Temples of Angkor Tips
My day starts at 4:30 a.m. I’m one of two people in my dorm room, but my roommate is fast asleep. Meanwhile, I’m throwing on a T-shirt, shorts and grabbing water for my final day at the temples of Angkor.
My tuk-tuk driver is waiting for me. I’m paying him $14 for the entire day. I know it’s too much, but I also know I’m not going to do much better. If you’re a Westerner in Asia, or you don’t speak Khmer, expect to get ripped off by everyone.
Angkor Tip #1
Remember the “special price” is the Western price. Bargain it down.
My driver starts the engine, and we began cruising along the somewhat quiet streets of Siem Reap. The wind feels good against my skin. It’s already hot, but it will probably climb to 99 degrees during the middle of the day. That’s why I’m trying to get as much temple seeing done as possible before it gets absolutely miserable.
It was two days ago. The sun bore down on me as I pedaled the two miles from Ta Prohm to Preah Kahn. Already riding since 6 a.m., a headache was beginning to form. I knew I was dehydrated, despite constantly drinking water. There was little that was going to keep me cool in this weather.
Angkor Tip #2
Bring multiple big bottles of water and don’t be afraid to stop to rest.
I tried to stay optimistic because at least I was saving money. Renting a bike cost $1 for the entire day versus the $20 I had spent on my first tuk-tuk driver. It was little comfort as I could feel my white shirt sticking to my skin. Sweat poured down my face, stinging my eyes.
“I really need to get a bandanna,” I thought.
Within 10 minutes, my driver drops me off at the entrance of Angkor Wat. Sunlight is beginning to cast a glow over the trees and the temple walls. I show my ticket to one of the park employees and cross the bridge that spans the moat to Angkor Wat.
The sun is rising and creating a glow above the temples and trees, but it’s dark every time I have to enter one of the ruins. I go slow. I must. The last thing I want to do is trip and break something in Cambodia.
Eventually, I get to the center tower. I want to climb to the top, but a “closed” sign is in front of the staircase. I think it will open later and walk around the complex.
I see a man wandering. He sits down in a fold-out chair next to the staircase. I don’t need to approach him.
“You want to go to the top?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Five dollars today,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s a Buddhist holiday. Tomorrow, it’s free.”
I’m not going to miss out on sunrise at Angkor Wat, and it’s the last day that I can go. I pay the man the $5. He lets me go to the top of the temple.
Angkor Tip #3
Bribes are acceptable.
It’s my first day at the temples of Angkor. I wasn’t enjoying the day. I felt guilty for my tuk-tuk driver. Although he had said the ride was free because I took a taxi from the border, I couldn’t get out of his $20 tour by giving him a dollar for his time that afternoon.
I would think that for $20 in Cambodia, a driver would get out of his tuk-tuk and tell me about the temples. Absolutely not. This driver with the history degree only knew the years when the temples were built, but apparently not any of the stories or context behind them.
“My friend, this temple was built in … The king reigned from … It is the first capital of the Khmer people.”
“So, why was Angkor Wat abandoned?”
“My friend, this temple was built …” Apparently, my driver was either deaf, had selective hearing or didn’t know the answer to the question.
Angkor Tip #4
Tuk-tuk drivers are not your friend.
“This sucks,” I thought as I chained up my bike. My headache was getting worse, and I was sweating so profusely that the flies wouldn’t leave me alone. I was also beginning to suffer from temple burnout.
Angkor Tip #5
Buy a one-day ticket, but go after 5 p.m. the first day. You get all of the next day free.
I walked inside Preah Kahn. My first impressions had nothing to do with the temple itself. I actually enjoyed it because there were fewer tourists here than the Big Three (Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm). I could find some isolated corners of the temple and take some time for myself.
I walked through the corridors. This temple was built in four cardinal directions. North, south and west represent the Hindu gods of Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. East is represented by Buddhism. At the center is a stupa.
“Would you like to know the history behind this temple?” I heard someone say behind me.
I turned around and saw a Cambodian police officer. After my miserable day with my tuk-tuk driver, I was happy to get some context behind the temples.
“Sure,” I said.
The officer gave me a quick rundown of the east corridor of the temple. His speeches would last a minute and would end with: “Take a picture.”
I complied. His tour lasted about seven minutes. That’s when he solicited me for a donation. I gave him a dollar. I was lucky. Sometimes, these “guides” demand $10.
Angkor Tip #6
Nothing is free at the Temples of Angkor.
I was determined to make this first day at the temples better. I listened to my “guide”/driver’s recommendation to walk to an isolated temple in Angkor Thom, then take the inside paths to some of the bigger temples inside the city.
While not pretty, this temple offered me solitude. I walked the original staircase to the top. Each step stretched my leg, like I was doing high kicks. Now, I realized why modern staircases were attached to the sides of the bigger temples.
