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Exploring the Ancient City of Angkor Wat

The History of Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat remains a towering symbol of the once vast and powerful, ancient Khmer Empire. Built in the 12th century, the magnificent structure has stood the test of time and is one of the best preserved wonders of the world.

Five towers thrust up into the sky, surrounded by pillared galleries and full of intricate bas-reliefs, impressive statues and inscriptions carved into the old stone. Its architecture is in classic Khmer-era style and the bas-reliefs depict great battles and victories of demons, gods and kings.

Started by King Suryavarman II, construction took around 30 years to complete and by the time it was finished, a new king sat on the throne, King Jayavarman VII.

The words ‘Angkor Wat’ translate to ‘Temple City’ in the Khmer (Cambodian) language. Angkor Wat was originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, and eventually became a memorial to the Khmer king of old. Eventually, the vast temple complex was rededicated to Theravada Buddhism and remains so to this day.

The surrounding temples of Angkor Wat date back to the pre-Angkorian era, the oldest constructed in the 9th and 10th centuries. Each of them speaks of a different part of the Angkorian era and its impressive history and culture. Phnom Bakheng, once the official state temple, is one of the oldest standing temples and was built to represent Mount Meru, the home of the legendary Hindu gods. It was the crown jewel of King Yasovarman’s brand new capital city, Yasodharapura.

To this day, the centuries-old remains of Yasodharapura and Angkor serve as a reminder to the Khmer people of the glory and might of their ancestors, and provide visitors with new insights into our ancient world.

Travelling to Angkor Wat

International flights can be booked to arrive at Siem Reap International Airport, where a taxi or tuk-tuk can take you to your accommodation. Within Cambodia, you can take direct flights from Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.

Buses and minivans are also available from just about anywhere in Cambodia. We recommend taking the Giant Ibis night bus from Phnom Penh. Many hotels in Cambodia’s major cities will be able to book a bus ticket for you and arrange transportation to the bus station or pick-up point.

When you get to your accommodation in Siem Reap, travelling to Angkor Wat is a simple affair; once you arrive at the park, you can purchase a 1-day, 3-day or 7-day admission ticket. One day is enough for visiting the temples on the circuits, whereas exploring the greater park area and remote temple ruins will require three days or more.

Most hotels and guesthouses are happy to help you book a guided tuk-tuk tour which will leave directly from your hotel. Alternatively, you can flag down a tuk-tuk by yourself and negotiate a fee for the day, a few days or just there and back. The charges are dependent upon which circuit of the temples you want to do, whether you want to visit the more remote temples, and how long you want to spend there.

If tuk-tuks aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other transportation options available:

  • Motorbike taxis are available all around town and are characterized by their button-down shirts, waving hands and shouts of “Moto, lady? Moto, sir?”
    While they can provide cheap transportation to, from and even around the Angkor Park, we don’t recommend travelling with them for too long in the hot season, as there is no shade on the vehicles. If you do choose this option, be sure to take a good hat and some sunscreen.
  • Rent a bicycle. Many hotels and travel agents around Siem Reap city have bicycles for hire. These make for a great way to explore the sites at your own pace and not have to worry about leaving a driver waiting. We recommend getting hold of a map of the park so you can easily find the places that are most interesting to you. Again, don’t forget that hat and sunscreen.
  • E-bike offers rental electric bicycles which provide an eco-friendly way to explore the park. Studies have shown the negative effects of fumes from tuk-tuks and motorbikes on the ancient temples and in the surrounding park area. We recommend this option as it aids and promotes responsible tourism in Cambodia.
  • Seeing the Angkor Archeological Park is certainly not limited only to tuk-tuks, motorbikes and bicycles. Helistar Cambodia is a fantastic company offering scenic tours of the most famous Angkor temples, Tonle Sap Lake’s floating villages, the Kulen mountain ranges and Siem Reap town.

How to See Angkor Wat

Though the Angkor Archeological Park sprawls out over 400 square kilometers, the entire central temple complex can be explored in a day.
Two circuits, known as the big circuit and small circuit, are the main routes around the temples.

Both circuits begin passing the entrance to Angkor Wat and entering the Angkor Thom complex, the centerpiece of which is the famous, many-faced Bayon temple. Angkor Thom has four open exits: the North, South and West gates and the Victory Gate to the East.

The small circuit exits from the Victory Gate and includes (in order):

  • Ta Keo

Once known as ‘the temple of golden peaks’, the temple was constructed entirely in sandstone. Despite its lack of decorative carvings, the temple is a good starting point for the tour.

  • Ta Prohm

This tree-covered temple has made its way into media by being the setting for part of the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie. Part-buried in tall silk-cotton trees, the temple was once an extremely wealthy Buddhist monastery and is an absolute must-see.

  • Banteay Kdei

Constructed from low-grade sandstone, the mostly unrestored temple has been badly worn over the centuries. One of the lesser temples, it is not clear to whom this temple was dedicated.

