This is Part 3 of the Thailand & Cambodia Travel Series. Read Part 1 Here.
OUR AMBITIOUS GOAL was to see Angkor Wat in one day. If you only have one day to see it, all I can say is be ready to keep moving! The palace grounds are sprawling and best seen with two days. There are even other outer rim temples that would take half a day to get to.
The Golden Gecko offered a couple different tours, including a small tour to see some of the most popular temples, a big temple tour that went around the outer circuit, and even some one-off tours to see the more remote temples, including one near a waterfall (Phnom Kulen). You could also choose to pay for method of travel – car or tuk tuk. I would say tuk tuk worked perfect, we kept cool enough while driving and were protected from the sun.
From our perspective, we didn’t know when we’d be back in Cambodia again, so we opted to do the big temple tour. Our tuk tuk driver “Sam” had picked us up from the airport as well, so that was nice to have a familiar face driving us.
First we did a 15 minute drive to the Angkor Wat visitor center, where Sam motioned for us to go buy our tickets. At the time of this posting, it was $37 US each for a 1 day pass, and keep your ticket with you at all times because at each temple you will be asked to produce it.
From there, the temple grounds were a good 30 minutes away. Civilization eventually disappeared and we thronged our way amongst air conditioned vehicles, mopeds, other tuk tuks, and even elephants at times until we reached the main palace of Angkor Wat, its spires protruding like a crown in the heart of the jungle across a vast lake.
Angkor Wat was the gemstone of the powerful Khmer Empire and represents Mt Meru, abode of Hindu gods. The temples were built during various centuries, so there were also some temples that had one side that would represent those of Buddhist faith, and the other represented different Hindu gods. There would be different doorways to enter, one for the living, another for the dead, and another for royalty.
It felt surreal to walk the grounds of the main temple, its iconic elements brought to life from what I had only seen from pictures. We were immediately besieged by tour guides but we weren’t interested. We wanted to take our time and wander as we would. After crossing the bridge, we traveled down the main path. A horse was tethered at one smaller gazebo, and I saw a hot air balloon rising over the forest at one point.
I would recommend going early to get the best lighting for photographs. We arrived more mid-morning and the sun was not camera-friendly. Also, I recommend bringing a LOT of water. It was sweltering. Also, bring some snacks, sun screen, and more water. Off to the side of the main temple was a huge market village full of vendors selling snacks, and more restaurants and gift shops were set up by the parking lot. But definitely keep a lot of bottled water with you. Sam waited for us with a group of his fellows in the parking lot while we clambered up and down the steps of the main temple. There were countless individual statues to uncover and many shrines, as well as a lot of steep staircases that my spouse joked weren’t ADA compliant.
Most vendors will leave you alone as long as you're firm upfront that you're not interested. Don't display any hesitation. There was one vendor who was extremely aggressive at selling a counterfeit Angkor Wat travel guide despite our continued non-interest. There were a lot of English words spelled wrong on the cover and no information about the publisher; it looked like the content may have been pirated from a published book. Really be prepared to deliver a lot of flat “No”s or be non-responsive because at every temple, there will be a greeting committee of vendors eager to sell. When it did come to the haggling, my spouse and I would stick to our plan – he would display interest, I would say no, it was too much, we needed to leave, and sure enough, the price would go down. We talked to a fellow tourist and he spent $20 USD on the counterfeit tour guide book, whereas the aggressive vendor who tried to get us to purchase it dropped the price to $5 USD. So all in all, stand your ground and be prepared to walk away if the price isn't right for what you're looking for, but don't play around if you don't intend to make a deal no matter what they offer.
It was easy to spend an hour at the main temple. Afterwards, our tuk tuk driver proceeded around the dirt road to drive us to the next temple, Bayon, where we promptly lost each other in the tight, labyrinthine tunnels that snaked around and around, finally culminating at the top where there were several immense Khmer king statues. Afterwards, we visited a Buddhist shrine where we received a blessing and luck bracelets.
The third temple we visited, Preah Khan, had a very clever tourist trap. We were deep into the jungle at this point, and thick strangling vines and trees with roots that crept like numerous tentacles had overtaken the temples. It was an inspiring and thrilling feeling to behold what looked like the earth eating stone. Just when we had reached the heart of the temple, a man in what looked like a police uniform approached us and began telling us about the temple's background. Since he was in uniform, our guard was down and we relaxed, chatting with him. He showed us a spot where we could take a picture of a window with light that sat just right on a pillar and made it look like flames, another passage that gave the illusion of a mirror, and a third spot you could chant and your voice would echo in the deep.
However, by this point we realized with sinking hearts that all of this friendly banter meant he would want payment. Other uniformed police had appeared, similarly cornering other tourists. We did manage to duck away when another couple appeared, but overheard one group talking that the officers didn’t make much of a salary, so they would be impromptu tour guides as well for a tip.
A child beggar met us in the back and was exceptionally persistent. Our hotel had included brochures mentioning not to pay them because that reinforced begging over going to school. However, we did relent and gave him a banana. He took a break to go eat it, and we made our way around the outer perimeter back to our tuk tuk.
Hours passed, and each temple offered something different as we continued our journey through the park. One temple was in the middle of a lake (West Mebon). We crossed a mossy boardwalk where we spotted what looked like a flock of eagles perched on a tree in the middle of the swamp.
Another temple (East Mebon) was guarded by elephants at all four corners and on different levels. It was neat because at this point, most of the visitors had gone back home for the day, the sun was close to setting, so we had the temple all to ourselves.
At this point, it was getting late and we were completely exhausted. There were still three temples left for us to see, but we told Sam we had energy for one more. We asked for his advice. Without hesitation, he pointed on the map – Ta Prohm.
Hands down, this was our favorite temple. It began downpouring at this point, and we were glad we brought rain flies and rain shells to cover our packs (but don’t worry, plenty of vendors magically appeared offering rain ponchos). The storm made Ta Prohm all the more atmospheric as we marveled at the different color of stones, the architecture, and of course, the unique way the trees had threaded themselves into the temple, making themselves an indistinguishable part. The rain stopped and hundreds of tiny brown frogs hopped around the tree roots.
By the time we emerged, exhausted after 6 hours of temple exploration, sun rays split the clouds apart and steam rose from Ta Prohm’s courtyard. It truly felt like an afterimage of the deities’ heavenly home.
Creeping trees eat well
Roots choke stone, vendors stalk prey
We wonder and run
For more information on the park’s layout and temple history, check out this link:
Overall, we would have loved to have spent more time in Cambodia. Everyone was very hospitable and it would have been neat to see the Floating Village on Tonle Sap Lake or visit the silk markets near the capital. I will say, however, that the barrage of sellers is overwhelming if you haven’t been accustomed to that before. Even up until we boarded our flight back to Thailand and had to walk through the gift shop to get to the flight terminal, I half-expected sales folk to jump up out of nowhere from behind the shelves.
All in all, too short of a visit, and hopefully someday we can return.
Upcoming Post: Phuket: Kamala Beach
Disclaimer: the above is depicted as fiction, not fact