If you’re heading to Southeast Asia, I highly recommend you add some time for Cambodia to your itinerary – at least a week. In fact, I lived there on and off for a couple of years, and it’s one of my favorite places in the world.
One of the highlights, of course, is the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat, which is the world’s largest religious site. Angkor Wat is located right outside the really fun and funky small city of Siem Reap in northern Cambodia. Siem Reap is easy to access by flight (they have their own small but effective international airport), or bus and van rides from Thailand, Vietnam, or the capital city in Cambodia, Phnom Penh.
What is Angkor Wat?
Angkor Wat is an UNESCO World Heritage site, although it was left off of the list as one of the Wonders of the World for some reason. This complex of temple ruins covers more than 248 square miles (400 square kilometers), and was the largest city in the world before the Industrial Revolution, with at least one million people in its ancient Khmer Empire city.
In fact, Angkor Wat was built by a Khmer king in the 12th century. It was originally a sacred Hindu temple but transitioned to a Buddhist holy site in the 14th century, as it remains today. The main Angkor temple is incredible to see, with a massive moat as big as 20 city blocks (or so) around an ornate and maze-like temple structure. They actually built that temple to be a replica of the universe according to Hindu legend, so it was like an earthly map of their cosmos.
But while the main temple is the most visited (about half of all of Cambodia’s 2 million tourists every year come to see Angkor Wat!), there are plenty of other smaller temples in and around Angkor Wat. One of the most recognizable is Ta Prohm, with its vines and trees growing out of the temple walls. That temple was featured in the movie Lara Croft, Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie.
Most of the structures in the Angkor Wat complex are in pretty good shape even today, although plenty of ruins and buried structures remain – some of them from bombing and looting during the Vietnam conflict and Khmer Rouge regime! New temples are still being unearthed discovered every year.
When you’re in Siem Reap, it won’t be hard to arrange a tour of Angkor Wat from your hotel or any tourist shop. But you can also just commandeer any tuk-tuk driver and he will gladly take you to the temple and on a tour of the surrounding temples for the day.
There are two optimal times to see the main Angkor Wat temple. The first is at dawn because the sun is coming up behind the temple and its FAR less crowded. It’s really hot all day but still enjoyable – just bring sunblock, a hat, and drink plenty of water, or coconut water! The late afternoon and sunset are the most popular time for tourists to go to the temple, and the light is best for photography – BUT there are so many people that it’s impossible to get a clear shot.
You can also go up in a hot air balloon ride to take aerial photos of Angkor Wat, but be aware that the balloon doesn’t go anywhere – it’s tethered to the ground by a cable so you’re just going up, not floating around.
Another incredible option is to take a helicopter tour of Angkor Wat. The cheapest option is an 8-minute ride for $99! But I found it to be well worth it once in my life, as I’ve toured the temple like 5 times before by ground. The price climbs from there if you want more time in the air, but I seriously don’t think you’ll get much more out of a 15 or 30-minute ride that you didn’t see in 8. The helicopter operation and its pilot struck me as very professional and safe.
Of course, you’ll spend a lot of time at the main Angkor temple, but get a map and venture out to the smaller satellite temples where there are far fewer tourists. Bring a backpack with a lot of water and some food and make a day out of it. If you want to get a little workout, rent a bicycle and cruise from Siem Reap out to Angkor Wat and all around. However, I don’t recommend using those cute 3-speed bikes because they’re pretty slow and impractical, so get a good mountain bike.
Last thing – recently, they raised the cost of a one-day ticket at Angkor Wat from $21 to $37! While it’s still well worth it, and you can get two and three day passes to bring the cost per day down, unfortunately not much of that profit goes to the Cambodian people.Almost all of the profits from Angkor Wat (it’s about $37 for a day pass now – up from $21 only a year ago) go to Sokimex, a mega-corporation run by a Vietnamese businessman. Corruption at its finest!
But like I said, Angkor Wat is still well worth it for any history buff, photographer, culture aficionado, or nature enthusiast. Add in the fact that Siem Reap is such a fun little city, and it’s a must-see in Southeast Asia.