When I was little I wanted to be an archeologist, à la Indian Jones naturally. The idea of learning all about past civilizations, discovering their long lost secrets captivated me, and still does to be honest. My inability to do any math past a rudimentary level may have kept me out of the sciences as a profession, but that lust to explore and learn has never gone away. That’s perhaps why I wanted to visit the ancient temples found near Siem Reap for so long; to see the famous Angkor Wat for myself. Many long anticipated experiences though can sometimes be a letdown, so I thought I’d share what I really thought and whether a visit to the Khmer temples was really worth it.
Getting there was the easy part. I was working with Cathay Pacific and their Dragonair flight from Hong Kong to Siem Reap was a quick two-hour hop. Getting there is relatively easy and once there I discovered a hopping tourist town, a mixture of backpackers and curious others, all there for one reason. THE TEMPLES.
One thing I didn’t really appreciate before my trip was that Angkor Wat is just one of many temples in the area. While there are more than 1000 temples, built between the 9th and 13th centuries, only a few are popular tourist sites, but of course Angkor Wat is the king of them all. The largest religious monument in the world, the temple has become a symbol of Cambodia and is frankly the major reason why many people visit.
I arrived before dawn to see the famous sunrise over the massive temple. I was joined by hundreds of other tourists, sleepy eyed but all there for the same show. There’s a rhythm to Angkor Wat, one orchestrated by the guides most visitors hire to show them around the area’s temples. I dutifully followed mine, from sunrise to the immediately hot and humid day that erupted. Walking across the moat into the temple I was awed that I was finally there, finally able to see one of the most amazing examples of ancient art and architecture in the world.
Maybe it was the other tourists, but more likely the site itself, but I quickly myself losing interest. While the site is indeed massive, it is also somewhat repetitive. Beautiful wall engravings, large rooms, impressive architecture and so on. Within an hour I was thinking more about what I wanted for breakfast than I was the site I had pined after for decades. What was wrong with me? I was disappointed at the time, but it wasn’t until later in the day that I finally figured out what the problem was.
Literally drenched in sweat (attractive, I know) my guide and I walked up to Angkor Thom, another Khmer site located a few miles from Angkor Wat. Immediately everything felt different. There were fewer people but more importantly, the site seemed more alive. Thom was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire and the many temples and buildings of the site make it easy to imagine life there. My personal favorite was the Bayon, a richly decorated temple famous for its huge stone faces peering out into the infinity of time. Angkor Thom, to me, was more impressive than Angkor Wat, it was infinitely more interesting and wasn’t the tourist crush that Angkor Wat was.
By the end of the day, and visiting four more temples/sites I was done. The heat index was 104 for the day and my clothes had been soaked through multiple times. Climbing up the massive stones had exhausted me and it was with the great feeling of physical exhaustion that I plopped down on my bed at the Residence d’Angkor, a smile affixed to my face. I had done it; I had finally visited the temples of Siem Reap, but the experience wasn’t at all what I thought it would be.
Angkor Wat disappointed me because I have thought about it literally for decades. I had built it up into a travel experience it will never be. I should never have been surprised by the tourist crush or by the fact that my expectations could never have been met. That’s the problem with travel dreams, we build them up into something they aren’t and are invariably disappointed when confronted by the dull reality.
Is Angkor Wat impressive? Yes, of course, there is no debating that. But understand it for what it is and, more importantly, don’t limit your explorations just to that site. Do as I did, spend a day or two and visit all of the other temples, with a guide to lead you, and get a broader understanding of the power, wealth and brilliance of the empire that built these seemingly everlasting monuments to themselves. The lessons learned are surprising, the natural landscapes beautiful and the overall experience is so atypical for what one normally does and sees in Southeast Asia that it is well worth the visit.
Have you been to Angkor Wat? What did you think?
This campaign was created and sponsored by Cathay Pacific Airways in partnership with iambassador. LandLopers retains all editorial control of what is published and as you know, I never shy away from honest commentary.
