How to tackle the overwhelming temples of Angkor in Cambodia
Just four miles outside of Siem Reap, Angkor Archaeological Park is one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. It’s home to the ruins of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century. The Angkor Complex is incredibly vast with 40+ monuments stretching across 154-square miles. Know that you’ll only see a fraction of it, especially if you’re traveling with kids. And that’s ok. You don’t need to see it all to appreciate its grandeur.
How to structure your days?
Kids and grown-ups have limited attention spans. I found that my sons, ages 10 and 13, could go “temple trotting” for about two hours at a time. That’s it. Any longer and a meltdown - aided by extreme heat - would ensue. So after breakfast with water bottles in tow, we’d head off to the Complex to see one temple each morning; we’d return for lunch and spend the rest of the afternoon at the pool. In all, we saw three of the more popular temples. I think that my whole family would agree that it was enough.
KidTripster Tip: Go early in the morning to avoid big crowds and hot temperatures.
What to do?
I’d recommend starting with our favorite temple, Ta Prohm. According to our guide, it was originally built as a Buddhist temple under Jayavarman VII, one of the kings of the Khmer Empire. Later when Jayavarman VIII came to power, it was converted to a Hindu temple. In the process, the king ordered the destruction of hundreds of Buddha carvings inside. What makes this temple especially interesting? Banyan trees and their incredibly large roots have enveloped parts of the temple.
KidTripster Tip: Ta Prohm was the setting for the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) with Angelina Jolie, and an even better movie called Two Brothers (2004) about two tiger cubs. For fun, watch both movies before visiting.
KidTripster Tip: I’d recommend hiring a guide for your first day at Angkor. (You can do so through your hotel or on site.) It’s good to learn some basic Khmer history. The guides are apt at explaining symbolism that you’ll see repeated at other temples. Be very specific about just how much detail you want your guide to impart. Some are extremely long-winded, losing restless kids in the process. If it’s too much information, tell the guide during the tour to dial it back.
On your second day, visit Angkor Thom. It’s an ancient city and last capital of the Khmer Empire with its own temple, Bayon, which is known for it’s 216 faces. It’s actually the same face, repeated. Scholars think that the face is a combination of King Jayavarman VII, the God King who built Angkor Thom, and Buddha. While Angkor Thom is expansive with multiple sites, I’d recommend just focusing on Bayon.
KidTripster Tip: Again, get here early. Once the tour groups arrive, it’s impossible to get a decent photo. And ditch the tour guide, wandering on your own instead.
On your last day in Angkor, get up before dawn and head to the largest and best preserved monument, Angkor Wat, to watch the sunrise. Now granted, not every sunrise will be stellar, but it’s worth a shot. If your hotel provides breakfast, ask the staff to pack you a boxed meal to take with you.
KidTripster Tip: For the best photos, go pass the outer walls to the reflecting pool in front of the temple. After sunrise, stay and tour Angkor Wat without the crowds. Everyone else seems to leave for breakfast.
When to go?
It may seem like an odd suggestion to travel to Cambodia during monsoon season (May to November), but you’ll thank me after you step outside. It’s hot and humid here, similar to Florida during the summer. But in the dry season (December to April), our guide insists that the weather is more unbearable.
Angkor passes may be purchased at the main entrance on the road to Angkor Wat. Passes are sold in one-day ($20), three-day ($40), and seven-day ($60) blocks that must be used on consecutive days. Photos are taken (free of charge) at the time of purchase. You must keep your passes with you at all times. A regular admission ticket is not required to visit Phnom Kulen, Koh Ker or Beng Melea, but there is a separate entrance fee of $20, $10, and $5, respectively.
If you purchase your passes after 5 p.m. on the day before you intend on using them, you can enter the site for sunset at PhnomBakheng for free. Unfortunately, on the evening that we went, the clouds didn’t cooperate, and the sunset was lackluster.
KidTripster Tip: At Angkor, visitors must wear pants, shorts or skirts below the knee; shirts must cover the shoulders. We saw some very disappointed American tourists get turned away at the gates.
We didn’t fly to Siem Reap. A local bus would have been crowded and unreliable. And a boat down the MekongRiver would have been crowded and potentially dangerous.
Instead, at our hotel in Phnom Penh, we hired a car to drive us the 200 miles - a trip of more than 5 hours - for $85! Driving provided us a view into real Cambodian life: how people live, work, and transport insane amounts of goods on the backs of motorcycles! My favorite load: three full-size, freshly slaughtered pigs, hooves up. Incredible. I desperately wish that I could have done a photo essay of the ride. But between the dusty windows of our 1990’s model Toyota Camry and the speed of our driver, the Cambodian cousin of Mario Andretti, it simply wasn’t possible.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels with her husband and two sons. Their visit to Cambodia was part of a 72-day trip around the world.
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