So, here we are. The grand-mac-daddy of posts. The main reason we went to Cambodia was to explore Angkor Wat & surrounding temples. The history buff in me was WAY excited. After our day in Siem Reap and exploring Treak Village, Kara & I opted to head to the temple to catch the sunset. If you buy your tickets after 5:00pm then your pass is also good for the next day. This is exactly what we had planned to do. A brief history lesson about Angkor Wat before we get started: A young fella (about 30 or so) named Jayavarman the 2nd, declared himself king and launched what would become the greatest empire in Cambodian history. At it’s peak, the Khmer Empire covered the vast majority of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Laos, & Vietnam. It was an extremely wealthy and powerful kingdom. Jayavarman II essentially laid the groundwork for all that Angkor is today. His successors later continued expanding the Khmer empire all while continuing work on Angkor. In the 12th century, King Suryavarman II began work on Angkor Wat. Dedicated to the Hindu God, Vishnu, it took 37 years to complete and remains the largest religious monument in the world. It was designed in classic Khmer architectural style to represent Mount Meru, home to many Hindu devas (or dieties), with temple-mountains and the concentric temple-galleries.
So, let me put down my pipe, and leather-bound journal and get to what you really came here for. Pictures. But rest assured I WILL be peppering more history throughout this blog post.
Angkor Wat – Sunset
That’s right. She’s sporting those awesome Thai-style pants. They are SO comfortable you guys. Too bad they’re not socially acceptable in public here in the U.S. After crossing the main bridge, you must cross through the first gallery, which acts as a gateway to the Temple. Connecting the two is a giant stone walkway that leads through the courtyard grounds and to the temple itself. I’m sure the reflecting pools are full in the rainy season, but they still had enough water (albeit a little stagnant) to offer up an impressive silhouette. O hai, that’s just us (my wind-blown hair is pure sex, I know). Exhausted, exhilarated, and having the time of our lives. Twas here, the magic hour struck. Turning back to face the entrance, the sun was offering its peak performance. We started trekking back towards the gate, but turned around briefly to explore one of the libraries. As magnificent as it was, the best views of the sunset are not here necessarily since the sun sets in front of Angkor Wat, not behind it. So you need to turn your back on Angkor Wat to catch the sun going down, but it is a prime time to catch the Angkor Wat well lit for pictures with a low sun shining directly on it. From what we’ve researched, Phnom Bakheng is becoming the most popular spot to catch the sunset because it offers an aerial view of Angkor Wat below, but again the sun sets on the other side and not over Angkor. Plus we hear it gets SUPER crowded so you have to climb up to the top early to even get a spot. However, Angkor is far less crowded at sunset, so it was a nice time to enjoy it with less people. That said, you can also ride a hot air balloon from nearby Angkor Wat that will take you up for the duration of sunset. To me that sounds even more enticing.
Angkor Wat – Sunrise
Man, we thought we were hot stuff getting up with the chickens. Our tuk-tuks and tour guide were waiting for us BEFORE the crack of dawn. We headed to the East Gate at our guide’s recommendation (at 5:30am) and we were glad we did. We enjoyed a quiet, private ride up to the entrance. Hardly a crowd at all, and it offered us a peaceful, secluded walk around the temple grounds before heading over to the West side. Peaceful with the exception of the cicadas that were already out in full force. Check your speakers/headphones before pushing play on this, cause those guys were super loud.
