Posted by: Anna | June 22, 2011

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat should be on everyone’s “see-before-you-die” bucket list. Unfortunately, getting there is a hassle (see previous post). However, it’s so awesome that the frustrating travel is worth it. There are essentially four ways to see Angkor Wat: bicycle, motorbike (either you rent one or hire a bike and driver), tuk-tuk, or organized tour bus.  We opted for a tuk-tuk. We asked our guesthouse owner to set us up with an honest one, and he recommended we hire the guy who had brought us from the bus station to the hotel. He also recommended we leave at 5 AM because sunrise over Angkor Wat is stunning. We reluctantly agreed.

5 AM came early. We had been too lazy to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise, so at least this way we have done the “monument at sunrise” bit on our trip. Our driver was patiently waiting for us when we came down. He was incredibly polite and friendly. He asked if we had any specific plans for how we wanted to see the sights. We essentially put ourselves in his hands, which turned out to be the best way. He suggested we head straight to Angor Wat first.

Angkor Wat is both the name of the entire temple complex as well as the name of a specific temple. Angkor Wat is the national symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its flag and currency. It is the best preserved of all the temples and has been in continuous use (hence its preservation) since it was built in the 12th century, originally as a Hindu temple. It is the largest religious building in the world, which is pretty amazing. It is also visually stunning. When we arrived, the sun was rising over the temple, and the sky was beautiful. Although there were many tourists, it did not feel crowded or unpleasant at all. There was plenty of space for everyone to wander and admire the carvings, the panorama, the skyline, or the vivid colors – whatever appealed most at the moment. We found plenty of spots to sit and admire the view.

View of the main tower of Angkor Wat. This tower represents Mount Meru from Hindu mythology, the place where the Gods lived.

Angkor Wat is designed to represent the world, as Hindu thought saw it, with Mount Meru in the center, and other smaller towers representing the seven continents surrounding it. It is further surrounded by a large moat, representing the oceans. The four outer walls of the compound depict carved scenes from Hindu stories. They are amazingly long and detailed; it is impossible to imagine how many artisans must have worked for how long to create them.

Measuring 650 meters long, the world's largest bas-relief depicts scenes from the Ramayana.

Tommy’s favorite part of Angkor Wat was the elaborately carved devatas (guardian spirits) which cover the walls and corners of the entire structure. There are different architectural styles of Khmer temples, just as there are styles of cathedrals in Europe. Angkor Wat’s devatas are known for their unique design.

This view starts to give an idea of the scale of Angkor Wat. We had a great time wandering with our camera trying to figure out how to capture the beauty and scale of the monument.

Our driver told us that Cambodian weddings take three days and include a mandatory visit to Angkor Wat for photos of the bride and groom. I think the picture above explains why you would make a special trip here.  But visiting Angkor Wat isn’t just about visiting Angkor Wat. There are many, many more temples to see. We headed out with our driver to see more temples in different styles. We next visited Banteay Kdei, built slightly before Angkor Wat, in a different style. The most interesting thing about this small temple was the carvings inside, which are well-preserved.

Carving inside one of the three small temples (now Buddhist, but originally Hindu) at Banteay Kdei.

Interestingly, all the temples were originally built as Hindu temples, then converted to Buddhist. Some still have Buddhist monks living on or near the grounds. Many have Buddha statues added, sitting in front of Hindu carvings. Buddhism and Hinduism both have the ability to assimilate outside influences, which is clear when visiting these temples. Across from Banteay Kdei is Sa Srang, which was a palace surrounded by a massive man-made moat. Today the palace is destroyed, but the moat remains. Also remaining are inscriptions that bathing your elephant in the moat is forbidden. Darn!

The next temple we visited was Ta Prohm, where Lara Croft Tomb Raider was filmed. This was our favorite, visually. Rather han serving as a testament to the amazing architectural abilities of the Khmer Empire during the 11th – 13th centuries, it reveals the power of the jungle to take back what man has built. (See the post on Friday for more.)

Ta Keo was next, also a representation of Mount Meru. It was begun but never finished because it was struck by lightning and then believed to be an unlucky spot for a temple. It has the craziest, scariest stairs I’ve ever climbed. You would NEVER be allowed to climb these in America. Oh liability!

Stairs at Ta Keo. They are actually scarier than this looks, because each one is quite narrow and uneven, as stairs that are around nine hundred years old can be.

After the harrowing Ta Keo, we headed to Angkor Thom. It was the last capital of the Khmer Empire, with over one million residents at its height in nine square kilometers. This without public transportation or indoor plumbing. Today, although some people still live within the “great city”, it is filled with peaceful ruins and many, many people trying to sell you things – postcards, tshirts, scarves, bracelets, flutes, pineapple, cokes, etc…This was true outside every temple and was extremely annoying. What could be a very peaceful and leisurely experience is marred by the constant barrage of hawkers, many of them children. Our driver said the children sell things during the day and also go to school. He said they want to earn money. I don’t know – I still find all the children trying to sell me things rather distasteful and sad.

Bayon is the main temple at Angkor Thom, although not the only one. The most distinctive part of Bayon is the huge faces carved onto four sides of all the towers. It is from about the same time as Angkor Wat, built by the same king.

Angkor Thom was surrounded by some beautiful green lanes. Between the sights in the old city we walked down paths like this.

Everyone takes this silly picture at Bayon, which means this still functioning Buddhist temple is full of tourists kissing the big faces. Don't worry too much - there are no worshippers or monks there during tourist hours, at least that I saw.

We wandered the rest of the grounds at Angkor Thom, but we were losing steam. Nine hours of temple visiting and only one meal had made us hungry and sleepy. We agreed to head back to the the hotel for a shower, nap, and lunch, and head out again the next day to see a few more temples.

On our second day, it rained off and on all day. We drove out to a far temple called Banteay Srei, known for its intricate carvings. We had to see it quickly to avoid being completely soaked (instead, we were only mostly wet). On the way, our driver explained how people in rural areas use palm trees (palm wine, palm fruit, palm sugar, trunks for pillars, leaves for roofs) and how rice is grown and harvested. We also saw many Cambodian gas stations (for tuk tuks or motorbikes only).

Each .75 liter bottle costs about $1. Cambodia's gas comes from Thailand. (Random facts from our driver). Our powers of observation yield the key information that the gas is stored in old Johnny Walker bottles.

Although getting to Angkor Wat was frustrating, it was worth it. Angkor Wat is amazing, historically, visually, and architecturally. It might be a place I only need to visit once, but I’m really glad I visited once.


  1. I can understand why movies could be filmed here — it a Westerner it looks very otherworldly. And the picture of Anna kissing Bayan is too cute — no matter how cheesy it is.

  2. […] Anna’s Top 5 Coolest Sites: Kremlin Pyramids Stations of the Cross Corrigidor Island Angkor Wat Five Most Disappointing Things: Asian Food – We thought that India was the beginning of 6 […]

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