Undoubtedly, the biggest attraction in Siem Reap, and the reason that most tourists come here in the first place, is Angkor Wat and its surrounding complex. Said to be one of the most important archaeological sites in South East Asia, the Angkor Complex has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status. The complex dates back to the height of the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 14th centuries. In addition to Angkor Wat, the complex includes notable temples such as Bayon, Ta Prohm, and others.
I visited several of the Angkor group back in January 2016 and wanted to pay another visit on this trip. I particularly wanted to visit Ta Prohm before it got crowded. On my last visit, it was overrun by tour groups which made it difficult to get photos without people in them. So my main aim was to visit Ta Prohm as soon as the gates opened. Angkor Wat and a couple of other temples open earlier, to facilitate sunrise visits. With that in mind, I arranged for a private tour with a tuk-tuk driver, to commence at 4.45am.
The first task was to drive to the Angkor ticket office to buy the one-day pass for the Angkor complex ($20). I soon realised that a LOT of tourists get up that early to visit Angkor Wat for the sunrise (due at 6.05am today). There were long lines at the ticket office.
On this trip, I was able to visit Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang, Ta Keo, Bayon, Bapuon, Phimeanakas & the Royal Palace, Elephant Walk and the Leper King Terrace. I’ll address each of them in the order of my visit.
ANGKOR WAT (early 12th century)
We arrived close to Angkor Wat about 5.30am. The tuk-tuk driver parked up and left me to my own devices. I walked to the western end of the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat and waited for daylight to creep in. There was a sizeable group there waiting for the same thing.
After taking a few pics, I headed across the causeway to get closer to Angkor Wat. Then I saw where the bulk of the visitors were. They had all congregated around a small lake to get photos of Angkor Wat reflected in it. They were crowded around the lake, several people deep, all waiting for the sun to pop up over Angkor Wat. I took a couple of quick snaps over their heads and moved on, to get inside Angkor Wat whilst they were all standing around!
Interestingly, with hundreds of visitors crowded around the lake outside, very few had actually made it inside the temple. This was great for me, as I was able to wander around taking photos without a lot of other people getting in the way. The ‘supermoon’ was still visible in the morning sky, so it added an interesting touch to some of the photos.
I left Angkor Wat about 6.50am, just as the crowds were beginning to file in. I’d managed to see the temple before it got crowded. Now I had to do the same thing at Ta Prohm!
TA PROHM (late 12th to early 13th centuries)
We arrived at Ta Prohm about 7.05am, thinking that the gates opened at 7.00. They don’t actually open until 7.30am, so we waited outside. There were only about a dozen other visitors waiting outside the east gate with me when the gate was opened. I walk fast, so I left the rest behind and was the first visitor to enter the temple from the east. That allowed me to buzz around the place to get the key photos before the others got there. It also helped that one of the Angkor staff members volunteered to show me around (for a tip).
Ta Prohm is probably best known as one of the sites that was featured in Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider movie. The temple has only been partially restored, leaving several of the trees that had overrun the buildings in situ, giving an idea of what the place might have looked like when it was rediscovered. The trees are the shots that everyone wants, so getting there early was a great move.
I was so pleased to have been able to visit to Ta Prohm before the crowds got there. That was the main aim of the day, so everything after that was just icing on the cake.
SRAH SRANG (mid 10th century – remodelled in 12th century)
Srah Srang means ‘royal bath’. This small baray has held water for more than nine centuries. It is located to the east of, and adjacent to, Banteay Kdei, and is easily viewed from the stone landing stage opposite that temple’s east entrance.
BANTEAY KDEI (late 12th to early 13th centuries)
Next up was Banteay Kdei, a temple that I hadn’t visited previously. Once again, one of the Angkor staff members began showing me around the temple in obvious expectation of a tip. But he was greedy and stipulated (at the end) how much he thought he should get. I gave him less than his suggested inflated amount!
Banteay Kdei was also used during the filming of Tomb Raider. Apparently, they were on set for 2 days at Banteay Kdei and 3 days at Ta Prohm. In some respects, the temple is considered to be a smaller version of Ta Prohm and Preah Kahn.
Unfortunately, my camera battery died part way through my visit to this temple. I had to switch over to my iPhone for the later photos.
TA KEO (late 10th to early 11th centuries)
This large ‘temple mountain’ was also a first time visit for me. Ta Keo was the first of these temples to be built entirely of sandstone and was never actually completed.
After the visit to Ta Keo, we had covered a lot of the sights in Eastern Angkor. But there was still Angkor Thom to visit and that was projected to take at least two hours. With a dead camera battery and a partially charged phone, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to take photos for two hours. I decided to put the tour on hold so that I could charge the camera battery.
I had the driver return me to my hotel about 10.10am and we agreed to resume the tour at 12.30pm. That allowed time to charge the battery, eat a late breakfast, and even take a one-hour nap! After the break, we headed back to Angkor in the tuk-tuk to finish what we had started. The last remaining spots to visit were all inside the confines of Angkor Thom.
THE BAYON (late 12th to early 13th centuries)
The Bayon temple is the largest within Angkor Thom. It is easily recognised due to its many face towers, most of which have four faces on them. With 37 towers still standing, that is a lot of faces.
When we passed Bayon earlier in the day, there were several elephants being used to give rides to tourists. The elephants were absent in the afternoon when we returned. I suspect that they are no longer permitted to work in the heat of the day after one of the elephants died in April this year, with the high temperature being linked as a cause of the heart attack suffered by the elephant.
I visited this temple in January, but it was nice to be able to take a second look.
BAPUON (middle of 11th century)
A short walk from the Bayon, along a sandy track, brings you to Bapuon temple. This is a very large ‘mountain temple’ with three levels that can be accessed by climbing sets of very steep steps.
PHIMEANAKAS & THE ROYAL PALACE (late 10th to early 11th centuries)
The exit route from Bapuon brings you past this temple. Today, access was closed off and grounds staff were working to clear vegetation from the structure. The structure is essentially a laterite pyramid with steep steps running up two of the sides. A few minutes walking around the structure and the visit is complete.
LEPER KING TERRACE (13th century)
This terrace has three outer walls bearing deep relief sculptures and one ‘hidden wall’ that is concealed by another wall. The hidden wall can be viewed by walking between the two walls.
ELEPHANT WALK (late 12th century)
The Elephant Walk is adjacent to the Leper King Terrace. It is a 300 metre long terrace with an outer-facing wall that features carvings of elephants.
The Elephant Walk wrapped up my visit to the Angkor Thom section of the Angkor complex. The afternoon segment of my visit only took about two hours. Then it was back to the tuk-tuk for the ride back to town.
Today’s tour was an interesting one. It took me to seven temples (three of which I’d visited before), as well as the two terraces and the Srah Srang baray. In the process, I took a total of 460 photos that I then had to sort through to select the 121 that I’ve included in this post. A lot of photos for a single post, I know. But I hope that you have enjoyed them and that they help to convey some of the majesty and beauty of these incredible structures.