Don’t know how to plan your trip in this UNESCO Heritage Site? Here’s my suggested itinerary. Warning – this is not suitable for those who love taking their time.
Sunrise – Sra Srang (first stop on the small tour circuit). Do the small circuit right after. This includes Ta Keo, Ta Prohm (of Tomb Raider fame), Banteay Kdei, and Prasat Kravan. I was able to finish the small circuit in the morning, and embarked on the big circuit right after lunch. The big circuit tour is much more interesting, with the popular landmarks such as the Angkor Thom complex – which includes the Victory Gate, Bayon (the one with the human heads), the Elephant Terrace and Phnom Bakheng.
Sunset – Pre Rup or Phnom Bakheng (last stop on grand tour circuit, if you go the other way around). My suggestion is to view the sunset at Pre Rup. It’s got a nice orange colour that would show up fantastically on photographs, and I expect less of a crowd than the one I had to muscle through at Phnom Bakheng. (This is the temple with the elephant ride, if you need another marker.)
For some reason, high contrast black & white photos or vintage filters work best for the ruins of Angkor.
Sunrise – Angkor Wat. Take a tour of the ancient city’s most famous temple afterwards. Hiring a guide is highly recommended. (This is one of my regrets. I didn’t appreciate the history and culture as much because I just caught snippets of narratives whilst wandering around the temple. I think I missed out on climbing to the top of the temple as well.) For those who absolutely refuse to hire a guide, there are good guidebooks being sold outside. These give good insights into the history of the temples, and highlight the key features that you shouldn’t miss. (Of course, I had a copy which I did not read. Tsk tsk.) There are so many details to see in Angkor Wat, you’ll lose track soon enough.
Sunset – Angkor Wat or Phnom Bakheng. If you are so inclined (and the weather holds up), try to catch a balloon ride outside the temple complex. You can match this up with a walk up Phnom Bakheng towards sunset.
Sleep in. Seriously. There are only so many sunrises you can catch.
Take the day out to see Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean, which are outside the main temple complex, towards the north. Kbal Spean has waterfalls, and is highly recommended by the locals – it’s a different experience from tomb raiding altogether. After seeing the photos, I totally regret not going. Drop by the land mine museum on the way out or on the way back. It’s just a short distance from Sra Srang.
Angkor truly is a sight to behold, but it is by no means the only temple complex with such a rich heritage. Thailand and Cambodia have a number of temples (some being disputed along the border) which date even further back. In terms of accessibility, though, the ancient city of Angkor is pretty hard to beat.
This is one of the places where everyone is expected to be a tourist. Go ahead, take more photos than you can possibly print or save or remember. But once in a while, remember to just sit down and soak in the view, and maybe imagine life as it was centuries ago, with the palace in its full glory.