Undeniably beautiful, the Temples of Angkor Wat are easily the main reason to visit Cambodia. As the world’s largest religious monument, it’s every bit as amazing as you’ve heard and all the accolades, reviews and compliments are not exaggerated. Even if temples, culture and history aren’t your thing, you’d be crazy to visit Cambodia without devoting at least a full day to this incredible architectural wonder. With thousands of great informational sources and countless travel blogs devoted to the area, attempting to describe either a complete detailed description of what to see or a travelogue explaining the fascinating historical significance of the area is best left for the experts. Instead, I’ll describe our second day trip of three in Siem Reap. Featuring the “must-see” temples, and mostly mimicking the “short-circuit” that’s a suggested itinerary for those with limited time or minimal patience, it started out before daybreak with a visit to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Having read the entire chapter on Angkor Wat and environs in Lonely Planet, trust me when I say it’s best to find a qualified guide and customize your day trips according to personal interests and time allotted. With a cornucopia of options from walking to hiring a tuk-tuk for the day, the best strategy is visiting places when everyone is somewhere else. Not always the easiest task given the millions of visitors that flock there all year, I’d recommend avoiding peak season (mid November through March) but also not choosing monsoon months unless you enjoy sightseeing in a torrential downpour. Finding a guide is easy but reserving ahead of your stay makes sense given how many of them are dying for your business. Ours came highly recommended from one of our friends in Penang and since he runs his own business, a website made it easy to break down all the options and customize three guided day trips according to our interests. Hotels specialize in take-away breakfasts for sunrise trips to Angkor Wat so you won’t go hungry. Possibly the only time you’ll ever see a picture of Diane awake before the sunrise, our second day began at the ungodly hour of 4:30 AM.
As wildlife and nature enthusiasts, we used the first day to visit the Flooded Forests of the Tonle Sap Biological Reserve and The Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary. Wanting one full day to experience the most famous (and impressive) structures which happen to be closest to town, we let our guide suggest an itinerary and naturally, they always include a pre-dawn excursion to watch the sun rise over a temple. As an early riser, I could do without this since I see the sunrise every day (unlike Diane) and it takes a perfect combination of clear skies, high clouds and climatic perfection to make it really spectacular. Unfortunately, our day wasn’t like that. Picking us up at 5 AM, we drove to the incredibly efficient ticketing office to get our two-day temple passes while the darkness still pervaded. Quickly posing for a passport like photo, we breezed through the tour bus crowd quickly thanks to our guide’s familiarity with the process. Efficiently taking your cash, they’ll check your pass carefully everywhere you go so don’t lose it. In the past, Chinese tourists were buying multiple day passes, visiting one day and then handing them over to other tourists so they quickly figured out how Chinese tourism works and began implementing picture ID’s to ease the problem.
From the ticket office, it’s only a ten minute drive to the immediate area where most of the famous landmarks lie and each guide has their own preferences of where to view the sunrise. Partial to a spot on the moat facing the entrance to Angkor Wat, we arrived and found a surprisingly small amount of other tourists but mostly cloudy skies covered the fast rising sun. Hoping for high clouds, our morning disappointed and the mid level cumulus clouds made the sunrise a 2 on a scale of 1 to 5. If you hate mornings, skip this and opt for a sunset excursion but expect thousands more visitors.
After the less than spectacular early morning we headed towards Angor Tham. Once the largest and most spectacular capital of the Khmer Empire, it was also the last. Built during the reign of the period’s most famous royal figure, King Jayavarman VII, it’s a large walled city that’s accessible via causeway entrances. Flanked by a moat that surround the 9 square kilometer region, we headed to The South Gate. Best preserved, each side of the entrance sports beautiful stone figures. According to Hindu myth, 54 guardian gods on the left side pull the head of the snake Shesha while on the right, 54 demon gods pull the snake’s tail in the opposite direction. Poorly designed for defensive posturing, this seems unusual given that the city was ransacked by neighboring Champa invaders (current day Vietnamese people). A perfect introduction to the magnificence, arriving there just after sunrise is ideal because most large groups are busy heading off to breakfast.
Reminding me of similar compound walls we’ve seen in Chaing Mai and Quebec City, we walked through the impressive South Gate and headed towards the Bayon Temple. Centerpiece of the city, Bayon is the probably the most impressive and famous of all the temples and really is a “must-see” sight. Although it looks open and unguarded, the temple doesn’t open until 7;30 AM and nobody’s allowed to explore it until then so our guide sent us to a picnic table near the site to eat our take-away breakfast given to us by our hotel, Shinta Mani Resort. Always enjoying interaction with the locals and the monkeys, we used the time to get friendly with some friendly Cambodia kids and a long-tailed macaque or two.
Finishing our meals, we showed our passes to a temple representative and began climbing through. Relatively subdued at this early hour, we suggest coming as soon as they open. Three levels high, a series of smiling faces lines the towers and two amazing sets of bas reliefs* depicts mythological, historical and mundane scenes. Stressing my comments about knowledgeable guides, this is where it really helps to engage the services of someone very personable and engaging unless you’re one of those tourists that doesn’t mind simply viewing and taking pictures without fully comprehending the historical significance (I’m not). While seemingly knowing many facts, our guide mostly offered only trivial bits and pieces of information and I wound up reading about much of what I saw later.
