Our trip to Angkor Wat just outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia was one of the highlights of our time in Southeast Asia and one of the most beautiful cultural sites we have ever seen.
The name “Angkor Wat” is somewhat misleading. The entire complex of temples is commonly referred to as Angkor Wat, which is also the name of the specific (and spectacular) temple in the picture above. All of the temples in the complex sit just outside of Siem Reap, a cartoonishly touristy town in Northwest Cambodia that appears to exist entirely to serve the booming tourism industry. Not that we didn’t find ways to enjoy ourselves in Siem Reap, mind you, but anyone traveling there to experience what typical Cambodian life looks like will be extremely disappointed.
A multitude of options exist for people who want to visit the temples. There are organized tours in air-conditioned busses, pre-arranged tuk tuk circuits, and rental motorbikes/bicycles available. There are also passes available for up to three days so you can visit the temples at a more leisurely pace. Since we had four days in Siem Reap, we purchased a three day pass which allowed us to visit during any three days over the course of a week (and saved us some money as the three day pass is basically a buy-two-get-one-free deal). The tourism industry in town has settled on two primary circuits for viewing the most in-demand temples which have been creatively named the Big Circuit and the Small Circuit. There are also special tours for viewing sunrise and sunset. Basically, you can arrange to see the temples when and how you want and for a reasonable price to boot.
Day 1: Big Circuit Tuk Tuk
Our terrific hotel Angkor Orchid Hotel arranged our tours for us but couldn’t understand why we wanted to start with the less popular Big Circuit which did not include the Angkor Wat temple. Really, it was simple – we just wanted to see the sunrise at the Angkor Wat temple as part of the Small Circuit the following day. Anyway, the Big Circuit is less popular for good reason. While the temples are ancient and beautiful, all three of our favorite temples were in the Small Circuit. The highlights of the Big Circuit weren’t even the temples, but the statue-lined bridges and the smiling faces over the gates. See for yourself:
Feeling adventurous, we woke up at 4 a.m., rented bicycles from our hotel and rode to Angkor Wat temple to see the sun rise. We also saw the biggest gecko in history in our hotel lobby that morning – the thing couldn’t have been less than two feet from nose to tail! Unfortunately we didn’t get a picture of the monster gecko but we did get a picture of what turned out to be a very disappointing sun rise.
Still, the Angkor Wat temple itself was enormous and amazing and because everyone else was outside taking photos of a thick cloud cover we took advantage of a rare opportunity to explore this ancient temple without being swarmed by other tourists.
The pillars at Bayon are adorned by four carved faces looking in each cardinal direction. The smiling faces looking in every direction from the ruined temple lend a mysterious air to the ruins, as though the ancient civilization is still watching the world change around it.
After visiting a few other smaller ruins we rode to Ta Prom, Anna’s favorite temple, but didn’t spend much time there because we were squeezed out by the hundreds of other tourists who arrived just after we did. There were so many people that you couldn’t move around comfortably, but we were inclined to leave anyway since we were exhausted from what turned out to be a long bike ride and the fact that we had woken up at 4 a.m. On our way back to the hotel we spotted some Cambodian children playing in the pond next to one of the ancient bridges in the complex. They were climbing a skinny tree, swinging around on a branch and asking passersby what their names were before dropping about 15 feet into the pond below and then doing the same thing again. Since we could use the break and the kids were hilarious, we stopped and took a couple of pictures of the kids.
Day 3: Tuk Tuk to Ta Prom and the Cancelled Sunset
Fresh off our early morning bicycle excursion we decided to give our backsides a break and took a tuk tuk for our final journey to the temple complex. Our first stop was Ta Prom, which many people there described as the Tomb Raider Temple because some of those movies was filmed there. You can immediately see why. Serpentine tree roots pour over the ruined walls and wedge huge walls apart. The temple has gone native and has not been repaired by design. When you can find a minute or two away from the other tourists flooding the grounds, the temple produces a mystical feeling. It is a remarkable place.
After visiting a couple more temples we headed to our sunset spot atop one of the less popular temples and waited in the drizzle for the sun to set. And we didn’t even have to wait until the sun was completely down! The sun was fighting the thick cloud cover, producing some brilliant colors but only on the odd cloud or two. Fed up with the sunset, the guard at the temple came to the summit where we were sitting with about 40 other people and announced that the sun would not set and that we had to leave. He must have had a bus to catch or something because the “No sunset!” announcement was made a good 15 minutes before the sun actually went down. It didn’t matter, though. The sunset was entirely obscured by clouds. We did, however, get to see a beautiful rainbow over the temples before we returned to our tuk tuk.
Despite the blah ending we thoroughly enjoyed the whole Angkor Wat complex. Touring all of the temples can get exhausting between the stifling heat and many, many stairs and at some point the temples do start to blend together. Taking three half-day tours helped to lessen the repetitiveness, and we would definitely recommend that approach provided the timing works out. Angkor Wat is definitely worth the visit.