The Best Sites Around Angkor Wat

The Best of Angkor Wat: Ta Prohm

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

Best Sunrise

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.

Angkor Wat Sunrise

Crowd for Angkor Wat Sunrise

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.

Bayon Faces in Angkor

Bayon Face in Angkor

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.

Bantei Srey

Bantei Srey

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.)

Ta Prohm: The Tree Temples in Angkor

Ta Prohm: The Tree Temples in Angkor

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.

Angkor Monkeys and Motorbike

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.

Biking Angkor Wat

Posted on by Noah Lederman in Asia, Somewhere

7 Responses to The Best Sites Around Angkor Wat

  1. Manusrudee Suwannarat

    Interesting entry. My husband and I never managed to get up for the sunrise at Angkor Wat during our visit, but judging from your photo it certainly looks popular. We also visited Baksei Chumkrung and found it quite a cool place to relax.

    Also, it’s well worth while to walk around the wall of Angkor Thom. I got this from a series of articles written by a guy who wrote a novel set in ancient Angkor.

    http://www.amazon.com/Angkor-Essential-articles-present-ebook/dp/B008ED7HJ2/ref=pd_sxp_f_pt

    He also has a lot of tips about how to avoid other tourists.

    • Noah Lederman

      Thanks for the tip, Manusrudee. I’ll check this book out.

  2. Glenn Guy

    Thanks for such an informative article. It brought back a lot of memories.

    I traveled to Angkor Wat way back in the early 90’s. During my 3 days there I only saw a couple of western tourists. The Kyhmer Rouge, though on the run, were still around and some of the temple areas were mined. I needed special permission from a local general to visit Banteay Srey. The fee included two military vehicles and a few soldiers to protect me from bandits. Was it a con? I’II not sure but it added some excitement to the trip.

    I still remember The Bayon as a favorite location and Banteay Srey as a great adventure.

    Keep up the great work,

    Glenn

    • Noah Lederman

      Hi Glenn,
      Thanks for reading.
      That’s a very unique story. Chances are you were not conned because when I was leaving Bantey Srei, just 100 meters from the parking lot, I saw a sign that indicated in 2008–in a four month sweep of the area–36 mines and unexploded ordinance were uncovered. I’ll write more about this when I publish a series of articles on trying to learn about the Cambodian genocide from the different generations.
      All the best,
      Noah

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  4. Frank

    Very good post. Agree with Banteay Samre, was actually our favorite temple. Ta Prohm was good but so many people…actually enjoyed Preah Khan more. And Ta Som was like a mini-Ta Prohm.
    Holy cow, that’s a lot of people in the sunrise photo. Glad we slept through it 🙂
    Our favorite temples: http://bbqboy.net/ancient-angkor-and-the-top-10-temples-of-angkor-wat-archaeological-park/
    Always fun to compare notes with other travelers.

    What’s amazing about Angkor is the variety: from temples covered with moss or tree roots, to the temple-mountains, to stone ruins sticking out of the jungle like highrises. Worth a 2nd visit.
    Frank (bbqboy)

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