Like 99% of the tourists who come to Siem Reap, we came to see the temples of Angkor and became cogs in the Angkor tourist processing machine – arranging transport, buying a 3-day pass, and temple hopping.
We had heard beforehand of the spiritual nature of the temples and the beauty of their engravings. We had no idea of the scale of the complex and did not fully fathom the number of tourists we’d share it with. As we approached Bayon temple, a typical first stop, on our first morning, busloads of tourists poured out with an urgency akin to a child’s on Christmas day. Each armed with multiple cameras, they dueled, bobbed and weaved with force and determination to take the perfect photo. The air was manic and frenzied. It was a lesson in how to zealousy document an experience without actually having one.
That first morning we spent more time trying to find pockets of calm away from the tourists posing at every tower, engraving or pile of stone than we did taking in the impressive temple with almost 200 towers of omnipresent smiling faces looking down at us. As we courteously ducked from one photo, we’d find ourselves falling into another. Where could we find the famed serentity and spirituality we’d heard so much about?
Don’t get us wrong – we enjoy photography and carry a large camera too. But the photo staging at the temples approached the absurd. Not to mention, it was disheartening to see how many of the tourists mistreated the temple ruins, climbing atop a thousand year old wall for a photo opportunity while ignoring a temple employee who begged them to get down.
We noticed a little Buddhist temple behind Bayon where several people were lighting incense and talking to a wise looking monk. Even in the midst of tourist and shutterbug chaos, these people were going about their routine and prayers. It was heartening to see that these sites are still being used by Cambodians for spiritual purposes. We weren’t just walking through a museum but a place that has meaning for the living.
In order to save our sanity from the posing and shutterbug-obsessed crowds, we decided to take the advice of a local – view the temples in opposite order – on our second day in the complex. The idea is simple: when hordes are swamping a temple for the perfect sunrise shot, go to where they’ll be at sunset and vice versa…and spend time in the early afternoon hours, when most tourists have retreated for a snooze in town. The value of this approach cannot be understated. Ta Phrom in mid-afternoon (after the crowds have snapped their “Tomb Raider” photos) is pleasant. In late afternoon, as crowds advance on Angkor Wat for sunset, Bayon (with its many faces) is empty and draped in dramatic shadows. This is how the temples were meant to be seen.
The temples of Angkor surprised us by their scale and diversity. For us, we were impressed by Bayon with its towers of smiling faces. Angkor Wat to us was overrated. Perhaps we should have visited it at sunrise. Ta Prohm is fascinating, if only to watch nature outlast man-made structures. Pre Rup is also proved a visual treat, with its rose-colored brick and sandstone.
While it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the size of the temples, keep your eyes open for details and engravings. Differences in headdress, position, smile, eyes and jewelry of the Apsara dancer tell the history from temple to temple. And although these engravings are over 1000 years old, a secret smile in the dancers’ expressions still translates today.
Video – Angkor Temple Life: Monks, Kids, Elephants and Monkeys
Practical Details – Arranging a Driver and Tour of the Angkor Temples
How much time: Three days is the minimum amount of time needed to view the main temples. The heat, crowds and vastness take a toll, so pace yourself and take breaks so as to not get overheated or reach temple saturation early. If you have the luxury of time, get a seven-day pass and visit a few temples a day.
Tickets: A 3-day pass costs $40 and a 7-day pass is $60. Bring a photo of yourself for your ticket or else wait in line with a busload of Korean tourists to get a free photo. It pays to be prepared.
Transportation: Hire a tuk tuk driver through your hotel or find one on the street like we did. Expect to pay $10-$12 per day (and above) for the driver to take you around the main sites, including a return trip to town in the afternoon for lunch or a snooze. To go to Banteay Srey or one of the other distant temples, expect to pay an additional $6-$10. Cars and motorbikes are also possible.
Guides: Most tuk-tuk drivers will give you some background information about the sites and lend you a book to take inside for more details. Official guides in English are also available for around $25-$35 per day.
Circuit: Many people follow a short circuit on day one and a longer circuit the second day, with a third day spent going out to Banteay Srey or catching some of the temples missed on earlier days. Try doing the circuits in reverse so that you miss some of the tour buses. Also consider visiting some of the sites in the afternoon when the tour buses return to town– it does get hot, but bearing the heat can be worth it to enjoy the temples in peace.
Water: You are going to need lots of it!! Children and women sell water, juice, soda, snacks, and fruit around the main temples, so you are never far away from relief and hydration. Prices are negotiable. Don’t use this occasion to practice your bargaining skills, but if it seems like extortion, then propose a fair price. We had a hard time paying 4x the price of water in town, so we’d propose 2x and the sellers easily agreed.
Food: There is a line of restaurants near Bayon serving Cambodian food. We found the prices high, but noticed that the longer we stared at the menu outside a stall, the more the prices came down. We settled on $2 per dish and our driver’s lunch got thrown in as well. The sour soup and fish curry were remarkably good (at stall #8, if we remember correctly).