Our first stop in Cambodia is Siem Reap, which is the gateway to some of the world’s most impressive archeologic temple areas. The most famous of the temples is Angkor Wat, but there are hundreds of temples in the area that spreads over 200 m2, and couple of those temples are at least as impressive to visit as the tourist-infested Angkor Wat. The setting in the middle of the jungle makes the visit of the ruins especially beautiful as most of the temples are embedded and sometimes even overgrown with trees. Ta Prohm even was the setting for the two Hollywood movies Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones – Temple of Doom.
The temple of Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious building, and its dimensions are truly impressive when approaching the temple through its west gate. And seeing (and photographing) the sun rising over the temple is one of the must-do activities for every tourist. As I am a passionate photographer myself, Ilinca had no other choice than to get up at 4:30 in order to reach the temple at around 5:30. This is one hour before sunrise. In the dark, thousands of people were gathering around the small artificial lake in front of the temple to get the best shot(s) of the temple during dawn. I had to squeeze myself somehow in between all the tourist to also take the mandatory pictures. Interestingly, most of the tourists disappeared from the photo site 5 min after official sunrise because their tour continued to the inside of Angkor Wat. The most beautiful moment however was about 15 minutes when the sun was rising behind one of the temple’s towers. Well, good for me and the other patient photographers, as there was suddenly a lot of space for taking the best pictures of the day. Even though I usually hate big gatherings of tourists, I’m glad I could jump over my own shadow for this one, as it was really a very special atmosphere.
Later during the day, we then also visited the interior of Angkor Wat when most of the tourist groups were already visiting other temples. However, from a close-up view, apart from some nice mural reliefs on the outer walls, Angkor Wat was not that impressive at all as the temple was not in the best condition anymore and it was still quite full of tourists, some of them climbing the temple to take pictures, etc. So it is not a crime to only enjoy Angkor Wat from the exterior and rather spend more time inside the smaller temples in the area.
Angkor Thom Temples
Just like Angkor Wat, also Angkor Thom was actually one a whole city, but because only the religious buildings were built from stone, the rest of the settlements decomposed much quicker, so nowadays only the temple ruins are still visible. And Angkor Thom was actually much larger than Angkor Wat, and there are several temples to be found. The most famous of them is Bayon Temple with its around 200 rock faces and about 50 towers. Also there are many mural reliefs to be found on the temple walls. Being the second most famous temple, Bayon Temple was also overrun with tourists, but definitely worth the visit.
Another temple inside Angkor Thom is Baphuon, known for its very steep stairs (that prevents tourist from climbing it). Baphuon is by far less interesting as it is mainly a huge rock pyramid without lots of decorations on it.
Ta Prohm Temple
Being the setting for two Hollywood movies, this small temple in the middle of the forest was literally overrun by tourists and several times we had to queue to simply walk to the next section of the temple, not even mentioning for taking a photograph. But again, it was worth the visit as it is really amazing seeing nature claiming back its territory, which is visible by the many trees that actually grow on top of the temple’s walls.
Smaller Temples in the Area
Most tourist groups restrict themselves to the three previously mentioned big temples. That makes visiting the smaller but sometimes equally stunning temples a pleasure. The first one of them is Preah Khan, which also used to be a whole city and from which at least the foundations walls and a few halls were still intact. Same as in Ta Phrom, nature is also trying to get back its land and the combination of trees and ruins is wonderful.
Neak Pean Temple is located on an artificial island inside a large artificial lake. The temple itself however is not that impressive compared with its many neighbors.
Ta Som Temple one was my favorite, as it has the nicest view of a tree overgrowing the gate to one of the temples. In addition, this temple does not seem to be on the list of favorites for tourists, so there were almost no tourists around during our visit.
East Mebon and Prae Roup were two more temples that we visited. They are nice, but not that special again.
About Siem Reap
The city Siem Reap itself has nothing special to offer and it is a shockingly touristic city without any charm. As in Thailand, there are massage shops, bars, restaurants, hotels in all categories and everything that makes the tourist happy. The only reason to stay in Siem Reap are the temples nearby. So after we were done visiting the temples, we soon decided to move on to Battambang.