Travel to Cambodia - What to see? (Part 2)

Hiya folks!!

How was the weekend? I'm still reeling from the workload that accompanies return from a vacation. Dusty house cleaned, groceries purchased and laundry just doesn't seem to get over. But then, when the vacation was worth all the work post it, I should not complain much.

Last week, I posted about how we felt about Cambodia and its people (we LOVED them!), how to get there, where we stayed, some very personal views on the food and night life and some tips regarding visa and currency. You can read all about it here.

This post is all about why we went there in the first place - the Temples and the magnificent ruins. Some things can rarely be described in words, like the beauty of the Taj Mahal, the mesmerizing effect the temples had on me is one such thing. While Angkor Wat is the symbol of Cambodia, there are a lot more temples and ruins to be seen here.

The temples are divided into the small circuit and the grand circuit with a different set of temples covered in both the circuits. It takes 1 day per circuit, so keep aside at least 2 days just for the temples. You can buy a daily pass of $20 or you can buy a 3 day pass for $40 (obvious choice!). The 3 day pass allows you to visit the temples on 3 non consecutive days.

Some general tips:
  • Wear good walking shoes. There is a lot of walking involved as the tuk tuk can only drop you at the gate. There are also lots of stairs to climb to see most temples. Be prepared.
  • Carry lots of water. The amount of climbing and walking you will do along with the tropical heat, is bound to make you thirsty. They sell "Cold Coconut" (chilled tender coconut) outside most temples, don't miss it.
  • Carry caps, hats, umbrellas. The sun is strong as in all tropical countries, you will feel the heat by 10am. If you are travelling in the rainy season, don't forget to carry an umbrella, it rains very heavily.
  • Sunscreen up to protect your skin.
  • Dress up conservatively. Wear something that covers your knees (no shorts) and a top with sleeves. Sleeveless tops or tops with really short sleeves are not allowed inside. Alternatively, you can carry a scarf or a stole to cover up your arms and a wrap-around to cover your legs while entering a temple.
  • Shop for cheap t-shirts, pants, souvenirs outside the temples. You can get t-shirts for $1 and pants for $1-$2 here. The same will cost you a little more at the night market - $2 for t-shirts and $2-3 for pants. 
  • Do not buy anything from the children selling trinkets outside the temples. This encourages them to skip school.
  • Be aware that you will not get phone signal inside a lot of these temples. So decide with your driver where you will be meeting up after seeing the temple.
  • If you don't want to take a guide, read up before you go so you can relate to the temple. The grand circuit does not require a guide, but I recommend a guide for the small circuit.

Small Circuit:

The small circuit covers the temples and complexes of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (Baphuon, Bayon, Palace, Elephant Terrace), Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang and Phnom Bekhang.  There are a lot of smaller temples on both the circuits that you can see if you have the time and inclination.
Most of these temples are Hindu in origin, while some are Buddhist. No worship happens in most of them anymore. In the words of our guide, Mr. Chanty, "First there was Hinduism, then Buddhism and now Tourism". Aptly said, I think. But still to respect the sentiments of the place, it is expected that you wear clothes that cover knees and shoulders. No shorts or sleeveless tops allowed.

Although this is called the small circuit, it is the more hectic one of the two circuits. A lot of walking and climbing happens here. If you are short of time and can only do one day of temples, do this circuit.

Angkor Wat:

The main attraction of Cambodia. It has become so famous, it is even on their flag. You have not seen Cambodia, until you have seen Angkor Wat. It is the largest religious complex in the World and a UNESCO world heritage site.

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While most of the Khmer Empire kings worshiped Lord Shiva and built temples for him, Angkor Wat is different, it was built in worship of Lord Vishnu. A Vishnu statue still stands there today in one of the chambers. Over the years, the temple was converted to a Buddhist temple. Although, no worship is officially performed at the temple, the inner sanctum or the Bakan is closed for public on certain auspicious Buddhist days according to the Lunar Calendar. The Bakan is not a very stable structure and hence, at a time, only 100 people are allowed inside. The staff manages that well, you needn't be worried. Most people stay inside for 10-15 minutes so the queue moves fast. Pregnant women, children below 12 years and people with cardiovascular diseases aren't allowed to climb to the Bakan, but don't worry, if you are in any of the 3 categories, you aren't missing much. There is so much to see even without the Bakan.

