Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm: Exploring the incredible ancient temples of Angkor

Before I visited Cambodia, I didn’t know a single thing about the country except that it was pretty close to Thailand and had a famous temple with a funny name. Ashamed as I am to admit it, that was the extent of my knowledge of the country that would soon become my favourite in South East Asia. Cambodia really does have it all. It is a country with a fascinating yet tragic history, beaches to rival those of neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand and the hotspot cities of Siem Reap and Pnohm Penh are a must for culture junkies who aren’t afraid of a wild party or two. Not to mention Cambodia has one of the largest temple complexes in the world, the 400km expanse of Angkor, an ancient Khmer city filled to the brim with crumbling, Tombraider-esque temples slowly being taken over by the jungle. (Read on to the end for some top tips before you visit!)

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Another day, another temple
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The 54 ‘devas’ guarding the southern entrance to Angkor
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The opposing figures at the South Gate depict the battle between the ‘devas’ (gods) and the ‘asuras’ (demons)

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the superstar here, claiming the number one spot in Lonely Planet’s Ultimate travel List. (Grab a copy for your coffee table here.)  The best time to visit the iconic temple is sunrise, so take it easy on the beer pong the night before, especially if you’re staying at the Downtown Hostel in Siem Reap which is notorious for it’s Pub Street bar crawls. Your hostel can arrange for a local guide to pick you up on a tuk-tuk in the dark at around 4.00am to arrive at Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. Despite the early hoards of selfie-stick wielding tourists, there is an undeniably mystical, serene atmosphere here. The morning mist hangs heavy in the humid air and countless dragonflies dance around the crumbling stones. Try and wrestle your way to a spot right in front of the water so you can watch the sun slowly appear behind the magnificent temple and see its shimmering reflection. Or just do what this lady did and ignore the temple right in front of you to snap a picture of a postcard…strange.

 

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The real thing is directly opposite you love…
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5am faces…
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The sun rising slowly behind Angkor Wat

 

There is far, far more to the temples of Angkor than Angkor Wat alone. There is a vast array of temples dotted around the ancient complex. You won’t be able to see everything in a day, your best bet is to buy a 3 day ticket and let your guide ferry you around the temples on a tuk-tuk. Just remember to tip your driver after the 3 days! Your other options include cycling, but the midday heat is seriously sweltering and the temples are spread widely apart. You could take an elephant too, but it’d take you a hell of a long time to see everything and, with all tourist attractions such as this, the welfare of the elephants is always questionable.

 

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Taking a break from the heat
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Monkeys often bring traffic to a halt as they amble across the road

 

Bayon

Bayon is a mind-boggling temple where 216 serene stone faces smile down at you from every angle. The entire temple is covered in bas-reliefs, figures etched into the stone, depicting mythological scenes and everyday life in 12th century Cambodia. Inside feels like a giant hall of mirrors with its endless, long hallways of crumbling stone and small shrines sit in silent corners adorned with flowers and incense.

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The huge, smiling faces of Bayon

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For a small fee you can have your photo taken with locals in traditional dress at Bayon
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Just one of thousands of bas-reliefs carved into the temple walls

Ta Prohm

Nowhere is the power of nature more apparent than at Ta Prohm temple, or ‘The Tombraider Temple’, where the jungle has literally taken over. Long tree roots have entwined themselves around the stones and grown around doorways, enveloping the temple which buckles under the force of nature. You can’t help but unleash your inner Lara Croft here, or picture yourself in an Indiana Jones movie. The temple itself is a maze of narrow hallways and you’ll find yourself at a twisting series of dead ends, the passage blocked by fallen stone blocks. The light filtering down through the trees and the sounds of the surrounding jungle add to the mysticism and other-worldliness of this place.

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Teeny doorways

Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm are only the tip of the iceberg of temples to explore. Take your time and prepare to be enchanted by this truly incredible part of this beautiful country.

Things to be aware of before you visit:

Dress code: Although a tourist attraction, Angkor is still a religious site and therefore you should dress appropriately. This can be a struggle in the midday heat, as you can see from my photos I didn’t always follow my own advice. Your best bet is to keep your shoulders covered with a loose shirt or kimono to stay cool while dressing respectfully.

Child hawkers: You will be followed constantly by cute kids selling postcards and trinkets. Remember that the Angkor complex is enormous and there are populated villages scattered around so these children’s families live nearby. Although the constant hassling can be tedious, remember that these families often have no other option than to send their children out to make a living.

