If you are anything like us then Cambodia and Angkor Wat aren't on your top destinations to visit. To be 100% honest we didn't know about Angkor Wat until 5 or so months prior to taking our trip to Thailand. That changed when a few friends asked if we planned to visit Vietnam or Cambodia. A quick search later and pricing a few flights to Cambodia ($150 roundtrip from Thailand with AirAsia), it was added to our itinerary and we couldn't wait.
Angkor Wat isn't on any of the traditional 7 Wonders of the World but it was one of 21 finalists for the New 7 Wonders of the World. Given its tough competition, it didn't win out. It is often found on lists of places to visit in Asia and others have called it the eighth wonder of the world. (We share that opinion) Because of Angkor Wat's cultural importance, it has earned the UNESCO Heritage designation.
Now, What is Angkor?
Angkor is an Archaeological Park that spans over 400km2 and contains the remains of structures that formed the Kmer Empire from the 9th to 15th century. It is located in Siem Reap, a northern providence found in Cambodia. At it's peak, Angkor was made up of over 300 temples. Today only 90 temples remain and only a portion of those are open to the public. Of these few open to the public for touring, the main highlights include Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider Temple), Bayon Temple, Banteay Srei, Preah Ko, Bakong, and Lo Lei.
The main complex and most famed is Angkor Wat. It was formed in the 12th century as a spiritual home for the Hindu god Vishnu. As you walk the twists and turn of the hallways throughout the complex you can't but notice the detailed carvings and the stories they depict. One of the biggest mysteries that still puzzle archaeologist to this day is why the people abandoned this beautiful complex and relocated to modern-day Phnom Penh. As you continue trudging through the ruins you'll notice the hundreds of statues of all sizes missing heads. Is this telling of a brutal war? Natural destruction? Thieves? The cause was actually due to the transition between Hinduism and Buddhism as the rulers changed over the centuries. At one point when Hinduism was the religion selected to be followed all Buddhas were ordered to be removed from the temples. This meant the removal of thousands which leave you to only imagine the hours it took to do so. Some archaeologists believe the transition of Khmer's Hinduism to Theravada Buddhism and defeat in battle led to the abandoning of Angkor Wat. Others believe the migration was due to lack of water during several rainy seasons causing damage to the complex waterways.
You'll quickly take note that many of these temples focused their construction around the element of water. Numerous temples offer pools with built-in drains to collect water and control water levels.
Angkor Wat towers at a height of approximately 65 meters which interestingly means no other buildings in Siem Reap are allowed by the government to top this height. It is estimated to have required over 300 million tons of stone to build, many of which are lava rock. We are left to our imagination of how they maneuvered these stones.
As one peers down the long hallways you'll notice the doorway entries shrinking in height, this wasn't done in error. This was ordered by the King to force individuals to pay respect to the Gods. If you were not to bow, you would immediately be punished by hitting your head on the stone entry.
As one were to admire the extreme attention to detail and passion these builders used to construct the temples you can't help but imagine what it took. The hours, days, years that had to be dedicated to even a small section of one temple makes it truly a wonder of the world. One that we challenge even with modern tools would prove to be costly and quite difficult.
If you haven't added this to your list yet we don't know what to tell you. But for those who have, this is how you do it.
You must travel to Siem Reap in the northern part of Cambodia. Unlike other sites such as Machu Picchu, you can fly directly into the airport and be exploring a temple within an hour (depending on Customs and baggage claim, of course). Siem Reap offers plenty of hotels, hostels, and Airbnbs to accommodate any budget. There are hotels as cheap as 10 dollars (The Affordable Traveler approved) but since we were traveling with another couple we booked a 4 bedroom Airbnb with a private pool for around $140 a night.
Tickets or Admission?
You are required to buy a ticket and you can only do so in person once you arrive. The office is open from 4:30 am to 5:30 pm every day and is only 4km away from town. It can be paid for in cash or by credit card. Entrance fees are:
1-day pass US $37
3-day pass US $62
7-day pass US $72
The 7-day pass is good for 1 month from the issue date while the 3-day pass is only valid for 10 days from issue date. It is required to have your photo taken and it is printed directly on the ticket so they can confirm it is you during each temple visit. You will be required to show it at the entrance of all the temples so keep it handy.
When to Visit
High season is December and January and it begins to fade as you get closer to April. Spring brings the heat and humidity which can peak at 120 degrees in April. The other parts of the year are the rainy season which bring monsoons.
