I didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of the temples of Angkor until I witnessed them for myself. Guidebooks cannot prepare you enough for the massive scale of which this site encompasses. Before I visited I imagined I would only glance at the most well-known, Angkor Wat, and then be on my way. But Angkor Wat is only one of the many temple complexes and ruins that are spread out over a 400 square km area, comprising the ancient city of Angkor.
Angkor’s sites are atmospherically situated among dense jungle and serene rice paddies. They are part of the landscape. You’ll find locals scouring through the forests around the temples, restoring the stonework, resting on the ruins, and eagerly selling souvenirs to tourists.
Devising a plan to visit Angkor may be overwhelming. Most people divide sightseeing into two classical routes—the Petit Circuit and the Grand Circuit. Some people visit by tour bus and others by hiring a private tuk-tuk for the day. I would recommend taking at least one day to explore the ruins with a bicycle. This will allow you to take however much time you need and encourage riding down random dirt paths and “discovering” ruins of your own. There’s no greater thrill than showing up at an ancient temple with no other tourists in view.
Passes are sold for one-day, three-day, and seven-day. Anything less than the three-day pass is foolish. This was one of humanity’s great civilizations and it deserves your time, effort, and humility. The archaeological park is open daily from 5am to sunset and most visitors arrive for at least one sunrise and one sunset—both equally magical experiences.
Although the temples of Angkor are a sole reason for many travelers coming to Cambodia, there are plenty of other great places to visit. Hitting the beaches around Sihanoukville, visiting the museums of Phnom Penh, and chatting with the friendly folks along the Mekong in northern Cambodia are all worthy destinations as well.
Text and photos by Stephen Bugno