Cambodia: Angkor Archaeological Park

My wife and I wanted to maximize our short trip to the Philippines so we wanted to visit a nearby Asian country that both of us have never been to. Cambodia, in particular Siem Reap, became the unanimous choice. The primary reason for our trip to Siem Reap would be to visit the World Heritage Angkor Archaeological Park that includes the world-famous Angkot Wat Temple, the world’s largest religious building.


Angkor Wat Sunrise Experience

I have read from some first time visitors to Angkor Wat that the sunrise tour is overrated but after experiencing it I’d say it is not. It’s a different experience as we allotted one morning to wake up at 4:30 a.m. for the tour. We were picked up at our hotel at 5:00 a.m. by our designated driver. If one has already bought a ticket for the day,  the pickup time would be 30 minutes later depending on the sunrise timing. Take note that the ticket counters open at 5:00 a.m. and one needs to be personally present in the ticket line for a photo ID to be taken. The ticket that costs $37 for a full day validity will have the photo in it to be checked at entrances so it is non-transferable.

20190127_055957At 5:30 a.m. we were already at the pond located at the northern side of the complex facing Angkor Wat temple. There is another pond at the southern side but it’s not the best spot to watch sunrise. The sky was starting to emit a reddish-gray color.  It was quite a walk in total darkness from the parking area to the temple wall and finally to the pond. Our cellphones’ flashlights were a great help and we just followed throngs of early risers also going to the same spot where we were headed.

For the sunrise tour I do not recommend hiring a tour guide unless you go for the temple tour right after the sunrise. Whether you came in via a private car or via a tuktuk (local tricycle), the driver will tell you what to do once you arrive at the drop-off point. We took an offer from our resort for a private car and a chauffeur for the whole day tour for $75 so we did not have any problem with the transportation to and from the hotel starting from the sunrise tour up to the other temple tours.


20190128_163421The entire pond was surrounded by tourists  facing the temple and we got the best view in the middle part as we were among those who came in early.



20190127_070154A few minutes past 6 a.m., the sun slowly crept up behind the temple towers.





20190127_070214Some visitors were actually not interested in the initial sighting of the sun and they were busy walking around in front of the temple.




20190127_090034I left my position for the past 45 minutes and moved back and a bit to the left. I  got this shot of the crowd who were previously behind us with the sun entirely hidden behind one of the temple towers.


20190127_071050A few more steps to the left the sun became visible again.


20190127_082438My wife and I took a selfie with the sunrise and part of the crowd as background.



20190127_073029As the sun was already way up high…..



20190127_071253….we took shots around the pond.  Shown here is what remains of the sunrise crowd where we positioned ourselves earlier.


20190127_071441Walking toward the temple, we saw some lilies in the eastern part of the pond.



20190127_071544They’re beautiful lilies.



20190127_071943Some were still busy making snapshots of the sunrise in and around the pond as we prepared to leave for breakfast at our hotel and come back later for the temple tour.



Angkor Wat Temple Tour

20190127_130209After a sumptuous breakfast and a few minutes rest at our hotel we headed back to the Angkor Wat complex. As you can see above the complex is surrounded by a man-made moat. Measuring 190 meters the moat forms a giant rectangle measuring 1.5km x 1.3km around the temple complex. Entry is only via a causeway in the western side.


20190127_104815After exiting the causeway we entered the temple outer wall still a few minutes walk away to the main temple.


20190127_130142We mostly stayed in the western side of the outer wall and inside the right hand tower there is a statue of the 8-arm Hindu god Vishnu measuring 3.25m in height and hewn from a single block of sandstone.



20190127_130121Right after we went through the Vishnu statue our tour guide took our photo inside the outer wall’s main entrance 235m-wide foyer richly decorated with carvings and sculptures. Yes we hired a tour guide whom we met near the parking area and we’re glad we did! I suggest a tour guide for $15-20 depending on one’s desired duration of the tour, otherwise the temple tour will just be a meaningless tour of stones and carvings.  Also the tour guide knows the exact location where one can have the best snapshots in and around the temple.