The heat: Oh god the heat. The temple complex is huge and you will spend full days walking around endless temples in the midday sun. Bring lots of water and suncream and try to stay in the shade as much as possible. Some temples have hundreds of steps, so take it easy!

Tourists: Try to visit the most popular temples mentioned above as early or late in the day as possible, to avoid the crowds. There are so many other temples to explore during the day that you’ll often find yourself the only person there!

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Top 10 budget-friendly things to do in Hanoi

I hadn’t planned on spending 10 days in Hanoi. The original idea had been to make our way leisurely up the coast of Vietnam and spend a couple of days here before flying home. But a pesky monsoon hit us hard in Ho Chi Minh and, being shameless sun-seekers, we decided to jump on a flight to the sunnier end of the country. This turned out to be a great decision (and not only because of the weather). From the unmissable views of serene Halong Bay to the chaotic, labyrinth-like lanes of the old quarter, there is so much to see and do in happening Hanoi. Here’s a list of the top things not to miss in this culturally rich capital, and they’re all budget friendly!.

1. Cruise your way through towering limestone islands in a junk boat.

93Halong Bay had to be top of the list didn’t it really? It is a UNESCO world heritage site after all. Almost 2000 rainforest-topped islands make up this breathtaking place. These little limestone islands were formed by dragons according to legend and Ha Long literally translates from ancient vietnamese as descending dragon.

There are a lot of different boat trips to choose from so take a bit of time to shop around and try to pick one that’s relevant to your age range and interests. (You don’t want to find yourself on a banana-boat booze cruise with a rowdy group of pimply 18 year olds, unless that’s your thing of course.) We opted for a 3 day, 2 night tour that included one night on the boat and one on pretty Cat Ba island. The itineraries tend to be very similar, mostly involving kayaking, floating villages and stop-offs at various picturesque islands to find the best photo ops.  Our tour included on-board cooking lessons, cycling around Cat Ba island, cave exploring and kayaking trips into deep, hidden lagoons. No matter which tour you choose, you’re in for an unforgettable experience.

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Time to top up the tan between islands
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On the way to some bat caves in the middle of dense rainforest we bumped into these ladies, who shared their tasty sugar cane with us

 

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Almost walked face first into this guy…
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Exploring caves in the jungle on Cat Ba island
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Interesting hotel name…

2. Pet a furry friend at Hanoi’s very own cat cafe.

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I had heard through the backpacker grapevine that Hanoi had its very own cat cafe, but when I asked around I was met with blank looks. But after finding a vague address online and wandering around the city for hours we eventually found the Ailu cat house. To call it a cafe is generous, they don’t actually have a coffee machine or serve any food. But what they lack in beverage options, they make up for in cats. A lot of cats. The general idea: come in, sit down, wait for a cat to sit on you, relax! It’s meant to be pretty therapeutic apparently. If you’re a cat person anyway.

We spent an unnecessary amount of time here that afternoon, but it’s hard to leave when you’ve got a cute, little furry thing snoring peacefully on your lap…

 

3. Tickle your tastebuds with a walking food tour of the Old Quarter

(That’s you walking by the way, not the food. Though in Vietnam you can never be sure…)

There’s more to vietnamese food than just phở! The variety of dishes on offer here is huge, but for a truly authentic taste of Hanoi you’ll need avoid the lure of touristy restaurants. Your guide will take you to all the secret places that you’d have a hard time discovering on your own; down a side alley, through a non-descript store front, up several flights of rickety stairs into a hidden restaurant. Be prepared to try such delicacies as deep-fried duck tongue and Hanoi’s famous egg coffee. (So much nicer than it sounds.) Awesome travel offer a great food tour that takes you to 8 different places around the old quarter for around £10. The trip involves a lot of walking and takes around 3 hours. Make sure you go on an empty stomach, you’ll be absolutely stuffed by the end of the evening!

 

4. After tasting it, try making it in an authentic cooking class.

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If you’re into the culinary side of things a cooking class is a great way to spend an evening. Blue Butterfly Cooking Class is one of the most popular choices, with the class beginning in the markets with your guide, who introduces you to the different spices and herbs before purchasing the fresh produce to bring back to the kitchen.

