Exploring Angkor Archaeological Park had always been a dream of mine. The UNESCO site is a look back to the time of the Khmer people and the structures the kings built. I looked forward to visiting Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, but I also wanted to tour the less visited sites and adventures like hiking the Angkor Thom Wall. My first visit did not disappoint, and I've since made two more trips to this remarkable place. There is so much to see and learn about this fascinating culture. Their history is documented in the many bas-reliefs found at Angkor Wat and Bayon Temple, and it is truly worthwhile to take some time to examine.
Siem Reap is your base city for this adventure, and is quite easy to get travel around. U.S. Citizens can obtain a visa upon arrival, which costs about $35. Every year there seems to be an increase. Cambodia immigration requires you to present a passport photo for their records; however, for $2.00 they will take your photo for you. This is a source of much anxiety when arriving, but the Cambodian immigration officials have a good sense of humor. While waiting in line during my first visit, an official announced loudly to the lines, “If you have no photo we will throw you in jail.” He then let out a loud laugh, but not before startling many of the people waiting in line.
Some important information to note: Nearly everyone in Siem Reap speaks English. Also, there is no need to change any money. The locals prefer U.S. dollars. Once out of the airport, it is easy to get transportation to Siem Reap. I recommend a Tuk Tuk driver, which will cost about $7 to $10. Negotiation is key when dealing with any tuk tuk driver.
After checking into a hotel, the next step is to hire a tuk tuk driver to take you around the park. You can arrange one through the hotel, or you can negotiate a deal with the driver that took you from the airport. I’ve done both, and the best experience is hiring a driver through the hotel. This usually costs about $20 per day, which is a great deal considering the driver is with you for the entire day.
By far, the most popular thing to do at Angkor is watch sunrise at Angkor Wat. Do not try and purchase the entry ticket to Angkor in the early morning in an effort to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Although the ticket windows open at 5:00 a.m., by the time you get to Angkor Wat there will be hoards of people set up with tripods in front of the reflecting pool. You can purchase the ticket the day before if you want to see sunrise at Angkor Wat first. Keep in mind that purchasing the ticket the day before still counts as a day for your ticket. You can buy a one-day ticket, a three-day ticket, or a seven-day ticket. Whenever I purchase my ticket early in the morning, I choose to go to Bayon in Angkor Thom, which is only a few minutes from Angkor Wat. The sunrise here is unique.
Some changes have been enacted as to the time and locations you can view sunrise. Effective in 2017, only Angkor Wat, Phnom Bakheng, and Pre Rup can be accessed at 5:00 a.m. All the other temple sites are accessible at 7:30 a.m. Officials are very serious about this, and every site has security. You can view Bayon from the parking area and watch the sun slowly light up the Buddha faces of Bayon.
After sunrise, the Tuk Tuk driver will take you on your choice of unofficial tours known as the Small Circuit and the Grand Circuit. The first day, I always go with the Small Circuit. The first temple on the Small Circuit is Angkor Wat; however, pass on by for now because this is best to explore in the late afternoon. The next group of temples are rather small but worth a stop. Your Tuk Tuk driver will wait while you walk in and check out Baksei Chamkrong. Follow a short path to the right to see Prasat Bei. This small group of temples is just before crossing over the Angkor Thom Moat and passing through the south gate. This is an impressive gate that offers great photo opportunities early in the morning.
A few minutes after passing through the south gate you will reach Bayon Temple. Known for the “200 Faces of Buddha,” it can take some time to explore. I like to visit and explore in the morning and return late afternoon. Most of the tourists are gone by late afternoon, and it’s easier to take photos without someone bombing your shot.
The next stop after Bayon Temple is the palace area of Angkor Thom. This area takes time to explore as well. You can see the main attractions by having your tuk tuk driver leave you at the entrance to Baphuon Temple. Walk back to Baphuon along a causeway, then continue back out to the road. This causeway is connected to the Elephant Terrace (be sure to check out the front of the terrace!), on which you can walk north toward the Terrace of the Leper King. You can have your tuk tuk driver wait for you at the north end where you can exit the Terrace of the Leper King. Be sure to walk through the recessed Leper King Terrace.
