Angkor Wat is one of the great ancient wonders of the world. The pièce de résistance of the Angkor archeologic complex in Cambodia, this temple is a site of religious worship and has been used continuously through the ages. It is truly one of the unique architectural delights anywhere. Just incredible. I’ve said this before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but the people in these ancient civilizations were so sophisticated and advanced, much more so than anything we could do these days.
This whole region in Cambodia encompasses not just Angkor Wat, but also Angkor Thom another “city” of the ancient Khmer. The architecture, city planning, irrigation, artistry of these communities were so intricate, and even more marvelous is the fact that this was all built in the middle of the jungle. They had to bring in the stone from a mountain 50km away by floating it down the Siem Reap river. Think of how many elephants that must have taken!
And somehow the mossy twisted roots now coursing through the ruins of this ancient oasis has only added to its grandeur. Everyone has a chance to feel like Lara Croft here.
welcome to the jungle
Angkor Wat was built by the Khmer in the 1100s for the Hindu god Vishnu, but by the end of the century, it was converted to a Buddhist temple as with the religious trend in Cambodia. The ruins are located about 3 miles from the city of Siem Reap, which reaps the benefits of having this world class bucket list item nearby.
Siem Reap is a fairly bustling city, with a lot of ex-patriot bars (Australians all over), restaurants and a very thriving central marketplace. There are stalls hawking gigantic gem stones, dried animal carcasses and fake North Face backpacks.
Because of its tourism trade, there is an international airport that is one of the cutest tropical airports around: read here. To get around, hop into the most common mode of transit around these parts: the tuk tuk. These little motorized rickshaws may be rickety, but they provide a safe, slow-paced ride through the humid countryside.
The best time to go is during the winter, when the weather is more temperate. But was I able to do that due to my schedule? Of course, not. I went during monsoon/summer in July, but was lucky enough to not be caught in any flooding. There were periods of torrential downpour, but fortunately not while I was at the temple. It was humid and hot, but that’s the full Southeast Asia experience?
You’ll need a lot of time to explore the area, so make sure you set off bright and early. A lot of people try to make it to the main temple by dawn to catch the sunrise, as this is a very iconic image.
For the rest of us lazy folk, take your time, it is vast and there’s too much to see. Angkor Thom is a nice place to start. The main area is enclosed by an outer wall and moat, like a fortress. Along the South Gate, there are statues of protectors lining the walkway as you happen into the area, and a lot of them are missing heads or limbs from years and years of looting and weather and tourists. That’s the most terrifying thing to think about, with the amount of people climbing all over these ruins, will it be here forever?
We started by exploring some of the main temples along the perimeter. Bayon is the main temple, and is one of the most recognizable structures in this area as there are large faces carved out of the stone blocks. It is literal Legends of the Hidden Temple up in here. You want them to start talking to you and give you clues to find the treasure. But you probably don’t have to worry about any of those warrior guys jumping out and scaring the crap out of you. Probably.
The structures of all the buildings are constructed of sandstone, which allowed for bas-relief carvings to be etched onto all the walls. And I’m talking ALL the walls.
Many are apsaras, which are spiritual female figures, but there are also these intricate stories on every surface, and they are beautiful and still so well preserved. It’s like the most well preserved historical account ever, full of war, mythology and everyday details like animals swimming in the river and childbirth.
The Terrace of Elephants was an outdoor viewing platform for ceremonies and to welcome the returning forces from war. It is so-called because of the large scale carvings of elephants, which are a much beloved and needed animal in these parts.
Ta Prohm is another notable structure. Built as an educational center and monastery, this structure is famous for being one with nature, and not in the meditative Buddhist sense.
Literally, the roots of massive spung trees have grown into the foundation giving it a very iconic appearance. So iconic Angelina Jolie raided it in Tomb Raider.
There are many small restaurants and visitor stops that cater to tourists. You will find the Cambodian national dish of fish amok at any one of them. Not my favorite dish ever, but this curry served in a banana leaf is fairly healthy at least and will provide sustenance for your exploring.
Now for the main event: Angkor Wat itself. The area in front of the main building is a long walkway/ bridge that is the perfect slow build to get your prepared for the climactic pinnacle of your trip. There are numerous buildings along the side, libraries and reflecting pools. It’s still used as a temple today, so you will see monks around the site.
There is no better example of Khmer architectural style. There is a central tower with smaller towers on the side, and they all appear like lotus flower buds.
On the right of the main temple exists one of the last vestiges of Hinduism, a statue of Vishnu, for whom, as you may remember, this temple complex was originally built.
The reflection of the temple is one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken.
There are monkeys all over the place on the grounds, and they can be aggressive, so watch out. No one wants to have their vacation ruined by a monkey attack.
It is a religious site, so wear layers. When entering the complex, your shoulders and knees should be covered. Obviously, good walking shoes and a hat/sunblock are a must.
To wind down after a very long, but worthwhile day. There are traditional Cambodian cultural shows that will both provide classic Khmer food and dance. Crystal Angkor is a popular one and the food was decent.
Is it touristy? Yes. But is it colorful and vibrant and cool as hell? Also yes.
After the show is the afterparty (I know I shouldn’t quote he who shall not be named), so head to Pub Street for an Angkor beer nightcap, or even better get your haggle on at the bustling night markets. Cambodia is the best.