Angkor Wat

Our guide to discover the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park

As Cambodia’s top tourist attraction, Angkor Wat Archaeological Park is home to hundreds of ancient temples and religious structures dotted throughout the 400-sq km site. While Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm remain the most popular, attracting thousands of visitors from across the globe daily, there are many more off the beaten track temples worth leaving the well-trodden trail for and investing in a multi-day pass. Nowadays, seeing sunrise at Angkor Wat means jostling the crowds and dodging death by selfie-stick. However, it’s well worth it if you’re lucky enough to catch a beauty, with the sky plunging into a palette of colour as the sun peaks from behind the iconic temple’s spires.

Of course, there is more to the park than just Angkor Wat, with nearby Bayon and Ta Prohm temples and the structures that surround them forming the popular circuit for one-day pass holders. But for those not pushed for time, investing in a three or seven-day pass comes well rewarded, with access to the hundreds of other ancient sites that dot the expansive park. These remote temples are much less visited, meaning often you can explore them alone, and many are in the depths of the jungle, bringing with them Tarzan-esque trips into the heart of the forest. Here are some top tips on how to make the most out of your fascinating journey into Cambodia’s intriguing past.

What is Angkor Wat?

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In the early 9th century AD, the British Empire was still a pipe dream, and the Vikings were still the terror of seaside communities. But at this time, a new empire was coalescing amidst the rice fields of present-day Cambodia, one whose buildings still inspire awe today. The Khmer Empire, founded by “king of kings” Jayavarman II in 802 AD and later centered on the capital city of Angkor, lasted about 700 years, and in its heyday ruled over present-day Thailand, Laos, and parts of Vietnam.
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Angkor Wat

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Angkor was not the Empire’s first or last capital, but it is the only one that stood the test of time. Its most famous structure, the mega-temple known as Angkor Wat, stands outside the walls of Angkor Thom, the actual metropolis and site of the royal palace. When built, the ancient city extended over 400 kilometres, which makes it the largest pre-industrial city in history. While guesses about the city’s population vary wildly, some prominent historians suggest that the population could have been as high as one million people. Mysteriously, archaeologists are still unsure of what actually happened to this vast empire and its people. Moreover the Angkor Archaeological Park shouldn’t really be conceptualized as a collection of disparate temples and monuments in a jungle. This was a fully functioning, complex city that was well-connected, and these temples were just a part of that burgeoning city.
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Angkor Wat

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These, together with several outlying temples in varying states of preservation, now constitute the Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia’s most significant tourist destination. The temples of Angkor stand at the very heart of Cambodian identity. The flag of Cambodia has Angkor Wat at its center; Cambodian nationalists still seethe at the memory of Thailand claiming Angkor as its own. Angkor Park draws about two million foreign visitors a year, racking up to Euro 72 million in tourism revenues a year.

Tickets

Angkor Wat

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First things first, what pass are you going to purchase? Tickets are sold as one, three and seven-day passes; The seven-day passes should probably be reserved for those truly hardened history buffs, with one-day passes the most popular, offering enough time to take in the major temples of Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm.

If you fancy getting off the beaten track and heading into the heart of the jungle to explore more ruined temples away from the madding crowds, then a three-day pass may be worth investing in. The three visits can be used up within one week, meaning you don’t get too ‘templed’ out.

Further away temples worth visiting include Banteay Srei, Koh Ker, Beng Mealea, Phnom Krom and Kbal Spean.

Transport

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So, that’s your tickets sorted, now for how to get around. There are several ways to tour Angkor, with tuk-tuk being the most popular. You’ll find as soon as you land in the city tuk-tuks are touting for temple business so don’t worry, there’s no shortage of vehicles waiting to take visitors to the temples. As well as picking a driver up from the street, hotels and guesthouses can make arrangements. Private vehicles and taxis can also take guests around the park, and can be booked via travel agents found throughout Siem Reap, or at your hotel. However, environmentalists have raised concerns about the volume of vehicles entering the park so it’s worth considering the environment and preservation of the site when looking into cars or buses. Alternatively, hire an electric bike or car from the front of Angkor Wat and the Terrace of Elephants.
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Angkor Wat

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Those heading to the more remote temples, however, may find car is the easiest, quickest and most comfortable option to make the journey. Jumping on a bicycle is another option. The ticket gate is about 6km from Siem Reap centre, and don’t forget to pack plenty of water because, while it’s readily available from stalls in the park, you’ll pay more than double once you’re inside. If you fancy indulging in the high life, then a more extravagant way of viewing the temples is from above. Helicopter and hot air balloon trips run throughout the park, however, restrictions prevent anything from flying directly above almighty Angkor Wat itself.

