If you’re traveling to Siem Reap, chances are you’re there pretty much for one thing: the Angkor Wat Temples. A massive complex of temples that was once swallowed up by the jungle, Angkor Wat is basically the Machu Picchu of Cambodia…if you’re there you can’t miss it. The city of Siem Reap does have a fair amount to offer on its own in terms of tourist sites and food, but the temples are what make it such an important destination for backpackers and comfort travelers alike.
When choosing how to tour the temples there are several options: 1.) Walk the temples yourself, 2.) Rent a bicycle and bike the temples, 3.) Hire a tuk tuk driver to drive you around all day, or 4.) Hire a guide. Since Anthony and I are on a pretty small budget we had to a do a little research to figure out our best option for touring Angkor Wat. The entrance ticket alone costs a decent bit ranging in price from $20 for one day, $40 for three days, or $60 for seven days. Since we didn’t know a ton about the temples we decided to go with the one day ticket since it would cover all of the major temples, plus it included entrance to the temple grounds the night before for sunset. We figured if we ever learned more about Angkor Wat we could always go back! Now came the hard part, trying to decide HOW to tour the temples. Initially we planned on renting bikes and touring the temples ourselves or walking, but as I mentioned, the complex is HUGE and neither one of us knew very much about the temples at all. With more than 45 temples spread out over 154 square miles in 100 degree heat we decided it might be time to splurge a little. I decided to start researching guided tours and with the help of Facebook I managed to find our amazing tour guide, Mao Khvan.
If you ever make it to Cambodia, you’ll realize that this is literally the land of the tuk tuk. On every street there are hundreds of them trying to find customers, but in Siem Reap they don’t just want to take you from A to B, they also want to convince you to use them as transport around Angkor Wat. Initially this might seem like a good idea since it’s so spread out, however, only OFFICIAL tour guides are allowed to enter the temples, so unless you know a decent bit about Angkor Wat, you’re really only paying for someone to drive you around all day. Mao was different. After looking at several tour companies I knew we would never find anything in our budget, and started to panic a little. Biking the complex seemed like an impossible task, and just hiring a tuk tuk driver would mean we would have to do quite a bit of research to really appreciate the temples. Luckily, I remembered reading a few posts in the Backpacking Cambodia group about a guy who ran tours on his own and was also a great photographer. I found Mao and sent him a message with my fingers (and toes) crossed he would be available the next day (and in our price range). Less than 20 minutes later I had a message from Mao confirming his availability and that for $25 he would pick us up before sunrise, take us to as many temples as we’d like, be our private tour guide, and keep us hydrated with an unending supply of cold water. Seeing as hiring a tuk tuk driver alone was around $18, I jumped at the deal! We even decided to have him pick us up for sunset that evening for an extra $9. Our visit to Angkor Wat was coming together finally!
At 4:30 pm that afternoon we walked out of our hotel to find Mao waiting for us. Right away I knew we’d made a good decision. He had a huge smile on his face when greeting us, and introduced us to his wife and three year old daughter he had brought along for the ride. After handing us both ice cold waters from a fully stocked cooler on his tuk tuk, we hopped in and made our way to buy our Angkor Wat tickets! Now, as I mentioned before, the beauty of the Angkor Wat ticket is that it includes entry for sunset starting the day BEFORE the actual ticket is valid. Since we decided to just do the one day entry this was a great way to get a few more pictures and a little tease of what to expect for the following day! As we made our way to the ticket complex (it apparently used to be just a small kiosk but with the number of tourists growing each year they decided to expand) Mao and his wife chatted with us about Cambodia, Siem Reap, and Angkor Wat. His wife explained that the ticket counters opened at 5 pm for those wishing to see the sunset and that would give us about an hour to get to Angkor Wat and get situated. When we arrived at the ticket complex, Mao deftly guided us to the shortest line and once 5 pm hit we quickly paid for our tickets and zipped off with the line of tuk tuks all heading towards the grand temples.
I love Ancient History and know a fair amount about ancient European and Central/South American cultures, but I realized in the days leading up to our Angkor Wat visit I knew nothing about ancient Asian cultures. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but as we made our way down the tree lined road with monkeys swinging in the branches above us and the thick heat forcing me to sweat even in the comfort of the tuk tuk I already had a sense of magic. If you’ve ever been somewhere incredibly old you know that I’m talking about. That overwhelming feeling that reminds you so much has happened in this one spot that has been standing for hundreds (or thousands) of years. As if the ghosts of all of the people and battles that made this a significant historical site are there with you. It’s a feeling that always takes me by surprise no matter how prepared for it I might be. I’ve felt like this at Machu Picchu, Tower Bridge, the Parthenon, and countless others…Angkor Wat was no different. As the main temple rose up to greet us and Mao maneuvered his tuk tuk expertly into a tiny spot between two other tuk tuks, I had goosebumps all over my arms in spite of the 100 degree heat. We had arrived and it was already magnificent.
