Exploring Angkor Wat and the other Angkor temple complexes and archaeological sites that are remnants of the great Khmer Empire are the reason most travellers visit Siem Reap in Cambodia. And rightly so. Here’s how to do it.
However, while the UNESCO World Heritage listed archaeological monuments initially drew travellers to Siem Reap, the fact the Cambodian city keeps appearing on ‘best lists’ (it came in at #7 on Travel and Leisure magazine’s 2011 World’s Best Cities list* ahead of Sydney, Barcelona and Paris), suggests visitors are enjoying more than the city’s nearby ruins.
We first visited Siem Reap well before Travel and Leisure’s 2011 list was published, just before the wet season began. We were here to find out what it was that was making this little Cambodian city so increasingly appealing to travellers. But before we did that, we were determined to do what every other visitor to Siem Reap does and enjoy a couple of days exploring Angkor Wat and the other Angkor temple cities. ‘Angkor’, by the way, means ‘city’.
We’d already visited the captivating Khmer temples in Thailand’s Isaan region, including Prasat Phanom Rung, Prasat Muang Tam and Prasat Hin Phimai, so we knew what to expect in terms of the architectural styles, their symmetry of form, and the intricacy of their detailed carvings. While I was enchanted by all the temples we visited over the course of a few days, I wasn’t prepared for the splendour of Angkor Wat and the bizarre beauty of the Bayon.
Exploring Angkor Wat and the Angkor Temples of Siem Reap
Angkor Thom and the Bayon
We’d arrived in Siem Reap on a morning flight from Phnom Penh, missing sunrise at Angkor Wat, so we began with the temple-city of Angkor Thom and its star attraction Prasat Bayon or the temple of Bayon, often called ‘the Bayon’. As we were staying at the Amansara, which we were writing about for a story, we had a guide and remork (Cambodian tuk tuk) at our disposal and the hotel had planned a two-day itinerary for us.
While we’re independent travellers at heart and prefer to do our own thing, we were reviewing the hotel so we had to test out their services. And besides, we appreciate what a good, knowledgeable local guide can bring to this sort of experience.
In this case, it was things like knowing when to visit an archaeological site to capture it in the best light and where to enter the site to avoid hordes of visitors – which is how we would come to approach most sites, from the back entrance. While ideal for photography, it could, however, be a tad disorienting at times.
We entered the Bayon via the east gallery gate and went around the back, gradually making our way to the front. In the process we didn’t see another soul for a good hour.
The Bayon is the centrepiece of Angkor Thom – the ‘Great City’ – the last capital of the Khmer Empire. Established in the twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII it sas part of an ambitious building programme that included the temples of Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and Banteay Kdei. Angkor Thom covers nine square kilometres, taking in the splendid naga bridges, the delightful Terrace of the Elephants, and the earlier temples of Baphuon and Phimeanakas.
Like Prasat Hin Phimai in Thailand, Prasat Bayon was a shrine to Mahayana Buddhism, a fusion of Buddhism and Hinduism, and dedicated primarily to Buddha, although other deities were also worshipped here. Religion was integral to the Khmer Empire, first Hinduism until the mid to late 12th century, and then Buddhism, and various syncretic forms of the two.
The Bayon’s distinguishing features are its colossal, serene carved faces. Originally, there were 216 of these handsome faces on 54 towers. Now there are 37 towers, each bearing four fine-looking faces.
While our guide believed these smiling visages were those of Buddha, some scholars have interpreted them as representations of King Jayavarman VII, whose likeness is similar (see the statue here), or of bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, an enlightenment-being which embodies the compassion of all Buddhas and was regarded as a guardian.
Either way, they’re sublime. Had it not have been so scorching hot and the humidity so high, I could have scrambled about the Bayon all day, gazing at those splendid faces.
We spent an hour or two clambering about the temple, ducking into darkened chambers (the Bayon boasts 100 storehouses which were used to hold statues), climbing up and down steep stairs, and examining the elaborately carved and well preserved bas-reliefs.
The bas-reliefs on the lower-level walls beautifully depict historical and mythological tales, stories of epic battles on land and sea, and (most interesting to us) vivid scenes from everyday life, including farming, fishing, shopping, cooking, and festivals.
As a result, we left the Bayon with a much better understanding of how the millions of people who inhabited these massive cities must have lived their lives. But we left with as many questions as answers, which is always a good sign.
Watching Sunrise at Angkor Wat
We woke the next day at 4.15am, the Amansara staff brought coffee to our room at 4.30am, and we were in our remork at 4.45am, buzzing along the road to Angkor in the pitch-black darkness. We quickly bought our tickets at the office, including having our photos taken, and 15 minutes later we were there.
By the time we arrived at the West Gate of the vast temple complex, and hurried along the causeway across the moat with a handful of others making their way by torchlight, the sky was just beginning to turn a beautiful deep cobalt blue.
As our guide positioned Terence on a tiny muddy peninsula poking into the still pond in front of the temple (so he could be sure nobody would get in the way of his camera), the sky began to brighten, cycling through shades of blue until a pale baby-pink light slowly started to illuminate the structure, just as a sea of a people washed in behind us, all jostling for the best position.
I’d read countless complaints by travellers about the thousands of people who make a beeline to Angkor Wat for sunrise, but the numbers of tourists didn’t bother me at all when we visited – there couldn’t have been more than a couple of hundred, although our guide verified that in high season there would be a couple of thousand elbowing each other for space.
