Cambodia See: Explore Angkor Kingdom in 3 Days (3日吴哥窟)
I first visited the Angkor Kingdom, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 2008 and was back a second time in 2011 as a "guide" to show my parents around.
On both visits, I opted for the 3-day pass to tour the ancient kingdom, the main cluster of historical sites near Siem Reap town. It was more value-for-money to go for 3 days (US$40 for 3 days vs US$20 for 1 day — before the fee hike in Feb 2017). It was also not possible to visit majority of the sites in the Angkor Kingdom, including Angkor Wat, in just one day.
To avoid confusions, I will use "Angkor Kingdom" to refer to all the ancient sites in Siem Reap and "Angkor Wat" is the famous temple complex in the kingdom. The Angkor pass is a ticket to the Angkor Kingdom, not just Angkor Wat.
My 3-day exploration routes in the Angkor Kingdom are shown in the map below.
Study the map and note the routes for 3-day visit (blue for Day 1, green for Day 2 and orange for Day 3). It is possible to cover most of the Angkor sites in the main cluster in 3 days.
However, you may get an overdose from seeing too many temples. Unless you are seriously interested in temple ruins and their long histories, you can consider dropping some of the lesser significant ones to spend more time on the must-see sites.
1. Hire a tuk tuk for 3 days, preferably through the hotel or guest house for safety reason. Don't try to cycle to the historical sites, which is about 8Km from Siem Reap town. And that is only to the main site of Angkor Wat, it can easily be 25Km for the whole day. However, if you really want to cycle, plan to visit just one or two sites a day at a leisurely pace.
2. Your tuk tuk driver will bring you to purchase the Angkor pass at the ticket office on the way to Angkor Wat. The new office is not along the main road to Angkor Wat and need a little detour. Only cash is accepted at the ticket office and your photo will be printed on the pass. From February 2017, the 3-day pass is US$62. Don't lose the pass, a penalty of US$200 will be levied.
3. If you are going for sunrise on the first day, do purchase your Angkor pass on the day before (after 5pm) to avoid long queue at the ticket office in the early morning of day one and miss the sunrise. Or better yet, go for sunrise on the second or third day — a 3-day visit do offer more flexibility.
MY 3-DAY ITINERARY
Below is a consolidation of the two itineraries of my 3-day visits, check it out and plan an itinerary for your trip. Note that we travelled around the kingdom in hired tuk tuk.
Our first visit to the Angkor Kingdom was during the dry season of May where water levels were lower in ponds and moats. The weather was also the hottest during that time, especially around noon. The second visit was in November after the rain season from June to October.
The best time to be in Siem Reap is after the rain season, so there will be lesser rainfalls to disrupt visiting the Angkor Kingdom but the weather will be hot with occasional late afternoon showers.
DAY 1: Angkor Wat & Angkor Thom
We visited the famous Angkor Wat and the most-notable Bayon Temple on the first day, including several smaller sites in Angkor Thom.
1. Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat means "City of Temples" in Khmer. This is the primary reason to be in Siem Reap. Angkor Wat has a really long history that I will not delve into — visit the temple city and learn about it or refer to Wikipedia for information on all the sites.
Sunrise will be at the front entrance to Angkor Wat. The sun will rise behind the temple at around 6:30am — for your info. We were too lazy to get up early for sunrise.
We headed straight for Angkor Wat on the first day. Most visitors would take photos of the full view of Angkor Wat before entering its compound. However, remember that the sun rises behind the temple, so it will be darker in the morning. The best time to take a full view photo of Angkor Wat is in the afternoon when the sun is shining on it from the front.
We started with the outer wall enclosures and checked out the long wall cravings along the corridors of the temple complex's enclosure. The cravings depict the long history of Angkor — an illustrated guide book is required to understand them. We took more than an hour to walk one full round before going into the temple ground.
However, if you are eager to ascend to the top of Angkor Wat, head straight to the central sanctuary before the crowds come in. Start from the sanctuary and explore outward. Check out the wall enclosures last, but don't forget about it.
