I woke up exactly at 4:20 AM and I had an Angkor Sunrise Tour leaving Siem Reap town at 4:30 AM. Damn! I had overslept. Soon, I rushed and grabbed whatever possible, managed to get ready in just 10 minutes and went outside the hostel gate to get picked up by the tour that I had booked the previous day.
The minivan arrived at around 4:50 AM and by 5:20 AM, we were at the ticket-office to buy our 1-day pass to visit the Angkor Archaeological Park. “37 USD? Gulp!”, I thought to myself as I handed over the money to the lady at the counter. Soon, we assembled at the entrance of the office and started walking towards our van. A lady approached me and tried to sell me a shawl because I was wearing a cold-shoulder top which exposed my shoulders a bit. She told me that my shoulders need to be completely covered as per the dress code in order to visit the park. Well, I had to cold-shoulder her because I knew she was just trying to make some money. Nonetheless, before entering the park, I pulled my sleeves up to be on the safer side (thanks to the innovation in women’s clothing!). Luckily, nobody stopped me and soon, I found myself walking on the land of the Khmer Empire – a 1200 year old treasure.
This post is an account of my experience visiting the Angkor Archaeological Park, the flaws of my guided tour and the insider information that nobody usually gives you about this tour. I wrote this post to make sure that your journey through this historically rich land is much better and worthwhile than mine. Before I take you on this journey through the land of the ancient remains, I want to bust some general misconceptions and provide you all the necessary information you need to plan your visit to the Angkor Park. And then, I will tell you my stories with lots and lots of photos. So are you ready? Let’s do it.
Cambodia = Angkor Wat. Right?
Often many people who travel Cambodia or write about the country talk about Angkor Wat as the only iconic monument in the history of the Khmer Empire. Every website or blog that you read, has the keyword ‘Angkor Wat’ planted in the title and studded into every paragraph possible. In fact, when I planned my South-East Asian trip, I included Cambodia just to visit Angkor Wat. But the truth dawns on you someday and you have to confront it. So is Cambodia all about the Angkor Wat then? No. Angkor Wat is not the only monument in Cambodia but is one of the 70 odd temples, lakes and reservoirs of the great civilization of the Khmer Empire once ruled by the Khmer King Jayavarman II.
Historians have discovered Angkor to be the largest pre-industrial city in the world with a population of 1 million people in the 9th to 15th centuries. The city had a meticulously planned water management system and was often referred to as a “hydraulic city”. The reservoirs of the park are an evidence to this. There are also many other temples with interesting histories that it would be totally unfair to say that Cambodia equates Angkor Wat. No. Angkor Wat is just one small portion of a bigger creation. It is a monumental speck of the Khmer Empire. And when you visit the Angkor remains at the Angkor Archaeological Park, you will agree with me.
Where to Buy the Angkor Pass and How Much Does it Cost?
Unless you’re a citizen of Cambodia, you will be required to buy an Angkor Pass to gain entry into the Angkor Archaeological Park. The Angkor Pass needs to be bought at the official ticket center by the individual herself. If you book a guided tour, you will still be brought to the office to buy the pass. And any pass bought outside of this office is invalid. So be careful of fraudsters.
There are three types of Angkor passes:
- 1-Day Pass (valid for 1 day): 37 USD
- 3-Day Pass (valid for 10 days): 62 USD
- 7-Day Pass (valid for 1 month): 72 USD
If you buy your 1-day pass in the evening after 5 PM, your pass will be valid for the next day as well. This way, you can watch the sunset at Pre Rup or Srah Srang Lake on the previous day and sunrise at Angkor Wat on the next day. However, do check the temple timings since most of them close by 5:30 PM.
Very Important Tip
Don’t lose your pass at any cost otherwise you will be subjected to heavy fines. The fine for losing the 1-day pass is 100 USD, the 3-day pass is 200 USD and the 5-day pass is 300 USD.
Angkor Park and Angkor Ticket Office Timings
- Angkor Ticket Center: Daily from 5.00 AM until 5.30 PM
- Angkor Wat and Srah Srang: Daily from 5.00 AM until 5.30 PM.
- Phnom Bakheng and Pre Rup: Daily from 5.00 AM until 7 PM.
- All other Temples: Daily from 7.30 AM until 5.30 PM. (Except for Phnom Kulen and Beng Mealea. You will need to buy an extra ticket to visit these).
