I recently enjoyed a wonderful holiday in Thailand (home to my favorite hotel in the world: Soneva Kiri) and the Kingdom of Cambodia. You can read my trip reports here:
- Review: Etihad Airways Airbus A380 First Class Apartment from Paris to Abu Dhabi
- Review: Etihad Airways Dreamliner B787 Business Class from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok
- Review: Waldorf Astoria Bangkok, Thailand
- Review: Zannier Hotels Phum Baitang, Cambodia
- Review: A visit to the Angkor Wat temple complex, Cambodia (today)
- Review: Alila Villas Koh Russey, Cambodia
- Review: Bensley Collection, Shinta Mani Wild, Cambodia
- Review: Cathay Dragon Airbus A320 Business Class from Phnom Penh to Hong Kong
- Review: Cathay Pacific First Class Boeing 777 from Hong Kong to Frankfurt
Today (27 May, 2020): a tour of the Angkor Wat temple complex (Cambodia).
Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Asia’s most famous archeological site and the principle draw card to the Kingdom of Cambodia for many savvy tourists from around the globe. Angkor stood once at the center of the mighty Khmer empire (9th to 15th century) and grew to become the largest known pre-industrial settlement, spanning a site roughly equivalent to nowadays Paris. The site comprises dozens of iconic temples, including Angkor Wat itself (with its world-famous silhouette, best observed at sunrise); Bayon (a temple famous for its smiling, serene faces carved onto gigantic towers) and Ta Prohm (a magnificent temple ruin engulfed by the jungle).
Angkor Wat features in my top 10 list of the most fabulous archaeological sites in the world.
Have you ever visited Angkor Wat? If so, what was your experience? Leave a comment.
In this review (more info and photos below my YouTube clip & slideshow):
- Best season to visit
- Best time of the day to visit: morning or afternoon?
- Buying tickets
- What temples to visit?
- How to explore the temples: by car, tuktuk or bicycle?
- Visitor code of conduct
- What hotel to stay at?
ANGKOR WAT: HISTORY
Angkor was once the capital of the Khmer Empire, which held sway over territory that includes present-day Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and southern Vietnam. The beginning of the era of the Khmer Empire is conventionally dated to 802 when King Jayavarman II declared himself chakravartin (“king of the world” or “king of kings”). A large series of migrations of Thai people in the 13th and 14th centuries accelerated the downfall of the Khmer Empire, culminating in the Thai Kingdom’s seizure of Angkor in 1431. The remnants of the Khmer people migrated, with the capital moving to Phnom Penh; the empire then faded away, absorbed by newcomers.
In the late 9th century, the ruler Yasovarman founded Angkor, the original name of which was Yashodharapura or “glory-bearing city.” Historians believe that at the time, Angkor was the largest city in the world, rivaling the modern sprawling metropolis of Paris in size. The Angkor temples were constructed at a time when the Khmer Empire reached its peak in terms of cultural and artistic achievements. It was believed that the Khmer king had a divine role, and an appropriate temple had to be constructed by each king to consecrate the symbolic relationship between ruler and divinity. When the king died, his successor initiated construction of a new state temple, which was always bigger and grander than the one built by his predecessor, dedicating it to the religion of his choice. These massive stone temples withstood the test of time as testament to the Khmer Empire’s power a millennium later.
ANGKOR WAT: BEST SEASON TO VISIT
The Kingdom of Cambodia experiences four annual seasons:
- The cool and dry season– which lasts from November to February – is considered the best time to visit Cambodia, with plenty of sunshine and day temperatures in the high 70s°F to low 80s°F (26°C-29°C). Sporadic showers may occur in the cool season but are infrequent events.
- The hot and dry season lasts from March to May, with humidity reaching uncomfortable levels and temperatures averaging in the upper 90s Fahrenheit (mid-30s Celsius). Although this period usually remains dry, rains may gather force in the month of May, which is more of a transition period towards the wet season.
- The hot and wet season, which lasts from June to August, is marked by daily heavy downpours, which bring relief for the sticky, humid weather. The days often start sunny, with showers mostly occurring in the (late) afternoon or evening, lasting for 3 to 4 hours.
- The cool and wet season occurs in September and October and sees the return of more comfortable temperatures, although it’s probably the worst time to visit Cambodia because the torrential rains are coming to a peak, often bringing floods and making roads impassable. It’s not all bad news since low visitor numbers means great hotel deals.
The best time to visit Angkor Wat coincides with the northern hemisphere’s winter period, November through February. Days are assurdedly sunny and warm. From March on, the temperature picks up and it can get unbearably hot during the day for a comfortable temple visit; avoid these months unless you can handle heat and suffocating humidity as you explore the ancient temples. From May until October, there is a high risk of showery weather, which may ruin a visit to the temples since most of the temples are open-air.
