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Temple Run in Cambodia

My rendezvous with the history of Angkor.


Over the years, one of Cambodia’s major travel destination has been Angkor Wat, the largest temple complex in the world. Angkor Wat, meaning a City of Buddhist Temples, was originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, reportedly between 1113 and 1150 AD. It is believed to be a representation of Mt. Meru, the sacred five-peaked mountain of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism cosmology which is considered the home of the Gods and core of all the physical and metaphysical existences on Earth. Evidently, all those 3 religions originated in the Indian subcontinent and hence the Angkor Wat also has strong connections to Indian history and mythology.

But the Angkor Wat is not the only temple complex of significance in the Angkor region. Yasodharapura, original name for Angkor, was the original capital of the Khmer Empire during 9th–15th centuries but later during the empire of King Jayavarman VII, Angkor Thom, slightly southeast of Angkor Wat, was established as the modern capital. Today, the Angkor Archaeological Park is basically an overlap of the Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat complexes, comprising of 100s of small and big temples, some among the ruins, some restored in the late last century, and some being renovated today.
A little pre-read about the history of Angkor Wat, their kings, the religious significance, especially if you are keen about Indian history and mythology, helps you in stitching the story faster than usual. Also, if time permits you could visit the Angkor Wat National Museum before going for the park tour. But trust me, either way it is still going to be an overwhelming and amazing experience. 

The Historic Expedition


The Angkor park tour needs an admission pass and one can select from 1-Day, 3-Day, 7-Day Pass options. The 1-Day Pass costs 37$ as on May 2019, while the 3-Day and 7-Day Passes are 62$ and 72$, respectively. The 3-Day and 7-Day Passes need not be used on consecutive days and hence one can plan their visits accordingly. The prices seem slightly high but it does great justice to the experience. Note that tickets are only valid when brought from the Angkor Tour ticket counters. So don’t fall prey to any travel scamsters.


Angkor was an ancient city and is understandably a huge 4000 sq km area to explore. For visitors’ convenience, the tours are segregated into 2 routes: The Small Circuit and the Grand Circuit which looks like this in real map.


The Small Circuit covers this 9 main spots: Angkor Wat, South Gate of Angkor Thom, Bayon Temple, Terrace of the Leper King, Terrace of the Elephants, Baphuon Temple, Phimeanakas, Ta Prohm, and Banteay Kdei. The rest of the main temples of Angkor Park fall in the Grand Circuit.

While our little research said that we could do the entire Angkor tour in 2 Days but there wasn’t a 2 day pass. Also, it is almost eternally humid and hot in Siem Reap and being outdoors under 37–40ºC for long hours sounded quite demanding. Considering our time constraints and tough weather conditions, we opted for a 1-Day Pass and Small Circuit which sufficiently covers the highlight attractions of Angkor. 


Check with your hotel/accommodation help-desk or any tuk-tuk driver for a Small Circuit day trip. We stayed at an Airbnb and our reception desk arranged a driver for $20 USD for a day’s trip of Sunrise+Small Circuit. It is a very reliable and recommended deal as the drivers often understand English, knows the drill very well and are familiar with the locality. 


The temple compound is open from 5:00 AM to 5:00 PM. One of the major attractions of Angkor Park tour is the sunrise at Angkor Wat. So, don’t miss it, sleep well and prepare to start very early considering distance from your place of stay. Also, you can either book your 1-Day Pass the previous evening or during the wee-hours while driving to the temple. The ticket counters are at a different location than Angkor Wat complex but on the way and it opens at 4:30 AM.
Carry water bottles, hand towels, wet wipes, sun glasses, cameras, hats, portable chargers, some quick bites, in a bag because you will also end up buying some souvenirs. Quick bites and water bottles will never be enough for a day but not all the temple compounds have eateries. Dress very comfortably and intend to cover your legs, knees and shoulders as most temples are very religious and doesn’t entertain summer friendly clothing. So, respecting their tradition and culture is a fairer deal than be sorry and more importantly it’s not tough to be responsible travellers. All set, it’s going to be a relentless and tiring expedition but equally enthralling and apprising. 😅 

Expedition Day:

Here’s a brief about how our day went:
Started from our Airbnb: Day Day Inn: 4:40 AM
Reached ticket counter: 5:05 AM
Started for Angkor Wat: 5:15 AM
Arrive at Angkor Wat: 5:30 AM

*Slightly away from the party hub of Siem Reap, Day Day Inn hotel was a small but great place to stay with a pool, free airport pickup, a small restaurant, and easy connections to the city centre. I came across this Airbnb listing through another blogger and it proved a good deal. 

