Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, expanding over 402 acres. There is the famous temple, which is the largest and most elaborate. However, there are numerous others surrounding the 400 acres and they are all unique.
It is often compared to Macchu Picchu in Peru or Petra in Jordan and was included as one of the 21 finalists for the “Wonders of the World”.
The temple complex started as Hindu, focused on the Hindu god Vishnu but transformed to a Buddhist temple at the end of the 12th century.
Angkor Wat appears on the national flag and is Cambodia’s prime tourist destination located in the Siem Reap Province. It is oriented to the west, the direction of death, which is unusual since all the other temples are oriented toward the east, where the sun rises. Angkor Wat was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. In 2013, over 2 million foreign tourists visited the site.
Now that we have all those superlatives out of the way, let me tell you about our trip!
We decided to visit Angkor Wat for 2 days (3 day pass cost $40 each, 1 day $20, fine of being found inside without at ticket is $100). This is really a short visit as some recommend a week, but the heat and massive nature of the place can be overwhelming. After a while, our initial shock and awe started to wane, and we started to lose some of our initial appreciation. For this reason experts recommend sticking with around 3 temple complexes per day. Our hotel arranged for a tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Lam, to drive us for the two days. He would take us on the small circuit and grand circuit tours, dropping us off and picking us up at each ruin. He was kind and a little bashful, more cautious than the average tuk-tuk driver we had experienced so far. The cost for the 2 days with tip was $35. He also had a 12 and 14 year old, but seemed shocked that Walden was the same age as his son!
After our long day of travel, we got a late start but decided to start the small circuit at Phnom Bakheng and end at Angkor Wat for sunset.
Many of the complexes and gates are guarded over by a Bohhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who is supposed to embody the compassion of all Buddhas, and stares kindly at you as you enter.
Your first view of of the complex is truly spectacular.
The grounds are immense, the intricacies of the carvings mind boggling, and the child like desire to start up an epic game of hide-and-seek compelling. We wondered around gawking and smiling, sure the day was going to be unforgettable.
Next, we traveled to Ta Prohm, known for its feature in Tomb Raider, the Angelina Jolie movie. The entrance is lined with one of the many stone representations of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk which looks like a tug of war between 54 demons and 54 gods.
Some impressive trees had made their way into the structure here, and the ruins seemed to have become part of the forest. After a few more stops, we ate lunch at a roadside restaurant, with a cat for company and several backpackers sleeping in hammocks. We broke down and purchased 2 pairs of the “elephant pants” we saw most of the tourists wearing for a total of $5. They seemed perfect to meet the no shorts mandate and flowy enough to stay as cool as possible.
After lunch, we walked to the nearby Terrace of the Elephants, which is a giant viewing area for public ceremonies and the kings audience hall. We met a macaque on the way and hung out with him for a while and took pictures. The signs read “Beware of Monkey Attack!”, so we kept our distance.
Finally, we arrived at Bayon, unanimously our favorite of the trip.
It was the the state temple of Jayavarman VII and includes 216 faces of Avalokiteshvara. We wondered here seemingly for hours checking out each individual variation of the faces and noticing subtle changes in hue in the stones, unable to resist picture after picture. Many bas-reliefs were also here and again awed us with how detailed they were.
We completed our day with sunset at Angkor Wat (although it is not really situated to see the sunset, regardless of how many people talk about it, lol). We saw a few monks and a wedding party taking pictures with Angkor at the background. We were beat but happy and truly satisfied with the once in a lifetime feel of the visit. The Cambodian border crossing had been worth it for sure!
For our second day, we chose the Grand Circuit route but planned to only hit the highlights. We started back at Angkor Wat to explore inside with the rest of the crowds. The outside view was our favorite however, but we enjoyed perusing the galleries and the famous apsaras (heavenly nymphs). We saw “The Battle of Kurukshetra (which is a war described in the India epic, Mahabharata),” “The Army of Suryavarman II,” “37 Heavens and 32 Hells,” “Churning of the Ocean of Milk,” “Vishnu Conquers the Demons,” “Krishna and the Demon King,” “Battle of Lanka,” Battle of the 21 Brahmanic Gods and the Demons.” For a more accessible telling of some of these ideas, visit the Children’s Corner at balagokulam.org
We also visited Preah Kahn, Preah Neak Poan, and Ta Som, but soon gave up to the heat and everybody’s complaining GI systems that were struggling a bit more in Cambodia than in Thailand. We also humorously discovered our $2.50 pants were starting to split in the middle and might not make it through the day. We crashed in the room and pool to cool off, as well as catch up on correspondence and school work.
We enjoyed a varied meal that night with skewered pork and vegs ($3), fried fish ($3), steak ($5), salad, and green beans, finishing with our first chocolate ice cream ($1.50) of the trip!