As with most people, when I first started doing research for this trip, I didn't realize just how many temples there actually were in the area surrounding Siem Reap. I only knew of Angkor Wat, of course, and a couple of other famous sites like Ta Prohm and Bayon, and thought that was pretty much all there was to see. Boy was I wrong. There are literally hundreds of ruins within an area stretching out hundreds of miles from Angkor Wat, all in varying stages of decay or restoration.
Because I was traveling solo, I was a little more wary of exploring the entire Angkor Archaeological Park on my own, so I decided to hire a personal guide for the three full days that I would be there. Luckily, my housemate had been to Cambodia years earlier and recommended his guide, Nicky (or Yem in Khmer). Email correspondence setting up the itinerary was quick and easy, and I thought the $185 rate (excluding entrance fees) he charged was reasonable enough. He also seemed fairly proficient in English, which was very important since I tend to ask a lot of questions.
Typically, almost all visitors to Angkor Archaeological Park will do the Little Circuit, which includes the most famous sites like Angkor Thom, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, and of course, Angkor Wat. For those with more time, the Big Circuit encompasses temples that are a little more obscure and farther away. However, some of these temples are definitely worth a visit, especially because they don't attract the massive crowds seen on the Little Circuit. And for those who are a bit more adventurous, the outlying temples 20-50 miles beyond the immediate Angkor area boasts some of the most unique and stunning ruins, in my opinion.
I'll go ahead and list the temples/sites I visited on each of the three days, and then describe in detail some of the more interesting events along the way.
Day 1: Angkor Thom + Big Circuit + Banteay Srey
- Angkor Thom (Bayon, Baphuon, Phimeanakas, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King)
- Preah Khan
- Ta Som
- Banteay Srey (outlying temple 23 miles north of Angkor area)
- East Mebon
- Pre Rup
Day 2: Beng Mealea + Kompong Phluk
- Beng Mealea (outlying temple 45 miles east of Siem Reap)
- Kompong Phluk (floating village)
Day 3: Angkor Wat + Little Circuit
- Angkor Wat (sunrise and afternoon)
- Ta Prohm
- Ta Nei
- Ta Keo
- Banteay Kdei
The first day actually turned out to be the longest and most strenuous, which, in hindsight, was probably a good plan. By the third day, I was pretty worn out by all the walking in the intense heat. The best advice I can give is to start the day as early as you can. Not only will you avoid some of the harshest daytime sunlight, but arriving at 6:00 or 7:00 am also affords you the opportunity to bypass the massive crowds of tourists that descend on the ruins later in the morning. Unfortunately, we arrived a little late at Angkor Thom on the first day, and Bayon was absolutely packed to the brim. It was even difficult to walk along the pathways at times because of the congestion. Still, it was quite amazing to see the famous stone faces that adorn just about every facet of the temple.
Banteay Srey wall carvings
Beng Mealea moat
Luckily, I did my research beforehand and was set on visiting Kompong Phluk instead. A bit more out of the way, Kompong Phluk has managed to retain some of its original character, and residents still seem to go about their daily lives despite having to cater to the large influx of tourists that now arrive on a daily basis. The bad news about my visit was that I was going during the end of the dry season, meaning water levels were at their lowest. It was astonishing to see just how low the water level was compared to the height of the houses, which were all built on wooden stilts. The good news, however, was that I was also going during the low tourist season... meaning that the tour groups and massive crowds were all thankfully absent.
There were only a few cars parked at the boat launch area just outside the village, and I saw a couple of tourists milling about. Since I was on my own, I decided to just hire an entire boat, which cost $25 (I'm pretty sure I was gouged a little bit, but didn't bother raising a fuss since I liked having the boat to myself). The boat driver was a young kid who claimed he was 16 when I asked, but I swear he looked about 13 at most.
We slowly made our way through the village, and at times, the water level was so low that it became difficult to navigate the crowded river (more like a creek at this point). However, it was amazing to see the villagers going about their daily lives, hardly paying any attention to me. Little kids were happily waiving though, which brought a smile to my face. The houses on both sides felt like skyscrapers, and I wondered aloud how they managed to build an entire village on stilts. After passing through, we arrived at a vast expanse of mangrove trees near the mouth of Tonle Sap Lake. During the wet season, the water level rises above the tree trunks, and you can take a smaller boat in for a serene ride through the flooded forest. I've read some spectacular reviews about this experience, and was really disappointed I wouldn't be able to see it for myself.
Mangrove forest in the dry season
My boat driver/guide on Tonle Sap Lake
Kompong Phluk village in the dry season
The third day started around 4:45 am, when we left in total darkness to be the first at Angkor Wat for the sunrise. Maybe I was a little too eager, since we were literally the first ones there. Even the security guards were questioning us under flashlights when we arrived at the entrance (I think my tour guide probably told them in Khmer that I was crazy). As time passed and the sky brightened, the crowds around us also grew until it looked somewhat like a rock concert with hundreds of people simultaneously snapping photos of the famous silhouette under the beautiful sunrise.
"Tomb Raider" tree Ta Prohm
Back to Angkor Wat
One quick note regarding my guide, Nicky. Although I felt like he was generally pleasant and knowledgeable, towards the end of the tour, he became a bit lazy in terms of being an actual guide. For many of the temples, he would literally say, "Okay go take a look, I'll wait here"... and he would inevitably start playing with his cell phone. In addition, not only did he try to steer me to places I didn't want to go, like Chong Kneas or touristy restaurants where I knew he was getting a commission, he even got out of paying for his lunch by telling the waitress to give me the entire bill (is this normal practice?). I was a bit appalled, and decided to just skip lunch the next day. However, I must say he was very informative whenever I had any questions, and his English was excellent. Overall, I was satisfied with him as a guide, but I don't know if I would go out of my way to recommend him. If anyone is interested in contacting Nicky, send me an email and I will get you his information.