20190127_130024Exiting the outer wall we came to the nearly 500-m walkway lined with balustrades leading to the temple main entrance. Three of the five towers are visible from here. The temple is the heart and soul of Cambodia.  It is a source of intense national pride that the temple with its towers is even depicted in the national flag.


20190127_100835As suggested by the tour guide we quickly turned a bit to the left and stopped at one of the two libraries  for a quick photo with the temple towers in the background.




20190127_104658Finally we reached the temple main entrance!  See, the tour guide could also act as your willing photographer so it is more than worthy to pay for one.



20190127_104201Looking back from the temple main entrance we saw again the pond at the northern side of the temple, a popular spot to watch the sunrise. Quite a number of tourists were still wanting to take the mirror view of the temple.


angkor1After climbing a few steps up at the entrance and coming around the outside of the central temple complex, our tour guide showed us something incredible.



20190127_102004It is the very impressive 800m-long series of intricate and astonishing carvings depicting historical events and stories from mythology.  It was simply overwhelming even if he just discussed a part of the entire stretch.



20190127_104855Angkor Wat is famous too for having more than 3000 enchanting heavenly nymphs carved into its walls.



20190127_211006At close quarters we were truly amazed at the temple’s fascinating decorative flourishes.


20190127_102212Our tour guide then led us to this area of the temple’s first level just for a photo and we obliged.



20190127_165808No further details were given about the area so we moved on.



20190127_165612It was time to go up the second level of the temple.



20190127_102908As we turned around clockwise past the first tower in the second level we saw the line going up to the upper or third level of the temple open to a limited number per day.



20190127_102947As our tour guide explained there is nothing to be seen by climbing up the upper level except the view of the temple grounds so we decided to skip it to save some time. Also as shown above, the stairs to the upper level are immensely steep. Entrance is only via the second tower.




20190127_124933Then it was time to take a snapshot with the third tower…….



20190127_125751….and of the young locals dressed Cambodian-style.



20190127_211053Another photo suggested by the tour guide with the fourth and first tower officially ending our tour of the area.  All the four towers surrounding the main tower are located at the corners of the second and third storeys and each one is topped with symbolic lotus-bud towers.



20190127_103739As we descended back to the first storey we walked pass through another area that has the Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas used to house hundreds of Buddha images but many of these were removed or stolen, leaving just the handful displayed today.



20190127_210752Walking back to the western outer wall entrance, the temple in all its grandeur can be seen with all its  five towers. Indeed, Angkor Wat is the ultimate expression of Khmer genius – an awe-inspiring temple that is stunning for both its grand scale and its incredible detail.


20190127_101158Before leaving the temple courtyards one can check out the area next to the northern pool where one can find places to eat and small kiosks selling souvenirs.



20190127_101311These paintings by a local are sold at prices that you can haggle.



20190127_101340One of my favorite paintings was the one depicting the faces at the Bayon temple which would be our next destination.




20190127_074317As we exited the outer temple wall we came back to the temporary causeway and we started walking back to the parking lot for our next tour to the Bayon Temple. The original causeway made of sandstone located at the other side just a few meters away is being repaired so the government has acquired a temporary one from Canada shown above.




20190129_014706A short drive to the north of Angkor Wat is the ancient city of Angkor Thom, with our main destination, the Bayon, as its centerpiece showcase.  The western entrance of Angkor Thom is a very interesting gate. One side is lined up with statues of the gods and the other side with demons.


20190129_014728On the left side are the gods…..



20190129_014651….and on the right side are the demons.




20190129_014630Our chauffeur dropped us at the start of the statues and we took a short walk passing through gate where he would be waiting. Shown above is our photo taken near the gate.



20190129_014040A short distance from the gate is the Bayon Temple. From afar the Bayon appears as a great pile of rubble but only as you make your way up to the third level, it starts to fascinate. Our chauffeur dropped us at the western entrance and he told us he would meet us at the eastern entrance.



20190129_014053The first level of the temple wall has intricate carvings and  incredible posts. The famous carvings on the outer wall of the first level depict vivid scenes of everyday life in 12th-century Cambodia.




20190127_165305The second level are adorned with less impressive bas-reliefs.


20190129_014508We finally went up to the third and circular level.



