Highlights of Angkor Grand Tour: The Lost Khmer Smile

Preah Khan 5

Before I went, I have heard a lot of amazing things about the Angkor Wat World Heritage in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I was told by many fellow travelers that Angkor was one of the most spiritual sites they had ever been to. I looked at the pictures and wondered why a big pile of rubble and broken pieces was so magical. Until I went, I witnessed it myself, and now I don’t know where to begin.

The heritage site, Angkor, was the capital of an ancient powerful Hindu-Buddhist empire in Southeast Asia (mainly today’s Cambodia) between the 9th and 15th centuries. The city was abandoned by the Khmer people when the empire, like any other, fell. Hundreds of years later, the French people re-discovered this archeological wonder in the woods.

Trees have grown. Arches have broken. Engravings have faded. The Khmer smile remained. It doesn’t matter if the structures collapsed because the site is filled with fascinating stories and legends, combined with a tranquil and tragic beauty that inspired millions of visitors.

The Khmer Empire was ruled by both Buddhist and Hindu Kings. Almost every temple has been a Hindu temple for a certain period of time, then converted to a Buddhist temple, then changed back to Hinduism, and then the cycle repeated. Finally, artworks, idols, and sculptures of both religions co-existed in the same place. I was carried away by all the legends and mythologies portrayed.

Angkor is one of the largest and most important archeological wonders in the world. Don’t expect to see or feel them all in a day.

Ta Som 6

A three-day itinerary in Angkor

Bought some colorful artworks and handicrafts from the locals.

In general, visitors could see the majority of the Angkor Temples in 3 days: 1 day around the outskirts (like the Lolei Temples), 1 day of the “Grand Tour”, and finally the “Small Tour”. All foreign visitors are required to purchase an entrance pass to the Angkor Archaeological Park. Passes of different durations are available at the ticketing office, which was relocated to a new spot last year. The new ticketing office is new and much more organized.

1-day passUS$ 20

3 consecutive day-passUS$40

7 consecutive day-passUS$60

Visiting hours: 5:30am – 5:30pm

Getting around Angkor

Tuk Tuk 2Visitors are required to take a photo at the booth and your photo will be printed on the Pass (it’d just take a few seconds). The Pass gives visitors access to all the Angkor Temples, except Kulen mountain and Bengmealea Temple. There will be guards asking for the Pass at the entrance of every temple so make sure to keep it safe and intact and carry it along.

Archeological Park is a large theme park, and the theme is Angkor. There are many ways of getting around – elephants, motorcycles, bikes, and coach buses for visitors on a group tour.  For self-packaged travelers, it’s common to hire a tuk-tuk driver or a private tour guide.

Tuk-tuk is an auto-rickshaw commonly seen in the city of Siem Reap. It is basically a carriage hooked to a motorcycle that conveniently transports tourists around the city. A tuk-tuk day tour is pretty standard in Siem Reap and could be easily arranged by the hotel and any local tour agency.

Tuk Tuk 11-day Grand Tour: US$ 25-30

1-day Small Tour:  US$ 15-20 (with extra few bucks to see the sunrise @ Angkor Wat.)

I hired a private tour guide (with a driver), which I recommend. The tour guides are licensed and they wear a yellow uniform. They are also attentive and knowledgeable, and flexible to your travel interests. The private tour offered an itinerary but not a fixed time frame, therefore, tourists could visit all the temples at their own pace.

3-day private tour: US$ 200-300

Well, unless you have studied very well Khmer history and culture, a private guide may offer you a better understanding to appreciate the wonderfulness of the Angkor Temples. In three days, you are going to see a lot of temples, temples, temples, and temples. There, I learned in which period each temple was built by looking at the engravings on the lintels and shapes of the colonnettes, and I learned about some Hindu and Buddhist legends, like the famous “Churning of the Ocean of Milk” and “Mucalinda sheltering Gautama Buddha” (Naga: seven-headed cobra which sculpture could be seen everywhere around the Angkor site).

Mucalina sheltering Gautama Buddha

NagaBuddhism mainly originated from the teachings of Gautama, the lord of Buddha, who achieved enlightenment more than 2500 years ago. Enlightenment of a Buddhist means to escape the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (the Samsara Cycle) that keeps humanity caught in the hardship of the material world. Before becoming a Buddha, Gautama was a prince of the Kosala Kingdom. At one point he decided to forfeit his worldly possessions to preach and become spiritually enlightened. Four weeks after Gautama Buddha began meditating under the Bodhi Tree, the mighty serpent king Mucalinda (Naga) protected him from the storm until the storm had cleared.

Nirvana is an absolute truth that a human can realize during his or her life when someone has attained Nirvana, that person is free from Samsara – the cycle of death and rebirth in this material world.

Grand Tour Begins…

The Grand Tour is the outer circuit in the Northwest area of Angkor Thom. The route is more extensive as it includes Banteay Srei Temple (The Lady Temple) which is farther away from the reservoir area.