  • 1st Stop: Angkor Wat [05:30 AM]
On arrival, we walked towards the newly opened floating bridge to reach the temple compound, while the original stone bridge was undergoing renovation, as on May 2019. Just before the bridge, numerous mid-aged tour guides, possibly official Cambodia Tourist Guides (identified with their attire), started flocking. The history of Angkor Wat is so vast that it is better to get a Tour Guide (official please) and they were well trained in English. $20 USD for the entire Angkor Wat tour of 2 hours for 2 of us seemed a fair deal. As they start narrating the history of Angkor Wat, it feels as if we have accessed a key to another fascinating world. The guides are well aware of the social media craze running our minds nowadays and keeps suggesting nice photo spots within the compound while taking us through the journey. As the sun rises at around 6:10 AM, a considerable crowd gathers near the overlooking pond where one can see the reflection of the temple amidst the water lilies. It gets quite crowded post sunrise but don’t worry it is still way less than what you will face at around 10:00 AM. I’ll leave the rest of it for you to visit, explore and learn but after indulging through the exquisite history of Angkor Wat and capturing zillions of photos, we bid goodbye to our guide and left the Angkor Wat around 9:00 AM. The sun was already beating down hard by then, probably at 32ºC. 

  • 2nd Stop: South Gate of Angkor Thom [09:20 AM] 
Quite hungry after the Angkor Wat exploration, the driver agreed to take us for a breakfast spot on the way to Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom. But before that, we had to cross the famous South Gate of Angkor Thom which is another special spot. Lead by a 50m causeway, the railings of the South Gate entrance are decorated with 54 stone sculptures engaged in the performance of quite a famous Hindu story: The Myth of the Churning of the Ocean. On the left side of the moat, 54 devas (Guardian Gods) pull the head of the snake while on the right side 54 asuras (Demon Gods) pull the snake’s tail in the opposite direction. The myth relates that as the Devas pulled the snake in one direction and the gods pushed in the other, the ocean began to churn and precipitate the elements. By alternating back and forth, the ocean was milked forming the earth and the cosmos anew. Another great spot for the photo enthusiasts.

Normally, the security officials don’t tend to stop visitors at every juncture to validate the tickets but it is important to keep your passes safe and handy for the major temples.

  • 3rd Stop: Bayon Temple [10:20 AM] 
Considering a one day tour, we planned to have a late lunch post our expedition. So after grabbing a heavy breakfast in an eatery close to the Terrace of the Leper King, the driver left us at the majestic Bayon Temple. Standing at the centre of King Jayavarman VII’s capital Angkor Thom province is the much decorated and only Angkorian temple, built as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine, called the Bayon Temple. Built in the late 12th century, this temple is an unique example of bas relief sculptures with close relation to some ancient Indian bas reliefs. It’s actually an exquisite expression of Baroque style in the classical Khmer architecture. The most distinctive feature of the Bayon Temple is the multitude of serene and smiling stone faces on the many towers of the temple. Ironically enough, there are 216 smiling stone faces believed to be representations of the king himself. Another theory suggests that those faces are of the Bodhisattva of compassion of all Buddhas called Avalokitesvara. Either way, the theories aren’t mutually exclusive as the king himself considered himself the Bodhisattva of Buddhism and possibly represented himself in those bas relief sculptures. Quite some royal flamboyance.😅 However, the crowd at Bayon was already relentless by then and the heat was getting intolerable. We didn’t have a guide with us anymore and after an hour’s exploration through the temple we walked out towards the Wat Preah Ngok, an adjacent monastery. 

  • 4th Stop: Baphuon [11:30 AM]
Just 200m away stands one of the largest temples in Angkor Thom, the three-tiered temple mountain called the Baphuon. Built in its unique style, in the 11th century as a dedication to the Hindu God Shiva, with numerous intricate carvings all over its surface, this spectacular temple was often regarded as the Tower of Bronze. By 16th century it was converted into a Buddhist temple and a huge majestic Reclining Buddha statue was built on the back side, probably at the demolition cost of another 8m tower. Parts of the temple had already started disintegrating by then and by the 20th century, much of it had largely collapsed. Restorations first failed due to the Civil War in 1970, but then a 16 year long project was undertaken in 1996. Today, it is also known as the “Largest 3D Jigsaw Puzzle” in the world. It’s majestic, grand and looks beautiful amidst all the ruins and jungles. You can climb to the top of the temple and grab a 360º view of Angkor Thom, but its quite steep and an open terrace under the tremendous heat makes it challenging. Well, you still must do it because its worth the effort.

  • 5th Stop: Phimeanakas [12:10 PM]
Within the walls of the Royal Palace of Baphuon, aligned with the Victory Gate to the west of the Terrace of the Elephants, is another Hindu Temple called the Phimeanakas, meaning the Celestial Temple. It is believed that their was a golden tower on top of the pyramid of Phimeanakas where a serpent-spirit with nine heads, called Nāga, used to live. Each night it would turn and appear as a woman and every night the king would have to climb up the temple to lie with that Nāga princess and if the Nāga did not appear, the days of the king were meant to be counted thereafter. It was under renovation during our visit and didn’t have access to the interiors. Hence, we soon proceeded towards the next spot.

