Stepping into the lost world of Cambodia: Exploring the ancient Angkor Wat temples

When most people think of Cambodia the first image that comes to mind is the beautiful ancient temples of Angkor, and rightly so! The countries most popular sight and a staple on nearly everyone’s bucket lists, it was the place we had dreamt of visiting when we put plans in motion to come to wonderful Cambodia! Little did we know just how large the complex is, not just one temple but several spread out over 40+km visiting these otherworldly temples is more than just a stroll, but a full on adventure in which you delve into the lost world of ancient Cambodia! visiting Angkor Wat, a magical bucket list item ticked off!

An almost Indescribably place of mystery, beauty, history and tranquillity one of the first westerners to visit the site in 1586, a Portuguese monk by the name of Antonio Da Madalena said “is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.” 

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Visiting Angkor Wat: A world heritage site just outside of Siem Reap

The largest religious monument in the world, the entire site measures 162.6 hectares (1,626,000 m2; 402 acres), so much more than just one temple! Originally constructed as a Hindu Temple for the god Vishnu it was converted into a Buddhist temple at the end of the 12th Century as Cambodia itself began to follow this religion. The temples themselves were built at the beginning of the 12th century by the Khmer king Suryavarman II as his temple and mausoleum, in what was at that time the capital of the Khmer Empire. 

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The world heritage listed site has become a symbol of Cambodia and the countries best known attraction. Appearing on the flag of Cambodia it is an important religious and cultural piece of the identity of the Khmer people. The temple complex is made up of several temples, some such as Angkor itself are known for its moat and grand towers, others such as Bayon for the faces carved into the rock, and then there is Tah Promh, the jungle temple! Each one with its own style and atmosphere which makes visiting Angkor Wat so rewarding.

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Our first sight of the temples: Visiting Angkor Wat itself

As we rode up the leafy roads inside the Angkor complex, covering 7km from Siem Reap itself we were beginning to tire a little. The heat of the early morning Cambodian sun was beating down heavily on us as we crossed through the barriers. Cycling around the wide outer moat we caught our first glimpses of the detailed crumbling towers peeking above the trees, visiting Angkor Wat, this dream of ours was finally about to come true. 

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Entering into Angkor Wat itself, the largest and most well known temple at the centre of the Angkor complex we were blown away. Having dreamt of this moment for years to be finally stepping foot into this beautiful and historic place felt almost unreal. Wandering through the detailed hallways and courtyards we were surprised at how much of the temple we had to ourselves to explore. Just stepping off the main walkway we were able to find the complete serenity we craved in this spiritual and historic place.

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The outer area of the temple offers the stunning moats that reflect this iconic building in its still waters, a view that sums up the beauty of this place. The inner sections offer a closer look at the detailed carving on the many towers that make up this iconic structure. The central portion can be climbed if you are dressed appropriately (No Short shorts and shoulders must be covered). Up here are the most impressive towers, remarkably intact it feels like you could be stood in a world long since forgotten.

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Accosted by monkeys on the road: Exploring the complex on bikes

We decided against taking a tuk tuk ride to explore the temples and instead hire out bikes for the day. This meant that we could stop wherever we wanted and take a close look along the way. One of the funniest moments came when a whole family of Monkeys filled the road in front of us, chasing away the wild dogs and chickens that were in the area, though the pig that was hanging around didn’t seem as bothered by their presence!

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Photo of Shorty, captured in the wild in all his grumpiness! :-p

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Cycling around the temples was a great way to get to know the area a bit more, to take our own route to the temples and have a more personal experience here. The monkeys here don’t take any prisoners either, they might appear cute, characterful and charming (which to be fair they are), but they are also pretty grumpy if you approach without bearing the gift of food. Expect to be hissed at until you produce the goods, and when you do, they will have no manners about snatching it from you. But hey, they are adorable and hilarious!

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 But riding our bikes through here also allowed us to stop at many of the smaller temples on the way, there are so many here that it would be impossible to write about each and every one of them, but even the smaller ones offer stunning details and often without many of the passing crowds. Often you feel as though you are the first person on earth to discover these places! Amongst our favourites of the other temples were Angkor Thom and Preah Khan.

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Heading over to Bayon: The temple of a thousand faces

Our next stop on our biking route through the jungle was Bayon, the temple famous for its hundreds of faces carved with precision into the ancient rock of the temples. Built in the late 12th century or early 13th century this temple contains hundreds of serine looking, smiling faces. In all directions these reliefs face, creating an enchanting and even unnerving scene inside the moss stained walls. This was one of the real highlights of visiting Angkor Wat!

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Despite the somewhat smaller size of the centre of Bayon compared to the enormous walls of Angkor Wat itself it was no less impressive and in many ways a much more intense experience. Here everything feels much more tightly packed and often the complex system of faces upon the towers became like a mesmerising maze. Drawing you in to its alleyways, corridors and steps to yet another 10 foot face staring right back at you! A face that tells the story of the history of this ancient country and its mysterious ruins that have bore witness to so much.

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The many bas reliefs on the outer walls of the temple also depict scenes from everyday Angkorian Khmer life, offering a fascinating insight into the lives of these ancient people that existed in a world we could only imagine! 

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Ta Prohm: The jungle temple of Angkor and the real lost world of Cambodia!

Ta Prom, the temple I had been looking forward to visiting more than any other in this stunning complex. This temple, overgrown by the twisting jungle, vines following the lines of the carvings, nature claiming this forgotten structure back for itself. Here you really get hit by the true enchanting nature of these temples, the feeling of trekking through the thick jungle to discover a lost world forgotten by time. An ancient treasure left in the forest to crumble, the aesthetic here could not be any more hauntingly beautiful. For us, this was our favourite part of visiting Angkor Wat!

