Many backpackers in Cambodia do Angkor in a day – but its temples, reflected in lotus ponds and merging with the jungle, will keep you enthralled for three. Hiring a bike is the way to see them
Arriving in Cambodia, tired and sore after a prolonged overland journey, my girlfriend and I were beginning to regret our plans to make a 4am start the following day. Standing amidst the slack-jawed crowd, marvelling as the sun rose behind the epic structure of Angkor Wat the next morning, any doubts or second thoughts vanished without trace.
The most revered temple in the whole complex, and not without reason, Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world – and simply stunning. Watching the sun rise behind it is a particularly awesome spectacle. As the first rays of morning fall on the blossom-filled lotus pond in front of the temple, and the immense building appears shimmering at the surface, there is a collective intake of breath as everyone realises they are witnessing something magical.
The Angkor region in Cambodia was once home to a population of more than one million people and boasted more than 1,000 fully functioning temples. The site is located in the north-west of the country, just outside the town of Siem Reap and directly above the immense Tonle Sap Lake. When we visited in February this year, we weren’t really sure what to expect – and we were totally unprepared for the staggering spectacle that awaited us.
Following our overwhelming introduction to the complex at Angkor Wat, next on the day’s itinerary was the beautifully overgrown Ta Prohm. Over the centuries, this temple has been left to the mercy of the surrounding flora, creating a tangled union of branches and stone that couldn’t be further from the perfectly restored stonework at Angkor Wat. Wandering around the crumbling, roofless interior, stepping over thick buttress roots and brushing aside defiant branches, it becomes clear why such a site was deemed the perfect natural backdrop for shooting the film Tomb Raider.
It is possible to buy a one-day, three-day, or seven-day ticket to the Angkor complex, with each day working out cheaper the longer you stay ($20, $40 or $60). Whatever you do, dedicate at least three days to this place – there is so much to see that one day simply isn’t enough. If you are able to splash out on a seven-day ticket, you may end up feeling a little "templed-out"… but you will definitely have the time to really get under Angkors’ skin.
On our second day, we decided to hire pushbikes and cycle to some of the lesser-known structures. Bicycles can be hired from many outlets in Siem Reap for as little as $2 per day, and are a popular alternative transport method to hiring a tuk-tuk and driver. It allows you to be a lot more independent and flexible with your itinerary, avoiding the throbbing crowds and not having to deal with any pressures or haggling from the pushier tuk-tuk drivers. Of course, pedal power is also a far more environment-friendly method of transport, and getting around the site under your own steam makes the whole experience that much more rewarding.
After much discussion over how to spend our final day, we decided to hire a driver and visit the highly praised but slightly out-of-the-way Bantaey Srei. This temple is minuscule in scale compared to the rest, but a real gem. It is intricately adorned with elaborate carvings, most of which have survived, largely untouched, to this day.
It's impossible to convey the wonder and awe that these ancient structures provoke. Even with the aid of photos, there is no substitute for making the trip yourself. It's a truly inspiring place, and one I can't recommend highly enough.
Where to stay
Pretty much everyone visiting the temples looks to the nearby town of Siem Reap for suitable accommodation. There's not much of interest in Siem Reap itself, but it has become a huge tourist hub due to its proximity to the temples. Here are my hotel recommendations there:
During our time in Siem Reap, we stayed at Jasmine Lodge (www.jasminelodge.com) – a family-run place spanning two buildings, with rooms from US$6 a night. We ate at the hotel restaurant most evenings, enjoying delicious but affordable food. The place comes highly recommended. Another solid budget choice is Bunnath Guesthouse (on the Main Road, National Route 6; rooms from US$6 a night). Both are reliable places to book onward bus tickets.
There are countless overly-elaborate, slightly gaudy five-star accommodation options crammed in and around Siem Reap. Raffles Grand Hotel dAngkor is a popular "money is no object" choice.
Where to eat
There are many basic roadside stalls and open-air restaurants all over town (and in the temple complex) selling very cheap but tasty local fare.