The hardest part of any trip is the destination, not the path that takes us there. The destination delimits our trip, it puts an end to it. We started our long trip with one question: can you drive to Angkor Wat from Bangkok?
Angkor Wat has been described in the mid-19th century as grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome. The French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot continued in saying that one of these Khmer temples was a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo. The first Angkor Wat pictures I saw were just unique, with the vegetation now part of the building, keeping together an otherwise collapsing series of temples.
Today is time to drive to Angkor Wat, a challenging trip full of surprises!
It was a long trip, it is now time to drive to Angkor Wat
Getting to Angkor Wat is not that easy! It has been a long trip. Two intense weeks of driving through Thailand, in the east side of the country. We decided to rent the car in Bangkok and we left the capital with the hope that we could go through the border with the vehicle. Travelling in Thailand is usually quick and easy, if you are on the typical tourist routes, however if you go off these routes you should expect a challenging transportation system, unspoken English, hard to find accommodation. What about the food? Always gorgeous, although much hotter than usual, especially once you get closer to the Cambodian border, where the Isan food is very common.
We had an easy time driving to Ayutthaya and to Lopburi. We spent few days in the Khao Yai National Park. We moved on to Phimai and we reached the Cambodian border literally discovering some of the most beautiful Khmer temples in the nobody’s land, a strip of territory still in dispute between the two neighbouring countries. An unofficial border where you leave your passport to an unofficial frontier service seating on a school bench. Of course no way to take the car through. You can just have a walk accompanied by either the Thai or the Cambodian army, based on which side of the temple you are.
We finished the day with our passports in hand and an incredible and unique travelling experience, not really a place visited by tourists on a bus. It was a good time for a nice sleep, with a smile. Further planning could wait till the day after.
Getting ready for the border control, how do we get through?
We wake up with a question mark. We have the car and we want to go to Cambodia. The ultimate destination is Angkor Wat. We started our trip with this dream. Can we go through the Thai-Cambodian border with the rented car? can we drive to Angkor Wat from Bangkok?
We visit some agencies and we talk with the few locals that get by in English. We are so close to the border and we are sure that someone knows how to go through. The more we talk the more we understand that we can possibly go through but legality may be an issue.
We have a plan. The border is in Chong Chom, close to where we sleep. We drive there and we cross to Ou Smach in Cambodia. From there it is a 3 hours drive to Angkor Wat. On the paper it is definitely a good plan, but what about the reality? The only answer is starting the trip, driving our car to the border and start the negotiation with the officials.
We are now just few km from the border and we have a chat on the possible consequences of our choice. Assuming we will be able to pass the border we will be two western people in Cambodia with a Thai car, definitely an easy target for the local police. Not to talk about the lack of insurance covering our adventure. The renter was firm on “car insured only within the Thai borders” and we did not really ask if we could drive it outside. Yes, lots of question marks, but sometime you need to push the limits like we did the day before in the nobody’s land, these are the days you will remember for ever.
Thai-Cambodia border, is it possible to drive to Angkor Wat from Bangkok?
I think there is a bit of adrenaline in our body. We pass by a small forest in the hills and there it is the border, with the usual hurly burly. I step out from the car and I go to the border officials to have a first talk. I explain we are driving to Angkor Wat from Bangkok and we will be back in few days, a bit of chitchat, not that it makes a difference, but you never know.
The first response is positive. They first want to check the passports and there is a tax for the car, somehow expected. It’s not a steep tax, and that is fine, however it covers only the Thai side and it does not cover the way back. Nothing specific about the Cambodian border, not too far away but of course I could not speak with the officials on that side for a gentleman agreement. Back to the car for a quick brainstorming.
We could go through the Thai border with the car but there were few question marks:
- the Cambodian border could have refused us or they could have asked an unusually high border tax
- we make it through both borders with a reasonable investment. We could enjoy our trip in Angkor Wat but on the way back the Cambodian officials may ask an astronomical border fee to go through to the Thai border. They would hold the whip hand
- Even if we can get through 1. and 2. than there is again the Thai border and we wonder if and how will accept two western people in a Thai car, again who they will have the upper hand, not us!
Decision is made. NO GO. There is no official way to get through with the car. Not today at least. Disappointing but at the same time somehow expected.
The question: can people drive to Angkor Wat from Bangkok?
Answer: no, unless you take some risks and possibly some steep tax/penalties to pay
Angkor Wat temples
We were looking forward to see Angkor Wat. We have been there over 10 years ago where a sealed road was a dream, when the trip from the airport to the hotel was on a back of a motorbike on a red dirt road, without helmets of course. It was the time when the town was so small that the main square was the evening head quarter for the back packers exchanging information. It was the time when the price of my 4M digital point-and-shot camera was as high as the price of today’s full sensor DSLR. I was so stupid to buy it…..or maybe not because I still have these photos that remember me a fantastic trip.
An this is the beauty of travelling, the unknown of what is next, the plan that can change on course. I do not consider this trip as a failure because we did not reach Angkor Wat. The trip is not just the final destination, the trip is the road to the final destination and we experienced some incredible situations, some lovely food, although quite spicy :), we met so many charming locals, always with a smile. We pushed our boundaries being without passport in an undefined stripe of land.
It was a fantastic travel photography trip where I could capture so many beautiful images, landscaping, markets, temples, people. It was somehow a trip I started 10 years ago, with my first digital camera and many Angkor Wat photos to think back
I cannot say how is Angkor Wat today. What I can show is how was Angkor Wat 15 years ago, and hopefully it has not changed too much. It was of course a popular place to visit however the area is so big that the crowd of tourists did not invade every corner. You just had to rent a motorbike driver for 3 days and enjoy the fantastic and unique area built in the 12th century
Travel & Photography Tips
I still remember the Angkor Wat trip like it was yesterday. I already had the photography bug and a passion that is still with me today. There are so many photo opportunities in this beautiful place
- a visit to Angkor War will prove to be a real marathon. Do not under estimate it. Take at least a 3-days ticket, possibly 5-days. The area is really wide.
- plan your touring day around sunrise and sunset, have a 2 hours nap in the mid afternoon or stay at the swimming pool in the hotel, if you have one. It will be hot and you want to avoid the central hours of the day, not good at all for photography anyway
- be at the Angkor Wat main temple area as early as you can in the day, possibly when it is still dark. Be ready on the stone bridge at the main entrance, you will be spectator of one of the best sunrise in the world (the sun will rise behind the temple)
- explore the temples quietly. These are still visited by the monks, which are an awesome subject for your photos
- have some shots of the happy faces in the low relief and organise a multi-windows composition of them
- take some portraits of the locals, some real characteristic faces; they may ask money for it, so be selective if you do not want to splurge 😀
- do not miss to document how the temples became part of the local nature, with the tree roots holding together the building stones
- go to the Bayon for your sunset photography, you will experience a magical reflection from the pool
- a famous sunset viewpoint is Phnom Bakheng, however expect a big crowd. You will have a fabulous view of the valley but you will share it with a massive amount of people. I was unlucky when I visited it. It was misty and the visibility was a problem however I would definitely give another try next time I will visit Angor Wat
- I heard you can now fly over the area with an helicopter. This is something I would definitely do and suggest, if the weather conditions are right of course. Remember to set a shutter speed over 1/500 for a sharp photo.