Angkor What? An Honest Guide To Exploring The Temples in Siem Reap: Part One

The temple of Bayon at Angkor
This post is part of a two-post series on the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor. The next scheduled post will be a guide on how to get the best out of your trip to the temples. 

Underwhelmed By The Overwhelming

I’m going to fully disclose something from the very start; we weren’t too blown away by Angkor. Yes, that’s right – despite the fact that most travel bloggers and writers always rave about what a marvel the whole thing is (and the fact that I had been looking forward to exploring the temples for years), we just didn’t find our three-day experience to be what we expected it to be.

Maybe it’s because we built it up too much in our heads. Or maybe it’s because we didn’t really have any single ‘wow’ moment

I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s because we built it up too much in our heads. Or maybe it’s because we didn’t really have any single ‘wow’ moment. I had this when I visited Petra a few years back; when I first saw The Treasury appear as I sweatily made my way through the cliffs I got goosebumps. I just didn’t feel the same about Angkor. Sure, we were really impressed by Bayon – one of the complex’s most richly decorated temples, and we had plenty of ‘this is frigging cool’ exchanges. But overall, it was a little disappointing and I feel like we’re the only people in the world who had this impression!

The big attraction

The big attraction

Angkor Who?

Just to give a little context to anyone who may not know too much about Angkor: Angkor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. Located in Cambodia, the whole thing stretches over 400km2 and contains various remains (up to a whooping 1000 temples) of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, which ruled over much of the region from the 9th to the 15th century. The site is a 20-minute drive away from Siem Reap, which is where most tourists stay while visiting.

So, What Was Our Problem?

We’ve had some time to reflect on our three-day exploration, and we’ve come to a few conclusions. These have also made us realise that had we done a few things differently, we may have had a better experience, hence our decision to put together a guide full of tips on how to explore the temples.

For now, here are (in no particular order) the factors that put a dampener on our experience of Angkor:

Maddening Crowds

I had read somewhere that you should make sure that the first temple you visit is the one you’re the most interested in as a) that’s the one that stays with you and b) if you get there before the sun comes up, you’ll have the whole place to yourself for a considerable amount of time. So we decided to do just that.

Ta Prohm, complete with a swarm of selfie-taking tourists

Ta Prohm, complete with a swarm of selfie-taking tourists

We did some research and decided upon Ta Prohm – the legendary temple that’s now been captured into the clutches of the jungle. So on the first morning we set out with our tuk-tuk driver and headed to Angkor. Once we got there and bought our tickets, he told us that as there are other temples along the route to Ta Prohm, we’d be seeing those first. Looking back, I wish we had insisted that he took our planned route, because the two temples he drove us to were small and less than impressive.

By the time we got to Ta Prohm it was 11am and place was swarming with tourists. And not just any tourists; group tour tourists. Despite the fact that there are signs everywhere asking people to be as quiet as they can (these are temples, after all – temples that many people come to pray in), the aforementioned group tourists acted like they owned the place, shouting and generally being very inconsiderate.

They also hogged many picture perfect spaces as they took photo after photo, selfie after selfie. Sure, Ta Prohm is an impressive sight, but the impressiveness was dampened drastically by the crowds that were there.

Lack Of A Guide

We usually never bother with a guide when we go to museums or archaeological sites because we reason that a) we can read up about a place beforehand or take a book with us, b) having a guide makes the whole experience less spontaneous and c) if we really want some information, we can usually get an audio guide. With the latter not being an option at Angkor, we still opted to explore the temples guide-less.

The only way not to get people in the photos is to look up

The only way not to get people in the photos is to look up

Now the issues are this: the site is massive and all the temples pretty much look the same after a while. When you put these two things together, what you quickly end up having is temple fatigue. From as early on as the first day, I began asking Ankit “Doesn’t this all look the same to you now?”

Having a fun and knowledgable guide who could have helped bring these places to life with various facts and figures would have definitely made the experience more interesting.

Poor Maintenance At Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is meant to be the crown jewel of the site, and yet we left saying ‘meh’ (and I was more bothered about my throbbing feet than anything else by this point). It’s the largest religious monument in the world, and it didn’t make any sort of an impression on us.

It’s the largest religious monument in the world, and it didn’t make any sort of an impression on us.

I’m not too sure if we had built it up to be something it wasn’t; after all, when you have really high expectations of any given place, you’re usually going to end up somewhat disappointed. But I think that the poor maintenance of the site didn’t help. For example, all the gardens (and I use that term loosely – it’s just a load of grass) that surround it are left to grow wildly, with little to no maintenance in sight.

A rare moment spent alone

A rare moment spent alone

All those gardens need is a bit of work and some landscaping to make the whole thing look that little bit more impactful, but sadly right now the site is overrun by the grass that surrounds it.

And it’s not just at Angkor Wat. Most of the temples didn’t even have a basic sign telling you which one it was, or a brief description of its history, which is a shame.

Ongoing Restorative Work

This is a given at most archeological sites; from time-to-time, restorative work needs to take place to ensure everything stays standing. But we encountered a lot of it while we were there. Most disappointingly of all, though, was the major work going on at Ta Prohm which, in combination with the ridiculous crowds, turned what was supposed to be the best temple experience into the biggest let down of them all.

A highlight for us was seeing the beautifully still reservoir outside Neak Pean temple

A highlight for us was seeing the beautifully still reservoir outside Neak Pean temple

Heat, Heat Baby

Complaining about the heat while being in Southeast Asia makes you sound like an absolute moron, so I’ll try and steer this as well as I can. Obviously nothing can be done to alleviate the heat, and obviously millions of other people visit each year without making a big song and dance about the temperature. But my goodness, for the first two days that we were there, I genuinely felt like I was going to catch on fire. Again, precautions could have been taken to help the situation, though.