What irritated me a tad wasn’t the numbers, but rather that many didn’t seem to be here to savour the moment. Most appeared to be here just for the photo opportunity, to capture the spectacle on their cameras and phones and upload the images to their social media channels.
The place was noisy with the chatter of hundreds of voices. People were busy setting up tripods and discussing angles with their friends. If they didn’t have a big professional-looking camera with a long lens, then they were armed with iPhones, incessantly snapping pictures that they were probably sending out to the world on their Twitter and Instagram feeds.
I tried to remember the last time I’d watched the sun rise over such a majestic site. It was Machu Picchu, which we’d woken in the wee hours of the morning to trek down to from where we’d camped the night before. But unlike these visitors to Angkor Wat, a couple of dozen of us had sat in silence before the extraordinary Incan site.
We spoke in hushed tones as we waited for the sun to burst its light upon the pre-Columbian marvel that we’d hiked four days to see. There was no way anybody was going to ruin that moment. I don’t recall hearing the continual clicks of camera shutters that we heard that morning at Angkor Wat. All I remember were the sounds of my new friends’ gasps and sighs as the sun rose, revealing the breathtaking view of the monument below.
Terence was obligated to add to the din, because we were in Siem Reap working after all, and he’d be expected by editors to produce images of the sun beaming from behind the silhouette of Angkor Wat.
However, after a few snaps with my iPhone and camera, I decided to put away my devices and focus instead on this moment in time. I moved as far away from the commotion as I could and concentrated on that rising ball of fire in the sky and its illumination of this stupendous structure. I’m pleased I did. As you can see, it was divine.
Exploring Angkor Wat
Strangely, after the sun rose, the crowd dispersed as quickly as it had formed, flowing back over the causeway in the direction from which they came, leaving only thirty or so of us there to explore. Once again, instead of using the front door our savvy guide directed us to the back door – this time around it was to the rear entrance (near the East Gate) of Angkor Wat.
For me, that far side of the temple city, the side that was fully illuminated by the sun, was the most exquisite of all. Golden brown from the tangerine sky, rather than the motley grey of the other side, it radiated warmth. It was as if the temple was welcoming us in to discover its beauty. I wished we’d watched the sun rise from there. That’s where I’m going to savour it next time we return.
We spent a couple of hours clambering about the monumental site, the best preserved of the Angkor temples and the largest religious building in the world. Thought to be built as a mausoleum for King Suryavarman II (1113-1150) because it faces west – symbolically the direction associated with death – Angkor Wat was built in honour of the Hindu deity Vishnu, with whom the king was said to identify.
For our first hour exploring Angkor Wat, we saw only a handful of people with guides – all of whom had obviously taken the same clever approach as our guide: using the back door.
We ambled along the lower western porch, admiring the intricate bas-reliefs on the stone walls, which wrap around the building for over a kilometre. I could have spent all day here, browsing the galleries as I might paintings in an art museum.
The two-metre high bas-reliefs are so compelling because they tell stories from Hindu mythology, from the epic Mahabharata (Moha Phearata in Khmer) and Ramayana (Reamker in Khmer), of heaven and hell, gods and demons, armies and battles, in the most vivid detail.
After climbing the steep stairs we swung a right to see Vishnu battling demons. Around the corner on the northern gallery walls, Krishna rides a garuda, which helps him overcome a demon and extinguishes the flame of a burning city, while further along there is a raging battle between 21 Brahman gods and demons. In the northwest corner pavilion are scenes from the Ramayana, including Vishnu with his wife Lakshmi at his feet and apsaras floating above his head.
Around the corner on the western wall, we spend some time admiring the wonderfully depicted scene from the Ramayana in which Rama fights Ravana, the demon-king, for his abducted wife in the Battle of Lanka. He enlists the help of the monkey-god Hanuman who attacks Ravana, who leads a warrior-army from his chariot.
We then back-tracked to the spot where we began and continued along the eastern wall, before climbing up the three-storey central temple complex where – after agreeing to bribe a security guard – we were shown around the top level, closed for restoration when we visited.
Here, the walls are richly decorated with splendid carvings of ethereal apsaras or heavenly nymphs, of which there are said to be some 3,000 adorning Angkor Wat. But just as stunning as these beautiful bare-breasted celestial beings were the spectacular views of the sprawling temple surrounding us below.
For a moment I felt as if I was high above Machu Picchu once again. I could feel a slight breeze on my face, drying the perspiration on my skin, and although I could see a group spilling out from a tour bus on the other side of the moat, the only thing I could hear apart from the wind was a sigh. It was my own. I found myself sighing a lot at Angkor.
How to get to and around Angkor Wat
See our practical Guide to Experiencing Angkor Wat and the Angkor Temples, which contains lots of detail on when to visit, how to get there and around, ticket prices, using guides versus exploring independently, the tour companies we liked most of those we tested out, what to do and see, and where to eat and drink.
If you’re interested in visiting more off-the-beaten-track temples, see our story on Exploring the Lost City of Mahendrapavarta at Mount Kulen. We have more stories to come on other lesser-visited temples, from Beng Mealea to Koh Kor.
* Update, July 2014
Siem Reap is once again on Travel and Leisure’s World’s Best Cities list for 2014, coming in at #4. Since writing this story, we moved to Siem Reap to live in June 2013 and can vouch that it is indeed a very special little city with a lot more to do than scramble ruins. Although for me the enchanting temples remain the star attraction.
For more on the temples, see this Archaeologists Guide to Angkor Archaeological Park and How to Get the Most Out of the Angkor Archaeological Sites.