Once you gain entry into the park, you need to know how efficiently you can explore it. Now the Angkor Archaeological Park is huge. It spans across 400 sq. km of land so you know what I am talking about. So, what is the best way to explore this mammoth of a park? Well, there are two important circuits that you can do in the Angkor Archaeological Park that cover most of the temples. You can choose either of them depending on how big a fan you are of temples and history and how much time you can spare for each temple.
- Little Circuit: The Little Circuit covers Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (including the infamous Bayon Temple) and Ta Prohm. You can choose this circuit if you think you’re likely going to suffocate visiting too many temples in a day and only want a brief understanding of the famous temples in the Angkor Park. This circuit is shorter and will most likely end by 4 PM if you start at 4:30 AM for the sunrise tour. It will give you a good taste of the Khmer remains and the significant influence of Hinduism and Buddhism in Cambodia during the 9th to 15th centuries.
- Big Circuit: The Big Circuit covers the temples mentioned in the Little Circuit along with Preah Khan, Neak Pean, East Mebon, Pre Rup, Srah Sang Lake and Ta Keo. Since this circuit is bigger, you might have to spend less time at each temple if you only have a day because most of the temples close by 5:30 PM. However, if you have a 3-day or a 7-day pass, you can explore at your own pace and soak the entire Cambodian history leisurely.
- Outer Temples: There are many more temples outside of these two circuits which you can explore if you have sufficient time. However, if you have only a day, I would recommend you to skip this.
DIY or a Guided Tour?
Whether you want to book an existing tour or plan your own tour solely depends on how flexible you want your schedule to be. Nonetheless, I will list out the pros and cons of each method so that you can choose accordingly.
Now, there’s nothing like being the boss of your own journey. So if you plan to do the Angkor tour by yourself, you can either hire a tuk-tuk or rent a motorbike and set off to explore this magnificent park. If you’re hiring a tuk-tuk, the driver will wait for you until you finish exploring one temple and will take you to the next temple. These drivers are usually aware of the two circuits so don’t forget to mention the one that you want to do. They can also take you to the outer temples but they will charge you extra for it.
1. Freedom to explore at your own pace, especially if you have more time.
2. Cheaper if you choose to rent a motorbike or share the cost of the tuk-tuk with other passengers.
1. Absence of a tour guide which means lots of homework to be done before visiting the park.
2. Will be expensive if you are a solo traveler and hire a tuk-tuk only for yourself.
Now, there are several companies offering tours to the Angkor Archaeological Park. These are guided tours that mostly take you in a minivan to all the temples, or in bicycles for a more earthly experience. I booked a guided tour from my hostel and it was alright. Our guide didn’t tell us any interesting stories about the temples or the motifs. He just gave us some pretty basic information. There was this point when he showed us a beehive as though it was an unbelievable sight and I let out a long sigh of disappointment. I mean, seriously? And to top it, the other foreign tourists started asking questions about the bees. Yeah, okay thanks! But not all guided tours are like this. If you really want to spend time learning about the history of the Angkor remains, I recommend you to book a good tour even if it is slightly expensive.
1. Presence of a tour guide who can explain the significance of the Angkor remains.
2. An A/C minivan with water bottles.
3. Cheap (13 USD) if you book the tour from your hostel.
1. Touristy experience and no room for that adventurous soul of yours.
2. Expensive if you book a really good tour online.
Where to Book?
You can either book a tour from your hostel or inquire at the local travel agencies. I would recommend you to book the tour once you reach Cambodia because the prices online are more expensive. However, it really is a trade-off between the quality of the tour and the money you pay for it. So, if you find a really good tour online, go for it. If not, book locally.
What to Wear? What to Carry?
Since the Angkor Archaeological Park has ancient remains of the Hindu and Buddhist temples, all tourists are required to cover their knees and shoulders (no shorts or sleeveless attires allowed). Apart from the dress code, I would recommend you to wear a good pair of walking shoes or sandals because mind you, you will be walking at least 13,000 steps! Carry a light day pack with 5-6 water bottles and some snacks inside. And don’t forget to apply a generous amount of sunscreen while you’re there.
Also Read: Cambodia Travel Guide (VISA, Stay, Things to do & More)
Books & Materials to Read
Here is a list of books and materials to read before you visit the park so that you can truly enjoy the experience.
