Golden temples, temples on mountains, huge temples and ancient temples. South East Asia is full of them and it’s easy to get templed-out however dramatic and unique they are.
Arriving in Siem Reap, the UNESCO World Heritage city I was unsure of what to expect. Would I spend the day trudging around a pile of stones unsure of their backstory? Would hordes of tourist coaches make the day unbearably cliché? Or would I find a well-visited hidden gem on the plains of Cambodia?
Siem Reap is the gateway to the Angkor region and a wonderful jumble of French colonial buildings, Chinese-style architecture and Cambodian modernism. At night the centre of the city buzzes with the sound of tuktuks, markets and the typical Asian sale offers on every street corner.
Every day before first light convoys of tuktuks, minibuses and coaches embark on the short drive out of the city confines towards Angkor Park, home to some of the most famous temples in the world.
We joined the masses and walked under the cover of darkness towards the main gate like zombies in the night, crossed a wide bridge and made for the silhouettes outlined against first light fast approaching from the east. The crowd slowed before stopping at the edge of the small lake – it was from here we’d get the view on every postcard in the town. People jostled for position, cameras and smartphones screens held high, appearing bright against the darkness.
As morning dawned, the reality and splendour of the place dawned on me. Angkor Wat wasn’t just any old temple; it was a megacity of extreme grandeur and greatness that used to house 0.1% of the world’s population between 1010-1220!
Over the next hour we watched the sun rise, bathing the ancient stone in a warm orange glow, witnessed a thousand people take a million photos and were offered breakfast with James Bond, Angelina Jolie and Rambo (the names of the cafes that line the site) before wandering off to explore the huge venue.
The place is huge and highly impressive. Every wall, balustrade, walkway and pillar ornately adorned with images and patterns telling the story of days gone by, when religion was the driving force behind everything and everyone. Photo opportunities abound around every corner.
With a single day in Angkor Park it was time to move on to the twisting trees at Angkor Thom. Before visiting Cambodia I’d seen photos of tree roots draped over ancient stones like dripping plastic and had to see them first hand. They didn’t disappoint.
Angkor Park is up there with Leptis Magna as one of the finest ancient sites I’ve ever visited. The sheer number of sights, the vastness of the temples, the stunning stonework all leave you bewildered and mystified as to how one thousand years ago, man was able to produce such intricate and enormous wonders.
If you’re limited on time for your Siem Reap visit, here are the best ways to explore the area and see everything in 48 hours:
DAY 1 A.M. – TEMPLE TIME
Awake before the gods – set the alarm for 4am, rub your eyes and jump on the back of a tuktuk (book the day before through your accommodation). Make sure you arrive at the park’s ticket booth at 5:30am when the gates open. You’ll avoid the queues and be one of the first to cross the bridge to Angkor Wat itself – guaranteeing the prime spot for your photos of the temple’s reflection in the lake and sunrise.
Use the Golden Hour – Angkor Wat has hundreds of photo opportunities with crumbling archways, intricate carvings, and hallways that stretch off into the distance. The two hours after sunrise bask the temple in a golden glow that really adds beauty to any photo you take. The power of the midday sun bleaches out many of the finite features that lather the walls.
Top locations for us:
- Angkor Wat – sunrise photos
- Angkor Thom – temples galore
- Preah Khan – two storey stunning ruins
- Ta Phrom – dripping tree roots
Keep on moving – it’s easy to spend hours in the same place, but with so many great sites to visit within the park, the key is to keep walking. We visited four different sites in the morning giving us most of the afternoon free to Fly like a Gibbon (see below)
DAY 1 P.M. – TAKE TO THE TREES!
I love taking on my fears, the biggest of the lot being heights, so ziplining above the canopy of the trees was something I was looking forward to with nervous trepidation.
Flight of the Gibbon operate within the confines of Angkor Park, so kill two birds with one stone and use your park pass (which costs $20 a day) to visit the temples on the morning and then fly like a bird (or gibbon) in the afternoon.
The team are awesome fun. Once they’ve kitted you up and confirmed that nothing will go wrong it’s off to the first of 10 ziplines that whisk you across the trees on wires that stretch off into the distance giving rides of up to 300m metres. Standing on the edge of the platform 80 metres from the ground is a stomach-churning experience especially when the wind blows – you can feel the ginormous Teak Trees sway in the wind!
The tour only takes small groups so it feels intimate and very safe, and throughout our guide told us all about the surrounding forest, the park and its wildlife. It was a totally different and exciting way to see Angkor Park.
On the way home to Siem Reap stop off and hire a bike for 24 hours, ready to start early the next day…
DAY 2 A.M. – ON YER BIKE SON!
A slow leisurely cruise on a rental bike is a great way to see the surrounding countryside. Once you leave the chaos of the Siem Reap centre, the roads are fairly relaxed and bike friendly.
We rode due south for 14kms to Tonlé Sab Lake, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia, and of major importance to Cambodia. The shores of the lake are home to floating villages that move as the water level changes and can be visited by hiring a boat at the end of the levelled road. It’s an wonderful place to watch village life and take photos.
DAY 2 P.M. – WANDER THE MARKETS
After a long day in the saddle there’s no better way to relax than a slow, steady cruise through the night markets that line the streets of Siem Reap. The further you go from the commercial zone of Pub Street the better deals you’re likely to get.
Try the local street food, eat a few bizarre insects and enjoy a massage to rest those weary limbs – you’ve earnt it!
Have you visited Siem Reap before? What did you think the best bits were?