My first advice to you: Don’t do sunrise at Angkor Wat on your first day in Siem Reap, especially if you had a long day of travel to get there. Of course that’s the first thing Jinhee and I wanted to see, but I think we were too exhausted to fully enjoy it.
Our tuk-tuk (pronounced like “tewk-tewk”) to the temple left at 5am ($13 for the small circuit temple tour). First we had to stop at the ticket office, where we purchased three-day passes ($40 each). We arrived at Angkor Wat about 30 minutes after leaving the hotel, along with many other tourists! Another tip: Bring a flashlight! It is still dark and there are plenty of things to trip on as you make your way to the front of the temple. Most folks settle in front of the pool to the left side, so we followed them and took a seat on the ground to watch the sun rise above the largest religious structure in the world.
After the sun was up, we did some exploring. Angkor Wat is definitely the most famous of all the temples there, and is the largest, so there was a lot of ground to cover. After all, Angkor Wat means “temple that is a city”. It is also the best-preserved temple there, so perhaps that’s why it was not the most beautiful or fascinating to me. (I preferred the more “ruined” temples.) It was built in the 1100s and is unique in that it faces west, which symbolizes death; therefore, it is thought to have been a tomb. The most amazing feature of Angkor Wat to me was its enormous moat, which forms a giant rectangle around the temple.
Next up was Angkor Thom, which means “great city”. We entered through the southern gate and stopped there to take a few photos. In front of the southern gate, there are 54 giant statues of gods to the left and 54 demon statues to the right.
Once inside, we first stopped at Bayon, which was probably my favorite temple of the day. It stands at the exact center of Angkor Thom and features 216 faces carved into stone.
We visited a few other small temples in and around Angkor Thom, but the only one that really struck my fancy was the Terrace of the Leper King. Here you can access a hidden terrace where the carvings look newer than others as they were covered up for centuries.
Last on our temple list that day was Ta Prohm. My Lonely Planet book describes it as “cloaked in dappled shadow, its crumbling towers and walls locked in the slow, muscular embrace of vast root systems”. It was hard to believe some of the trees were real, as they were so massive and the roots hardened like stone.
Even though we arrived back at our hotel before 11am, we were still exhausted. The heat really takes its toll on you! So we spent the rest of the day relaxing and then decided to go to an Apsara dance performance that night. It cost $9 each through our hotel for transportation to and back from Angkor Mondial Restaurant, and included a buffet dinner with the show. Not a bad deal! Unfortunately, the seating arrangements were not the best for viewing the stage and certainly didn’t make for good photos.
Day 2: Tonle Sap & Pre Rup!