TripAdvisor recently came out with their annual World Wonder list, and Angkor Wat was honored as the top world landmark followed by last year’s winner, Machu Picchu. I had the privilege of visiting both, and because I traveled to each place all within 18 months of each other, I would like to share my insights, especially if you’re deciding to choose one jewel over the other. Of course, if you are a WanderLuster, you will plan to visit both in your lifetime! But sometimes you don’t know which destination to go to first or in what order. Factors like the weather as well as price/cost might sway you one way or the other when choosing your next epic adventure. Here are a few facts to consider, and at the end (don’t peek!) I give my opinion on which bucket list destination I would choose if I could ONLY do one before I die.
Angkor Wat is mostly hot all year round so do your research on which cooler, dry months to go. Basically, December through March is ideal. I went in February and the weather was very manageable as it was only in the mid to high 80’s (F) and sunny. Of course, it felt hotter in the direct sun so be prepared with all your sunscreen and hats. Also, I was very surprised at the low amount of tourists when I went in February of this year. I felt like I had the place all to myself at times in certain places. If you are not good in hot weather, you must be careful with your choice of which months to go.
Machu Picchu has a more cooler climate year round with the dry season being in June through August. I went in August of 2013, and I was completely unprepared. What I have learned about the temperatures of the world is that what your research shows vs. what the iPhone weather app shows could be significantly different from reality! You must look at the lows and be prepared. Sitting in your comfy chair or your warm bed and imagining what temperatures feel like is far different from reality. You must factor the dampness/rain along with the wind when traveling to cooler climates. I was in Cuzco for the whole week along with three other volunteers. I’m from Chicago, another was from Montreal, and the other two guys were from Texas. All of us were freezing our asses off the entire time we were in Cuzco because none of us factored in the dampness and rain. And we all thought the temperatures there were significantly colder than what we thought. We had nothing more heavy than sweatshirts when we really should have had winter coats. Trust me, all of us did our research about the weather but none of us were prepared. This mistake of ours almost ruined our Machu Picchu experience as constant, physical discomfort took its toll.
VISA, PASSPORT, and HEALTH:
Machu Picchu’s high elevation (2,430 meters) requires you to acclimate to the high altitude for about 2 or 3 days before you climb Machu Picchu. Also, the tickets must be reserved and purchased in advance, and there is a limited number allotted each day.
Also, do your research about what shots are required before your travels. I didn’t get any shots for Machu Picchu (although the internet might suggest otherwise) because I was advised by my Peruvian friend. For Angkor Wat I ended up getting Hepatitis A & B, tetanus, as well as malaria medication which I paid almost $80 U.S. dollars for since insurance companies do NOT cover this. YOU DO NOT NEED THE MALARIA MEDS EVEN THOUGH YOUR TRUSTED TRAVEL NURSE OR DOCTOR WILL STRONGLY SUGGEST THAT YOU DO! I took one pill and I felt like someone knocked me out. When I talked to my contact in Cambodia, a Chicagoan who travels there twice a year for the past dozen years or so, he advised me not to take the malaria pills because it is very hard on the liver and just hard on the body. Funny thing is, I even talked to a physician friend about the medication and he recommend that I take it. I also interviewed another Chicagoan who has visited Angkor Wat, and he looked at me funny when I asked him what shots I needed, and he said none. Again, information out there that is incorrect, written and advised by people who haven’t traveled there vs. the truth from a person who has been and experienced the place are two different things.
A note about visas: For PERU no visa is required if you are a U.S. citizen. For Cambodia your U.S. passport MUST be valid for 6 months upon entry. Also, you must get an e-visa which currently costs $99 U.S. dollars .
Angkor Wat, as well as Cambodia in general, was much cheaper than Machu Picchu. The entrance fee to the entire park was $20 U.S. dollars a day! I just bought the ticket at the entrance to the park without any reservation at all. A three day pass was $40 U.S. dollars. The hotel I stayed in, the Golden Temple Residence, was about $100 U.S. dollars a day which included a spa treatment, a free dinner, free breakfast, along with a pick up and drop off service to/from the airport. The hotel staff was SO, SO spectacular! Angkor Wat was probably the least expensive world site that I have visited, and the best hotel experience I have ever received in all my travels. I had a personal tour guide for two whole days who charged me $70 or $75 U.S. dollars per day. The total that I spent in Angkor Wat for the food, guide, entrance fee, entertainment, souvenirs, and hotel is the least amount relative to the scale of the bucket list world wonder that I have ever visited.