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The temple itself is in various states of disrepair, several walls have fallen victim to the encroaching trees. Stones piled high where they fell even these have a thick layer of moss covering them, laying here in a pile for thousands of years. Many of the trees growing out of the temple are so embedded within it that they have become both a force of destruction and also a support structure.

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The size of some of these trees, hundreds of feet in the air with a complex system of routes and vines embedded within the rock is just mind blowing. The years that these trees have been growing here, within the fabric of the temple itself, just shows how long this place was left silent for.

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One of the most eerie locations in the entire complex of temples the atmosphere here created by the overgrown trees and invasive jungle is almost indescribable. The sense of abandonment and dereliction, history and the romance of the discovery of forgotten ancient treasures combines to create an experience we will never forget. It is little wonder Tomb Raider was filmed here, taking advantage of the mystical qualities of this jungle temple.

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Visiting Angkor Wat: Just having one day here and doing the main loop

Many decide to have several days exploring the temples, and if we were just on a short trip we would have 100% done this ourselves. However we feel that the entrance price, plus the cost of a tuk tuk is actually quite expensive, in fact we actually found Cambodia to be much more expensive in parts than we expected. As long term backpackers we sometimes have to make hard decisions, to go back in for another day would have cost us $55, considering we had just paid $50 for the one day and our daily budget for everything is around $30 there is noway we can constantly spend this kind of money and keep our travels up.

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It is a little bit sad, but we feel that over the course of an intense day where we covered so much ground we got to see the best of Angkor Wat and left completely satisfied with what we had experienced. Cambodia is a country we absolutely fell in love with and is somewhere we know we will return to, so in many ways we already know that we will return someday. But for now we must budget if we want to experience many more unforgettable places during our 12-18 month travels!

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Visiting Angkor Wat and how much does it cost

The entrance fees to the temples are:

1 day: $20

3 days: $40

7 days: £60

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A tuk tuk driver who will take you around for the day: $15

Rental of a scooter/ motorbike: $12

Renting a pedal bike: $3

Angkor Wat is around 7km from Siem Reap itself and is a huge site. Which ever way you decide to do it you will need transport. Also bear in mind that the ticket office is on the main road on the way to the temples and tickets can’t be bought at the main entrance.

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Have you ever visited this amazing UNESCO listed place?

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Nicola Hilditch-Short

Nic is one half of the Roaming Renegades, a passionate traveller, climber, adventurer, photographer and artist who has a B.A in Fine Art and M.A in Design & Art Direction.
  • Lauren Craving Sunshine

    Those trees are crazy!! As for the monkeys…i now know where they get their cheeky reputation from! I’ll be sure to pack some snacks to bribe them with when i visit!

    • Ha ha, yes they are sure wise to tourists now!! The trees were the highlight for us!!

  • Martin Bower

    Nice post. Lots of good information, and some great pics. The monkeys remind me of when we were in Ubud, you had to fight the little buggers off every-time you went to the shop. I was quite surprised to see the ticket price, I assumed Cambodia would be really cheap, we were planning to do the temples over a couple of days, but may have to rethink that now.

    • Ha ha, thanks! Yes they are the same on Monkey Island in Ha Long bay too and Zhangjiajie! Yes it is strangely quite expensive at times, we just opted for the one day because of the price. Still somewhere you have to visit, which is probably why they hiked the price up!

  • Kaylene Chadwell

    This looks like an amazing experience! Those trees are incredible; how do the roots do that?! I’d love to visit these temples and meet the grumpy monkey 😉

    • Those trees are so fascinating, thousands of years of being undisturbed has lead to this beautiful sight! Ha ha, love those grumpy monkeys!

  • Tom

    I went there myself a dozen years ago, and Ta
    Prohm was certainly one of the highlights that I saw, so I’m happy you thought
    the same thing. The fallen stones and
    the trees growing down made for the most wonderful atmosphere. That was truly Indiana Jones material, and
    I’m glad you saw it.

    • It is exactly how you imagine the place but even more magical, totally lived up to our expectations thankfully!

  • I was there a few years ago. Took many of the same pictures 🙂 I LOVED Bayon Temple and the Tomb Raider Temple was my fave! Such an amazing place, really!

    • Its such a magical place isn’t it, yes the Tomb Raider one is the best isnt it, those trees are unreal!

  • Where there a lot of crowds when you visited? And did you go to the sunrise there? It’s on my list but I feel like everyone has already been ^^

    • It wasn’t all to bad actually though later in the day the crowds did grow. We skipped the sunrise as we heard it was hit and miss and really packed.

  • I can’t wait to visit Cambodia! The temples, the jungle, the history… it all seems to incredible to me. Thanks for sharing your experiences and photos!

  • omar

    This is a very complete blog! I want to visit Cambodia badly! Your pictures are stunning.

    • Thank you very much. It is well worth the trip if you can go! Lots of other amazing places to see in Cambodia too!

  • jarrod roney

    Angkor looks incredible. These are awesome photos! Somewhere I wish to go in 2017 🙂

  • Lynne Sarao

    Amazing article. I absolutely loved visiting Angkor Wat and all the surrounding temples. Bayon was my favourite! I think it’s a place everyone should put on their bucket list. Your photos captured it beautifully!

    • Thank you very much, its such a captivating place isn’t it, I would go back in a heart beat even just to see the same magical temples again!