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Ram, Laxman and Hanuman
The walls of the temple have carvings of the Kurukshetra war on one wall and Ramayana on one wall. There is Sagar Manthan depicted too. There are carvings of how hell, earth and heaven were imagined to be. Taking a guide along is highly recommended. While all of us already knew all the Mahabharata and Ramayana stories, we would not have been able to identify them on the walls. Our guide helped us in identifying them. If you are unaware of the Hindu epics, it would help to read a brief about them online, before going to the temple to appreciate the beauty of the carvings.

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Angkor Wat is unusual in its facing. While most Hindu temples face the East, Angkor faces the West. This is one of the reasons it make a beautiful Sunrise spot when the sun rises from behind the temple. People gather as early as 5am to catch a spot to view the temple's reflection in the water just around sunrise. It is a beautiful sight and I would say try to go if you can. Most hotels pack a breakfast box or like us, you can return to the hotel, have breakfast and then proceed to the next spot.

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The temple of faces, that's what this is. There are so many smiling faces carved all around. There are supposed to be 216 faces carved out of sand stone here. The faces are supposed to represent the king who built the temple. It is one of the newer temples in the complex and was built as a Buddhist Temple as opposed to a Hindu Temple. Definitely not to be missed. You will see similar faces all across the temple gates or Gopuras.

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This temple is right near the Bayon temple. It was built in worship of Lord Shiva. Due to the war, the restoration of this temple also was not completed. Be aware that there is a lot of climbing to be done here. There are stairs but they tired me out. But the silver lining was the view from the top. It was beautiful.

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Palace and Elephant Terrace:

A part of the original palace still survives but you aren't allowed to enter it.
The Elephant Terrace is just a platform from which people watched men training elephants.
You can give both a miss, if you are short on time or too tired to walk.

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Ta Keo:

This was meant to be a Shiva temple, but it was never completed. The climb to the top of this temple is very steep and it is better if done either earlier in the day when the sun is low. There are 2 levels to the temple, there are wooden stairs present to reach the first level (they are also pretty steep).When we went here it was raining, and that brought down the temperature, making it easier for us to climb at around 3pm. If you are tired or unable to climb much, you can give this temple a miss.

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Sprinting to the top, obviously, I'm losing :(

Ta Prohm:

The jungle temple, Lara Croft temple, it is known by many names, but the official name is Ta Prohm. This temple has been made famous by the movies shot here. The beauty of this temple, or rather it's ruins lies in the fact that the forest around the temple, has taken over the temple. This is where nature got married to man made structure.

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The temple was abandoned for very long and in this period, Mother Nature showed its might and trees have grown into the structure and in many places, it is these trees that are helping the structure stand erect. This temple was built to honour the King's mother. This temple is being restored by the Archaeological Society of India and there are no plans to cut any of the trees growing on the temples. Fortunately for us, this temple had no climbing involved. This is definitely one of the "Don't miss" temples.

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Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang:

Srah srang is just a man made lake with an overlooking platform. It is right opposite Banteay Kdei.
Banteay Kdei is very similar in architecture to Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, except that it is smaller in size. The temple has several enclosures with one chamber leading to many more. It is again a temple that requires no climbing and is ideal to visit towards the end of the tour when you are all tired. If you are visiting Preah Khan, this temple can be missed.

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One of the gates

Phnom Bekhang:

This is just a small temple atop a hill, but it is a famous sunset point. The hill has to be climbed on foot, or a two wheeler or you can also climb on an elephant. No tuk tuks are allowed to go up. The climb is not steep and takes around 15-20 minutes. The temple on top isn't very stable and only 300 people are allowed to stay on top to see the sunrise. Most of the crowd starts accumulating at around 4pm, make sure you are there before that. The wait is boring as sunset happens around 5.30-6pm because of the latitude of Cambodia. You can also see Angkor Wat from here. Unfortunately, when we went it was raining and there was cloud cover everywhere, so we did not wait until sunset.