No matter what time of the year you visit Angkor Wat, always be armed with mosquito repellent, sunscreen, good walking shoes, a hat and bottles of water.
ANGKOR WAT: BEST TIME TO VISIT
The best time to visit Angkor Wat is the early morning for three reasons:
- It gives you an opportunity to witness Angkor Wat’s iconic sunrise. Indeed, watching the reflections of the towers of Angkor War in the water, with beautiful oranges and reds peeking out behind the temple complex, is unique travel experience. However, keep in mind that you’ll have to share this experience with hundreds of other tourists who often behave unruly in order to take the best photo spot. Also, the iconic photo of Angkor Wat’s sunrise is slightly deceiving in a way that it gives you the impression that there is a large water party in front of the temple, while there are only two small ponds (literally surrounded by thick lines of tourists taking photos).
- Most importantly, the weather is still cool in the morning. From March to May, it simply gets too hot during the day for a visit (you will be longing for the comfort of your airconditioned hotel room). During the rainy season (June to November), most rain also falls in the afternoon, giving you the best chance for a dry visit in the morning
- Although there are a lot of travelers packing together during the sunrise at Angkor Wat itself, most of them seem to vanish after sunrise, so early morning is still the best time for a peaceful and tranquil visit to most temples in the area.
ANGKOR WAT: BUYING TICKETS
Entrance tickets for a visit to Angkor Wat can only be purchased from the official ticket booth on the road that connects Siem Reap city to the archeological site (online tickets are not available yet) The ticket office is open from 5.00 AM to 5.30 PM every day, and you can choose from 3 types of tickets:
- 1-day pass – $37 USD
- 3-day pass – $62 USD (has to be used within a week)
- 7-day pass – $72 USD (has to be used within a month)
Some things to keep in mind:
- Cash and VISA cards are accepted to buy the ticket.
- Tickets purchased from a third party are not valid, so don’t buy Angkor Wat tickets or tours from unauthorized people.
- Always carry your ticket with you; in most temples the security staff will check tickets at the entrance of the ruins.
- The tickets are personal with your name and photo on it.
- You cannot buy the pass in advance. You can only purchase it on the day of your visit or from 5 pm for the next day.
- Many people want to watch the sunrise, so there is often a queue at the ticket office in the early morning. And yes, some people have missed the best light for a photo because of these long waiting times. So if you want to watch the sunrise and are a passionate photographer, you may consider purchasing your ticket one day in advance (after 5 pm).
HOW MUCH TIME TO SPEND AT ANGKOR WAT? WHAT TEMPLES TO VISIT?
Although travelers with tight itineraries in Southeast Asia try to squeeze in as many sights as they can in a day, remember that the Angkor complex is actually the largest religious monument in the world and that the entire site features dozens of temples! You’re going to need more time than you think to not end up rushing around. A one-day visit to Angkor Wat allows you to see the highlights of most famous temples but not more. Three days are enough to visit all the major temples and a few minor ones. Seven days are sufficient to really explore the major temples, visit many of the minor structures, experience some activities and take time to explore the countryside and villages as well.
That said, if you are not a culture of history buff like my, you can comfortably visit Angkor Wat’s three most famous temple in half a day:
- Angkor Wat is the most iconic temple and the largest religious monument ever constructed. It means “Buddhist Monastery in the city”. It was built by Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as a Hindu temple, dedicated to the god Vishnu, a member of the holy trinity in Hinduism. It was later subtly converted into a Bhuddist temple, and many of its carvings and statues of Hindu deities were replaced by Buddhist shrines. Angkor Wat remained a Bhuddist temple into the 1800s but although never truly abandoned, the temple fell gradually into disuse and disrepair. The French restored Angkor Wat in the early 1900s. Miraculously, Angkor Wat only sustained minor damage during the Khmer Rouge regime.
- Bayon lies in the heart of Angkor Thom, the last capital city of the Khmer Empire, a short 10 min tuktuk ride from Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th century, Bayon is also called Jayavarman’s Temple, in honor of the king who ordered its construction. Bayon is most famous for its giant stone faces which adorn its towers (there are 54 towers of four faces each, totaling 216 faces) and for its epic bas-reliefs, which depict the daily life of the Khmers at the time of Angkor’s grandeur.
- For most visitors, Ta Prohm is Angkor’s most photogenic site, with tall trees growing out of the ruins and intertwining with the stonework. Ta Prohm was built by king Jayavarman VII and served as a Buddhist monastery and university; the site was once home to 12,500 people (including 18 high priests and 615 dancers). Ta Prohm is often dubbed the Tomb Raider templea s it provided the mystical backdrop for the 2001 Hollywood movie starring Angelina Jolie. Restoration works are ongoing at Ta Prohm with walkways and ropes protecting the monument from tourists
HOW TO EXPLORE THE TEMPLES?
