohm. Check out Phnom Bakheng for the sunset if you can bear the crowds; otherwise return to Angkor Wat.
Day 2: Angkor Archaeological Park
Explore the royal city of Angkor Thom. Start at the South Gate in the morning. If you are fit, climb the city wall to the right of the South Gate and walk along a narrow path on top of the wall until you get to a corner watchtower. Then follow the trail all the way to the West Gate, where your driver can pick you up and take you to the Bayon. Have lunch at one of the small open-air kitchens in front of the Bayon before exploring the rest of the royal city—the Baphuon, including the Phimeanakas, the Terrace of the Elephants, and the Terrace of the Leper King. In the evening, consider a visit to the Phare: The Cambodian Circus for exceptional acrobatics.
Day 3: Day Off in Siem Reap
Take a day off in Siem Reap, do some shopping, or visit the Angkor National Museum. Alternatively, rent a boat and take a trip along the northwestern shore of Tonlé Sap Lake.
Day 4: Angkor Archaeological Park
Check out the smaller temples around the Eastern Baray, a massive (now-dry) reservoir (about a 40-minute ride from Siem Reap)—these include the two small 12th-century structures by the Victory Gate, Thomanon and Chaosay Tevoda; the impressively unadorned pyramid of Ta Keo; the former monastery Banteay Kdei; and the brick and sandstone temple of Pre Rup. Grab lunch in front of Ta Keo, or, for more variety, head to the west gate of Ta Prohm. In the afternoon, visit Banteay Samre, the Eastern Mebon, and Prasat Kravan before returning to Angkor Wat for the sunset.
Day 5: Angkor Archaeological Park
Allow a whole day to meander through the sprawling Preah Khan temple, the smaller Neak Pean, and the less visited Ta Som. Several open-air kitchens in front of Preah Khan offer modest but adequate lunch choices.
Day 6: Angkor Archaeological Park
Start early in the morning to beat the crowds to Banteay Srei (a 30- to 40-minute ride from Siem Reap), and afterward head to the forested riverbed of Kbal Spean. Return to Banteay Srei for lunch at one of the food stalls. On the way back to Siem Reap, stop for an hour or two at the
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