We had no idea the horror that laid in wait for us once we made our way around to the reflecting pool. It was this:I mean…LOOK AT ALL THE PEOPLE. Clearly, we were not the only ones
brave foolish enough to get up at 4:30 to catch a sunrise. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say we had to muscle our way into a prime spot for pictures. Be bold and assertive, but not rude. Rudeness isn’t tolerated in Asia. If you are determined and patient, you’ll be able to get a decent spot. Getting closer… Can you believe it? Even standing shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of strangers couldn’t detract from this moment. It was pure jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring stuff. Oh, and one more picture, this time with the crowd included. Ya know, for perspective. They had started to disperse by this time, but you can still see the madness. Our guide was patiently waiting for us to begin the temple tour. I’m going to tell you a few times what a good idea it is to get a guide. Hey, guys? Get a tour guide. They know the best spots for pictures, the best time of day to avoid crowds and weather, and are full of knowledge you’re not going to get elsewhere. There are three levels of grounds at Angkor Wat. The higher you climb, the holier the place. This is typical in much of Eastern culture. High up or the head is considered holy (closer to the sky (gods), whereas, down low or the feet are considered dirty (closest to earth). Back in its day, the highest tower was for the King, or spiritual leaders. On the lowest level is where you’ll find the most intricate galleries showcasing the bas-reliefs. These hand-carved murals all depict different events and stories in Khmer history. And they stretch on as far as you can see. It’s simply mind-boggling to think about the man-hours put into crafting this temple.
Unfortunately, even the most historic of sites are subject to a little vandalism. I design homes for a living. So, I found myself fascinated by the architectural wonder of this place. I mean, it took 37 years to build this. I’m only 32. I’m not even as old as the construction phase of Angkor Wat. Mind = Blown.
From the ground level, you walk up to the 2nd, where you’ll find sort of a mini mountain-temple style gallery with 5 peaks. You also get an impressive look at how this place was built. Looking up, you’ll see the pillars & headers come together. The detail and planning to go into this had to be perfectly precise, down to every stone. And it has stood for almost two thousand years. Pretty impressive. On this particular day, there was a very friendly monk sitting inside the gallery. You can make a donation of $1 to the preservation fund and receive a Buddhist blessing.
Fun fact: In Buddhist culture, Monks are not required to return a ‘Wai’. However, this monk was extra polite and nodded his head in acknowledgement. And he let me take his picture
Let’s climb some more stairs. Remember when I said guides were good for photo ops? Ours was great. He stopped us all the time and said “Here’s a good spot, would you like a picture here?”The final climb to the tallest tower is a steep one. So if you have a fear of heights….ya know, you may want to hang out at the bottom.Also, being the tallest point or third gallery at Angkor makes it the most holy and sacred. If you plan to go up to this high point, then be sure you wear long pants if you are a woman and a top covering your shoulders. Men can wear shorts that hit at the knee. Kara thought she could get away with a tank top and a shawl to cover her shoulders, but our guide kindly suggested otherwise before we left our hotel that morning. Another fun fact: Angkor Wat was originally built and dedicated as a Hindu temple. By the end of the 13th century, Buddhism was more or less the unofficial recognized religion in the Khmer Empire and the temple was converted to Buddhist. Many statues of Buddha were added, such as the one above in the center of the tallest tower. See the hot air balloon all the way in the distance? And uh, hold onto that hand rail on the way down, eh? Kara snapped this photo to show the efforts of the restoration. This statue was currently being re-done. The green is new sand stone, but will look completely aged and blended with the old in a few months.
After our very thorough Angkor Wat tour, we popped back over to our hotel for a spot of breakfast and a rest, then returned for more temple hopping. Our first stop was Banteay Kdei Directly across from the entrance to Banteay Kdei, you’ll find the largest swimming pool ever, Srah Srang. Since we were visiting in the dry season, the water was low and it wasn’t as impressive. Thus, I’ve borrowed a picture (click on it for the photo credit)Also, there are a few merchants set up here that are…well…a little pushy. When we didn’t buy anything from one of the vendors, she told me that “U.S. is a bad country, full of liars” So, yeah…not exactly the best way to earn my business. However, there was one friendly vendor where we bought our friends the CUTEST lil’ elephant shirt. Anyway, back to the temples man. Prayer is such a beautiful thing to witness. And I couldn’t decide if I liked the color or black and white version better. This was the first temple where we could see the trees that have woven themselves into the structures. This place was only setting the table for what was to come. Also, mid-morning and the cicadas had made NO effort to let up. Please excuse AC and his selfie stick :p
As we made our way down the path to Ta Prohm, there was a delightful band playing a diddy. There were also more vendors selling their wares, including many artists. We almost bought a really cool black and white watercolor of Angkor with the monks in orange, but were in a hurry to get to Ta Prohm, so we did not stop thinking we’d come back this way. We did not. The lesson here? If you see some local art you really like, just stop and buy it.
