Angkor: the most spectacular concentration of temples on Earth, and the reason why I handed over $35 for a visa at the border crossing. Fast forward six days from the moment I stepped off my bike in Siem Reap — the tourist gateway to the ancient complex — and I’m “templed” out. After five days in Siem Reap (3 full days exploring temples) and a half-day at Preah Vihear (the only other UNESCO temple site in Cambodia), I’m exhausted from stone grandeur. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Did it meet my high expectations? My expectations were blown away.
With my 3-day ticket ($40), I saw a sunset at Pre Rup, a sunrise at Angkor Wat’s NW moat, spent a morning wandering around the Royal Palace grounds in Angkor Thom, and finished my first, full day by climbing the jungle ruins of Beng Mealea ($5 ticket, 65km northeast of Siem Reap) before catching the tail-end of a sunset at the Bangkor. For the second day, a sunrise at Srah Srang, a peaceful, early morning at Ta Prohm (the “Tomb Raider” temple) before the tourist hordes descended, an unremarkable noon trip to Banteay Samre, a marvelous viewing of Banteay Srei (32km from Siemp Reap) and it’s exquisite, pinkish stone carvings, and capped by a solitary sunset atop Ta Kea (SIDENOTE: the Chinese government is partially funding it’s current restoration work).
I took a break from sightseeing on the third day by seeing a sunrise at Phnom Bakheng, relaxing poolside at a new backpacker spot called Funky Monkey (I slept the five nights in an open-air, 16-bed dorm at Urban Jungle for $3 a night), and watching the sun set at Phnom Kram (I had to pay the ticket checker $2 because I didn’t want to use up my ticket). The 3-day pass allows you to go on any three days in any one week, but you can usually beat the checkers at sunrise and sunet. I also was building up for the largest religious building in the world — Angkor Wat — so I wanted to save the best for last.
I arrived at Angkor Wat at 5am, well before the sun, but dozens of people were already waiting and hundreds would soon arrive. Most people wait outside by one of the moats to watch the sun come up behind the central tower, but I snuck inside and climbed to the top of one of the four corner towers. EPIC. Once the sun was high in the sky and my visual senses were overloaded, I went on a brief jungle trek under the ziplines of the Flight of the Gibbons experience. I got lost and had to backtrack before arriving at isolated Ta Nei, a smaller, less-trafficked version of Ta Prohm. I ended up taking a nap in my newly-acquired hammock because it was so peaceful. After a cheap lunch of Khmer noodles, I decided to return to Ta Keo for a sunset to avoid the tourist hot spots (which has been my MO on this trip). Accolades go to Beng Mealea (natural, ruined state where you can climb the temple walls) and Ta Nei (idyllic, natural, ruined state) for best, overall atmosphere. (ADVICE: Bear in mind that the dozens of temples cover a huge area so timing and travel planning are key for a pleasant experience. Foreigners are barred from using motorbikes in Siem Reap and Angkor, although aside from being stopped and warned by tourist police on two occasions, the law is loosely enforced.)