The temples and ruins of Angkor, near Siem Reap, Cambodia, are hundreds–some thousands–of years old. It is the largest preindustrial city in the world, covering nearly 400 square miles of land. Even if you purchase a three day ticket–which is the pass I would recommend–it’s still difficult to visit all of the sites. Since you’ll be pressed for time–unless you race from temple to temple each day beginning at sun up and ending when the park closes–it’s best to approach the UNESCO World Heritage complex with a flexible plan. Here’s my list of the best of Angkor Wat:
The Best of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat might be the first time you realize how ambitious people can become after hearing the word sunrise. Though the most famous temple is jam-packed with tourists at 5:00 am, it’s for a very good reason. As the slipper of moon fades from the night sky and the silhouettes of the acorn-shaped towers come into focus, visitors come to understand why that same image adorns the country’s flag.
Most Curious Temple
More than 100 faces appear in the towers around Bayon. These full-lipped apparitions are mysterious, intriguing, and probably a blast to mess around with on Photoshop.
Most Beautiful Architecture in Angkor
The furthest temple from Siem Reap is Banteay Srey (about a one hour drive), but the pink-stoned intricately carved walls are well worth the trip through a countryside replete with palm-lined rice paddies. The journey to Banteay Srey is as beautiful as some of the Angkorian temples. It’s best to visit after 2:00 pm when the colors are most vibrant and when the morning rush ends.
Best Minor Site in Angkor
Some of Angkor’s “minor sites” are still worth a look. My favorite was Banteay Samre. If you’ve already traveled all the way to Banteay Srey, then it’s a must-see. The mood here is psychedelic with moats of bright green grass flooding space between the pink walls. During my visit, it stormed, which brought out the trippy juxtaposition of colors and it transformed the empty ruins into an ominous setting.
Best Least Visited Site in Angkor
Baksei Chumkrung, a red pyramid just south of Angkor Tom, is one of the few ruins where you’ll have Angkor all to yourself. It’s surrounded by some of the busiest temples and often goes overlooked. The steps and landings are covered in grass, a true testament to its lack of traffic. The front stairs are terribly eroded, making it a rock scramble to a supine Buddha up top. For safer passage, climb the steps on one of the other three sides.
Best Sunset in Angkor
Pre Rup and Phnom Bakheng are the top spots for sunset, but the latter requires you to arrive at 4:30 pm or else you risk being barred from the peak. We had poor sunsets during our three days (thus the absence of sunset photos), but views of the jungle canopy are picturesque nonetheless and the best of Angkor Wat.
Best Site to See in Angkor
Ta Phrom is flooded with visitors, but unlike most tourist magnets, it lives up to the hype. The massive white roots of fig and silk cotton trees look like elephant appendages as they work into cracks between stones, wrap around columns, and crush the roofs they grow upon. It’s as if a giant octopus had landed atop a pristine wreck, draping its tentacles over doors, across Buddhas, and over intricate carvings. The trees devour the structure. Spung trees even grow over dead trees, choking them out. (If you’re reading this 200 years after the publication date and you’re wondering where the trees are, assume they have been chopped down. At the time of this writing, the trees were 400 years old. They had to be chopped down before collapsing onto Ta Phrom.)
Other Notable Temples: For less touristy temples that have one or two temple-eating trees, as spectacular as Ta Phrom, visit Preah Khan or Ta Som. Both are best visited in the afternoon.
Make Time For: We spent about one hour outside of the south gate of Angkor Tom feeding bananas to monkeys, watching them dine with a two year old girl (human), and witnessing the girl selling bananas abuse these poor creatures by shaking them by the head. They’re quite intelligent and heaps of fun to watch, but beware: They do have a similar taste to humans when it comes to hats, glasses, cellphones, and cameras. I watched one monkey climb a woman like a tree. From there, they’ll pilfer and run off with their looted items. Consequently, they are not the best of Angkor Wat.
Most Important Non-Angkor-Related Site
After I read a sign that alerted tourists that 36 pieces of unexploded ordinance and mines were discovered only one hundred meters from Banteay Srey’s parking lot back in 2008, I wanted to visit The Cambodia Landmine Museum and Relief Centre. The museum was founded by Aki Ra, a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge. The museum expands each day as more of the 6 million mines littering the country are discovered and as more Cambodian children are maimed. The rusty pagoda in the center of the small museum displays only some of the 50,000 mines that Aki Ra has uprooted using sandals and a sharp stick. The museum is also home to a number of orphans affected by mine blasts.
Best Transport Through Angkor
On the day you visit Banteay Srey and Banteay Samre, hire a tuk tuk. Normally, a tuk tuk will cost $12-$15 for a full day in Angkor, but tack on an extra $5 to head way out to Banteay Srey. My favorite way to explore Angkor, however, was by bicycle. It was nice riding up to some of the minor temples and just circling the grounds on bike without having to get off and see more of the same. (Eventually, all of the minor temples start to blur together.) You can rent a bike in town for just $3. Traffic on the main road to Angkor is slow, but there is a much quieter road, running parallel. Make sure you bicycle is equipped with a light if you’re planning on riding before or after sunset.