  • 6th Stop: Terrace of the Leper King [12:30 PM]
Another 200m walk through the thin jungle, lined with very tall trees, led us to the Terrace of the Leper King. It has a statue of the Hindu God of Death, Yama. The statue is called the Leper King because discolouration and moss growth on the statue was reminiscent of a person with leprosy and apparently there was an Angkorian king Yasovarman I who had that disease.

  • 7th Stop: Terrace of the Elephants [12:40 PM]
Just a few yards eastwards of the Terrace of the Leper King is the Terrace of the Elephants, a ruined temple complex, supposedly used by the king to view the return of his victorious army. While most of it is destroyed now, what remains are intricate carvings of numerous elephants, their famous parade with the Khmer mahouts, life size garuda, and lions. All these spots are around Bayon temple at a walk-able distance. But after that, we again met our tuk-tuk driver and drove for our penultimate but another exciting temple, commonly known as the Tomb Raider Temple.

  • 8th Stop: Ta Prohm Temple [1:00 PM]
The driver left us at the West Gate of the temple and we were told to meet him again at the other end (East Gate). One of the most exquisite temple in the Angkor Thom region is the famous temple Ta Prohm, built in Bayon style of 12–13th century. If not for its photogenic brilliance, Ta Prohm is famous for the shooting of the famous Hollywood film Tomb Raider, featuring Angelina Jolie. This temple was originally called Rajavihara, meaning Monastery of the King, dedicated to the king’s mother Prajnaparamita, the personification of wisdom. While the temple was left in absolute ruins for centuries, the Archaeological Survey of India has been responsible for the restoration of this temple complex, and rightly so because it’s a stunning piece of historical monument, very old, very colorful, and very picturesque. The combination of trees growing from the ruins and the surrounding jungles make it one of the most popular temples in Angkor. Undoubtedly, another beautiful UNESCO world heritage site. As there isn’t one entry-exit flow, make sure you remember to exit through the opposite end of Ta Prohm as we were slightly lost at first go and had to do a to-n-fro to locate the correct exit. After a much relaxing exploration amidst the greenery of Ta Prohm, we drove for the last temple of our small circuit tour.

  • 9th Stop: Banteay Kdei Temple [2:00 PM]
A small but complex temple, built in the same Bayon architectural style, similar in plan to the Ta Prohm, is the Banteay Kdei temple, literally meaning a Citadel of Monks’ Cells. It had a lot of intricate dancing apsara frescoes all along its walls. This Buddhist monastic complex, as on May 2019, was in a pretty dilapidated condition with most sections undergoing renovation and closed for visitors. Nonetheless it was quite beautiful and surprisingly less crowded at that hour. At around 2:30 PM, super exhausted, hungry, sun burnt, sweat bathed, much apprised, we started our walk towards the exit of Banteay Kdei signing off our Angkor Wat Small Circuit Tour. The exit is lined with a lot of souvenir shops, paintings, handicraft shops, lightly covered with trees all along, amidst much needed tree shades. Soon, we met our driver at the exit gate (remember the face of your driver and keep his phone number and vehicle number handy) amidst a crowded road and started our way back to the hotel.

Depart from Angkor Wat: 3:00 PM

It was a time to just sit back in our tuk-tuk and let all the information of the last 10 hours sink in, the journey from the sunrise at the heavenly Angkor Wat, the journey of the Angkor Empire from Hinduism to Buddhism, the different religious adoptions of different kings over the centuries, the wars this city has had with its neighbouring countries (that’s when we discovered the story behind the city’s name as Siem Reap), the colonial and civil war impact on Angkor Wat, the relation of Bayon to the century old bas relief sculptures from the tribal regions of India, it’s mysterious stone carved faces, the significance of the Baphuon, the Ta Prohm temple dedicated to the king’s mother Prajnaparamita, it’s claim to fame with the shooting of the Hollywood film Tomb Raider and lastly the Monks’ Chambers at Banteay Kdei. No words or photos can do justice to this amazing experience and it’s surely one of the most recommended expeditions to take up across the world. If I have to personally summarize my tour in three words, it will be Enormous, Fascinating & Profound.

Total Time: ~10 Hours
Fixed Expenditure: $77 USD 

Value: Unparalleled

($37=1-Day Pass, $20=Angkor Wat Guide, $20=Tuk-tuk Small Circuit Ride)

Thank you for reading through my one day experience of the majestic Angkor Wat. For more picture tales, travel stories, budget trip plans check out my travelogue at Drifting Meridians and instagram feed @driftingmeridians. 

Travel, Share, Inspire.

Note: All images in this story are personal and subject to copyright. Please don’t use them without permission.


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