  • Sras Srang

Though directly opposite Banteay Kdei, Sras Srang is one of the more beautiful parts of the park. It is a picturesque tiered landing platform which juts out over the lake.

  • Prasat Kravan

This temple is known for its impressively intricate bas-reliefs; the only known brick bas-reliefs in the park. These are best viewed in the morning when the sunlight hits the insides of the towers.        

The big circuit leaves from the North Gate and includes:

  • Preah Khan

Preah Khan once played the part of King Jayavarman VII’s temporary home, until the completion of Angkor Thom. As Ta Prohm was dedicated to his mother, the Preah Khan complex was dedicated to his father.

  • Neak Pean

The Neak Pean temple is the centerpiece of a beautiful lotus-shaped series of pools. Human and animal heads serve as fountains which fill the pools with water in the rainy season.

  • Ta Som

Featuring unique stone devata carvings a massive tree growing up out of the central gate, the temple has been described as a miniature Ta Prohm.

  • Pre Rup

The state temple of King Rajendravarman II, Pre Rup was the one of the first temples to be built when Angkor restored as the Khmer capital for a second time in history.

The circuit then goes on to follow the tail end of the small circuit from Ta Prohm to Prasat Kravan.

Of course, both circuits include the majestic Angkor Wat itself. The temple city is accessed via a long walkway across a wide moat area. The temple complex consists of three a covered outer gallery, densely carved with endless bas-reliefs depicting scenes of mythological gods and monsters, a great battle with the Cham people, and the famous ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk’.

The second tier, inside the temple, is home to yet more intricate bas-relief carving which show its Hindu origins.
Since the 14th century, Angkor Wat has been a Buddhist temple and the inner temple itself holds four large statues of Buddha.

There are several more temples dotted around the park; some of these take longer to reach, but are well worth the extra travel if you want to get away from the busy, tourist-packed areas and see some more natural beauty blended in with the man-made scenery. You can get hold of a map from the admissions building at the park entrance, travel agents in the city or possibly your hotel reception.

Accommodation in Angkor Wat

There are no hotels located within the Angkor Archeological Park, however the city of Siem Reap offers a plethora of luxury boutique hotels, mid-range accommodation and backpacker havens, which offer easy access to Angkor Wat and the park grounds.

For top-class stays we recommend:

  • Shinta Mani Club- with over 1,500 positive reviews of this luxurious hotel on TripAdvisor, it is just a 15 minute tuk-tuk ride to Angkor Wat.
  • Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor- in keeping with the Raffles name, this hotel embodies French-colonial Cambodia, with its historical features, beautiful facilities and great staff

Some lovely mid-range hotels include:

  • Tara Angkor Hotel- right on the road to Angkor Wat, the hotel has a reputation for its consistently wonderful service and gorgeous setting.
  • Nita by Vo- this smaller, modernly styled hotel is located so close to the park that you can sometimes see the top of Angkor Wat itself from the rooftop bar and pool.

For great backpackers options, check out:

  • The Mad Monkey hostel- a perfect place for the social butterfly, there is rarely a dull moment at the hostel; staff members are fun, outgoing and extremely helpful.
  • Garden Village Guesthouse & Restaurant- inner tubes line the pool and it’s the perfect place to chill after a long day exploring temples.

Other Things to do in Angkor Wat

If you’re looking to see that picture-perfect sunrise, organize a driver to pick you up in time to get to Angkor Wat. Pick-up times vary from 4.30-5.30AM depending on the location of your accommodation and the time of year but don’t fret, tuk-tuk and motorbike drivers will let you know. It is well worth the early start to catch a glimpse of golden rays bursting through gaps in the towering temple silhouetted against a purple sky.

Of course, you can’t beat an incredible sunrise except perhaps with the most awe-inspiring sunset. We recommend leaving a trip up Phnom Bakheng until the evening, when you can step gingerly onto the swaying back of one of the park’s beloved elephants, and be taken for a wander up to the 9th century hilltop temple. The temple commands stunning views of the area which become even more stunning as the red sun begins to sink below the horizon. You can take an elephant back down again, though we suggest enjoying the walk.

Take the flight of your life on Cambodia’s one and only Flight of the Gibbon zip-line adventure. The course is located inside the Angkor Archeological Park itself and includes some of the highest and longest zip-lines in the world. With over 20 platforms, a 164ft rappel descent, long hanging bridges and multiple zip-lines, Flight of the Gibbon has earned the right to call its jungle tour a true adventure. The business began in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2007 when a group of friends witnessed the problems facing wild gibbons in South East Asia. Nowadays, 10% of its profits go to reforestation, rehabilitation and educational programs.

Don’t miss out on all the wonderful things to experience around Angkor Wat. See our guide to Siem Reap for more information and suggestions on things to see and do, where to spend your evenings and how to make the most of your trip to the exotic and exciting Kingdom of Wonder.