The temples are too far apart to make foot travel practical. Angkor Wat, the nearest temple, is located at 6.5 km (4 mi) from Siem Reap. There are several modes of transport allowed inside the site, from bicycles to vehicles. Most hotel staffs will be able to assist you with one of the following options:
- Car taxi (3-4 seats): $ 25 to 30 USD per day. This is the most comfortable mean of transportation, with air-conditioning.
- Three-wheel remork (tuktuk): $12 to 15 USD per day. This is the most used mode of transport to discover Angkor (for max 4 persons per tuktuk).
- Bicycle: $2 to 3 USD per day. There are many cycle paths around Angkor. The ground is flat and makes it easy to pedal but pay attention to the heat. Cycling also allows you to escape the tourist crowds and to travel at your own pace.
To smell the forest and listen to birds and cicadas, I recommend you to discover the temples by “3-wheel remork” (tuk tuk) or bicycle. You can also absorb the enormity of Angkor on an early morning balloon flight. Rising before dawn to watch the eeriest of shadows stretch across hallowed temple grounds as the sun rises is a sight to behold, and definitely something to add to your bucket list.
ANGKOR WAT: VISITOR CODE OF CONDUCT
- Revealing clothes such as shorts and skirts above the knees and showing bare shoulders are prohibited in sacred places. Respectful dress is strongly encouraged during a visit to Angkor Wat.
- As Angkor is a sacred site, loud conversation, noises and other inappropriate behaviour in Cambodian culture is considered to be offensive and may disturb other visitors. Please keep calm and be respectful.
- As a member of the World Health Organization, Angkor has been a smoke free site since 2012. Smoking cigarettes disturbs others and cigarettes can start bush fires. To protect the environment, please do not smoke and litter.
- Monks are revered and respected. If you want to take pictures, please ask for permission first. Women should not touch nor stand or sit too close to monks.
- Touching carvings, sitting on fragile structures, leaning on temple structures, moving or taking archaeological artifacts and graffiti are strictly prohibited. Backpacks, umbrellas with sharp tips, tripods and high heels are discouraged from being brought or worn inside the temples.
- For your own safety and for the conservation of Angkor, please comply with all signs on the site and be mindful of your steps at all times. Do not climb on loose stones.
- Buying items, giving candy or money to children encourages them not to attend school but to beg. If you wish to help the children, please consider donating to a recognized charity.
WHAT HOTEL TO STAY AT?
Siem Reap, the city closest to Angkor Wat, features several luxurious hotels. The best one, by far, is Zannier Hotels Phum Baitang − also called ‘the green village’. Set within 8 acres of lush gardens, lemon-grass meadows and rice paddies, this elegant retreat is home to 45 private villas made to resemble traditional Cambodian houses in plantations. The hotel also has two gourmet restaurants, a magnificent pool, cigar & cocktail lounge, and an indulgent spa. You can read my review of Zannier Hotels Phum Baitang here or watch my YouTube clip below:
Other luxury hotels in Siem Reap are:
- Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor sits by the tree-shaded river at the heart of Siem Reap and was one of the first luxury hotels to open in town. It is ideally located for Angkor Wat and the great Tonle Sap lake. The town’s colorful craft markets and lively cafes are a short walk away. The hotel lies in a tropical garden that encloses a swimming pool and lotus ponds to create a tranquil retreat. Traditionally-designed suites spread out among lush flora. Each suite features wooden fixtures in the typical Khmer style and many suites also have terraces with views onto the gardens. The Kong Kea Spa, the most spacious of its kind in the country, offers total peace and relaxation.
- Park Hyatt Siem Reap offers comfort and opulence in each of its 104 spacious rooms and suites. A luxurious home away from home that is strategically located in the heart of Siem Reap, this stylish contemporary hotel adorned with Cambodian art is near the airport, the renowned 12th century ruins of Angkor Wat temple and just a five-minute leisurely walk to the local nightlife scene. The hotel serves French and authentic cuisine from Cambodia at The Dining Room and a delectable array of desserts and light fare at The Glasshouse deli-patisserie. For utmost relaxation and rejuvenation, the hotel has two swimming pools and a selection of invigorating massages and treatments at the spa.
- Amansara is a peaceful sanctuary on the outskirts of Siem Reap, inutes from the sacred temples of Angkor. A masterpiece of 1960s New Khmer architecture commissioned by King Norodom Sihanouk for his guests, today the residence houses 24 sleek suites, along with a soaring circular dining room and a holistic spa. The original pool has been replicated amid tranquil mature grounds, and many of the suites feature private plunge pools, adding to the introspective atmosphere. Custom-fitted remorks (rickshaws) and vintage Jeeps whisk guests and their private guides to Angkor, where Amansara’s Khmer Village House provides respite and rustic meals within the archaeological complex.