Across from the Leper King Terrace is a souvenir and food stall area. It’s a good place to get a bite to eat before continuing with the Small Circuit. The Small Circuit leaves Angkor Thom through the Victory Gate. Another impressive gate, this is where Khmer armies would enter when returning from battle. After passing through the Victory Gate and over the moat, there are two small temples worth a visit. To the left is Thommanon Temple, and directly across the road on the right is Chau Say Tevoda Temple.
Next on the Small Circuit is Ta Prohm. I’ve always been drawn to Ta Prohm for several reasons. It’s larger than some of the other temples, and it sits in more of a jungle setting. But most importantly, Ta Prohm is where you get the first full experience of how the jungle over took the temples of Angkor. While much of the jungle has been cleared back and most of the structures reconstructed, some of the jungle is simply embedded into the stone walls and fixtures. The best way to explore Ta Prohm is to have the tuk tuk driver drop you off at the west entrance of the temple and have the driver wait at the east entrance. For an added adventure, there is a trail that weaves in and out of the outer wall surrounding the temple. Hike around the temple and follow the trail back to the west and then explore the interior. Ta Prohm is excellent in the early morning (7:30 a.m. opening). It is worth an early morning return on another day.
Just across the road and to the east of Ta Prohm is another excellent temple to explore on the circuit, Bantaey Kdei. Again, you can enter from the west and exit at the east end where the tuk tuk driver can wait for you.
While this is the end of the Small Circuit, there should be plenty of time to go to Angkor Wat and explore a bit. Angkor Wat is usually very crowded most of the day; however, very late in the day is an ideal time to explore. Sunsets at Angkor Wat are just as impressive as sunrises. Angkor Wat closes at 5:30 p.m. You will easily know the time, as security walks throughout the temple blowing a whistle and telling everyone to leave.
Then it’s back to Siem Reap. For me, my first stop is always to The Sun for a cold bottle of Cambodia Lager Beer while I reflect on the day's adventure.
After the sun rises, don’t waste time, because there is much to see on the Grand Circuit. You have to head back out the west gate of Angkor Wat to meet back up with your tuk tuk driver. The Grand Circuit starts back through the south gate of Angkor Thom. Make Bayon your first stop. Today, take some time to explore the outer galleries of Bayon. They tell an incredible story of Khmer life during the 12th century and before.
After leaving Bayon Temple, the Grand Circuit passes through the palace area of Angkor Thom. This is an opportunity to explore the palace area more closely. The tuk tuk driver can leave you at the causeway to Baphuon Temple. After walking back to Baphuon, circle to the back and follow a trail to the right as it passes through a wall gate. This trail will link to another temple, Phimeanakas.
Passing by the back of Phimeanakas, the trail continues to the Royal Pools called Sras Srei. Take some time to walk around the two pools. There is a trail, and it is rather short. To continue exploring, pass through another wall gate as the trail meanders through the forest until you reach Preah Palilay, another small temple set back off the road. Turn right and walk back out to the road just across from the food vendors.
After a bite to eat, the Grand Circuit continues, this time through the north gate of Angkor Thom. The next temple on the tour is Preah Khan. This is a bigger temple, and it definitely deserves more time to explore. It is up there as one of my favorites. One item not to miss is the “Light of the Stupa.” Located in a center hallway of the complex, when you are positioned just right, it appears as if a flame is coming from the top of the stupa. Actually, the flame is only opening in the ceiling of the hall, but it is a nice photo opportunity.
Throughout the Preah Khan complex you will find wonderful overgrown courtyards and the stone carvings that are in excellent condition. Take particular note of the dancing apsaras over doors and walkways. There is also an excellent trail around the Preah Khan complex. I recommend hiking the trail first and then exploring the interior of the temple. You can return to the road the way you walked in to meet your tuk tuk driver.
The next stop on the Grand Circuit is Neak Pean. This unique location is said to be an ancient healing spa. There is no temple at the location, but it has some interesting features. From Neak Pean it’s a short distance to the next temple on the circuit, Ta Som. Ta Som is an out-and-back walk with the highlight being the much photographed east gate of the temple. It’s deceptive because you approach the gate from the west. Walk through the gate to see what all the fuss is about!
Next stop is East Mebon. This temple is of the Mount Meru style in that is has three tiers with a central tower on top at the center. This central tower is surrounded by four smaller towers, but it is impressive just the same. Take note of the stone elephants found throughout East Mebon, a rather unique feature from other temples at Angkor.
