Your key to this alternate world, the ticket office, opens at 5am and is conveniently found on the main road into Angkor Archaeological Park from Siem Reap. You'll need your picture taken for each pass, so bring a smile, and the costs are as follows:
1 Day: $20 | 2 Days: $40 | 3 Days: $60
Most sites open around 5.30am and close at 5.30pm and there are ticket inspectors at every site, so make sure you have yours with you always.
Banteay Srei - East Mebon - Ta Som - Neak Pean - Preah Khan
Cycling may have been a bit ambitious, but we were on a DIY/money-saving bender, so we hit the pedals for the 70km round trip out to Banteay Srei on our first day. An early start when cycling is advisable when you've got a fair way to go, so we loaded up with water and hit the road. Fortunately, Banteay Srei delivered, with a moat-bordered temple, endowed with intricate carvings. It's one of the smaller locations we visited, but the red sandstone of which it's built sits charmingly against the thick surrounding jungle. It was an ideal start.
From here Neak Pean (an artificial island with a Buddhist temple) and Preah Khan (built on a battle site) are a short distance west, both offering a glimpse into Khmer life in it's different forms. Everyone gauges success in different ways, but clearing a 70km bike ride and five ruins before making it back to the Foreign Correspondents Club in time for happy hour was a resounding win for us.
Angkor Wat - Bayon - Angkor Thom
Sunrise at Angkor Wat is where you'll find the highest density of tourists this side of the Taj Mahal. People line the lake in their hundreds waiting for the sun to peak over the temple, casting a brilliant silhouette onto the water. It's a captivating view for sure, but the tour-bussed masses have a habit of killing the mystical buzz, so we walked straight through the temple to the back (or east side), where only a couple of people lingered. Here we saw the details of the central towers spot-lit by the rising sun and all we heard was the forest around us. Afterwards, we still had time to duck back to the west side for a couple of photos across the pond.
When the day has well and truly begun, you stroll on into the gigantic building, where the lakeside masses seem to dissipate as they spread out into the many corridors and courtyards. Wandering in and out of endless spaces will get you inevitably lost, but that’s all part of the fun as you delve into the world's largest religious structure. Allow yourself at least four hours within the grounds because as the light shifts, so does the appearance of the ruins.
Just north Angkor Wat, nestled in the centre of Angkor Thom, is the Bayon. We thought Angkor Wat would be the main event of the day, but this terraced temple ended up having more of an impact. Its surrounding walls bare carvings depicting historic scenes and the faces that protrude from the 51 towers take on a jigsaw look as the rocks that compose them slowly divide.
Taking one lap of the upper level is simply not possible, as looking back on your route round often reveals perspectives and aspects you hadn't previously seen, but must now investigate. The Bayon, may not be as history-rich as Angkor Wat, but visually it is mesmerisingly exquisite. In the north west corner of Angkor Thom is a scattering of structures ideal for a light afternoon wander. The Terrace of the Leper King, Phimeanakas and Terrace of the Elephants are of particular note, but all are a gentle way to end an action-packed day.
Ta Prohm - Banteay Kdei - Srah Srang - Roluos
As one of Siem Reap's most notorious haunts, Ta Prohm gets busy fast. Every travel guide recommends an early start, so we set out in the dark to get in before the masses. Sure enough, within half an hour of our arrival, the site went from mildly occupied to a crowd scene worthy of London Waterloo at 8am on a Monday.
Don't despair though. After you pass the noisy maintenance work and negotiate the hoards, the serene scenes you'd hoped for are still plentiful. Tour groups remain fairly unoriginal in a "tour-by-number" kind of way, so a little exploration through the area (even in peak tourist time) will find you completely secluded in brick structures wrapped in roots and painted vibrant bronze and green shades by moss and time.
Next door to Ta Prohm is Banteay Kdei, which was built in a similar style to the Bayon. Sadly, due to the building materials and construction method, its has deteriorated faster than other similar structures, but the main features remain. It's easy to kill a couple of hours walking around here and the neighbouring reservoir, Srah Srang.
There's a lot of expectation when you come to Angkor Wat and it's surrounding ruins. You've seen photos, heard about it from friends who've visited and no doubt noticed the location in a couple of movies. Its appearance is mind-bending and what's almost more impressive is how it does not disappoint. As a unique and bewitching archaeological park, the likes of which I haven't seen since Macchu Pichu, it's fantastical nature seems to flirt with the bounds of reality.
Such concentrations of ancient archaeology are rarely found, making Angkor Wat a no brainer for the UNESCO list. Ideally we would have hired a scooter/motorbike to move around the area, but the frequently crashing tourists led to a law preventing this. However, you can see it by bike, you can see it by bus and you can see it by tuk tuk...just make sure you see it.