There are a lot more things to see inside the temple, such as Buddha statues, bas-reliefs, inner sanctuary with more towers, etc.
The central sanctuary is called the Bakan Sanctuary. It has five towers that can be seen from outside Angkor Wat. There were times when the sanctuary was opened for the public to ascend and closed again for repair works. When it was opened, a queuing system would be used to limit the number of visitors going up.
In Hindu mythology, devatas and apsaras were beautiful supernatural female beings that were superb dancers and seduced both gods and men. In the real world, they seduced visitors. Their red and shiny breasts are the results of being groped by countless of visitors (both males and females).
Bas-relief of devatas.
More on the celestial beauties:
Opening time: 5:00am to 6:00pm. This timing applies to all sites in the main cluster, unless otherwise stated.
2. South Gate of Angkor Thom
We entered the premise of the Bayon-style Angkor Thom, or "The Great City", through the South Gate when going from Angkor Wat to the Bayon Temple. There were similar gates to the north, west and east of Angkor Thom but in different states of restoration. The South Gate is one of the better restored gates.
Most visitors would stop in front of the gate to take photos, but the other side was actually much more intact. We went through the gate before stopping to check out the magnificent bas-reliefs on it. The uniqueness of the gate were the four faces looking in four different directions.
Apart from the North, South, East and West Gates, Angkor Thom has a fifth gate, called "Victory Gate", near to the East Gate. The East Gate is also known as the "Gate of Death" where convicts were sent to be executed during the Angkor era. From Angkor Thom to Ta Prohm, the road will pass through Victory Gate instead of the East Gate.
3. Bayon Temple
The Bayon Temple, located right in the middle of Angkor Thom, is another must-see relic. It is well-known for the numerous large serene stone "faces" carved on the towers on the upper terrace of the temple. There were about 200 faces, believed to be of some Buddhas.
The temple used to have 49 towers standing at one point in time, but only 37 remained today. Each tower had 4 faces.
The serene and smiling stone faces on all sides of each tower in the upper terrace.
4. Smaller Sites in Angkor Thom
Still in Angkor Thom and within short walking distance from the Bayon Temple, were some smaller sites that had been restored considerably. These sites were supposed to be part of the Royal Palace (not in existence anymore). It took us about two hours to explore them.
We started with Baphuon, an Angkorian temple, that supposedly adjoined the southern wall enclosure of the Royal Palace. It was the last to be opened to the public among the cluster of small sites.
Phimeanakas, or "Celestial Temple", was situated within the walled enclosures of the Royal Palace. The temple was squarish with all four sides having the same design but different levels of damage. Most of the steps leading to the top were heavily eroded and hazardous for use. A wooden stairway was built on one of the lesser presentable side for visitors to get to the top.
The Terrace of the Elephants is actually part of the walled enclosure of the Royal Palace. The terrace was used as a platform for ancient Angkor kings to review their armies. The carvings on these walls depicted mostly about elephants and garudas (mythological bird-like creatures).
There are several versions about the legend of the Terrace of the Leper King, but from the way the U-shaped terrace was built, it was said that it could be a royal cremation site. Check out the numerous bas-reliefs at this site.
5. Phnom Bakheng (for Sunset)
Most visitors would ascend a hill near the South Gate of Angkor Thom to Phnom Bakheng in the late afternoon mainly for viewing sunset, not the temple. The sun will set down over the paddy fields to the west, not Angkor Wat as many visitors were falsely led to believe (arisen from the confusion that many people referred to the Angkor Kingdom as "Angkor Wat", instead of just the temple complex itself).
Phnom Bakheng was usually crowded during sunset time. At any one time, only 300 visitors were allowed in Phnom Bakheng since the ancient temple was not built for sunset watchers. Go early to queue. If possible, avoid weekends.
DAY 2: Ta Prohm & Banteay Kdei
1. Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm is another famous and popular site for visitors. It has an unofficial name called the "Angelina Jolie Temple". It was coined in year 2001 after Angelina Jolie was filmed here for the movie "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider", casting as Lara Croft. Ta Prohm's fame soared after the movie was screened.