Machu Picchu was far more expensive, and tickets must be reserved beforehand. They also limit the number of people per day to 2,500 so you must plan way in advance. The 3 hour train ride to the site from the center of Cuzco cost well over $300 U.S. dollars. Keep in mind, however, that the train ride itself is simply epic, stunning, and amazing. I was in an air conditioned train with panoramic windows with gorgeous music playing in the background. They served breakfast, too. Honestly, I felt like I was ascending to heaven. If you happen to be staying near the base of Machu Picchu, the entrance fee this year is $62 U.S. dollars per day. I can’t say much about the hotel rates as I stayed in a school for a week because I was volunteering. Also, I can’t say much about the cost of the food as I had every meal cooked for me included in the donation I had to provide for the school. When I did research for hotel prices on line as well as interview a Peruvian about my trip back in 2013, the prices seemed high just like for any other major city, and the Peruvian from Chicago who travels there twice a year confirmed it.
THE CITY ITSELF: Siem Reap vs. Cuzco
Angkor Wat is in Siem Reap and I loved the night life. It was another hip, fun city at night and I was surprised with its modern feel. Because I flew in from Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, which was kind of dirty and heavily polluted with smog in my opinion, Siem Reap was a much better welcome. I was very surprised at the European feel as my guide drove me around the town, and he, too, confirmed my thoughts and happiness about the city. Of course, the sunny weather I had every day helped.
Machu Picchu is in Cuzco which is a charming city and much larger than Siem Reap. I only walked through the main town during the day and can’t say too much about the nightlife as, again, I was volunteering and committed to my school’s group. However, when we drove through the town at night, my heart ached as it looked beautiful and gorgeous, and I wanted to be on foot on my own. During the day it was absolutely beautiful with many quaint shops along with the colorful rooftops as well as the colorful landscape. The main square on Sundays has a parade and it’s a nice way to observe the people and their traditions. Walking around you get to see lamas, too, along with many photo opportunities. The city is quite large with many more sites to see than Siem Reap, but I must say that I had a tour guide who drove us in a comfortable Mercedes bus as a part of my volunteer package.
Finally, the BEAUTY, WOW FACTOR, and TOTAL EXPERIENCE:
TOUGH ONE!!! If both sites were on flat ground, it would probably be even. But because my experience of Machu Picchu was way more suspenseful with the altitude acclimation for a couple of days, the stunning 3 plus hour train ride, then another bus ride on a winding dirt road that ascended to the mountain (with every single person on that bus looking out with mouths open in awe) I must say that Machu Picchu was more satisfying. When I was in Cuzco I was freezing and miserable every day, and the weather was mostly cloudy and rainy…except for the day I visited Machu Picchu! It was gorgeously sunny and mild, and then it started to rain again when we came back down by the base of the mountain. Also, the tour guide experience might affect your experience big time. I had a great personal tour guide in Angkor Wat and had a crappy, cattle-call experience in Machu Picchu. I felt SO rushed, and I was even angry, for sure. Still, even with the above factors, however, I prefer Machu Picchu if I had to make a choice. There’s something about being high up in the mountains and being completely in awe at the DOPE architecture surrounded by the exquisite beauty and awe of Mother Nature. Again, although both places without a doubt are SPECTACULAR, the fact that I was high up at an elevation of 2,430 meters with a panoramic view made a big difference for me. If I HAD to pick only ONE place before I died between the two, I would pick Machu Picchu. I’m SO sorry, Angkor Wat! I love you, too!
I hope this helps all the WanderLusters out there. Please contact me with any questions if you need help planning your trips to these two ionic World Wonders. May your travels expand your world map to a place far beyond your imagination. Happy Travels!