1. ANGKOR WAT IS JUST ONE TEMPLE IN A GIGANTIC COMPLEX
That’s right. ‘Angkor Wat’ is the term scribbled on travellers’ bucket lists, but Angkor Wat – the prolific temple that features on the Cambodian flag – is one temple in the Angkor Complex, which actually consists of over 1000 temples.
I mean. That’s nuts.
Now, some of these are just rubbles of sandstone, but still. The word is Angkor is actually derived from a Sanskrit word that means ‘city’ – and Angkor is thought to be one of the world’s largest pre-industrial cities. Except it’s a city of temples. So in effect, you will be exploring the ruins of one of the world’s largest ancient cities, and the world’s largest religious complex to date.
Besides Angkor Wat, there’s Prasat Bayon (the one with all the faces),
Baphuon (the one that you can climb up in, but which doesn’t have the crazy queue that Angkor Wat has. And also the one with the enormous reclining buddha carved in it’s wall.),
Ta Prohm (the one overtaken by trees, famous from being featured in the Tomb Raider movie),
Preah Khan (equally overtaken by trees, but for some reason way less crowded),
and Neak Pean (the one where you have to walk across the water to a man-mad island).
And many many many more.
2. YOU CAN’T WALK IT
Well, technically you could, but it would take you forever and you’d be sweating buckets in the 30+°C heat and almost-100% humidity. You can rent bicycles and cycle around, but I refer again to the above-mentioned climate.
Ideally, you should rent a Tuk-Tuk. It should cost you no more than $20 for the day and the pros are many:
- Shortening the time to get from temple to temple = more time to explore each temple.
- The drivers know the complex like the backs of their hands, taking the guess-work out for you. They’ll make sure you see everything you need to see, based on how many days you want to explore.
- The canopy over your head and the wind in your face offers a nice respite to the heat.
Where can I hire a Tuk-Tuk?
ANYWHERE. Literally anywhere. We flagged a tuk-tuk driver on our street, he named his price, we considered it, and off we went! They are also parked around the ticket office, and all the temples. At the end of the day we asked the driver if he wanted to take us around again the next day, and sure enough he was waiting for us outside our Airbnb at 4am like we asked.
Believe it or not, but Angkor Wat wasn’t only on your bucket list. This place is crowded. And even though the complex is sprawling, expect to see a lot of tourists at the larger temples, and especially at the Angkor Wat. So, in many cases, you’re gonna have to get creative with your angles if you want a photo without other people in it.
And don’t be mad! They are there to explore just like you! Just because you didn’t come in a tour bus doesn’t make you any less of a tourist than they are.
So…How Do I Avoid All the People Then?
Well, like I said, the complex is massive and there are tons of temples, and you can go almost anywhere once you’re there. So ask the driver to take you to smaller temples, where you might find only two or ten other people, or just find the quieter corners and courtyards of the bigger ones.
It’s really hard to avoid the crowd at that quintessential Angkor Wat sunrise (post coming about this soon!) – nay, impossible. But what you could do, is head to the further temples right after sunrise, when everyone else is heading into the main temple. We did this, and found ourselves basically alone.
4. EXPECT TO GET HUNGRY
You’re gonna work up an appetite doing all that exploring. There is a pretty big food area in the Angkor Thom section (where Bayon, the one with the faces, and Baphuon, the one with the reclining Buddha, are). However, we really didn’t feel like hot food in the middle of a hot, sweaty day, so we opted for lots of fruit snacks from any of the many stalls set up around the temples. Or bring your own packed lunches!
Oh, BY THE WAY, Angkor Wat and the surrounding ruins are Buddhist temples. So expect to see some real life monks and DRESS FOR THE OCCASION. That means:
Cover your knees.
Cover your shoulders.
Wear loose-fitted clothing.
Don’t take any nude photos!? (Yes, this really happened…*face palm*).
6. YOU CAN DO IT IN A DAY
The park is open the whole day – from 5am to 6pm – so if you are really pressed for time and you really only have a day, you can definitely do it! Express this to your tuk-tuk driver and he will take care of you.
Beyond the day pass ($37), you can also buy a 3-day ($62) and a seven-day ($72) pass and the days don’t have to be consecutive. And you SHOULD definitely spend more than a day in Angkor. We only had a weekend, so we bought the 3-day pass and spent two days at the park, and we were completely satisfied with that. However, we did feel like we could probably spend a whole week there and never have to see the same thing twice.
7. TO GUIDE OR NOT TO GUIDE?
It’s the world largest religious structure, built in the 12th-century to honour the Hindu god Vishnu; the temples in Angkor are littered with statues and covered in relief carvings of warriors, demons, royalties, gods. So expect to be confronted with a whole lot of history of which you probably know very little about.
For this reason you can hire personal guides for the day – this is on top of what you will pay your driver. The guides, like the drivers, are everywhere. We didn’t do this! Instead, we watched some documentaries about Angkor Wat the day before, and ended up exploring with a general overview in mind. I can see how having a guide would be a valuable addition, but we have traveled enough to know that most of the time we are just not guide-people. We enjoy it more when we get to explore at our own pace.
But it would definitely be a better experience if you know something about what you are encountering.
8. TICKET POLICE
Ticket checks are done at all of the big temples, so DO NOT THROW YOUR TICKET AWAY! Keep it safe and close at hand.
9. KIDS SELLING STUFF
Unfortunately, Angkor Wat is one of those places where you’ll see little girls not in school selling cheap souvenirs instead.
Angkor Wat is basically being swallowed by the Cambodian forest, so there are a ton of monkeys monkeying around. They are super cute, but be careful and don’t get too close when you take that photo! They are very much used to all the tourists, and they get super cheeky – one even snatched my water bottle from right under my nose; I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard that they were grabbing cellphones from tourists’ hands!
11. BREATHTAKING LANDSCAPE
Most of all, expect to be inspired by the natural beauty of the park. Rivers, forests, lakes, lily pads, butterflies, the dappled sunshine through the forest canopy – we couldn’t believe our eyes. It is definitely one of the most beautiful places we have ever been. And when you can get away from the crowd – and it’s completely possible – it’s especially breathtaking.