Angkor Wat is one of the most astonishing structures built by humans. The temple complex covers 97 sq. km (60 sq. miles) and requires at least a few busy days to get around the major sights thoroughly. Everyone has their favorite, but there are some generally recognized highlights that you will not want to miss. Be sure to plan carefully and catch a sunrise or sunset from one of the more prime spots; it's a photographer's dream. Note: The temples are magnificent themselves, and days spent clambering around the temples are inherently interesting, but be careful not to come away from a visit to ancient Angkor with a memory of an oversize rock collection or jungle gym. There's much to learn about Buddhism, Hinduism, architecture, and Khmer history; it's useful to hire a well-informed guide or join a tour group. There are also subtleties to temple touring, and a good guide is your best chance to beat the crowd and catch the intricacies or be in the right place for the magic moments of the day. Contact any hotel front desk or the tour agencies listed above. Hiring a guide for 1 day costs $20.
Entrance fees for Angkor Wat are as follows: A 1-day ticket is $20, a 3-day ticket is $40, and a 1-week ticket is $60. The tickets were recently restructured, extending the validity of 3-day passes to 1 week instead of 3 consecutive days. Similarly, 1-week passes are now valid for 1 month. Tickets are good for all sights within the main temple compound, as well as Banteay Srei, to the north, and the outlying temples of the Roluos Group. Other sights like Beng Melea or Ko Kur require an additional fee. The temples open at dawn and you can buy a ticket as early as 5am to get there for sunup. At dusk, around 6pm, temple attendants start gently nudging visitors out of the park.
It is highly recommended to hire a guide, for at least for 1 day of temple touring. A guide provides not only the most useful information that will serve as a background for your further exploration, but makes the logistics of that first day much easier. Contact any hotel front desk or tour office and they can arrange something for you. The cost of a guide is $20 per day. Guides are certified and come from the same school and so dispense nearly the same information, but, of course, some are better than others. Ask around for recommendations.
Important note: The temple sites listed below are more or less in the usual order you might visit them on tour. A visit to Angkor is now a noisy romp among large Korean, Thai, Chinese, and European groups. An average guide will take you along in the heart of the herd, following the standard temple routine, but a good guide knows how to get you out of the pack. Insist on it.
The Angkor complex is currently undergoing massive restoration. Most of the temples noted below are included in the extensive project and as such certain sections are hidden behind scaffolding or closed off to visitors. While it is disappointing, the restoration is not so invasive as to warrant canceling your trip here. Work should wrap up sometime in 2010.
Some Guidelines When Visiting Angkor -- When you arrive at the temples of Angkor you will soon realize just how many people visit this place every year. These are some tips on how to keep your footprint as low as possible.
- Accept the restrictions placed on the temple complex (for example, do not touch, do not photograph, do not enter).
- Avoid touching -- every small touch becomes harmful when repeated by 1,000 people every day.
- Wear appropriate footwear -- avoid high heels and studded soles.
- Mind your backpack -- you could brush up against the walls and damage the carvings and bas-reliefs.
- Avoid climbing unnecessarily on the statues and monuments. If you must take a photo on top of a monument, be selective and choose to climb only one.
- Shop responsibly -- beware of buying objects of unknown origin. Looting of temples has been a problem.
- Don't litter -- take everything with you.
- Respect peace and silence -- allow others to enjoy what you are enjoying in peace and tranquillity.
The Magic Hours at Angkor Wat -- The skies over Angkor always put on a show. With just a bit of prior planning, you can see the dawn or the day's afterglow framed in temple spires, glowing off the main wat or reflected in one of the temple reservoirs. Photographers swoon. Here are a few hints for catching the magic hours at the temples.
The sunrise and sunset views from the upper terraces of Angkor Wat, the main temple, are some of the best, though it's a tough climb for some. At dusk, temple staffers start clearing the main temple area just as the sun dips. Smile; avoid them; and try to stay for the afterglow.
For the classic photographer's view of the main temple, Angkor Wat, at sunset -- with the image reflected in a pool -- enter the first wall of the temple compound, walk halfway down the front gangway and then take a right or left down the set of stairs and out into the field. The view from the water's edge, with warm light bouncing off the temple, is stunning. The pond on the right nearly disappears in dry season, but has natural edges, not stone, and makes for a nicer shot.
Okay, so it's a bit crowded, but the views from Phnom Bakeng (Bakeng Hill), just a short drive past the entrance to Angkor Wat, are stunning at both sunrise and sunset. It's a good climb up the hill, and those so inclined can go by elephant for about $20.
The open area on the eastern side of Banteay Kdei looks over one of Angkor's many reservoirs, Sras Srang, which serves as a great reflective pool for the rising glow at sunrise.
