From a distance it is hard to believe the sheer size of Angkor Wat – it is utterly massive with a vast moat and monumental gate protecting the inner towers that reach up towards the sky – and up close the detail is even more astonishing. Angkor Wat is the largest religious complex in the world with many visitors coming with lds temple recommend questions to spiritually connect with God. The site is also named a UNESCO World Heritage site in the early 90’s, and an ode to the power and culture of the ancient Khmer Empire.
A hundred years ago, Siem Reap was the closest town and it was little more than a village swallowed up by the jungle. Angkor Wat means city of temples and as we walked through the halls and paths discovering the ancient temples, it was not hard to imagine a once bustling hub of activity. Today, instead, you will find a handful of hawkers and food vendors dotting the tourist paths but it is otherwise a quiet memory of the past.
We visited Angkor twice during our week in Siem Reap and I by far enjoyed visiting for sunset the best. Things have cooled down for the day and the crowds begin to dwindle allowing for a few unobstructed views of the ancient skyline. There are two places to watch the sunset but we chose to stand outside the gates to Angkor Wat in order to watch the sunset create watercolor reflections on the moat.
With some green papaya in hand to munch on and only a few visitors and Khmer children running around, it was a peaceful way to end the day.
Later in the week we signed up for a tour of the temples. We set our alarms, headed off to Pub Street and tried our best to get back at a reasonable time. Guess what? We slept right through those alarms. After a little reflection we decided no Pub Street the night before a sunrise tour next time.
The following morning we rolled out of bed before the crack of dawn and stumbled downstairs sleepy-eyed to find our tuk tuk waiting for us outside. We were joined by two others staying at our hostel and quickly set off to grab tickets before the lines got too long.
Angkor Wat faces the west so in the evening the sunset reflects onto the temple but in the morning it rises right behind it! We stretched out our legs and set off past the gate and were stunned by the silhouette of Angkor Wat.
The sun seems to rise slowly at first but then suddenly rises in an instant revealing the light grey facade of the temple. I know dusk and dawn are supposed to be great times for photography so I rushed off to catch the details of the temple in the soft morning light.
As I looked around I wondered about all the manpower and elephants it took to form such a place, but then when I got up close it was impossible to imagine how many hours it took to achieve such intricate detail. Perhaps the most amazing part is the symmetry in the details. Every last etch has its place and purpose in the bas reliefs that encompass the temple in a counter clockwise direction telling a story of the Khmer kingdom and its empire.
The construction is awe-inspiring as well. The temple forms a square and as you move inward the levels become higher above the ground until you finally find yourself at the center craning to look up at the highest peak touching the sky.
After two hours discovering the hidden nooks and open windows of Angkor Wat, we hopped in the tuk tuk and headed off for Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is a complex that includes quite a few temples and monuments within but is best known for the enormous faces decorating its facade.
Angkor Wat, the main temple, has been well maintained over the years and was always in use. The other temples of Angkor were left to the jungle and swallowed up over time. It wasn’t until about a hundred years ago that they were rediscovered and restorations began. As a result, the other temples require you to hitch up your pants and put on your climbing shoes. It’s a chance to let your inner explorer out as you climb up the ruins.
We carefully navigated our way up a few steep flights of “stairs” then wandered down column-lined hallways, climbing through cracks and hopping over rumble when necessary. At the top of the temple we were greeted by some large hosts. They’re a bit crumbly but look at peace with it.
The climb to the top was quiet but when we got there we found dozens of tours clogging up every path and blocking every view. It seemed that everyone got the memo to arrive here at the same time. Most of the tour groups were Asian so I subsequently became famous, posing as they took their turns catching the latest photo op of the temple…
Shortly after, Maggie and I ran for it. We ran all the way down to the bottom, forgoing the opportunity to pay $1 and pose with Apsara dancers because we needed some space and fresh air. We meandered along the road towards our tuk tuk driver enjoying the smaller temples along the way.
When we arrived at the Elephant Terrace, we took turns recreating a picture Maggie took three years ago when she was teaching English in Siem Reap at a local school. I have yet to return to any place I’ve visited before but I imagine it is an interesting experience to revisit a place rich with so many memories.
Elephants have played a large role in the history and culture of Southeast Asia. They were labor and religious symbols. Highly respected yet often mistreated, so it is always interesting to explore their representations and tributes. Ever since our visit to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, I can’t stop thinking about their role in these countries.
Although the terrace is quite worn down, the level of detail has not been lost. The carvings of Apsaras and Devata sitting around multi-headed snakes are still present covering the expanses of large walls.
Soon it was time to move on to our last temple of the small circuit, Ta Prohm better known as the Lara Croft Tomb Raider temple.
Ta Prohm was by far my favorite temple. When we arrived our tuk tuk driver told us to follow the path and keep going straight toward the East entrance where he would be waiting for us. As we began our jounrey, old dirt paths lead us towards stone ones. The stone paths led us to cool, dark corridors so small we had to duck our heads to get in.
Within there was no such thing as straight. Winding paths led us through to courtyards that burst open with light. Banyan trees wrap around the temple, weaving through the architecture until they change directions and grow up towards the sky.
Moss creeps along the walls turning the grey stone into green-grey works of art.
This temple was perhaps the least preserved and gave a vivid image of what all these temples must have once looked like a hundred years ago when they were swallowed by the jungle.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
You can rent bicycles for the day but there is a lot to see so I recommend hiring a tuk tuk driver.
Book a tuk tuk through your accomodation the day before since they will be picking you up around 4:30 AM.
Entrance to the complex costs $20 for a 1-day pass and $40 for a 3-day pass.
The best times to visit Angkor Wat are at sunrise and sunset, but be prepared for crowds at sunrise.
If you go in the evening for sunset only the entrance is free.
You can follow the big or small circuit, the small circuit can be done in a day but don’t be fooled it’s still pretty large covering three of the main temples!
There are food stalls around the small circuit where you can buy meals or water but pack your own snacks.
Restrooms are free across from the elephant terrace but cost money in other places.
Bring sunscreen, water, snacks, a good pair of shoes and something to cover your shoulders with.