Pre-Rup Temple

The first temple we saw in the morning. Surrounded by an artificial lake, the temple was a crematorium as this was where the funerals took place in the 16th century. There are pits on the walls where the cremation happened – although it is believed that the temple was originally built in the mid-10 century and dedicated to Shiva – one of the Trinity in Hinduism.

The carvings in Pre-Rup are well-preserved with fine details. While it’s not located in the inner circle of the temples, it’s one of the must-sees in the Grand Tour.

Ta Som Temple

Ta Som is a small temple in Angkor and was built at the end of the 12th century for King Jayavarman VII. It is located in the northeast of Angkor Thom and the east of Neak Pean. The temple was dedicated to his father Dharanindravarman II, and the highlight of the temple is the Lokesvara relief – and at the entrance, it has an overgrown tree root with vivid old carvings on the walls.

Apsara, which could be seen everywhere in Angkor Temples.

Neak Poan Temple

Fish CatchingThe Neak Poan Temple is located in the middle of the Jayatataka reservoir and served as a hospital in ancient times. On the way entering the temple, we saw the locals catching fish in the reservoir in the dry season (in the mud…)

It is quite an unconventional temple as it is an island temple surrounded by other four smaller square ponds. Neak Pean can only be reached by boat in the past, and its original name means “coiled serpents” – check out the photo of the temple below and you may see why.

Neak Poan 1

Preah Khan Temple

Preah Khan was built in the 12th century for King Jayavarman VII to honor his father. It is located in the northeast of Angkor Thom just west of the Jayatataka.

The Giant Garuda

The temple was originally a Buddhist Temple until King Jayavarman VIII was on the throne as a Hindu King. The Buddhist statues and sculptures were destroyed in his anti-Buddhist reaction and replaced by Hindu gods – like Garuda. Statues of Garuda, the humanoid bird Hindu god, were placed on the wall every 30 meters apart to protect the temple against evil spirits.

It is a beautiful and immersive temple and the best way to experience Preah Khan is to take a stroll through the corridors, and decipher the delicate ancient carvings and sculptures. The temple was like a maze with rooms connected from one to another, and I was amazed by the details engraved on the walls.

Preah Khan is one of the largest Angkor temples, with a size of 700 x 800 meters. It was not just a temple, it functioned more like a city, completed with thousands of servants, and was also a huge center for Buddhist learning, as a university of that time.

Temple and the trees

One special thing about the Angkor Temples is the trees that have grown out of the ruins.

The locals once tried to cut down a giant tree that was growing on the temple. After they did cut it down, the temple lost support and collapsed. A lesson learned: the trees actually hold the ruins into place and they have become part of the structure now.

Preah Khan 2

Banteay Srei 7

Banteay Srei Temple

The Banteay Srei Temple is located on the outskirt of Angkor’s main temples. It was built in the year 967, dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva.

The temple is nicknamed the “a citadel of the women”, or the “lady temple”, which you may get a hint by the look of the ruins as it’s constructed with unique pink sandstones. And decorated with delicate, ethereal, and intricate motives of Khmer Art. The temple was restored by the French craftsman, Henry Marshal, with the same technique that was used to recover the Borobudur.

That’s why the temple is a perfect Instagram spot as the details of the walls and arches are the perfect background, in a distinct color that stands out from the rest of the historic temples in Siem Reap. The temple is a pretty tuk-tuk ride away from the city center through idyllic villages and rice fields. The best time to visit the temple is in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the travel crowds.

Furthermore, the size of the temple was actually quite small. 60% of the temple collapsed, and it was hidden in the jungle for hundreds of years. The temple was opened to tourists in 1998. As the temple was located so close to the landmines, there were people who got killed coming to the temple!

Small, delicate, pink – The Banteay Srei Temple.


Anastylosis is an archaeological term for a reconstruction technique whereby a ruined building or monument is restored using the original architectural elements to the greatest degree possible. It is also sometimes used to refer to a similar technique for restoring broken pottery and other small objects.

A cashew tree right in front of the temple entrance!

Banteay Samré Temple

It was the last temple on our Grand Tour. The Banteay Samré was built under Suryavarman II and Yasovarman II in the early 12th century, originally dedicated to the offspring of the Emperor. The temple used the same material as building Banteay Srei Temple and was built in the same style as Angkor Wat. The complete temple was restored by the French. Entering the temple, the windows were huge like displaying windows at a boutique.

Afterward, we visited the Angkor National Museum (which is a great place to learn all about Khmer history), wandered in the Angkor market, or tourists could catch an Apsara dance show 🙂 Stay-tuned.

Entering the temple, the windows were huge like displaying windows at a boutique.

Continue … All about the small tour, more temples, more legends, and more travel tips.

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  1. Didn’t know it takes 3 days to tour Angkor Wat. That’s why it is in a lot of must-see lists!

  2. Angkor has been on my dream list for years, I don’t know when I’ll go, but I saved your great guide for future reference 😀 I love your photos btw!

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