Grand Circuit at Angkor Wat | Siem Reap, Cambodia

I have been told that “one day is plenty for Angkor Wat,” especially if you are on a budget.” Thank goodness, I didn’t listen. Although I was on a budget, I chose to purchase the 3-day park pass upfront, just in case, I did want to return. And in all fairness, I know me well enough to know that I was going to want to go back. I can tell you now, with a high level of certainty, that ONE DAY is NOT enough.

This time, however, was going to be different. My new friend, Laura, and I decided to hire a tuk-tuk driver instead of opting for the hostel’s tour. We were able to make contact with my original tuk-tuk driver, Morl, and hire him for the day. (Exchanging contacts with him was one of the best things to come from Siem Reap. We’re even still friends and will be using him again come October!)

Exchanging numbers with Morl was one of the BEST things to have happened during my week in Siem Reap. It not only gave us the freedom we both wanted but allowed us to create our own “tour” experience by selecting which temples to visit.

Angkor Wat is WAY more than just a sunrise. Before I visited, I didn’t know much outside of the main temple and that it was an ancient city, and I limited my research before avoid spoiling the adventure.

As mentioned in the last Siem Reap blog, there are commonly two “drives/tours,” you could follow during your visit. On my first visit, I did the Sunrise Petit Circuit tour, which consists of the temples in the inner circle. This time, Laura and I decided to do the Grand Tour, or outer loop, with the sunrise AND sunset option.

When you hire a tuk-tuk driver, it allows you freedom to choose what you want to do and where you want to visit. It’s always good to have a general idea and discuss it with your driver ahead of time. For us, we both knew we wanted another sunrise, AND we wanted to see the sunset at Angkor Wat.

When Laura and I were in the initial stages of planning our day, we were sure where we could do sunrise. We did Angkor Wat the day before, so we asked Morl for his recommendation. He mentioned Srah Srang. I had no idea what this was, but he explained that it was the king’s pool. So, at 5 am the next day, Morl was at Onederz Hostel to pick up Laura and me for sunrise at Srah Srang.

There was a striking difference between the “famous sunrise at Angkor Wat,” and this peaceful, non-crowded, quiet sunrise over a beautiful water reservoir. I think, in total, I may have only counted 10-12 other people at this location. The sunrise at Srah Srang is how a sunrise should be experienced, in my opinion.

One thing I remember when talking to my hostel-mates was about “how to beat the crowds at the temples?” After the nightmare feel of Ta Prohm, Laura and I both knew we wanted to beat the crowd. One tiny piece of advice they had for us, “Do the circuit BACKWARDS!” Simple as that.

Typically, the circuit begins by leaving Angkor Thom’s North Gate heading towards Preah Khan (Banteay Prei). It continues to Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon and ends at Pre Rup. Instead, we started our journey at Pre Rup. Since we went there first, we had the entire temple to ourselves. It was so refreshing compared to the day before’s sardine feel.

Grand Circuit: Pre Rup and East Mebon

Pre Rup is a 10th-century Hindu temple, believed to be the sight of funerals. It is built out of combination of brick, laterite, and sandstone, which gives this temple a slight pinkish color. Upon entering the temple, I was staring onto a grand staircase with a small stone “cistern” placed in front. The grand floor plan surrounded me with small towers in every direction. At the top of the stairs stood five towers in a quincunx formation. Each built with their own deities to stand guard. In this formation, one tower is placed in each corner with the final tower in the middle.

This similar style of architecture is also found at East Mabon, our next temple. It is only located only a few minutes from Pre Rup. We also were blessed at this temple to be the only ones, until a family of four showed up. East Mabon is another 10th-century Hindu temple dedicated to the god, Shiva. It was built in honor of the king’s parents, on an island in the middle of the East Baray. The East Baray was once a body of water but has since dried.

According to Wikipedia, “its location reflects Khmer architects’ concern with orientation and cardinal directions. The temple was built on a north-south axis with Rajendravarman’s state temple, Pre Rup, located about 1,200 meters to the south just outside the baray. The East Mebon also lies on an east-west axis with the palace temple Phimeanakas, another creation of Rajendravarman’s reign, located about 6,800 meters due west.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Mebon

It still fascinates me how much thought and planning went into these now-ancient structures at the time of construction. From the perfect placement of the sun behind Angkor Wat to the placement of East Mebon and relationship to the other temples, the king’s vision was able to come to life and remain centuries later.

Grand Circuit: Ta Som

We continued the Grand Circuit tour and headed towards the next temple, Ta Som. We were met with peaceful silence. These temples have such a different feel to them when you can enjoy them alone and truly soak up the beauty.

Ta Som was built around the end of the 12th-century. It has a similar feel to Ta Prohm, including massive trees growing amongst the ruins. Ta Som was thought to have been destroyed around the 16th century, and for many centuries remained untouched. It’s layout consists of three enclosures each containing a gateway, known as gopuras, and main shrine. Thanks to restoration, it can be easily navigated.

Grand Circuit: Neak Pean and Preah Khan

Neak Pean was next on our tour. This particular Hindu temple is very different from others, not only the overall design, but the entrance from the road to the temple is a wooden bridge. It was thought to have been built sometime in the late 12th to early 13th-century, and according to our driver, Neak Pean was built to help cure diseases. The design of this temple consisted of

“four connected pools represent Water, Earth, Fire, and Wind. Each is connected to the central water source, the main tank, by a stone conduit “presided over by one of Four Great Animals (maha ajaneya pasu) namely Elephant, Bull, Horse, and Lion, corresponding to the north, east, south, and west quarters.” (Wikipedia: Neak Pean)

Preah Khan was then next temple along our tour and was far more untouched than any of the other temples we have visited. Preah Khan was built in the 12th century for the king’s father. Its name translates to “holy sword.” It’s a two-story structure, which differs from the one-story Ta Prohm, built for his mother and a features massive trees intertwined with the ancient ruins. This particular temple has been mostly untouched from restoration due to the difficulty of the growth of vegetation and unknown historical accuracy.

Terrace of the Elephants and Baphuon

After Preah Khan, we passed through the North Gate of Angkor Thom and arrived at the Terrace of the Elephants. This 12th-century structure was built in order of the king to view his army and for ceremonial purposes. It is a perfect place for a mid-day walk, just beware of the monkeys.

We walked the entire length of the terrace, stopping a few times to take in the architecture. We continued onto Baphuon, an 11th-century pyramid style temple built high into the sky. To arrive at Baphuon, you walk on a long, elevated walkway. This walkway ends at the entrance and continues to a set of steep stairs. These stairs are a “must climb.” When you reach the top, the view is breath-taking and one of the best in Angkor.

Laura and I were exhausted at this point of the afternoon. With one final stop at Angkor Thom’s Southgate, we made our way home. However, we were not ready to be finished at Angkor Wat. We asked Morl if he would be willing to return us to the hostel and pick up us late to take us back to Angkor Wat for sunset. He agreed, and we were very grateful.

Angkor Wat at sunset was recommended to us by another traveler. We were told that it was much less crowded and much more enjoyable. They were not wrong. Sunset at Angkor Wat did not disappoint. It was very refreshing to watch the day end without the 10s of thousands of travelers.

As much as I have loved Angkor over the past two days, I was ready for a break. I was ready to explore more of the lovely city of Siem Reap. Stay tuned to find out what I did on my day off from Angkor.