At the restaurant you’ll be shown how to make traditional dishes such as pork spring rolls and banana flower salad. Afterwards you’ll sit down and eat everything you’ve just cooked! At around £44 this is a bit on the pricey side, but it was my favourite experience in Hanoi and worth every penny!

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There is a slight chance you’ll set yourself on fire

5. Take a stroll through the tranquil Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university

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If history and architecture is your thing, you’ll love this temple/university. With the tranquil atmosphere and heady scent of incense in the air, it’s an escape from the hectic city surrounding it. Established as Vietnam’s very first university in 1076, this small temple complex is full of beautiful old architecture and shrines honouring Vietnam’s finest scholars. Entrance used to be reserved for those of noble birth only, but don’t worry, they let anyone in nowadays 😉

Look out for the bushes shaped like animals of the zodiac and the cute miniatures of Confucius and his students scattered around the well-pruned foliage. The temple is not just popular among tourists; often you’ll see recently gradated students in traditional dress having their photographs taken in front of the central pool, known as the ‘Well of Heavenly Clarity’. Admission costs only 30 000VD.

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6. Discover the ancient legend of Hoàn Kiếm, ‘Lake of the restored sword’

Hoàn Kiếm lake, the physical and symbolical centre of the city. You can’t miss this huge body of water at the heart of the city, its banks are popular with locals who enjoy a bit of tai chi at 6am and if you’re lucky you might spot a turtle popping up for a breath of air. Legend goes that in the 15th century  Emperor Ly Thai To was given a magical sword by the Golden Turtle God which helped him defeat the Chinese. After the victory, a large turtle swam up to the emperors boat and reclaimed the sword, disappearing into the depths of the lake to return it to it’s divine owner.

You can learn more about the legend at Ngoc Son Temple,( Temple of the Jade Mountain) which sits on a tiny island accessed by an ornate red bridge. It’s only 30,000VND to go inside, where you’ll find many locals come to worship and burn bank notes in a furnace as offerings. (Don’t risk burning yourself, the notes are fake…)

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Group of friends playing a checkers style game in the temple grounds

7. Gawp at the traffic mayhem from a safe distance at the City View Cafe

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Crossing the street anywhere in Hanoi is pretty daunting, but this intersection by the old quarter is something else. It’s chaos. There are no lines on the road, no roundabout, no rules of who goes first. It’s every man for himself, you snooze you lose. Our food tour guide tried to teach us how to cross the road without getting squashed with his 3 golden rules:

  • Don’t stop! One you’ve started to cross just keep going, don’t hesitate, slow down or worst of all stop. The traffic will (hopefully) move around you.
  • Don’t make eye contact with drivers
  • Buses rule the road! A bus will not stop if you are in the way, if you see one coming, run…

If you can’t face crossing the road, watch the madness from above instead. You can’t miss the City View Cafe building overlooking the intersection next to the lake. Head all the way up to the top floor and grab a spot overlooking the chaos below with a cold drink.

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8. Take in the french colonial architecture and shop til you drop in the labyrinthine old quarter .

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Grab a bag of delicious, deep fried pastry ball things from a street vendor, search for the best phở in Hanoi or haggle over the price of a pointy hat that you’ll have to wear on the plane on the way home and which will probably end up in the attic…

 

9. Discover Hanoi’s secret nightlife

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Hanoi has notoriously strict laws regarding bars and clubs and most places will be closed by midnight. A ‘night out’ in the city will usually consist of sipping bia hoi perched on a plastic stool down a bustling lane in the old quarter. But after one evening doing just that, we met a group of Israeli guys who were heading to one of Hanoi’s ‘underground’ clubs.

A 10 minute taxi ride from downtown brings us to the Hero Club, an industrial style nightclub with pulsing music, cage dancers and of course, a selection of fresh fruit on the tables. However we had only been inside for 5 minutes when the music turned off abruptly and the staff starting ushering everyone to  the rear exit away from the police out front… we’d have to try our luck another night!

 

10. Cool off in the rooftop pool at the Apricot Hotel

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It’s hard to find a swimming pool in the city. There are only a handful scattered about, mainly on the rooftops of the fancier hotels that are definitely not backpacker-budget friendly. But many hotels will let you use their pools for a fee, such as the ridiculously fancy Apricot Hotel. Just look at those chandeliers in the lobby…

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The hotel charges around £10 to use the pool. However, if you’re really low on funds and feeling sneaky, it’s easy to come back free of charge another day. Just act natural and jump in the elevator!