- Ancient Angkor
- Cambodia: Guide to the Temples of Angkor
- Angkor: Heart of an Asian Empire
- Angkor Archaeological Park (Wikipedia)
- Mount Meru (Wikipedia)
My Experience Visiting the Angkor Park
As soon as I gained entry into the park, I saw a silhouette of the Angkor Wat with a backdrop of the break of dawn. And many many tourists, assembled right near the lake to capture the infamous photo like the one below.
“Herds”, I thought to myself and started walking around to explore the park. Our guide had made it very clear that we had to assemble at a specific point at a specific time and so me and my newly made friends started chatting while observing the rocky miracles. We waited and waited for the sunrise and strangely, the morning light set in but we just couldn’t spot the sun. And so the crowd of tourists who were waiting by the lake dispersed. And then, after about 20 minutes, we saw the wicked sun quietly peeping behind the Angkor Wat. And when the tourists started flocking near the entrance, I ran towards the lake and tried something creative like this.
Soon, I had to rush back because our tour had commenced. It began with our guide mentioning Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma and their significance in shaping the universe. Raised a Hindu, I knew all of this, and so I started prompting him – like that annoying “I know the answer” kid in class who just wouldn’t shut up and would raise her hand for everything. Once the briefing was done, it was time. And we entered the famous Angkor Wat.
The Angkor Wat is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu and designed symbolically to the great Mount Meru. Mount Meru is a sacred five-peaked mountain of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist cosmology and is considered to be the center of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes. And the best part is, no one knows the location of this mountain. Ancient texts and manuscripts have mentioned the location of this mountain to be at the center of the world but no evidence has been found. Or rather, we are incapable of perceiving it because it exists beyond our frame of mind.
The dimensions attributed to Mount Meru, all references to it being as a part of the Cosmic Ocean, with several statements that say, “The Sun along with all the planets circle the mountain,” make determining its location most difficult, according to most scholars.As Seen on Wikipedia
The Angkor Wat is built in the form of a moat with five towers representing the five-peaked Mount Meru. As I walked inside the temple, I found many lingas (representation of Lord Shiva) and some interesting motifs depicting stories of Hindu legends.
The Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II, who was a Hindu. He built it as his state temple and the capital city in the 11th century (keep this in mind as you will need it for an interesting story that I will tell you later).
The temple is massive and the five towers have very steep steps. I happily climbed one of the towers only to find out later that descending it would be a grasp of my very own life! But nonetheless, the experience was good. As you walk around, pay attention to the walls and you can see some really beautiful carvings depicting stories of several battles in the Angkor period and scenes from the Hindu mythology.
Next, we drove to Ta Prohm to catch a glimpse of the creepy roots mercilessly clasping the temples beneath. What a sight! The seeds that had settled on the roof of these temples had eventually grown into giant trees, slowly evolving into captivating glory. And few scenes from the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider were shot here.
It is now time to tell you an interesting story of religious intolerance during the Khmer rule. Remember earlier I mentioned that the Angkor Wat was built by a Hindu ruler named Suryavarman II? In fact most of the temples that were built in the early 9th to 11th centuries were dedicated to Hinduism. Eventually, once Buddhism started spreading in Angkor, King Jayavarman VII who was the then ruler of the Khmer Empire, converted into Mahayana Buddhism. He embarked on a building spree where he built a new capital city Angkor Thom including Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and many more, as Buddhist structures. Sadly, his successor Jayavarman VIII returned to Hinduism and embarked on an equally massive spree of destruction where he defaced Buddhist images and altered few of them to be Hindu again. This is quite evident in the infamous Bayon temple where every tower has a smiling face of the Buddha – few altered and few intact. These temples also have motifs and engravings depicting stories of Hindu legends.
Our tour ended with our tour guide showing us the last sight of attraction – statues of gods and demons carrying a poisonous snake to the lake, drawn from Hindu mythology. We were then dropped off at our hostel and I ran for a quick shower. Tropical countries, I tell ya! Later, I sat down, switched on my camera, clicked the review button and went through the entire journey of Angkor again, all while guzzling fresh slices of mango and watermelon.
So what is it that we can truly learn from the Angkorian period? There once existed a great civilization of 1 million people in Angkor who were smart enough to build their own water-management system. And then there were a set of few mad kings who positioned religion over respect and built their own state temples to mark their religious dominance all while destroying a few. And all of them together, gave us the stupendous remains of Angkor – one of them being the Angkor Wat.
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