Complaining about the heat while being in Southeast Asia makes you sound like an absolute moron

Three Days Too Many

We tried to do too much and got templed out. Once you’ve seen a few temples, you start to feel like you’ve seen them all. We thought getting the three-day pass would be a great idea once we realised how big the site is, but in retrospect three days are three days too many unless you’re an architecture fanatic or you’re writing a paper on Angkor. That said, trying to see everything in one day would also be a bit too much, so I do wish they offered two-day passes as well as the one-day, three-day and seven-day options.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Angkor Wat at sunrise

But…

I want to stress here that we’re not telling people not to visit. We just want our readers to learn from our mistakes and hopefully have a better experience than we did. Overall we did have an amazing time, like when we visited Banteay Kdei and were the only two people there for a good amount of time. Or when we walked down the pier to reach the temple of Neak Pean and were treated to an ethereal view of the reservoir and its reflections. These are moments we’ll both cherish forever; this combined with the kindness of the Cambodians have made this another highly-memorable trip.


Have you ever visited Angkor? If so, what were your experiences?


 
  • Jane

    Don’t be too hard on yourself – I had much the same learnings! And I’m also happy to say, I think the overall wow effect builds up over time. At the time there were quite a few low points, but thinking back on it now I can’t believe I’ve walked around those ruins in person!

    The crowds were a real problem – for example everyone raved about Banteay Srei but there were 5 busloads of group tourists there at the same time as us and we couldn’t take any photographs which didn’t have people in them. We eventually just found a tree to sit under and waited for a gap (there wasn’t really one). My favourite 2 temples were unsurprisingly the ones we had to ourselves – Pre Rup early on the 2nd day (such beautiful views too) and then Beng Melea which is a long trek out but worth it just to avoid the crowds and experience a true jungle temple (to my mind it was everything Ta Prohm should have been).

    The moment we were a little further out (and also a little later in the day) the crowds thinned out and some places were actually quite pleasant. But we definitely tried to cram too much in and were totally reliant on our tuk tuk driver’s recommendations (and obviously they’re trying to get as many kilometres out of you as possible!) – some more research upfront would probably have helped. I don’t think it’s necessarily a case of 3 days being too much, but rather trying to do too much in those 3 days. I could easily do a week there, but take some time off temple-hopping!

    My learnings would be:
    Hotel with a swimming pool (and I realise this is a problem if you’re doing long-term or real budget travel), and do temples in the morning and pool in the afternoon. The heat is a killer, as you mentioned!

    The tuk-tuk drivers are very sweet and it’s great to support them but they often don’t know much more (or rather, can’t communicate more?) than you do. If you do some research you can probably find a knowledgeable one, or maybe read up more about the temples beforehand. As you mentioned it’s frustrating to not really know what you’re looking at!

    Oversleep, miss sunrise, and reach Angkor Wat when everyone is leaving! 🙂 I was so cross with myself at the time but couldn’t believe it when we almost had the place to ourselves, just by arriving an hour later!

    Less is more. If I go back I’d be more inclined just to find a tuk tuk for the further-out temples and rather hire a bicycle or scooter to explore the others in my own time. I’d also like to spend less time amongst the ruins and more time in the Cambodian countryside which was really beautiful.

    We were lucky that someone we knew who had experienced the Siem Reap heat had recommended finding a place with a swimming pool before we left, but for the rest – even if I’d known upfront I would probably have ended up making the same mistakes. I think you know for next time 🙂

    • Andrea

      Yeah, we had the same issue with the bus loads of tourists! We had to wait in order to take any semi-decent photos. Those are some great tips, especially the one regarding the pool! We actually have a lot of similar tips lined up in our next post. And yes, if we were to do it all over again, we’d probably have a better experience now! 🙂

  • I haven’t been to Cambodia and the Angkor Wat for pretty much the same concerns as what you experienced. 1000 temples in a large area with all of them looking pretty much the same. Unless you are really into their history, I think this site is best viewed from the sky than to actually be in it. The same can be said to the Great Wall of China, unfortunately..

    • Andrea

      Yeah, it’s a bit too repetitive. I think I’d advise people to pick 4 – 5 temples carefully and focus on those instead of trying to see everything.

      There are helicopter tours you can take in order to see it from the sky. Bet they’re expensive, though!

  • Ahhh it’s a shame you guys felt that way, we really enjoyed our time at Angkor! We woke up at 4am every morning and rode a bike there, we had Ta Prohm to ourselves the first morning and it was wonderful. Exhausting, but wonderful. I have been underwhelmed with other destinations though, and for the very same reason that I had hyped them up way too much in my head. Expectations kill everything. :/

    • Andrea

      That’s exactly what we wanted to do, but our driver wouldn’t take us there. Such a shame. But you’re right about expectations; that’s why hidden gems are the best 🙂

  • Agness

    I used to live in Siem Reap for a while and I absolutely loved it!! One of the best places in the world!!

    • Andrea

      You know, we feel the same about the town now. When we first arrived we didn’t think we’d enjoy it as much as we have. We leave tomorrow and we’re really going to miss this place and its people.

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  • Crowds, yeah. They’re everywhere!
    None of these are as remote as they once were…

    • Andrea

      Yeah and that really saddens me! As an introvert, crowds reaaaally drain me.

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