19 thoughts on “Angkor Wat in Cambodia – Worth The Visit?”
Hi Matt, I have to say visiting the Temples of Angkor has been without doubt the highlight of my nomadic adventure so far. I agree with you, Angkor Wat is amazing but there are just too many tourists to fall in love with it. But the other Temples my wife, 2-year-old son and I visited during the day as we rode pushbikes around the vast complex were amazing. For most of the riding we felt like we were the only people there, and at the other temples there was never more than 10 people. Truly an unforgettable experience! Bayon was impressive, but for me Ta Prohm was the best. The way the massive trees have taken over the site was just amazing. Would love to go back one day and do a bit more exploring.
I agree, it’s an amazing place
Four of us traveled to Siem Reap this past March and spent a day exploring the Angkor park. We opted to travel with an group called Khmer for Khmer Organization (KKO), an educational foundation that earns a large chunk of their money by providing semiprivate bike tours of the park as a whole. We were a bit dismayed to learn that we wouldn’t be visiting the actual Angkor Wat, but spending 8 hours riding bikes in and out of the jungle, exploring from top to bottom a wide spectrum of temples (many with no other visitors) was well worth the trade. Even better, we serendipitously booked our trip over the Cambodian New Year, and were able to witness practicing Buddhists worshiping at a few different spots. It turned out to be the memory of a lifetime!
All four of us strongly agreed that Siem Reap was our favorite stop during our mini-tour of SE Asia. I feel that if you’re going to go to all of the effort to go somewhere as relatively remote as Siem Reap, it’s well worth the extra effort to get sufficiently off the beaten path once you’re there, at both Angkor Park and the city itself.
Very cool experience and thanks for sharing the info!
You’ve managed to sum up in this one post the general feeling I have towards so many top travel destinations. Sometimes I’m walking around and wonder what all the fuss is about, others I’m just overwhelmed by just how many people are around.
The key to travel (in my eye) is getting away from those areas, even if by just a few hundred meters. It can change everything you see about a location, just as you found here.
Thanks! Glad you liked it. I generally agree with that, but I also think that places are popular for a reason – usually because they’re amazing. it’s important to see those big sites but to also do as you say and see what else is around. :)
Angkor Wat was a little underwhelming–mostly because of the crowds (and the sunrise was a bit too overcast and hazy on my visit). Still cool to see, but better to get out to all the other temples before the masses figure out they’re in the wrong spot. Ta Prohm was amazing–there were maybe 20 people there at the same time I was (quite a few more headed in as I left).
I also found Angkor Wat underwhelming but throngs of tourists at 5:30 a.m. coupled with an overcast morning didn’t start the day off on the right foot. Somehow I had not expected to have to fight my fellow tourists for a few square inches of space at the edge of a pond at that hour of the morning. The other less visited temples more than made up for my initial disappointment and were the highlight of my visit in spite of the fact I actually went to see Angkor Wat itself. That happens frequently with travel I think. The main draw might not be as expected but something else unkown will be absolutely amazing.
Matt, thanks so much for the helpful info. As someone who is also deeply into archaeology (to the point of getting degrees in it), I always try to work it into my vacations and Angkor Wat is definitely near the top of my bucket list. While I haven’t been to these sites in Cambodia, I have had the same feeling about Mayan sites in Mexico. I recently was in the Yucatan with my parents, who had never been, and was torn whether to take them to Chichen Itza due to the crowds. We did end up going but then we went on to smaller, less-visited sites without all the crowds and souvenir stands. If I make it to Cambodia I’ll be sure to take your advice and make Angkor Wat just one stop on my way to other sites.
My wife and I visited Angkor and Siem Reap a couple of years ago. The temple complex is certainly impressive and definitely deserves to be a bucket list destination. But, the climate is oppressive. Our guide calling the two seasons of Cambodia, hot and hotter. With all of the sites and the heat, one gets “templed out”after a couple of days. I, too, found Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm to be more interesting. We also enjoyed a full day boat ride on Tonle Sap Lake. Seeing all the kids and families enjoying life on the water was fun and it was cooler motorboating around the lake communities.