The last stop on the Grand Circuit is another Mount Meru style temple called Pre Rup. Pre Rup is one of the temples that are popular for either sunrise or sunset. I’ve experienced both here and prefer sunset. Late in the day, there are few people around. Pre Rup is located right on the road. There is a trail that circles around the temple, which I recommend doing first, especially late in the day. The stone illuminates in the setting sun unlike any other temple at Angkor. There is still enough time to hang out and chill on the top platform and watch the sun setting and the end to another amazing day in Angkor.
Looking for a different experience and seldom visited temples, I came across a map that detailed several different trails throughout Angkor. The first and the longest of the hikes is a trail atop the Angkor Thom Wall Trail. Many don’t even know this wall exists, they simple pass through the South Gate en route to the temples. I started this hike from the south gate and traveled in a clockwise direction. After passing through the south gate, I had my Tuk Tuk driver drop me off and asked him to meet me back in three hours. Looking south at the gate, ascend the right side up a short hill. Once on top, the trail is obvious.
You'll reach Chrung Temple in less than a mile. This is a small outpost temple and probably one of the least visited sites at Angkor Thom along with the other corner temples you will encounter along the wall. Turn right, continuing to follow the obvious trail with the moat to the left. The trail is flat and a joy to hike. After about a mile you will reach the west gate to Angkor Thom. This gate, again seldom visited, is the only major gate at Angkor that is still only a dirt road, making for more great photo opportunities.
Descend from the trail to the right and cross the road. Take a moment to enjoy the peace of the west gate without tourists. Pass through the west gate for a different view. To get back atop the wall, cross the road and ascend a short but steep hill and continue on the trail.
This northwest section is the most shaded along the hike. The trail curves through the forest and feels like something out of a fairy tale. This was one of my favorite sections. After another mile you will reach the northwest corner temple called Prasat Chrung. It is a surreal feeling coming upon this small temple.
Turn the corner and continue to the north gate. As you approach the north gate from the trail, you will be nearly eye level with the west facing Buddha atop the gate. Amazing detail. The north gate, to me, is more photogenic from different angles than the other four gates.
Descend the trail to the right. As you approach the road, be sure to look back up at the north gate for another unique view of the west and south facing Buddhas.
Once on the road, pass through the gate and turn right to follow the trail. After a short distance there is a break in the wall where you can gain access to the trail again. Be sure to look back behind you before ascending the wall for another unique view of the north gate.
The trail continues to the northeast corner and another Chrung Temple, which is in more disrepair. Soon after turning this corner you will reach the Victory Gate. Descend to the right, cross the road, and ascend back onto the trail.
After a shorter distance you'll reach the east gate, also known as Gate of the Dead. The distance is short because the Victory Gate and the East Gate are both on the east side of Angkor Thom. The trail between the Victory Gate and the east gate is amazing. The east gate is different from the other gates because it is a dead-end road just past the gate. Hardly anyone travels back here.
The southeast corner is the last on the trail and the location of the Hendrix Temple, which is in the best condition of the corner temples. The trail opens up a bit after turning this last corner, and you have excellent views of the Angkor Thom moat.
The trail ends at the south gate where you started. In total, the trail is a little less than 8 miles and the only elevation change is from descending and ascending the gates. Your tuk tuk driver should be there waiting. It’s a good idea to get a bite to eat before the next adventure.
The next hike for this day is amazing and another that is seldom traveled, although it is in the heart of Angkor. This trail circles Angkor Wat along a patch of land between the Angkor Wat moat and the out wall of the temple.
From the west entrance, after crossing the moat, turn left and follow a boardwalk/trail. Soon the boardwalk ends and turns to a dirt trail where the wall begins. Turn the first corner with great views of the moat along the trail. Soon you will reach Ta Loek, the north gate. While most flock to the center of Angkor Wat, few visit these outer gate entrances. The trail continues, rounding the next corner.
The next gate is the east aate which is more popular because you can cross the moat here and have a shorter walk to access the center of Angkor Wat. It is also much more shaded than the west entrance.
The last gate you'll encounter is the south gate known as Ta Pech. This by far is the least visited of all the gates. Passing this and rounding the last corner, the trail enters a dense forest area unlike any other part of the trail. Soon you emerge to the west side of Angkor Wat. The trail is only 2 miles, but take time to explore the gates and peace of this seldom traveled trail.