How we did it? And why we think you should do the same.
For the first time in recent memory we decided to make the investment in a tour guide for the 2 days we were to explore Angkor Wat. We used Angkor Smiling Tour, which offers custom tailored 1 day, 2 days, 3 days tours or tours of specific temples. In addition, they offer an option to do airport pickup so you don't waste any time once you arrive.
We had 2.5 days planned for Cambodia and arrived our first day at 7 am. This would prove to be a challenge since our Airbnb check-in wasn't until 3 and you don't really want to lug your luggage around all day. This is where the advantage of using a tour company begins...
Advantage 1 of tour: Airport Pickup, Logistics and Education
Sam, the owner of Angkor Smiling Tours, was there to pick us up once we cleared customs. He packed our luggage away in the back of the Lexus SUV and headed off to the ticket office. Sam walked us right to the ticket booth and was there to help as we each bought our 3-day ticket. After purchasing the ticket we were off to our first temple as he began explaining the history of it and outlining the activities of the 2 days. Each day we would explore several temples prior to heading to lunch and returning for a few more. We would be back to our accommodations around 3 or 4pm each day or sooner or later depending on how long we preferred to explore.
He gave us the option to do the highlight tour or explore more temples, hence the custom tailored tours he offers. We were quite sure what we wanted, so he suggested to let him know after the first temple or two and of course, we could change our minds at any point. After being exposed to 90-degree temperature and 90% humidity we all quickly decided the highlight tour over the next 2 days would be sufficient.
Now, I know what you are thinking. When it comes to a guided tour, it can feel like there are hours and hours of the guide talking and providing an overload of information. However, that was not the case with Angkor Smiling Tours. Sam had a perfect balance, he would walk you to a spot to give you a brief break down, answer all your questions and then allow you to take the millions of photos we would all take throughout the temple.
Advantage 2 of a tour: Photos Ops
Sam knew all the places to take photos in each of the complexes. He often offered to take photos (which all turned out great) and would have creative ideas or poses for you to do. This included a pano where we ran to 3 different spots to show up numerous times in different parts of the photo.
Advantage 3 of the tour: Cold Car, Water, and Towels
As we continued to battle the heat and humidity the car would always be there with the AC running, cold water in an ice chest, and cold towels for our face and necks. This alone rejuvenates you so you are prepared to get out of the comfort of the car for the next hour of exploring.
Advantage 4 of the tour: Avoid the Tourists and navigation
Given Sam's 7 plus years of doing tours, he knew when all tour buses would arrive at the different temples and would plan our day around that. We often didn't have to fight crowds and could truly appreciate these temples.
The entire complex is over 400km2 but our tour guide knew exactly how to navigate the vast amounts of roads and turns to safely get us to each temple.
Advantage 5 of the tour: Transportation Ready
One of the things you must do is the sunrise at the main temple Angkor Wat. This requires being ready to leave at 4:45 am and getting to the complex shortly after because buses of people start to pour in. Sam and his driver are there ready to go at your hotel or Airbnb at 445 to get you to the site. He lines you up at the perfect spot over the viewing pool then pulls out his phone to use an app to tell you where the sun is and how long to wait. This can mean an hour or two but if you leave your spot it will be quickly taken by the 100s of others waiting. After snapping your photos he will take you around the side to get photos before the crowds completely swarm the temple. Once you have spent enough time at Angkor Wat, let Sam know and he will take you to the 3 other highlight tour temples. Over the two days, you will explore 8+ temples and will be ready to relax poolside.
These are a few of the many advantages of using a guide and private car when visiting Angkor Wat. We can't speak for the other guides or companies but Sam is one of the nicest people we have ever encountered during our travels and he is willing to accommodate you in any manner. If we have convinced you to add Angkor Wat to your list, we strongly recommend you use his services. We even joked later in our trip when we were back in Thailand we would ask Sam to be our guide for all our future adventures.
Other Cambodia tips
USD is widely accepted and preferred
-The dollars must be in perfect shape and without tears or marks
-The Cambodia ATMs will dispense 100 dollar bills but many places can't provide change due to all the tourists bringing these large bills in
-Pub Street is a great area to check out at night that spans more than just one street. It is full of tourist shops, restaurants, and other fun activities
-Tuk Tuks are everywhere but be sure to negotiate the price prior to getting into one