* A low relief or bas-relief is a projecting image with a shallow overall depth, for example used on coins, on which all images are in low relief. In the lowest reliefs the relative depth of the elements shown is completely distorted, and if seen from the side the image makes no sense, but from the front the small variations in depth register as a three-dimensional image. Other versions distort depth much less. It is a technique which requires less work, and is therefore cheaper to produce, as less of the background needs to be removed in a carving, or less modelling is required.
Slowly and carefully climbing to the terrace level, we saw the famous “face towers“. Supporting two, three or four enormous smiling faces, they represent the face of Lokesvarra, the bodhisattva that embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. In Cambodia, they depict the figure as a female. (in Chinese Buddhism, it’s also a female known as Guanyin). Dominating Southeast Asia until the 12th Century when the Siamese invasion began the reign of current day Thailand, the Cambodian people share a rich, proud heritage only recently coming to light with renewed interest in excavation and preservation of the area’s incredible architectural remains. Discovered mostly by the French, who ruled over present day Cambodia, several nations now take part in major renovation projects.
Allow at least an hour or two to marvel at this architectural gem. Sitting at the exact center of Angkor Thom, all roads in the city lead there from the gates. At 9 kilometers, the city-temple is larger than Angkor Wat and even if the name is less known, it stands out as the other main attraction not to be missed. Walking through the forested shady roads that encompass the surrounding area, we then visited some of the other less famous but equally beautiful temples in the city. Individual guides have their own preferences for what to visit on a one day trip but there’s a world of information available if you’re so inclined to pick which ones you’d want to see. Below are some more pictures from Angkor Thom’s amazing temples.
Rounding out the morning, we left Angkor Thom and headed for one of everyone’s favorite temples. Affectionately known as The Tree Temple, Ta Prohm is nearby and unlike most Angkor temples, it’s in much of the same condition as when they built it. With trees and forest literally growing all in and around it, the photo ops are limitless and UNESCO declared it on the World Heritage Site List in 1992. Also unlike many ancient sites, all the temples built during King Jayavarman VII’s reign have steles (stone slabs erected as monuments) showing the origin dates. As one of the first buildings constructed during a massive program of construction, the temple dates back to 1186 A.D and was home to 12,500 people including 18 high priests and 615 dancers. Well worth a look, each temple is different but equally fascinating because so much is known about its history.
Already impressed by what we’d seen, a visit to Angkor Wat itself almost seemed anti climatic and it was becoming a long day. Oppressive heat is almost always a given which is why so many people prefer visiting in winter but since we’re used to tropical heat, we stopped for lunch and trudged to the Granddaddy of all temples. The largest and best preserved monument in the Angkor group, the Khmer people constructed Angkor Wat over a 30 year period in the first half of the 12th century. From far away it seems to be a large mass of stone on one level but once you walk down the huge causeway, a series of raised towers, galleries, chambers, porches and courtyards appear and the three levels area ll distinctively different. The temple is a mini replica of the world in stone and represents a model of the cosmic world.
Explanations are courtesy of http://www.tourismcambodia.com/attractions/angkor/angkor-wat.htm where you can find much more detail).
One of the most amazing aspects of Angkor Wat is the wealth and depth of information available describing literally every nook and cranny. Although I love learning historical facts and I walked away from this trip armed with a library full of information helping me understand Southeast Asia, it’s a bit overwhelming if you try to spend hours absorbing it all. Unless you’re a history buff or very into cultural sights, by mid afternoon you’ll probably be like me and may come down with a slight case of temple overkill. Often the reason many guides recommend taking day trips to smaller but still spectacular sights an hour or two from Siem Reap, if you visit the best of the best on day one, everything else kind of becomes a blur. But if you only choose one day to take in the splendor, I do recommend doing some combination of visits over two or three days that takes in the main monuments described here and some day trips to enjoy the local scenery as well as some other amazingly interesting nearby sights.
Thoroughly pooped by 3 PM, our guide offered another stop at some other temples in the immediate area but we opted for a dip in the pool before hitting the town for dinner. Apologizing for not providing the world’s most detailed descriptions, pictures or stories, let me reiterate how many people write about Angkor Wat. While the trip was everything I expected, I’m no cultural scholar and I prefer sharing stories a bit different from the typical travel blogs and websites that describe what you’ll see so I’ll leave it here having given you a bit of an idea what it’s like to explore the heart of the world’s most incredible religious monument sight.
Understanding it’s right before Thanksgiving in the USA, I know this isn’t the best time to publish an essay covering Cambodia’s marquee attraction but we’re off to Canada for the holidays in a less than three weeks and I promised I’d share most of our trip. If you enjoyed the post as a nice distraction from the family madness, cooking and political conversations, please share this with a friend and enjoy your holiday. And if you’re not an American celebrating the holiday, be thankful for tolerance and enjoy the day whatever you’re doing
Cheers from Southeast Asia where tomorrow is simply Thursday.