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Exploring Angkor Archaeological Park: The Small Circuit

A look into my experiences over three visits to this popular UNESCO site, including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom to the less visited sites and adventures like hiking the Angkor Thom Wall. The park is a look back in time of the Khmer people and the structures the Kings built. But a closer look will reveal much more of their religion, daily life and life and death of the wars they fought to survive.

By: John Maurizi + Save to a List

Exploring Angkor has always been a dream of mine. My first visit did not disappoint to the extent that I returned another two times and I'm sure I will return again. There is so much to see and learn about this fascinating culture. Their history is documented in the many bas-reliefs found at Angkor Wat and Bayon Temple. It is truly worthwhile to take some time to examine.

Arriving to Siem Reap, your base for this adventure is quite easy. For U.S. citizens, you can obtain a "visa upon arrival" which costs about $35. Every year there seems to be an increase. Cambodia immigration requires you to present a passport photo for their records, however, for $2.00 they will take your photo. This is a source of much anxiety when arriving but the Cambodian immigration officials have a good sense of humor. I recall during my first visit, while waiting in line, an official announced loudly to the lines, "if you have no photo we will throw you in jail" followed by the official letting out a loud laugh. This did not stop the blood from rushing out of many faces to the thought of spending vacation in a Cambodian jail.

Some important information, nearly everyone in Siem Reap speaks English. Also, no need to change any money. The locals prefer U.S. dollars. Once out of the airport, it is easy to get transportation to Siem Reap. I recommend a Tuk Tuk driver which will cost about $7 - $10 USD. Negotiation is key when dealing with any Tuk Tuk driver.

(Tuk Tuk) Photo by: John Maurizi

After checking into the hotel, the next step is to hire a Tuk Tuk driver to take you around the park. You can arrange one through the hotel or you could have negotiated a deal with the driver that took you from the airport. I've done both and the best experience is hiring a driver through the hotel. This usually cost about $20 per day. A great deal considering the driver is with you the entire day.

Now for the tours. Do not try and purchase the entry ticket to Angkor in the early morning in an effort to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Although the ticket windows open at 5:00am, by the time you get to Angkor Wat, there are hoards of people set up with tripods in front of the reflecting pool. You can purchase the ticket the day before if you want to see sunrise at Angkor Wat first. Keep in mind that purchasing the ticket the day before still counts as a day from you ticket. Options are 1 day ticket - $37 USD, 3 day ticket - $62.00 USD and 7 day ticket - $72.00 USD. When I purchase my ticket early morning I choose to go to Bayon in Angkor Thom, only a few minutes from Angkor Wat. The sunrise here is unique.

(Bayon at sunrise) Photo by: John Maurizi

Some changes have been enacted as to the time and locations for sunrise. Effective in 2017, only Angkor Wat, Phnom Bakheng and Pre Rup can be accessed at 5:00am. All the other temple sites are accessible at 7:30am. They are very serious about this and every site has security. You can view Bayon from the parking area and watch the sun slowly light up the Buddha faces of Bayon.

The Small Circuit

After sunrise, the Tuk Tuk driver will take you on your choice of unofficial tours known as the Small Circuit and the Grand Circuit. The first day, I always go with the Small Circuit. The first temple on the Small Circuit is Angkor Wat, however, pass on by for now (best to explore in the late afternoon). The next group of temples are rather small but worth a stop. Your Tuk Tuk driver will wait while you walk in and check out Baksei Chamkrong. Follow a short path to the right to see Prasat Bei.

(Baksei Chamkrong) Photo by: John Maurizi

This small group of temples is just before crossing over the Angkor Thom Moat and passing through the South Gate. This is an impressive gate that offers great photo opportunities early in the morning.

(South Gate to Angkor Thom) Photo by: John Maurizi

After passing through the South Gate, in a few minutes you will reach Bayon Temple. Known for the "200 Faces of Buddha" it can take some time to explore. I like to visit and explore in the morning and return late afternoon. Most of the tourists are gone late afternoon and it's easier to take photos without someone bombing your shot.

(A few of the "200 Faces of Bayon") Photo by: John Maurizi

The next stop after Bayon Temple is the Palace area of Angkor Thom. This area takes time to explore as well. You can see the main attractions by having your Tuk Tuk driver leave you at the entrance to Baphuon Temple. Walk back to Baphuon along a causeway then back out to the road. This causeway is connected to the Elephant Terrace (be sure to check out the front of the terrace!) which you can walk on north towards the Terrace of the Leper King.

(Elephant Terrace) Photo by: John Maurizi

You can have your Tuk Tuk driver wait for you at the north end where you can exit the Terrace of the Leper King. Be sure to walk through the recessed Leper King Terrace.

(The Leper King) Photo by: John Maurizi

(Terrace of the Leper King) Photo by: John Maurizi

Across from the Leper King Terrace is a souvenir and food stall area. It's a good place to get a bite to eat before continuing with the Small Circuit. The Small Circuit leaves Angkor Thom through the Victory Gate. Another impressive Gate, this gate is where returning Khmer armies would return from battle.

(Victory Gate leaving Angkor Thom) Photo by: John Maurizi

After passing through the Victory Gate and over the moat, there are two small temples worth a visit. To the left is Thommanon Temple and directly across the road on the right is Chau Say Tevoda Temple. 

(Thommanon Temple) Photo by: John Maurizi

(Chau Say Tevoda Temple) Photo by: John Maurizi

Next on the Small Circuit is Ta Prohm. I've always been drawn to Ta Prohm for several reasons. It's larger than some of the other temples and in more of a jungle setting. But most importantly, Ta Prohm is where you get the first full experience of how the jungle overtook the temples of Angkor. While much of the jungle has been cleared back and most of the structures reconstructed, some of the jungle is simply embedded into the stone walls and fixtures. The best way to explore Ta Prohm is to have the Tuk Tuk drive drop you off at the west entrance of the temple and have the driver wait at the east entrance. For an added adventure, there is a trail that weaves in and out of the outer wall surrounding the temple. Hike around the temple and follow the trail back to the west and then explore the interior. Ta Prohm is excellent in the early morning (7:30am opening). Worth an early morning return on another day.

(Jungle over taking Ta Prohm) Photo by: John Maurizi

(Trail around Ta Prohm) Photo by: John Maurizi

(Jungle over taking Ta Prohm) Photo by: John Maurizi

Just across the road and to the east of Ta Prohm is another excellent temple to explore on the Circuit, Bantaey Kdei. Again, you can enter from the west and exit at the east end where the Tuk Tuk driver can wait for you.

(Bantaey Kdei) Photo by: John Maurizi

(Entrance to Bantaey Kdei) Photo by: John Maurizi

Last stop on the Small Circuit is a small temple with three towers called Prasat Kraven.

(Prasat Kraven) Photo by: John Maurizi

While this is the end of the Small Circuit, there should be plenty of time to go to Angkor Wat and explore a bit. Angkor Wat is usually very crowded most of the day however, very late in the day is an ideal time to explore. Sunsets at Angkor Wat is just as impressive as sunrise, just different.

(Angkor Wat from the inner reflecting pool at sunset) Photo by: John Maurizi

Angkor Wat closes at 5:30pm. You will easily know the time as security walks throughout the temple blowing a whistle and telling everyone to leave.

So it's back to Siem Reap. For me, my first stop is always to The Sun for a cold bottle of Cambodia Lager Beer and reflect on the day's adventure.

Photo by: John Maurizi

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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