Sam, our guide takes a minute to explain the ongoing conservation efforts. So, we’ve all seen Tomb Raider right? Here be where some of those famous scenes were filmed. The trees you guys, oh my goodness the trees Had to strategically position myself for this shot because people are lined up to pose for pictures juuuuusst to the right of this frame. Look! It’s a Kara!I think that this was my favorite temple. Angkor Wat was vast and impressive, but this one was by far the most unique. Clearly why it was chosen as a filming location. In fact, Tomb Raider actually did a lot for the area. It provided jobs for many Cambodians, brought in revenue and raised money for conservation, and brought worldwide recognition which spiked tourism a ton. So, sometimes Hollywood isn’t entirely evil. Or maybe it’s because Angelina Jolie was involved and she brought her humanitarian good-will along with her? I dunno.
The temple of many faces. No, not the many-faced god from Game of Thrones. Bayon is often referred to as the temple of many faces because it has 216 faces carved into it. Bayon is the main temple in the Angkor Thom area. Ankgor Thom once served as capital city for the Khmer empire. There is a main gateway to the city where we stopped and took pictures. Our guide took us up a small embankment to the top of the wall where there was a great photo spot. We hopped back into our Tuk-Tuks and passed the elephant terrace on the way to Bayon. Bayon, while impressive and unique, just can’t stand up to the magnitude of Angkor Wat. I blame that on lack of preservation. The grounds of Bayon are sprawling and from a distance it looks enormous, but once inside there’s only so much to see. Much of it had eroded away. But what is still there looks really cool. Many face, faces at every turn. Cindy! You rebel! So, here’s Caleb’s face (of Caleb & Mahsa). By sheer accident, Caleb ended up in a TON of our pictures. Since he was usually the one carrying their camera, he was always trying to find good shots too and would always wander into our photos. And I’m positive they ended up with a ton of my head photobombing their pictures as well. But I had to put at least one picture of Caleb’s photobombing in here 🙂 Now that we’re at the end of our tour, I’m going to say it again. Get a guide. Angkor is 100% overwhelming and even with all the research we did about where to go, what to see, what time to see it, etc., we were still suffering from anxiety that we would miss out. Best part about a guide is, they can maximize your time. While we didn’t see everything there was to see (methinks that would take a solid 3-4 full days), we were able to hit the highlights in an efficient manner. Saw great things, got great photos, learned a good deal of history from our guide that we would have otherwise been oblivious to, and most importantly, had an amazing time without feeling rushed. Having a guide allowed us to really soak it all in – soak in the history, magnitude and majesty of this spiritual place without the pressure of planning our day.
Finally, here are some tips to help you prepare and pack for your time at Angkor Wat:
- Extra camera batteries & SD cards
- As much bottled water as you can physically carry. It is hot. So hot.
- Insect repellent. A LOT of it.
- Sunglasses. It’s bright. Like, really bright.
- Lightweight clothes that let you breathe. The dress code is not as strict here, but if you plan to climb to the highest gallery at Angkor then you will need to cover your shoulders and knees.
- Comfortable shoes you don’t mind getting dirty. Think dust. Lots of dust.
- Cash for souvenirs
- And…..hire a guide.
- Most of all, soak it in. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Onto the next adventure…
Up next for Thailand/Cambodia – The Pavillon D’Orient Boutique Hotel