WHICH TEMPLES TO VISIT IF YOU HAVE ONE DAY, HOW TO AVOID THE CROWDS & PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS
The main reason people visit Siem Reap are, of course, the temples, of which Angkor Wat is the most famous. Just like SR’s infamous bar-hopping, temple-hopping is also on the menu and it’s just as diverse and elaborate as the former. I realize many thousands of articles have been written on this subject (Lonely Planet even spends an entire chapter on the intricacies of these stunning artifacts), so I’m going to keep this short and sweet. More particularly I’ll answer the question:
“What if you only have ONE day to explore Angkor Wat and its siblings?”
DATA ‘n DRIVEN vs THE DIY WANDERER
What kind of traveler are you? Do you like to absorb all the information you can get, ask more profound questions than “When was this built?” and get some anekdotes about Cambodian life in those days? In that case, without a doubt, sign up for a guided one-day tour. However, don’t be persuaded by the average tuktuk-driver that says they will take you and show you around or pose like a guide. ‘Cause that’s exactly what you’ll get: a drive, a “This is Bayon temple” and “I’ll wait here for you”. Sure, it costs a lot less, but you won’t get any decent information and they’ll do the one-day circuit like everyone else which means long lines, a lot of people and for you ‘perfectly framed no people in the shot’ kind of photographers, you’ll just be left frustrated (or photoshopping ‘til your eyes bleed when you get back home).
Nonetheless, if you have some time, don’t mind the crowds, and are on some kind of budget, do opt for a tuktuk but be sure to get one from your hostel/hotel and agree on a price beforehand. The buildings are just as impressive no matter how you get there, and like I said, with a booklet on you about the temples, you can also get the necessary info if you crave that.
Just please, do yourself a favour: DON’T book a minivan or a bus tour. They are not mobile, have to park way outside the entrances and the temples themselves are quite a walk to get around/up to, so the last thing you need is another 4km walk added to that in the sweltering heat of the Cambodian sun. So that would conclude the ‘DIY WANDERER’.
THEY SEE ME ROLLIN’, THEY HATIN’ – A ONE DAY VESPA TOUR
Now, if you are someone who wants the information from a ‘real’ guide, get around even faster than on a tuktuk and get as much as possible from one day, opt for a MOTO or VESPA TOUR. I went with VESPA TOURS CAMBODIA, run by the charming Cambodian lady Chris Wijnberg (she is married to a Dutchman, hence the ‘Wijnberg’, I presume). She also is the proud owner of a restaurant and tries to give back to the community as much as possible from her businesses. (They also operate out of other locations such as Phnom Penh for those interested). The drivers and guides that VESPA TOURS CAMBODIA employ are fun, speak good English and are as relaxed as you would expect from real Cambodians (without them losing track of time).
A one day tour includes: you riding on the back of a Vespa (I myself have a lot of issues with my lower back, but they are really comfortable and I didn’t feel a thing the entire day, so don’t let that put you off. Also, there are regular stops throughout the trip to stretch out), helmets, a guide, a short 15-minute stop at a local village to see traditional instruments being made (if I’m completely honest, I’m almost always put off by visits to local villages and peering into their homes looking like the tourist that you are, but this one felt genuine thanks to our guide and the fact that this was WAY off the beaten path), lunch at a local restaurant (which was beautifully located and not overrun by tourists. Most important: it tasted really really good – springs rolls, fish amok, stir-fried veggies with chicken, deep fried banana and drinks included) and of course: temples.
The day starts with a pick-up at your hotel, a short 10-minute drive to the Angkor entrance center to get your tickets for the day (this is included in the 100$ price tag – a one day ticket to Angkor costs 20$ if bought separately. If you want, you can also upgrade to a 3-day pass which will run you another 20$. The stop is mandatory because you need to have your picture taken for your Angkor entrance pass. Do NOT lose the pass: you lose it, you pay again), another 5-minute drive to VESPA HQ just outside Angkor, 5-minute wait for the other participants to arrive (they’re all small groups, we were six so don’t worry about having to wait for ages because 1/3 of your party has gone AWOL) and before you can say “I HAVE MY HELMET ON BACKWARDS!”, you’re off whizzing through the Khmer Graceland of temples!
