by Scott Coates
Angkor Wat and the temples of the greater Angkor complex are one of the world’s greatest sites. A must-see for any seasoned traveler who wants to say they’ve truly seen the world. Built using mostly Laterite and Sandstone, more than 70 major temples are within the Angkor Archeological Park proper, which covers roughly 190km2. This mighty empire began in 802 when Jayavarman II declared himself ‘God King’ at Phnom Kulen, a mountain range about 35km NE of where Angkor Wat now stands. The empire stood for more than 600 years until it was sacked by the Siamese in 1431.
Today millions of tourists from around the world descend on the city of Siem Reap each year, the jumping-off-point for exploring Angkor’s temples, usually with very limited time and a list of temples to check off their list. They scurry to and fro, usually at about the same time, packing themselves into stone complexes with hordes of others then jump a plane onwards. This is a real shame as while complexes like Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Bayon and a few others are indeed must-sees, there’s a heap of other beautiful and fascinating temples and things to see, many of which receive very few visitors. This is one area of the world where knowing how to explore and approach such a large and historically rich area can make a tremendous difference.
Allotting a bit more time for your visit is the single best thing you can do to get more out of this fascinating area. Most tourists only give themselves two-nights, three at most, which leaves them rushing to see it all, resulting in exhaustion, feeling they must be at temples all the time, and officially getting templed-out. Adding a fourth or fifth night enables one to pace themselves, enjoy some downtime around the pool, stroll markets, hit the spa, but most importantly, not have to be at the temples every daylight hour. There’s much, much more to the area than just temples.
Hit some secondary sites. The usual suspects have been named above, but unless you’re an avid templephile you’ll enjoy some smaller sites just as much as the big, highly-visited ones, maybe even more. The biggest advantage is there are far less people at them, making your experience much more personal and tranquil. Complexes like Banteay Samre, Banteay Kdei and our personal favorite Ta Nei are stunning, intricate and most of the time very quiet. Meander just off the main tourist trail, down a dirt road, and you’ll be far away from the masses and see something few of your friends or other visitors will experience.
Visit some temples at least one morning and one evening. A lot of tourists have the same idea, but there’s nothing like the changing of dark-to-light or light-to-dark to make any of Angkor’s temples take on an entirely different personality, which also result in great photo opportunities. It’s also cooler at these times of day which will enable you to enjoy them more and for longer. It doesn’t really matter which site you visit at dawn or dusk but again, we recommend visiting a secondary site which coupled with the off-peak time will sometimes see you being the only visitor.
Take a walk and enjoy a picnic. Complexes like Angkor Wat, the city of Angkor Thom, Sras Srang reservoir and any major temple for that matter usually have footpaths around their outer reaches. Pack some sweets, a sandwich and hit the trail for a bit of exercise, escape the crowds, find a nice tree to sit under and soak it all in. Circumnavigating these large complexes will give you a greater appreciation for their size and you’ll also come upon interesting, hidden aspects along the way.
The larger area of Siem Reap itself has so much more to offer than just temples. See how silk and pottery are made, visit the Angkor Hospital for Children, walk along the Siem Reap River, cycle through the countryside, you get the picture. Do things that aren’t about temples. After all you’re in the country of Cambodia; see some it beyond its famous monuments. Mingle with its people, see how they live, work and get under the skin of the nation.
While Angkor Wat itself is the world’s largest single religious monument, and you must see it, there’s much more to this fascinating area than the main temples. Plan for at least an extra day, get off the trodden-trail, see something other than temples, get to know a local, slow down, and in the end you’ll have richer memories and a deeper appreciation for the key sites, as well as the nation, its rich history and people.