If Angkor Wat is your sole reason of visiting Cambodia, is a reason enough. Nothing can prepare you for the scale of Khmer empire ruins. Angkor Wat is just one of hundreds of temples covering the area of the former capital of Angkor. Thankfully, only a few most famous temples on so called ‘short circuit’ are very crowded. If you time your visit well, you’ll be able to experience mystical moments, exploring a lesser-knows pearls half-hidden in the jungle, sometimes with hundreds of years old trees growing in the walls of the ruins. Angkor Wat is a jaw-dropper and deserves at least three days to fully admire it. It’s very expensive but totally worth it.
PLANNING THE ROUTE
We spent a considerable amount of time researching the best way of seeing Angkor and came up with a plan which worked out brilliantly. If you want to see a lot but don’t want to spend the money, our 3-day plan could be a good guideline, provided you’re ready for a vigorous exercise.
We rented regular city bikes for $2 each the night before so that we could start very early in the morning. Following the advice of one blogger, we decided to start with Prasat Kravan, the first small temple on the grand circuit at a crack of the dawn and move counterclockwise as far as we could manage in one day.
THE GRAND CIRCUIT IN A DAY
We left when it was still dark, around 4.30 am. The main road to the temples was well lit and easy to follow. The queues for 3-day pass were very short (unlike the really long one for 1-day pass) at that time so we could reach the first temple around 5.20 am.
Prasat Kravan was a bit of disappointment: it was a small, one level temple with brick elements. Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a soul around apart for street dogs.
The next temple, Banteay Kdei looked promising but was opened only from 7.30 am so we had to skip it. Opposite that temple there was Srah Srang– a lovely barray (artificial lake) with a beautifully carved stone platform. There were two people hanging around, probably staying here after the sunrise. We had our packed breakfast sitting on the stone steps overlooking the lake.
The next temple, Pre Rup, was a cracker. A mountain-temple which we could climb for a view of surrounding jungle made quite an impression on us, particularly that we had it all for ourselves.
I could not resist the temptation to take some yoga pictures there.
We decided to cherish this emptiness for a little bit longer and hopped to a nearby East Mebon temple where we were still completely alone. I really liked the elephant statues at each corner of that temple.
We had to slightly turn back towards a more distant Bantey Samre. Although located 4.5 km off the main road, this temple was definitely worth a detour. The road through the villages with wooden houses on stilts and paddy fields with grazing buffaloes was a reward in itself. We came across a market mid-way through where we got some sweets and deep fried snacks.
We arrived at Bantey Samre shortly after opening and everything was very, very quiet in this pretty temple with a square inner courtyard. The first vans and tuk-tuks started arriving just when we were about to leave.
Encouraged by a quick pace in which we covered the route, we decided to try doing the entire grand circuit (leaving out only Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat for another day). We really enjoyed the ride through that section of the circuit as we were constantly in the forest, providing us with blissful shade and a bit of coolness.
Ta Som was the first temple which was quite busy with tourists. Although small, it was worth having a look at since it was also the first temple on the route featuring encroaching jungle, including a giant tree spreading its roots over one of gopuras (gates).
The neigboring Neak Pean was yet again completely different. In order to get there one had to walk through a long wooden dyke over a large body of water full of semi-submerged, dead trees. The landscape was just incredible.
At the end of the path there was a tiny, inaccessible temple, smack in the middle of a little man-made pond. We could see a perfect reflection of the temple in the clear water. As everything was going pretty quickly, we were positive we would be able to finish the entire circuit with ease.
We changed our minds after reaching Preah Khan which was simply enormous in comparison to the all previously seen temples. As we were nearing the lunchtime, or maybe because it was the hottest moment of the day once again there were barely a few people we came across wondering through that magical place.
Preah Khan had it all: a moat with balustrades on both sides, four gopuras with giant garudas (mythological eagles) at cardinal directions, massive trees, some of them growing their roots into the temple walls…
We spent there quite a long time and would probably stay even longer if not for the fact that one of the main buildings was undergoing restoration.
At that point, we were growing rather tired but as it was mercifully cloudy that day we decided to finish the circle. We entered Angkor Thom via northern gate and left it promptly via Victory Gate without giving it a second glance.
The northern gate of Angkor Thom really made an impression on us: with its imposing rows of ugly asuras on one side and beautiful devas on the other, both holding a hooded snake. It was a recurring image in the Khmer ancient art -a representation of one episode from Hindu mythology. There was a time when both minor gods (devas) and asuras (demons) wanted to gain immortality. God Vishnu told them the only way to achieve it was to work together by churning the milky sea with the help of Vasuki- the King of Serpents until a pot full of elixir of immortality emerges.
What was really incredible about the gates of Angkor Thom is that there was actually a tarmac road leading right through them. I loved the feeling of riding a bike through those ancient, moss covered gates. All 4 gates were identical but the northern one wasn’t fully restored granting it more charm.
It was difficult not to pay attention to wonders of Angkor Thom but we tried to look ahead and promptly left through the compound. Just outside the gates there were two small temples facing each other (Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda), both relatively busy at the time we were there (around 3 pm).
More significant was Ta Keo, a really tall but rather plain looking temple mountain. It was nice to climb up for a view but there wasn’t much to see around the temple itself. We spent there some time, resting.
Lucky as usual, we had the famous Ta Phrom almost to ourselves when we arrived around 4 pm. This definitely was the highlight of the day and despite our exhaustion it made us all excited again, feeling like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft respectively.
The interplay of the jungle and the ancient ruins wasn’t as visible anywhere else than in this grand temple, much resembling Preah Khan. Both temples were built in the same period, in the Bayon style, immediately recognisable by the towers with giant faces. Incredibly, just as we were leaving, a couple of busloads of Chinese tourists arrived. We were very fortunate that day.
The circuit was finished but on our way was the temple we missed in the morning, Banteay Kdei. We had just half an hour before closing so we gave it a rather cursory look though no doubt if we started with it in the morning we would have been amazed. As it was so late, there were just a few people around and we were actually the last one to leave the temple, the ticket controller taking off his shirt when we were leaving.
WAS IT TOO MUCH?
We drank 4 liters of water each that day and cycled for 51 km in total. It was a very long day indeed and we survived it only through a combination of good weather (mostly cloudy but with no rain), our excitement (starting with less important temples and gradually making our way to more and more interesting ones kept us curious) and luck (helping us to avoid annoying crowds). Anyone sane would think twice before following our footsteps.