20190129_014148This is where you can find the Bayon’s most distinctive feature of 54 Gothic towers each adorned with 4 gargantuan smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara (a total of 216 faces). They jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak.




20190129_014229This was the most crowded area of the temple. We spent some time here looking at the faces on the stones.




20190129_014535The Bayon is sometimes called the “faces temple”.



20190129_014521We crossed the center of the third level and found more impressive and intricate carvings.


20190129_014111We climbed down a series of steep steps to the  second level…..



20190129_014551…..and then to the first level.




20190129_014617If Angkor Wat is the grand showcase of the classical style of Khmer architecture, Bayon is the most striking expression of the baroque style.

Sarai Resort & Spa

The presence of Singapore’s Raffles Hotel and an Aman resort right in  the middle of Angkor shows that the hotel business is flourishing and very competitive in the area.  With our budget limited to boutique hotels, I picked Sarai Resort and Spa as our base in Siem Reap, roughly 7 km away from Angkor Wat.

20190129_011047The backdrop of the front desk of the Sarai.





20190127_130242A photo of the resort lobby taken from the first floor.  To the left is the pool area and to the right is the entrance and the restaurant area.


20190129_011351We were given room 101 at the end of a hallway giving us more privacy but it is the farthest distance from the elevator that we did not mind at all.



20190127_130426Taken from the hotel lobby with the tiny stunning pool.


20190127_084151Although I loved the pool I was not in the mood to dip in it early in the morning so I understood why there was nobody there too.



20190129_011439This was taken at the other end of the pool.



20190127_083925A perfect spot to have a pool shot.



20190127_083844This view of the pool was actually the deciding factor why I chose this resort.


20190129_011224Our room had a view of the beautiful pool.



20190127_084942I believe all the other rooms too especially the lofts have stunning pool views too!





20190126_234129Our room met our expectations.  Aside from that tiny window area with a pool view, we had a king-sized bed, a separate tub & toilet area and a sofa.



20190127_000956One thing I noticed was the Moorish design prevalent all over the resort even in the bathtubs and room windows.




20190127_081333The resort’s amazing complimentary breakfast is worthy of a mention and the service is extraordinary. The staff were extra pleasant and attentive.



20190129_011530Breads and cakes and pies.



20190129_011542With a Korean owner mixed with the local influence, even the choices for spices amused me.



20190129_011628Fruits and vegetables.



20190129_011653To top it all there was a wide variety of hot food choices and the coffee was at par with our favorite Vietnamese coffee.



Getting Into Siem Reap

It was a good thing a Philippine budget airline, Cebu Pacific,  offers cheap & direct flights four times a week from the Philippine capital of Manila to Siem Reap.  Although the schedule is not the best one because the flight departs at 6:55 p.m. and arrives in Siem Reap three hours before midnight certainly making you lose a whole day, we still took it instead of taking non-direct flights that would waste our time at airports. I noticed as I was searching flights online that direct flights to Siem Reap are also available mostly from nearby Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and the Vietnamese cities.

20190127_122322We landed in a very nice airport in Siem Reap that would put some U.S. airports to shame.



IMG_0177 2The immigration lines were a bit long because there was a flight from China that arrived with us but we were out in less than 30 minutes.




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It was good to see Malaysian and Singaporean influences in the airport dining options too.  Cambodia’s ASEAN co-members have truly invested heavily in the country in addition to the hotel scene.


More On Cambodia

tuktukThis is Cambodia’s version of the tuktuk (tricycle) that is also famous in Thailand.  It is an inexpensive mode of transportation if you don’t mind riding along unpaved roads that are too dusty.


moneySome Cambodian notes.

To end I want to share a little piece of history told to us by our chauffeur. Siem Reap has an interesting meaning.  It means “Thailand defeated”.  Siem Reap was conquered successfully by the Siamese (Thais) in the 18th century and was under Thai rule for more than 100 years being part of the Angkor empire until the Khmer took it back from the Thais and renamed it to Siem Reap when the Thais were expelled from the land.  When Thais visit the place, they do not call it Siem Reap but another name, “Siammarat” meaning Thai’s territory.










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