I visited Angkor Wat in May 2011. I don’t know if it was because of the time of year, but there weren’t a whole lot of tourists. The heat and humidity were oppressive (and I live in Texas) and I was rather underwhelmed when I got there. For me it was the lack of color and in the heat each temple started to look like the last one. But what was even worse were the children trying to sell us anything that wasn’t nailed down.
Looking back on it I’m very glad I had the opportunity to visit and I do hope to return someday.
When we went to Siem Reap, our driver decided to take us to Angkor Wat our very first day as our very first stop. Initially we were a little hesitant, but every temple after that was equally or more interesting, more unique, more incredible. He did us a huge favor, because if we had gone to Angkor Wat last, I would have been so very disappointed (we were holding out for this?!). It’s grand, it’s amazing, but I agree–there are other temples that are more enchanting, for sure.
2 things for me made my Angkor wat trip amazing first I went during low season and the place was almost empty the day I went I actually had trouble finding someone to take a picture of me a few times with my camera the second thing that made it better was I just came from Paris where the crowds were ridicules at any of the main tourist attractions and expensive so for me it worked out.
Your header image is fantastic, we were not lucky enough to get a good sunrise but we did have a wonderful time exploring the temples of Angkor Wat.
It was not to hot during the day so we were able to spend the entire day there, we had other friends who had to leave at midday as it was too hot and return the following day.It sucked as they only sell 1 and 3 day tickets.
Thanks for sharing your amazing photos, they are incredible!
Thank you I appreciate that! And wow, was it ever hot for me too!
I visited Angkor Wat for 3 days in April of 2015. April is probably not the best time to visit, with afternoon temperatures reaching 38D. Even though April is considered low season there were a great many tourists visiting, mainly it seemed to me from China and South Korea. Temples open at 05.30 and this was by far the best time to visit. In the afternoon the number of tourists made it less pleasurable – Lord knows what it’s like in the high season. My 1st visit to the temples was for the sunrise at Angkor Wat. There are two basins in front of the temple – the reflections in these basins give the classic photograph that many people want. The right hand basin was dry, the left hand one had just a smear of water left, with many hundreds of tourist jostling for the best position.
Is it worth a visit? Definitely, but plan your visits carefully to avoid the crowds.Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm are wonderfully evocative as the sun rises.
While my partner and I have traveled literally all over the world, the one thing we almost never do is take part in prepared guided tours. We do our research, lots of it, and then we decide what we want to see and let our nose be our guide e.g., that looks interesting, that looks like it would be worth our time etc. We do not hurry, we go at our own speed. So, we decided to take a room at the Privileged Floor. This turned out to be way more than we ever dreamed. We had our own guide and our own SUV and driver (and our own masseuse when we were done at the end of the day). Our guide was all about what did we want to see and how much time did we have. What we found out was that the three days we had allocated was WAY not anywhere near enough, but our flight left on the forth day and on it we had to be so he did the best he could to meet our demands. The Cambodian people were awesome, and did everything they could to make us feel at home and comfortable. Our guide was flawless, very well versed in the history of the area and ready willing and able to deviate from what we had “decided” on the first day when our noses found something more interesting. Angkor was an amazing experience, and I would not trade it for anything.
Hi Jim! Do you happen to have the contact of your driver? We’d totally love to see Siem Reap that way. Thank you!
Great post. I think it is common to feel let down by iconic sights, especially as crowds increase. My husband went to Angkor in 2000 and had the place practically to himself. We recently visited together and had to make a lot of effort to find out of the way temples that still had that magical atmosphere. It was possible but took work. I think the key is to do your research beforehand and get your driver to take you off the main circuit.
I do wonder if Angkor will be worth visiting in 10 or 20 years if visitor numbers aren’t capped.
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