We made stops and explored Bayon temple (the one with the faces), Ta Prohm (the one with the trees) and Angkor Wat (the one you see on all the postcards and even on the national flag of Cambodia). The guided explorations were fun and informative, not too short, not too long – 1 hour at Bayon, 45 minutes at Ta Prohm and almost 2 hours at Angkor Wat. Honorable mentions to our guide (Mr. Sov Sothik) who could answer any question and was full of stories about his and Cambodian life in general. Also, he pointed out some great photo-ops; he also takes pictures himself along the way which are sent to you a couple of days later via e-mail (no extra charge). The biggest advantage of this vespa-based tour however was being so mobile: taking the unpaved backroads (no tuktuks or busses in sight) through Victory Gate towards Ta Prohm. Forest-flanked alleyways FTW!
I’m not going to waste too much time on the temples themselves: if you have just one day to explore the Angkor site, you should do the three mentioned above. Bayon offers, in my opinion, the most: the stone faces give an other-worldly feel to the place, the carvings along the walls are beautiful and well-preserved, the corridors are a photographer’s dream and it sits in the middle of the jungle (unlike Angkor Wat, which feels like a city on its own due to its size and grandeur). Ta Prohm has more of a ‘labyrinth’ feel to it, but many parts of the temple have fallen down due to the unrelenting pressure of the threes. This is also the temple that feels most crammed at times because of its small size and high popularity with tours. Still a must see though. Angkor Wat is, by all rights, the crown jewel. Especially the view from the highest level is worth taking a staircase or two. The views you get here from Angkor Wat and the surrounding forest and basins is, well… spectacular. However, when I was walking inside the Angkor Wat walls, I was not blown away per se. This temple truly lives up to its potential when seen from afar. Only then does it reveal its sheer size and signature five towers (one central, four in each corner) looming over the site.
ANGKOR WAT PHOTOGRAPHY – PRO TIP
When entering AW from the main entrance, just over the old bridge, take a right on the grassy grounds to the right basin. Around 2PM or 3PM, the sun hits the temple just right and it reflects the structure into the basin (if there is not too much wind making ripples in the water). That way you can get that ‘mirror effect’ you’ve been looking for!
AVOIDING THE CROWDS
This one is especially important: I’ll focus on the two big ones here, which are Bayon and Angkor Wat. I visited Bayon in the AM (around 9AM) and although there were some people, it was not the massive onslaught you would expect.
For Angkor Wat, it’s not only important WHEN you’re there, but also WHERE you’re coming from. I entered AW from the entrance opposite to the main entrance. It’s a beautiful short 5 minute walk from where you leave your moto/tuktuk/vespa through a broad forested path, and the temple reveals itself slowly through the trees as you approach. This way you avoid the buzzing beehive of the AW parking lot, and enter in all serenity as you take this wonder in. You enter the temple from the back, make your way around to the front and walk against the stream of people entering in droves on the old bridge. Now you’ve saved the best for last, and can start taking that ‘postcard perfect’ picture you’ve been waiting for. You can’t really end your temple-hopping day on a better note, now can you?
ANGKOR WAT CROWD CONTROL – PRO TIP
To get up to the highest level of Angkor Wat there are some steep stairs…and some long lines as well. On average, expect 20 minutes to 45 minutes (!!) of waiting time if you follow the classical circuit. However, everything has its sweet spot and Angkor Wat is no exception. Come here between 12:30AM and 1:30PM and you’ll find no line at all. This makes perfect sense since the busloads of visitors are mostly having lunch during that time frame. You can thank me later!