To get a guide, or not?

Angkor Wat

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Navigating Angkor Wat can easily be done alone, although without the help of a knowledgeable guide, many details and historic stories will undoubtedly be missed. If you want to go solo, then it’s worth spending a bit of time doing research, or investing in a decent guidebook, these are sold seemingly around every corner of the temple complex, usually by children. Visitors are strongly encouraged not to buy from kids, a rule that should be applied throughout the country.

When to go

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

There’s no avoiding the crowds if you want to view Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm. However, there are ways of lessening the masses if you shake up your itinerary slightly, although you might have to explain this to the tuk-tuk driver, who will switch into autopilot mode. Firstly, if you want to catch sunrise at Angkor Wat then there’s no way to avoid the masses of people who flock to the lotus lake in front of the temple to catch that iconic shot of the sun rising behind the spires reflected in the still water.
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Sunset at Angkor Wat

However, if you want to skip the crowds, who will spend the next couple of hours touring around Angkor before visiting Bayon and then Ta Prohm, head straight to Ta Prohm after sunrise, then Bayon, returning to Angkor last. If you want to enjoy sunset at Angkor, then Phnom Bakheng is a popular spot but, again, that’s where the crowds will be. A quieter location is Pre Rup. It’s worth noting that if you buy a one-day pass after 4.30pm, you can enjoy access to the temples for sunset as well as the whole of the next day. Regardless of how you choose to visit Angkor and which temples you tick off your list, one thing is for sure: you won’t leave disappointed.


Where to Stay

Heritage Suites Hotel

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The Heritage Suites Hotel is sophisticated and charming behind a marvelous French-style colonial façade, totally enveloped and surrounded by lush tropical gardens. Outside it has a clear colonial charm while inside it traditional Asian decorations, in short a classy hotel with clear and visible Cambodian influences, an ideal place to spend a truly special stay. The Heritage Suites Hotel has 6 deluxe rooms and 20 suites. The Bungalow Suites offer private gardens and a large stone bathtub. Or if you want more, you can opt for the Colonial Suites where you can enjoy a large outdoor Jacuzzi or an 8-meter pool next to your private terrace. Obviously this type of suite also has a Turkish bath and a stone bathtub. If you are really looking for a home away from home, you can choose the Residence, a huge space where you have your outdoor jacuzzi, private pool, living room with thatched roof and private garden. Maybe there could be a problem…you will never want to come out.
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The hotel restaurant is the Heritage Restaurant and together with the Cocktail Bar and the Lounge, they are all located in a two-story colonial building, with tall windows that illuminate and fill the interiors with light. The Heritage restaurant is located on the top floor and is one of the best restaurants in Siem Reap, thanks also to the refined wine list and an a la carte menu offering Western, Asian and Khmer cuisine. Downstairs is the Cocktail Bar and Lounge, where you can enjoy a cocktail or a drink while relaxing before and after dinner. The pool bar serves drinks and snacks and as a treat, guests of Heritage Suites Hotel also have the possibility to eat outside around the pool which is lit by lanterns for the most romantic of experiences.
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Despite its not big size, the facilities in the hotel are excellent. The Heritage Suites Hotel has a Spa, the Spa by Bodia which boasts 3 comfortable treatment rooms (one of which is ideal for couple treatments) and after a day around the area, this wellness place will be perfect to recharge your mind and body. After the treatments, you can relax in the steam baths, in the rain showers or in the whirlpool baths or, alternatively, throw yourself on the salt water pool and let yourself be pampered by the pool bar that will tantalize you with one, two or more refreshing drinks and snacks. The salt water pool is temperature controlled, so when the weather warms up, the water temperature cools down. Surrounded by sunbeds and lush vegetation, this is a lovely place to take time for yourself, both during the day and also at night when the pool is transformed into a magical oasis thanks to lanterns and light effects.

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