There is more to explore within the walls of Angkor Wat if you have remaining time and energy. The bas relief sculpture surrounding the outer galleries is of special interest to me and others who are fascinated with the history of the Khmer people. Also, the stone carvings of apsaras are outstanding.
Kbal Spean is located about 50 kilometers from Siem Reap, and it takes about an hour to get there by tuk tuk. This location is a series of carved lingams in a river bed deep in the the jungle. Kbal Spean is known as “River of Thousand Lingams.” Lingams are a phallic representation sacred to Brahmanism as symbols of fertility. There are hundreds of these carved in the river bed in various areas along with carvings of gods and animals. I was here just at the end of the dry season and there was no water in the stream. There is a waterfall here as well, but with the lack of water, it was not flowing.
From the parking area, there is a 1,500-meter walk to the river bed. The trail is easy to follow, and it is well worn. There are some steep areas, and there is a sign every 100 meters letting you know how far you have to go.
Most tuk tuk drivers will know how to get here. Expect to pay more money if you are exploring in conjunction with a tour to Banteay Srei because Kbal Spean is 18 kilometers farther. Negotiate this into your day.
Bantaey Srei Temple: Located about an hour by Tuk Tuk, north of Angkor Archaeological Park, Bantaey Srei has some amazing architecture and stone carvings that are so intricate, it is said they could only be carved by the delicate hands of women. Enter the complex way of a restored stone causeway. Once through the gate, continue straight until you reach a moat. Across the moat are beautiful temples carved from red sandstone. There is also a short trail that goes around the moat.
Cambodia Landmine Museum: On the way back to Siem Reap, be sure to stop at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. This is more than a museum. They raise funds to help clear areas through Cambodia that still have Vietnam-era landmines. Children playing in fields are still injured by these mines. It is an informative stop and a good cause to support.
Ta Nei Temple: This temple is really off the grid, although it is very close to other temples in the complex. So few people visit this temple that not all tuk tuk drivers know exactly where it is. It does appear on Google Maps, and you can show your tuk tuk driver if he doesn't know the way. Of all the temples I visited, this one is in the most disrepair. There are two obvious pools, one on either side, now empty and overgrown. I also noticed the lack of ornate carvings that can be found at other temples. This may be why further restoration was not done. Still, it is worth a visit if you have the time or you want to escape the crowds. It is also good during midday because there is plenty of shade here.
The first causeway to the west entrance of Angkor Wat crosses a large moat, which is only 13 feet deep. You may think the moat was constructed to thwart attacks against the kingdom. However, the real reason was to provide a location for water runoff during the rainy season and also to maintain a stable water table level to prevent Angkor Wat from sinking into the ground. Once over the moat, you pass through the west gate and onto the inner causeway. Flanked on both sides of the causeway are what archeologist refer to as “libraries.” Past these libraries and the reflecting pools is another grand entrance.
Inside this next gate, before passing to the inner area, turn right through several small halls to see the eight armed statue of Vishnu. It is impressive, especially late in the afternoon, because the sun will be shining through doorways and columns. Late in the afternoon, the reflection of the sun off the surrounding stone gives the statue a blue hue.
Inside Angkor Wat are a number of other small libraries, halls and porticos. You can spend hours just looking around at the different variations of apsaras adorning the walls and columns of Angkor Wat.
One of the more overlooked aspects of Angkor Wat is the bas reliefs found around the inner complex wall. There are eight sections along the four walls. Each section is divided by a main entrance into the inner complex. These reliefs tell a mythical story of Hindu gods and also incorporate the daily life and beliefs of the Khmer people during the construction of the temple.
Bas reliefs of Angkor Wat:
Battle of Kurukshetra: On the south wing of the west gallery, the Battle of Kurukshetra.
Army of King Soryavaman II: Located on the west wing of the south gallery.
Gallery of Heaven and Hell: Located in the east wing of the south gallery.
Churning of the Ocean of Milk: This bas relief is probably the best known throughout Angkor. It is in the south wing of the east gallery.
Vishnu Conquers the Asuras: North wing of the east gallery,
Krishna’s Victory over Bana: The east wing of the north gallery shows the battle between Krishna (the supreme deity in Hinduism) and the Asura, Bana.
Battle of Devas and Asuras: South wing of the north gallery.
Battle of Lanka - The Battle of Lanka is located on the north wing of the west gallery.