Angkor Wat has always been my one big regret. When I circled the globe three times in my younger days, there was always some good reason to avoid Cambodia. A coup going on, political asassinations, overpriced flights, potholes the size of cars on the one road from Bangkok…
So while we were in the neighborhood plenty—in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam—we never crossed that border.
Many years later, I’ve recitified my main regret. I spent two and a half days exploring a couple dozen temples and sites in the Angkor Wat region, this time with the daughter along that didn’t even exist back then. So while she might not have been as jazzed as us about walking around ruins in the hot sun, I think she’ll realize how cool it was to be here later.
The World’s Greatest Historic Site
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say this is the greatest site of them all, the bucket list contender that makes Machu Picchu and even Petra seem small in comparison. Sure, Luxor undoubtedly was pretty impressive in its day and Teotihuacan certainly awed anyone who came trotting down that 2km entrance road. But the sheer vastness of Angkor dwarfs most others.
The main complex alone is inside a wall that stretches around 203 acres. That most famous part was built in the 12th century, but the whole Angkor complex was in building mode from the 800s to the 1400s. The entire complex was the biggest city of its day and at its peak probably covered a staggering 390 square miles, or 1,000 square kilometers. To put this in perspective, Tikal was probably between 100 and 150 square kilometers. Teotihuacan was around 36.
The main Angkor Wat temple is just the beginning, so trying to do it all in one day is going to be frantic and incomplete. If you do more than one day, you can get beyond just the main complex, Angkor Thom, and Bayom. Here’s a site with some good maps to give you an idea. Here’s a good story on some temples on the periphery of Angkor.
Some of the outlying ones are just as impressive, though don’t expect the crowds to let up. There were loads of tourists wherever we went, especially Asian ones that come in by the busload and follow the flag. In Ta Prohm we spent most of our time waiting for people to stop posing for photos in front of things to actually see them. At one spot there was a line 20 people deep for posing shots.
What It’s Going to Cost You
There’s still a monopoly on flights from Bangkok, so they’re an overpriced $200 one-way. We went overland for about $72 for the three of us: by A/C bus to the Thai border then a $48 taxi to Siem Reap.
A 3-day pass to all the Angkor Complex ruins is only $40, which is pretty good in international major site terms, and you can use it any three days over the course of a week. (A one-day pass is $20.) We hired a tuk-tuk driver through our hotel that was $14 for the whole day, coming and going on our own schedule. That worked out well and it was fun to see the walls of the temples as we buzzed along. The third day we left our daughter in the hotel and biked out to the main complex, getting there at about 7 am. This turned out to be a good time.
You’d have to be in pretty good shape to do a whole day on bikes though as the distances are quite far and the roads quite pitted in some places. Some times of the year, it rains each afternoon as well. If you’re on a budget, it might make sense to rent a bike one day ($2-$3) and then get a tuk-tuk or motobike driver (you can’t rent one) for the outlying temples.