Angkor Tip #7
Temples are great for leg/cardio workouts.
Although difficult, it didn’t take me long to reach the top. A sign had conveniently been turned around that read “Do not enter.” I walked inside the entryway. The room was full of giant rocks. Holes in the walls and ceiling let in the ambient light, but I wasn’t the only one who had been here.
Someone had placed a Buddhist tree in the center of the temple. The colors stood out among the black ambience. I gazed around the room and felt a powerful energy rustle my body.
I’m not happy about paying the bribe to get to the top of Angkor Wat, but I quickly forget about it. I nearly have the eighth wonder of the world all to myself. I was one of six people wandering through the halls of the temple.
Unlike in the middle of the day, these towers are red from the first rays of the sun, not black. It’s beautiful, but I want to see why people talk so much about the sunrise here.
At the east windows, I simply feel disappointed. There’s no spectacular view from the top of Angkor Wat. Instead, I see only jungle. I get some good pictures, but it’s important to use common sense when planning a trip. Angkor Wat is oriented west. It would probably be better to come here for sunset.
Angkor Tip #8
Go to Sra Srang for sunrise.
I climbed down from the isolated temple and was ready to explore the rest of Angkor Thom. As I approached the next temple, a 7-year-old kid ran next to me.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” I said back knowing that he would ask me for money.
“Where are you from?”
I paused. He spoke with a perfect American accent. How did this kid do that?
“The United States …”
“The capitol is Washington, right?”
“The capital of Sacramento is California,” he said.
“You got it backwards. Sacramento is the capital of California.”
“Oh …” he said as I saw him unfold a piece of paper.
“Will you please give to our school?” he said as he tried to hand me a piece of paper.
“I don’t think so.”
“But it’s for our English lessons,” he said. He opened a notebook that showed Khmer and English.
I sighed. I had read somewhere to give the kids a break in Angkor Wat.
“I’m not signing my name, but I’ll give you a dollar.”
The kid didn’t look impressed and tried to get me to sign my name and donate more money.
“No, I don’t want to.”
He left. I walked up a new temple and rested when I got to the top. Two minutes later, a group of backpackers from Canada came up. The kid had followed them.
“Where are you from?”
“Canada,” one of the guys said.
“Oh, the capital of Canada is Toronto.”
The above isn’t just factually wrong; it’s also a scam.
Angkor Tip #9
Don’t donate to beggars, even cute kids.
(A video from Friends International illustrates why giving to beggars makes these children’s situation worse.)
I just finished exploring Angkor Thom, finally seeing Bayon on this third day at the temples. But I am exhausted.
I spent most of my time resting in the temples to stay out of the heat. I now need a break in some shade with some food.
My driver is waiting for me in the tuk-tuk area.
“I’m ready for lunch,” I say.
“OK,” the driver says.
He snaps on his helmet and reconfirms my plan for the rest of the day. We take off for Banteay Kdei, the next temple I plan to visit. I assume he’s taking me to a restaurant in this area.
We arrive at a restaurant with fans blowing. I know this is going to cost more than the $2 that I have been bargaining down for rice.
I go inside and open the menu.
Fried rice and vegetables: $4.50
Fried rice and egg: $4.75
Fried rice and pork/chicken: $5.50
You got to be kidding me, I think.
“This is too expensive,” I say to the wait staff. I walk out to the tuk-tuk.
“Wait,” one of the waiters say. “Can you wait 10 minutes for your driver?”
“Yeah, that’s not a problem.”
I climb into the tuk-tuk and try to sleep. I don’t know how these drivers do this. It’s noisy and hot.
“Did you wait long?” my driver says.
“About 15 minutes.”
“There’s no need to be sorry. It’s out of my budget.”
“You can borrow $5 from me and pay me back.”
“I can’t do that.”
He ignores my protests and unfolds a $5-bill from his wallet.
“Really, I just want to go somewhere cheaper.”
“I take you here because it’s clean.”
He has a point, and he’s looking after my interests. I hesitantly accept the $5.
Angkor Tip #10
Not all people are bad.
“What have I become? Am I so poor in my travel that I have to accept money from a person who probably makes $500 a month at most?” I think.
I go back to the restaurant and take a menu. I look inside my wallet. Without my driver’s $5, I have $4 and 6000 riel ($1.50). $5.50 total. That’s enough for the fried rice and egg and a drink. I order, grateful that I don’t have to use his $5 and glad that I can return it before we start exploring again.
My tuk-tuk driver drives me home. I stop by the ATM to get money to pay him. Within a minute, we’re back at my hostel. I hand him $20 and walk inside.
Yeah, we had agreed on $14, but I can tell he’s a good man. He deserves it.