I wasn’t sure quite what was in store for me when landing in Siem Reap. Besides a vague knowledge of Angkor Wat (another of my RTW trip pillars) and having heard wonderful things about the kindness of the Cambodian people, I knew next to nothing about the country’s history or present-day culture. Over the course of the next ten days I was the (usually) willing recipient of one Cambodian lesson after another, at times thrilling, at times heartbreaking, but all for the better as they left me a different person than the one that had arrived.

Having somewhat slacked in my pre-research of Siem Reap, I threw myself into learning as much as I could about the Khmer history and culture after arriving. Immediately I was surprised to learn two things: first, at its peak in the 12th century the Khmer civilization (originally a nation of rice farmers) covered almost all of SE Asia including present day Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. The Khmer Empire was the largest the region has ever seen, dominating SE Asia for 500 years from 802 to 1295 AD, with a population estimated at 750,000 people in the medieval age (while there were only max 18,000 in London)! Secondly I was surprised to learn that Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world and the spiritual and administrative headquarters of the Khmer civilization, is actually only one of thousands of temples located across the Angkor region, a city that used to span an area larger than the whole of New York City and still holds the remains of passageways, moats, temples and palaces!

After touring more than a dozen temples and sites during my five day visit, I’ve compiled the below Top 5 list of personally recommended must-sees for any trip to the Angkor region. You’ll have heard of a couple of these, but hopefully there are one or two you haven’t seen before:

5) Kbal Spean

A solid 75 minute tuk-tuk ride outside of Angkor, this unique spot in the jungle dates back to the early 11th century and was only recently discovered. After a hot and sweaty 30 minute hike uphill from the parking lot through bonafide Cambodian jungle, you’ll arrive at a beautiful river surrounded by huge boulders and thick trees. The spot is especially popular with locals who come to picnic and swim in the nearby waterfalls. What makes Kbal Spean so special is the relief carvings of the Hindu god, Shiva, lining the streambeds. Carved 1000 years ago by the Ancient Khmer, they believed the carvings helped to purify and bless the passing river water on its way to filling the nearby reservoirs of Angkor. The area is also home to dozens of butterfly species happy to keep you company on your journey through the trees!

4) The Bayon, Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom itself is huge, estimated to be three times the area of medieval London. Completely enclosed on four sides by mile-long walls, each gate entering the site is topped by a carving of the head of King Jayavarman (shown below). The Bayon is Angkor Thom’s central temple and its most famous. Between its half kilometer of bas relief carvings featuring three hundred separate scenes, and huge stone towers showing Jayavarman’s face pointing in each of the four cardinal directions, the presence of the Ancient Khmer could be felt here more than at any other site I visited.

Here as well as in other temples, I was surprised to find Buddhist monks sitting vigil next to a statue of Buddha alongside incense sticks lit by visiting Buddhist tourists. While to most western tourists the temples of Angkor are merely ancient buildings to be explored, for present day Buddhists they’re living monuments still used for religious ceremonies. For this reason a conservative dress code is imposed on temple visitors: covered shoulders and knees for both men and women are required to enter most sites.

3) Angkor Wat

The most famous of all of Angkor’s temples and the very symbol of Cambodia itself (it’s featured on the national flag), Angkor Wat is the largest and best maintained building within the Angkor park area. Built in just forty years (at a time when Europeans were taking 100 years to build their cathedrals) the temple of Angkor Wat was dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu.

Built not as a place of prayer but as Vishnu’s place of residence, every inch of the temple is elaborately decorated in the detailed Khmer style and is surrounded on all four sides by a mile-long moat restored by the French in 1960. After crossing the moat on a long causeway then passing two ponds inside the outer temple wall, you arrive at the actual building of Angkor Wat. The temple consists of three different levels, with inner walkways on the first two stories progressively ascending to the final level where you can see the five perfectly symmetrical lotus-shaped spires up close and personal.

If anything is going to get me up at 4:30 am it’s the sight of the sun rising over Angkor Wat. The below pictures show the progression of the sunrise and my first glimpse of the temple on my second day in Siem Reap. Watching the sunrise and sunset are both extremely popular tourist activities so (despite the tranquil atmosphere shown in the shots below) prepare to be jostled alongside a few hundred other tourists. No question about it though, it’s worth it.

*Two things to note: first, most of the existing statues of Buddha throughout the Angkor temples were decapitated by the Khmer Rouge when they were hiding within the ruins in the 1970s. Secondly, there are monkeys in the areas all around the temples. (Not unrelatedly it was while at Angkor Wat I discovered I have a mild fear of monkeys…and bats.)

2) Ta Prohm

Unlike manicured Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the area around Ta Prohm was largely left in the state it was found in when re-discovered by European archaeologists. With thick Banyan trees sprouting through, around and on top of a lot of its structures, it’s a super romantic experience exploring the site and taking in the awesome power of the Cambodian jungle. The site was also made famous when scenes from 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider were filmed here.

1) Beng Mealea

My absolute favorite temple, Beng Mealea, is located an hour and a half outside of Siem Reap (by car, don’t attempt by tuk-tuk) and is truly a sight to see. Without any grooming at all the temple is completely run wild with trees, vines and fallen stone structures. Just recently cleared of landmines, few visitors know of the site or are willing to make the trek so far from the city. The lack of crowds provides an experience as close to a legitimate Indiana Jones movie scene as most of us will get in this lifetime. With the original entrance completely collapsed in, for a couple dollars local guides will lead you clambering up and over ancient walls and walkways through rubble strewn courtyards and crumbling structures enclosed within the temple’s fallen walls. Thanks to new wooden walkways built by a visiting film crew, it’s super convenient to explore some of the largest formerly inaccessible areas of the temple. For the most fun though, I highly recommend giving in to the dirt and slippery moss and rock hopping your way between sections. Safely protected from the greater jungle by the temple’s outer wall, as long as you have a bottle or two of water, it won’t matter if you get lost for awhile exploring!

I know people say three or even two days are enough to spend in Siem Reap to see all the sites, but I was happy to have planned five. A person is bound to tire of looking at temples for eight hours straight, even exceptionally beautiful ones, so it was nice to be able to break it up into four or five hour adventures instead. There are a ton of restaurants, shops and markets to visit within the still-developing city of Siem Reap, or there’s always the brilliant option of escaping the late afternoon heat and spending time poolside. And if anything else, the downtime can help you better appreciate the area surrounding the temples. While the stone structures are (for the most part) still standing 500 years after being abandoned, all of the surrounding wood and thatch houses have since rotted away, and it’s mindboggling to drive around and imagine what the landscape once looked like, before the existing jungle completely devoured what was a great ancient kingdom.

If a visit to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples isn’t already on your Bucket List, you must add it immediately. The popularity of the area has grown exponentially in the last decade and promises to only grow further. For an unreal vacation full of history, culture, and adventure in an inexpensive and beautiful natural setting, you’ve got to check it out!

Thanks for reading!

xo Carrie