If money is no object, contact Helicopters Cambodia Ltd. at their office just north of the Old Market at No. 217 (tel. 012/814-500). For a fee, you can see the sights from any angle you choose. Be sure to specify your needs and interests and they can create an itinerary that suits.
More affordable is a ride with Angkor Balloon. Just $15 gets you a 10-minute ride up to 250m (820 ft.) above the ground. The balloon basket is large, good for walking around and taking in the view from different sides. The balloon is controlled from the ground by tether, a very sophisticated contraption brought to Cambodia by French developers. It's a bit like an amusement park ride really. The takeoff is 1km (1/2 mile) west of the main entrance to the temples (you're sure to see them from afar throughout the day). Flights start at 5:30am and end at 6pm, and the prime sunrise and sunset spots fill up quickly. Call them at tel. 012/520-810 to book a ride. In the middle of the day, it's first-come, first-served.
"Get High" at Angkor -- Like many of the world's great monuments, the temples of Angkor are laid out over massive spaces, with miles of temple wall on the side of each temple, as if a sign to the gods. Visitors approaching temples on foot experience the temple like Khmers of the Angkor period would have, in procession from one side to the other, but we see only one section of the main gate, for example, or experience only the inner sanctum of the temples without being able to see the whole. It is important to remember that the Angkor temples were each self-contained cities or large monasteries, with populations in the hundreds of thousands. Now choked with jungle, these wider areas are best appreciated from above, where the scope of the building at Angkor is best understood. The rule is that there's a 1km (half-mile) "no fly" radius around the temple compound, and the tour operators know just where that is and can take you as close as they are allowed.
Known as Preah Vihear to the Khmer and Khao Phra Wiharn to the Thais, this beautiful temple dramatically situated on the top of a cliff along the Dangrek range of mountains is one of the most spectacular Angorian temples far from Siem Reap. The temple is 200km (124 miles) from Angkor, and one has to travel terrible roads through one of Cambodia's most scarred and wild provinces to reach it. It is a trip only for the adventurous. If you travel from Thailand, however, it is easily reached by air-conditioned disco bus followed by a stroll up some steps while enjoying ice cream. The temple has long been claimed by both the Thais and the Khmers. In 1962 the International Court of Justice in the Hague definitively awarded the temple to Cambodia according to maps drawn up by the French and previously not disputed by the Thais. The land surrounding it is very much in dispute and battles have been fought over it recently with casualties on both sides. Preah Vihear is part of a chain of spectacular Angkorian temples stretching across Laos and northern Thailand. Wat Phou in Champasak province of Laos has a similarly dramatic location high up a mountain with tiered structures leading to a final sanctuary. Phanom Rung in Buriram Province of Thailand is an exquisite hilltop temple again facing the plains of Cambodia, but way too far into Thailand for there to be any dispute at all about whom it belongs to. Phimai in Korat Province in Thailand is situated on the flat and is one of the finest and best preserved of all surviving Angorian temples.
Work started on Preah Vihear in the early 9th century and it actually ended up being a bit of a mishmash of styles since it was altered and added to a number of times over the centuries. Appropriately dedicated to Shiva the Destroyer (given the destruction that has subsequently surrounded it), the earliest surviving parts of the temple date from the early 10th century. The bulk of it was constructed during the reigns of kings Suryavarman I (1002 -- 50) and Suryavarman II (1113 -- 50). Like Angkor Wat itself, Preah Vihear is a representation of Mount Meeru -- the abode of the gods.
During the years of war Preah Vihear proved to be a formidable fortress. In 1975 it was the last place held by Lon Nol troops before they were driven out by the Khmer Rouge. After that Preah Vihear Province and the Dangrek Mountains were Khmer Rouge heartland. Many of the Khmer soldiers garrisoning the temple area today are former Khmer Rouge soldiers.
The strategic reality of Preah Vihear is that the Khmers would never permit it to be Thai. It is a point of supreme military advantage. It is a natural artillery platform from which an enemy could target positions deep within Cambodia. The reality is a military one as much as a historical or cultural one.
In July 2008, Preah Vihear was designated a World Heritage Site. This drew a storm of protest from Thailand, which pointed out that perceived Khmer encroachments on surrounding territory in the Thai province of Sisaket were yet to be resolved and also made the reasonable request that given the physical access to Preah Vihear is very much from Thailand, the request for heritage status should be a joint one. The sad fact is that the Preah Vihear issue has now become a political football for both sides, useful for raising nationalistic feelings and anger when there is an election looming. It is the perfect vehicle for political rabble-rousing.