You can’t say you’ve been to Cambodia until you have visited Angkor Wat. Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world.
Angkor Wat is situated in the Angkor Archaeological Park with other famous temples, Angkor Thom, Bayon Temple, and Ta Prohm.
Before going to the Angkor Archaeological Park, i strongly recommend you to spend a few hours in the Angkor National Museum. Travellers usually skip the museum visit and go straight to the site. Big mistake! With exhibit descriptions in English and audio guides (available for rent) in English, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Thai, the museum is the closest you can get to understanding what you will be seeing in Angkor Wat. The exclusive 1,000 Buddha Images gallery alone is probably money well spent.
The Angkor Archaeological Park is separated into two circuits - the small circuit and the big circuit. Running 17 kilometers, the small circuit covers several major temples such as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Phrohm, and some of the minor temples such as the Baphoun. The big circuit covers 26 kilometers extends the small circuit to other minor temples and monuments in the park.
If you plan to spend 2-3 days in the park, visit the big circuit on the first day and the small circuit on the second day. If you do it the other way round, you may get ‘templed’ out on the second day after seeing all the major temples. I did the small circuit as I only had 1 day to visit the temples.
The best way to start your temple experience is to watch the sunrise outside Angkor Wat. Wake up at 5 a.m. to take a tuk tuk (remember to book the day before) to the temple. If you are staying in the city, it should take no more than 30 minutes to reach the Angkor Archaeological Park entrance where you will purchase your admission ticket.
Once you have your ticket, your driver will take you to Angkor Wat and you will walk to a small pond outside the temple to join the rest of the travellers waiting for the sunrise. Trust me, you won’t miss it because there will be a lot of people gathered there.
After watching the sunrise, you can enter the temple to start exploring Angkor Wat. The temple is huge so you could spend 2 hours there easily. There is a tower in the middle of the temple where you can climb up its stairs to get a bird’s eye view around the temple.
The next stop is Angkor Thom. Entering via. the south gate, you will be greeted by two large statues of Naga (told you to visit the museum) playing a game of tug-of-war with a row of devas on the left and asuras on the right. The driver will alight you in front of the Bayon temple. Personally, I prefer the Bayon temple over Angkor Wat because of the 216 faces engraved on the temple towers, giving the temple a unique character of its own.
Northwest of the Bayon temple lies a long walkway leading to the Baphuon temple. To visit the Baphuon temple, you will need to be adequately dressed (no sleeveless shirts and shorts above the knees) or you will be denied entry. Behind the Baphuon temple, you can visit the old Royal Palace, Phimeanakas, Leper King Terrace and Elephant Terrace before hopping back on your tuk tuk to visit the next temple, Ta Prohm.
Made famous by the movie, Tomb Raider, Ta Prohm is probably the second most visited Temple in the park, after Angkor Wat. Unlike the man-made character of Bayon Temple, Ta Prohm is given a unique character by Mother Nature, with century-old trees growing around the ruins, with some trees as old as 400 years old!
This wraps up the major temples that you will be visiting in the small circuit. You can choose to visit some of the smaller temples and monuments if you still have time.