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Grand Circuit:

The grand circuit covers Preah Khan, Ta Som, Neak Pean, East Mebon and Pre Rup. It covers fewer temples but the distance covered is more. The temples are far apart and you need a vehicle to cover them all. Read up on the temples you plan to visit before you go and you won't need a guide. We did not hire one for this circuit, and we did fine. This circuit is less tiring than the small circuit and we finished it by lunchtime.

Preah Khan:

Chambers, chambers and chambers, that is what this temple is all about. There are so many chambers here. This temple was built to honour the King's father. Wikipedia gives elaborate information on the structure and it's history, and is best read there. The temple is worth a visit, just to see the beautiful carvings and it's huge structure. This temple also has trees growing out of it like Ta Prohm but at a smaller scale.

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Ta Som:

This is one of the temples that has not been restored. It is the first temple that is being managed by an all Cambodian staff who were trained while working on Preah Khan. The temple is said to have been purposely destroyed. The gates and gopuras of this temple are beautiful.

East Mabon:

This temple was once surrounded by water which has since dried up. There are life sized stone elephants on all 4 corners on 2 levels that are still intact. Stone lions greet you at the entrance. The space on top of the doorway or the lintels of the little towers have some very intricate and beautiful carvings. I spotted a Lord Ganesha carving.

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Pre Rup:

The architecture of Pre Rup is very similar to that of East Mabon. This temple is believed to be associated more with funerals than with worship. This is one of the few temples in the grand circuit that requires you to climb a long steep staircase. Hence, it is also another popular Sunset point. We did not see many carvings here as the temple appears to be built out of smaller bricks rather than larger stones. My personal opinion is you could either see it or leave it, it does not make much difference.

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Neak Pean:

Now of all the temples we went to, this one by far is the most different one. I've seen a few blogs where they say this can be skipped, but I won't say it. It was one of my favorite temples of the grand circuit. The temple by itself isn't anything great, it is located on an island that we do not have access to. The water around it was green with algae. But the walk to the temple was what sealed the deal for me.

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You have to walk on a wooden plank bridge that is surrounded by water on both sides to reach the temple. It is this walk that I enjoyed. The water was still and you could see the sky in the water. There were dried up trees for a long distance that were in the water, adding to the scenic beauty of this place. This temple is nothing like the others and warrants a visit just because of its uniqueness.

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Other Attractions in Siem Reap, Cambodia:

Apart from the temples, there are several other sights that you can see in and around Siem Reap:

Phare, the Cambodian Circus is a highly rated and recommended by a lot of people. The entire act consists of 5 different stories that are acted out by former street children. The acts are moving and apparently gravity defying. We did not go for this, but you can read about it here.

Apsara Dance is the national dance of Cambodia and there are several places that have performances along with dinner included. The prices range from $18 to $50. The hotel we stayed in - Silk D'Angkor has also newly started the performance at an introduction price of $18 on certain days of the week. We had other plans and could not attend it.

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Apsara Dance

Rosana Broadway is a "Lady-Boy" show similar to those in Bangkok. We actually went for this one and enjoyed it. There were several performances with songs, cabaret, folk dances of all the South East Asian countries. The tickets cost you $30 for deluxe seats at the back and $40 for the VIP seats in front. The must watch performance in this is the "One man woman" where one person is dressed half as a man and half as a woman. The show includes a pick up and drop in tuk tuk.

What to see on vacation in Siem Reap, Cambodia at

What to see on vacation in Siem Reap, Cambodia at

What to see on vacation in Siem Reap, Cambodia at

There are museums like the National Museum and Landmine Museum that you can also see. There is also the floating village which can be visited. Apart from these, there are cooking classes and pottery classes that one can go to.

Thanks for staying with me till the end, I hope you found it useful. Leave me a comment if you want more details on anything that we visited.