As we made our way through the entrance of the temple, Mao pointed out the giant lotuses floating in the moat that only bloom for a few hours a day. They were closed for the evening, but he assured us they would be wide awake when we came for sunrise the next day. He reminded us to be very careful walking along the edge of the bridge that crossed the moat to the entrance of the temple because falling in would be very bad. Every 100 feet or so he seemed to know someone which made me feel even better about our choice…clearly this guy knew what he was doing. It also reminded me of being with Anthony’s dad back home because David literally knows everyone. Mao had the same kind of charisma. As the hoards of tourists made their way straight through the main entrance, Mao guided us to the left, away from the crowds and took us through a more obscure entrance. As we made our way through the stone passage he pointed out bullet marks from the Khmer Rouge right alongside ancient relief carvings of Vishnu. The walls had withstood both ancient and modern battles alike. As we made our way out of the cool darkness we were greeted with the huge courtyard surrounding Angkor Wat as well as the temple itself. Five towers of intricately carved stone pierced the slowly darkening sky.
We spent the next hour or so walking around the grounds of the temple as Mao showed us every good spot for pictures. We didn’t realize we were getting a photographer as well as a tour guide and driver, but Mao had a great eye for photos and we ended up with some amazing shots during our time at Angkor Wat. He explained to us that the Khmer people believed odd numbers to be lucky so everything (steps, towers, windows) was done in sets of 3, 5, or 7, thus the five towers at Angkor Wat. As the guards began kicking everyone out of the complex, Mao held back and, after a quick conversation with one of the guards, managed to get a few shots of us with the temple in the background and not one single person in the shot. It was as though we had a private tour. Thousands of people visit Angkor Wat a day so to me Mao was worth it for that one shot alone.
As the sun began to truly set, he had us sit on an outcropping of the stone wall surrounding the moat with our legs dangling over the water for a quick photo shoot. Beams of light hit my face as I leaned against Anthony, and again those goosebumps popped up along my arms. Here we were sitting watching a beautiful sunset at one of the wonders of the ancient world while our new friend took beautiful pictures of us. It was one of those times I just felt grateful. This trip has been full of those moments. It’s hard to be anything else when you’re traveling the world with your best friend. When Mao was finally satisfied with the number of photos he had taken for us we started to make our way back to the tuk tuk, but not before we had a little drama.
Since Angkor Wat is in the jungle there are all kinds of creatures on the grounds, including loads of monkeys. Most of the lizards, snakes, bugs, and other animals are fairly shy when it comes to people, but the monkeys aren’t at all. They sincerely believe they own the place (and they really kind of do) so everyone is warned not to feed them, pet them, or threaten them in anyway or else it could end very very badly. Well, unfortunately Anthony didn’t entirely heed Mao’s warning and while snapping a photo of a monkey lazily eating some mango he made direct eye contact. He claims this was by accident, but I still believe there was a bit of a power play involved, and needless to say the monkey won. He took one look at Anthony and lunged screaming towards him. Anthony backed off immediately, but the monkey was not happy and continued to bear his teeth and growl while walking (stalking) a wide circle around us. Fortunately Mao was fully trained in monkey repellent techniques and quickly grabbed a stick and started whacking it against the ground. Anthony’s enemy, and all of the other monkeys in the area, took off running and luckily we were spared a trip to the hospital. That being said, if you plan on having a “who’s tougher” competition with a monkey in Cambodia, the monkey will win. Get your rabies shot. I was very glad we got ours.
We made it back to the tuk tuk, limbs still intact, and headed back towards Siem Reap. Anthony and I were both more than happy with Mao, and this was just the tip of the iceberg. He told us he would pick us up as 4:30 a.m. the next morning for the sunrise, and then we could spend as much (or as little) time as we wanted touring the complex. He informed us he usually likes to tour the temples in the opposite path that people traditionally follow in order to avoid the largest crowds which was more than alright with the two of us. Mao insisted on dropping us off at the restaurant we would be going for dinner so we didn’t have to find another tuk tuk from our hotel, and even offered to come pick us up that evening and bring us home, but we told him to get a good night’s sleep since he would be the one doing most of the work the next day! We said goodbye to his wife and adorable daughter, and promised him we would be ready to go on time the next morning! Our first day at Angkor Wat was complete!
Disclaimer: Anthony and I are in no way receiving payment for recommending Mao. He was simply an awesome guide, and we want to share the knowledge!