If you’re planning to visit Cambodia (and Siem Reap in particular) then it’s more than likely you’ve heard of Angkor Wat – the world’s largest religious monument that is just a small part of the biggest complex of religious buildings on Earth. I know, I know… it’s one of those tourist attractions that does just that – attracts hoards of tourists from all over the world (2.1 million per year to be exact!).
So yes, it’s going to be crowded and yes, it’s been talked up for years – but even so, Angkor Wat is going to surprise and impress you.
I’m not the sort of person that enjoys doing super touristy outings – I’d much prefer to drive or walk myself around an area, talk to locals and find hidden treasures along the way. So when we were told we wouldn’t be allowed to hire a scooter and drive ourselves around Angkor Wat at our own pace and to the temples that interested us I was quite disappointed. Supposedly local authorities have had enough grief dealing with tourists crashing or driving like crazy in the high traffic temple area.
So hesitantly we booked a tuk-tuk that would take us on a set tour around Angkor Wat. Like the other 2.0000009 million people visiting the temples we were given two options for the tour: The 17km long ‘small circuit’ or the 26km long ‘grand circuit’.
As we only had one day to explore the complex (US $20 for a day pass) we decided to go for the small circuit and spend our time really exploring each temple we visit. The grand circuit is a great option for those who have longer to explore the complex – and if you buy a second day pass for an extra US $20 you’ll get access for your third day free.
So below is our review of the seven temples and areas we visited along the small circuit in chronological order. We’ve also included a rating out of 10 for each temple.
1. Watch the sunrise behind Angkor Wat temple
Rating: Michaela 8.5 | Alex 8
Angkor Wat is the namesake temple of the whole complex for good reason. It’s the largest religious monument in the world – the entire site measures 162.6 hectares or 1,626,000 m2! Thats immense!
We spent a good couple of hours exploring the temple, the multiple smaller temples surrounding it and the grounds, gardens and ponds all around. We got there in time to watch the sunrise but unfortunately the day was cloudy, so the show wasn’t as good as what we had expected. Apart from this though Angkor Wat temple blew us away. Monks still practice on the grounds and you hear chanting coming from all directions.
2. Count the smiley faces at Bayon temple
Rating: Michaela 8 | Alex 7.5
Although Bayon was by the far the most crowded temple we visited, the intricate carvings of serene, smiling faces, multiple Buddhas and flowing designs made the experience unforgettable. The temple feels like a maze of crumbling grandness and, although it’s not as large as some of the other sites, you can get lost in its undercover walkways and symmetrical design.
We loved the carved out windows and statues that are now covered in moss and weathered by centuries of rain and wind. The temple was built in the late 12th century and stands at the exact centre of the Angkor Thom temple complex which includes the following two sites.
3. Explore Baphuon until you find the resting Buddha
Rating: Michaela 7.5 | Alex 8
Baphuon temple was built in the 11th century and dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. An impressively long stone walkway leads to the temple’s entrance where you’ll then find three levels of chambers only accessible by sets of extremely steep stairs. These were built on purpose so that all who climbed to the top of the temple would be forced to bow their head down as a sign of respect to Shiva.
The temple is less elaborately carved and decorated than Angkor Wat or Bayon, however if you explore around the back of the temple you’ll find a 9 meter tall by 70 meter long crumbling statue of the reclining Buddha.
4. A quick glimpse of the Elephant Terrace and Angkor Tom
Rating: Michaela 7 | Alex 7
As you get back in your tuk tuk from Baphuon you’ll be driven through the rest of Angkor Thom temple complex and pass by other smaller shrines and decorated buildings including the Terrace of Elephants. This 350m long raised earth and carved stone terrace was used by Angkor’s king Jayavarman VII as a platform from which to view his victorious returning army and for public ceremonies.
5. A steep climb to the top of Ta Keo
Rating: Michaela 7 | Alex 8
Ta Keo was most likely the very first Khmer temple built from sandstone. As such it is quite plain in terms of decorations however is built as a five tier pyramid with five towers on its top two floors. Imagining how the builders managed to place massive block of stone at the very top of these towers, 21.5 metres above the ground, is mind blowing.
After the big climb to the top, we sat and rested at the entrance to the central tower’s shrine, looking out over the surrounding jungle with a slight breeze refreshing us. As of 2016, parts of the temple are still being restored, and although Ta Keo wasn’t one of the most impressive temples we visited, it was a nice place to explore without the crowds and contemplate all the incredible things we were seeing.
6. Get lost in the ancient, tree laced ruins of Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider temple)
Rating: Michaela 9 | Alex 9
Getting lost among Ta Prohm’s vast, scattered ruins and marvelling at the massive trees that have grown up through the temple made this site my favourite of the day. Some parts of the single level temple have been fully restored to what they looked like when built in the 12th/13th century, while other sections lie splendidly in crumbling ruin, inspiring an air of mystery.
It’s no wonder that the creators of Tomb Raider decided to film here, while other scholars and poets have written extensively about its beauty. We enjoyed the abundant shade provided by the enormous silk-cotton trees as we explored hidden holes, crumbling terraces and moss-covered carvings. The size of these trees’ roots have got to be seen to be believed!
7. Save the smallest until last at Prasat Kravan
Rating: Michaela 6 | Alex 7
We were surprised to find out that this was the oldest temple we’d seen all day. To us the perfectly square red bricks and simple design of its five towers seemed so modern, however the temple was actually built in 921!
After exploring so many temples in the humid, scorching sun for a good 8 hours we were pleased to find Prasat Kravan to be a lot smaller than the other temples. A humble example of Hindu faith, it’s incredible to believe this building is still standing strong more than a millennia after it was constructed.
No matter how ornate, vast, symmetrical, plain or architecturally complex the Angkor Wat temples are, each one is marvellous in its own rite.