Friday, July 10, 2015

Visiting Cambodia: Angkor Wat

At the end of May and beginning of June John and I took a week long trip with our friends, split between Cambodia (Angkor Wat) and Vietnam (Hanoi). It was an absolutely magical experience, and I'm so glad we went!

If you've never heard of it before, Angkor Wat is a huge temple complex (more than 400 sq kilometers!) in Cambodia that was built by the Khmer Empire in the 12th Century. Angkor Wat is technically the name of the main temple, but the entire archaeological park is also known by the same name. The nearby town where we stayed is named Siem Reap.

If you're just here for the pictures please feel free to skip the rest and enjoy the photos - it was so hard to narrow it down to even this many, and I've still dumped a ton. But if you're planning a trip yourself, or you like reading intricate travel details I've tried to include all the information I would have found the most useful.

We spent three nights in Siem Reap, with two days dedicated to Angkor Wat and a final day spent in Siem Reap before an evening flight to Hanoi. June is the beginning of rainy season in Cambodia while March through May are the hottest months of the year. We were lucky to not see any rain, but wow was it hot! The benefit though, was that we were traveling during the low season so prices were lower, reservations were easier to get, and everything was much less crowded. If you're thinking about going at this time of year but worried about the heat, I  highly recommend it. It's definitely hot, and you'll be sweating most of the day, but the temples are so amazing you'll be distracted a lot of the time. I think I'm a wimp when it comes to heat: I start sweating pretty quickly, get grumpy about it, and I definitely had the fairest skin among our group, but honestly, it was pretty manageable. With hats and a couple sunscreen applications a day none of us burned - in fact I didn't even get the slightest tan. We also tried stay hydrated, luckily our driver always had bottles of water in the car, and it's easily purchased just about everywhere.

The best advice I have for Angkor Wat is to hire a car to drive you around. We found that a car would cost $34-$45 per day while a tuk-tuk (basically a covered cart attached to a motorcycle) would cost $12 per day. With four people it was especially practical because we figured we could all fit in one car or we could pay for two tuk-tuks. And you better believe it was worth the extra money to be in an enclosed air conditioned space to catch our breathes between temples. Besides the air conditioning, Angkor Wat is a pretty dusty place - at least during the dry season, and I can imagine it would be a lot less pleasant to be breathing in all that dust. Additionally, if you're interested in going to any of the more remote temples this will save you tons of time. We went to Beng Mealea, which took about 45 minutes in the car while our driver said it would take closer to two hours in a tuk-tuk!

When we hired our driver (I did this about three weeks in advance) he offered us two of his most popular routes, though he was very flexible and open to any other ideas we had. We chose one of his itineraries which included a first day seeing most of the "must do" sights in Angkor Wat and then the second day spent going to three outlying temples. In hindsight I think this was the better option for several reasons, first of all the outlying temples are absolutely stunning and far less crowded - Beng Mealea in particular was everyone's favorite. Second of all, we simply didn't have the stamina on the second day to do as much as we did on the first. By going to fewer sights further out on the second day we had more time resting in an air conditioned car, putting all of us in a better mood. 

Our exact itinerary was: Day 1: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom City (Bayon, Phimean Akas, Baphoun, Elephant Terrace, Terrace of the Leper King), Ta Prohm. (Note: we ended up getting a little off track in Angkor Thom and seeing more temples than we meant to. To compensate for time and energy we skipped Banteay Kdey and Sras Srong which our driver had initially planned to take us to.) Day 2: Preah Khan, Banteay Srey, Beng Mealea. 

It's hard to rank the places we saw, but Beng Mealea, Ta Prohm, and Preah Khan were my personal favorites because they were so wild feeling. Ta Prohm is the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed, and Beng Mealea is a completely unrestored temple in the jungle where local guides will help you pick your way through and over the crumbling stones. In terms of sheer size Angkor Wat and Bayon are absolutely stunning. It's amazing to imagine these enormous places being built by hand so long ago! And Banteay Srey is interesting because it was built separately two centuries earlier and with a red stone that looked different from any of the other temples. I didn't actually love it, but when my friend Sarah went it was her favorite.

Everyone recommends that you start your days early in Angkor Wat, and I completely agree. We headed out each morning at 8:00, which really helped with both the heat and the crowding. By starting so early we were finished by lunchtime, when we would have our driver drop us off in town. After eating lunch we'd take tuk-tuks back to the hotel, shower, and then lounge by the pool until the evening when it was cool enough to go back out for dinner and drinks.

A final note, Raku and I wondered about the bathroom situation in Angkor Wat before we went and couldn't find much online, so we made a point to go before leaving each morning, brought tissues with us and prepared for the worst. But on the first day we sweated so much that it wasn't even an issue. The second day we did ask our driver for a bathroom break, and it was not trouble at all. There was a bathroom less than five minutes away that was free to anyone with the Angkor Wat Pass to get into the park. The bathroom was a little rustic but clean, with sinks, western style toilets and toilet paper! 

First stop of the morning: Angkor Wat

Preah Khan

Resting in the shade at Angkor Wat

View from Angkor Wat

These intricate carvings are everywhere, they must have taken so long to do!

Chicken snacking on someone's coconut

The giant faces at Bayon

Temple Kitties

Strangle Fig Tree at Ta Prohm

Some of the roots are so heavy that supports have been installed at Ta Prohm

The red sandstone at Banteay Srey
A crumbling courtyard at Beng Mealea
Read About the Rest of Our Trip:
Visting Cambodia: Siem Reap
Visiting Hanoi: The City
Visiting Hanoi: The Food
Visiting Hanoi: The Sofitel Metropole
Afternoon Tea at The Metropole


  1. Thanks for your very detailed review! Do you have a name or contact info about the driver you hired to bring you around Angkor Wat? I'm visiting in a few weeks and looking to get a good driver to make the most of my short trip.

    1. The driver we used was Same Sa Vat, his website is

      I hope you have a wonderful trip!