Updated: 12th May, 2017
Little known fact about me – my university degree was in Archaeology. I spent three years of my life learning about all things ancient and aspiring to become a combination of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft.
Obviously since I ended up working in marketing this didn’t quite work out but I still have a love for all things ancient and find it incredibly fascinating to visit remains of past civilisations.
Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia is one of those places that has astounded me from afar and I couldn’t wait to explore it.
Angkor (meaning great capital) was founded and developed by the Khmer people between the 9th and 12th Centuries AD and this vast city was a marvel of ingenuity and architecture.
The Khmers are famed for developing reservoir and irrigation techniques that allowed them bountiful harvests and great wealth from trade. They used this wealth to build enormous religious monuments that are still standing today.
When most people think of Angkor they envisage the most famous temple of all, Angkor Wat. The largest religious building in the world it is a huge 3.6 km from one side to the other.
What people don’t realise is that this is just one small section of a vast complex with distances of up to 50km between some sites.
The Khmers built their religious and high status buildings with stone but everything else was made from wood, as the jungle has reclaimed all but the most solid of stone structures we only get a glimpse of the grandeur of this ancient city.
To visit the park you can buy passes for 1 day ($37), 3 days ($62) & 7 days ($72). For us it was a no brainer, we knew we wouldn’t enjoy trying to cram everything into one day so we sprang for the 3 day pass.
If we saw everything we wanted to in 2 days then we wouldn’t be out of pocket. One great benefit of this pass is you can visit the park in non-consecutive days for a full week.
This allowed us to visit one day and then take a day off which meant that we still felt excited when we returned to the park after a break.
We’d get up at 4am to try and avoid the massive crowds and aim to be done by no later than 11am each day before it got blisteringly hot. We didn’t want to get bored or become blasé about what we were seeing and after a few hours every day it was enough for us.
We hired an excellent tuk tuk driver through our guesthouse who would navigate the park for us and wait at each site whilst we wandered around.
You can of course do more in one day, and if you’re a massive enthusiast find enough things to keep you occupied for a week. Here’s what we did and it worked perfectly for us, we weren’t ‘templed out’ and still felt excited setting off into the park for more.
Choose your first temple wisely
As with anything new you are likely to be awed by the first temple you see, whether you like it or not you will become more familiar with the architecture and get used to seeing examples as time goes on.
Do your research and make sure you desperately want to see the first one as it will be the one you remember forever.
For me this was Ta Prohm. Most people head to Angkor Wat on their first day and usually for a sunrise. We’re anti-social and hate being amongst crowds at these sort of things so decided to do the exact opposite.
I had always been fascinated by Ta Prohm as the jungle has reclaimed so much of it that it has an otherworldly feel to it, it didn’t hurt that I’d seen it featured in Tomb Raider many years before and declared that I had to go there.
On the advice of some traveller friends we headed to Ta Prohm at 5am while it was still dark.
We walked through the jungle with a torch listening to the sounds of the birds waking up and the monkeys creating havoc. We reached the entrance to the temple and it was absolutely deserted. For a wonderfully quiet 45 minutes Paul and I had one of the most famous temples in Angkor to ourselves.
We watched dawn break and explored the temple by torch light, it was a magical experience and one I treasured as I ran around like a kid at Christmas with a big grin on my face.
Next up we visited Banteay Kdei and the Srah Srang reservoir. Banteay Kdei “City of the Cells” was supposedly an enormous dwelling for monks built upon a previous Buddhist temple. It had some beautifully detailed carvings and was very quiet since it’s not one of the more famous temples.
Adjacent to Banteay Kdei is the incredible 700m x 350m Sran Srang reservoir and a restored landing stage for boats. Viewing this serene body of water and realising that it was dug from hand is incredible.
Our last temple on day 1 was Angkor Wat. We decided to arrive at 7:30am when most of the sunrise crowd has dispersed. We were pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to lose people and have areas to yourself.
The most impressive thing about Angkor Wat is the scale, to imagine the enormous complex once filled with up to 20,000 people going about their daily business. You enter Angkor Wat via a wide causeway spanning a 200m moat that circles the complex, it’s an incredible sight.
We spent a good 3 hours exploring just this temple, it’s so vast that you need this time simply to circle the complex.
We headed back to Siem Reap just in time for a late breakfast at our guesthouse and a full day left to enjoy the city. There are some positives to getting up at 4am!
You can check out Part 2 of this post here.