What is unique about Ta Prohm is the co-existence of large trees with the ancient buildings. In a way, if the trees are to be cut down, the buildings will collapse, or if the buildings collapsed, the trees will fall. It is due to this queer relationship that Ta Prohm remains largely in the same conditions as when it was found.
An extraordinary sight in Ta Prohm where large trees and buildings "supported" one another, the roots of a big tree opened a small hole that was big enough for the head of a bas-relief to observe the world outside.
2. Banteay Kdei
Banteay Kdei is also known as the "Citadel of Chambers". This is another site that is worth a visit. The Buddhist temple has Apsara bas-reliefs on walls beside the numerous doorways and windows.
Inside the temple, one passageway would lead to another and soon we were walking around in circles within the enclosures without realising it. This was a good place for photographers who like to take photos with framing and compositions with the bas-reliefs.
3. Prasat Kravan, Srah Srang & Prae Roup Temple
These are smaller sites that can be padded into the itinerary to fill the day when necessary. They are located close to Banteay Kdei.
Srah Srang is a baray or reservoir just outside Banteay Kdei. We spent few minutes here to grab a bite from the food stalls nearby. Some visitors would find it tranquil to just sit and rest at the riverbanks. When the water level is higher after the rain season, visitors can take short cruises along the river.
Prasat Kravan is a temple with supposedly 5 towers but three and a half domes were gone. There were large bas-reliefs on the inner walls of the towers with the central tower dedicated to Vishnu.
Prae Roup Temple (or Pre Rup) is a "temple mountain" where funerals were believed to be conducted in ancient times. It has a pretty steep climb to the top with very small steps, visitors would go on all fours to climb up.
Some visitors would go to Pre Rup near evening time to catch sunset over Angkor Wat — but the temple is a little too far and obscure by trees.
DAY 3: Kbal Spean & Banteay Srei
On the third day, we did something different. We went checking out bas-reliefs and lingas along a river, which was about 50km from Siem Reap, and a women's citadel along the way. The journey was about 2-hours one-way and we agreed to pay the tuk tuk driver a little more before setting off.
The distance from Siem Reap to the women's citadel, called Banteay Srei, was about 42km and another 12km from Banteay Srei to the river, called Kbal Spean. The journey required travelling along a dusty red sand road and we had to cover our mouths and noses.
We decided to go for the further Kbal Spean first and visited Banteay Srei on the way back. Also because Kbal Spean's closing time was way earlier than Banteay Srei.
1. Kbal Spean
Kbal Spean, or more commonly known as the "River of Thousand Lingas", was situated on the southwest slope of Phnom Kulen. From the entrance, it took us another 1.5Km of trekking in the jungle to reach the river. We followed a well-worn path through the jungle to where most of the bas-reliefs were located.
The bas-reliefs were littered along the river banks and on the riverbeds. Some were heavily-eroded by nature, some coated with thick algae, and some were preyed by robbers.
Kbal Spean offered a different perspective from other temples with bas-refiefs, the lingas were along the river banks and riverbed. The photo above was taken during the dryer season in May. With lesser water, most of the lingas were clearly visible.
A lingam on the riverbed.
About 200m downriver, we came to the last of the discovered relics at a waterfall. We stopped here and retraced back to the entrance where the tuk tuk is waiting for us.
Note: Kbal Spean closes at 3pm.
2. Banteay Srei
Also known as the "Citadel of the Women", the buildings in Banteay Srei were built largely with red sandstone, thus the red walls throughout the whole site. Other than Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei had the most elaborate wall carvings that were preserved till today.
From the small dimensions of the doors and passageways, it was concluded that the site was built for women, being smaller in sizes, in ancient time. The intricate carvings were also believed to be done by women.
Note: Banteay Srei closes at 5pm.
And that ended our 3-day tour of the Angkor Kingdom. If I were to go back for a 3rd visit, I will probably opt to cycle.