A few weeks ago my travel bible Lonely Planet released its “Ultimate Travelist” of the 500 best places to visit in the world. Landing in the coveted #1 spot, they say by a landslide, was the Temples of Angkor in Cambodia. Having spent two days exploring the Angkor Wat temples, I completely understand why.
The Angkor Wat temples are located about 15-20 minutes from the small town of Siem Reap. Depending on how you want to explore the grounds, the three easiest ways to get there are by tuk tuk, a tour group or your own personal transportation. If you’re planning to cover as much ground as possible in 1-day I recommend hiring a tuk tuk from start to finish.
There are a lot of different ways to get around Angkor — bikes, elephants, cars, buses, motorbikes, on foot — but most popular is definitely tuk tuks. I didn’t comprehend how MASSIVE the Angkor Wat temples truly are until we arrived — it’s HUGE! At first we thought about riding bikes, but as soon as we understood its size (and it was hot as hell!) we were happy with our tuk tuk decision. My friend Tori put me in touch with her friend and tuk tuk driver Sambath who charges $15-20 a day, provides water (which you’ll need a lot of!) and was knowledgeable about the temples. Email me for his info or book a driver at your hostel or hotel.
There’s so much to see and learn at the Angkor Wat temples! The 154 square miles of grounds is home to a 700-year old city abundant with temples in the middle of the jungle. From the 9th to the 15th century Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire during its rule over Southeast Asia. Today more than 2 millions tourists visit annually and if you become one of them here are my 3 must see temples of Angkor:
1. Angkor Wat
Literally, Angkor Wat means “Heaven on Earth” and is the largest religious building in the world. Not only was it the epicenter of the Khmer Empire, but to this day it’s considered the heart and soul of Cambodia. Do yourself a favor, wake up early to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat!
After enjoying sunrise, head inside to explore! Not only is Angkor Wat famous for its iconic apsaras reaching up to the heavens, but inside the temple is home to thousands of detailed sculptures known as bas-reliefs. The temple also possesses an indescribable spiritual energy.
Bayon is known for its enormous faces, 216 of them carved in 54 Gothic-style towers throughout the temple. With every turn through its steep stairways and narrow corridors you can always count on a Bayon face watching you Big Brother-style!
Bonus Temple: Baphuon is located adjacent to Bayon and is a simple walk away for some great views.
3. Ta Prohm
You may recognize Ta Prohm from the big screen! Angelina Jolie (or should I say Lara Croft) made this temple a Hollywood star in “Tomb Raider.”
Unlike a lot of the other temples, Ta Prohm has been overtaken by the jungle. It’s a beautiful display of the power of nature and how the jungle has reclaimed its territory.
During my 3-night stay in Siem Reap we stayed at Villa Medamrei which costs about $30 per night. Overall this boutique hotel was great! It’s a short walk to the center of town and night markets, has an extremely friendly and helpful staff and is very clean with a modern decor. Since it was a hotel, we had less interaction with other travelers compared to staying in a hostel, but we were still able to make friends with Carla and Kane, an awesome couple from the UK.
So do the Angkor Wat temples live up to the hype of being named the #1 best place to visit in the world? You’ll have to experience it for yourself to decide. What I can confirm is spending any amount of time at Angkor will blow you away. It’s rich history, religious significance and unparalleled beauty are unmatched giving weight to it being “Heaven on Earth.”