The temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia is widely considered one of the wonders of the world. Few realise just how many temples and palaces were build in this region. The iconic towers of Angkor Wat adorn most postcards and historical books but there’s a lot more to see here.
Rather cheekily you can only purchase 1 day or 3 day tickets to the Angkor Wat park, forcing those that only want 2 days to spend more than they need to and no doubt convincing many others that another day around the temples, spending money, wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.
We had just 2 days to explore so on our first day, after striking a deal with “Mr Bean” the Tuk Tuk driver, set off around 35k to the temples further out. There are 2 well known circuits at Angkor Wat. The aptly named “small” and “big”. There are many more temples outside of this area and our long and bumpy ride got us there in an hour.
Our first taste of the temples were Banteay Srei and Banteay Samré. The ornate carvings depicting buddhist beliefs and rituals cover almost every surface. The massive stones that formed walls and ceilings lie around the sites, some covered in green moss, some shining a bright orange in the morning sun. It’s a very peaceful place even with the throngs of tourists that require patience and time to get a decent photo that isn’t ruined by a german in bright green shorts and flip flops with socks on. Never the less the beauty of the surroundings always supersedes any modern influences.
We had no guide on our first day, Debs reading from the guide book at each ancient temple helped us understand it’s purpose even if it didn’t answer all our questions. The 5 ponds of Neak Pean was a particular favourite, lost to the jungle 700 years ago and only discovered once more and returned to former glory in the mid 1800s
The temples were abandoned, partly through war with Siam (now Thailand) and partly due to King Jayavarman VII abandoning Angkor and moving the capital of Cambodia to Phnom Penh. It’s hard to imagine leaving behind such splendour to became the centre of no man’s land for many years. While a few monks did remain at the main Angkor Wat the temples quickly succumbed to nature, trees germinating in the cracks of walls, moss and algae weakening stone roofs causing them to collapse. It wasn’t until the french arrived in Cambodia and guided by the locals, discovered the long abandoned temples. Realising their worth they set about restoring them, a task that continues to this day.
Unfortunately years of the Khmer Rouge regime took their toll, some of the hard work restoring was destroyed through bombing raids by the US and all restoration work ceased. Thankfully Cambodia is recovering well and now over 30 temples are open to the public.
Our second full day of exploring would see is up at 4am with our Tuk Tuk driver picking us up at 5. With just a hint of sunlight appearing in the night sky we raced to Angkor Wat with many other vehicles full of tourists. Watching sunrise over Angkor Wat is truly an amazing sight. The pond to the left of the causeway reflecting the increasing sunlight behind the towers. While it’s busy with tourists and street sellers it’s easy to zone them out and enjoy the view. We had a particularly spectacular sunrise with just the right amount of cloud to bounce the red, purple, orange and yellow light.
We wanted to save Angkor Wat until last so we grabbed a coffee by the temples and met our guide for the day. For around $20 (US) you can get a guide for the day, their knowledge on all of the temples knows no limits and I’d highly recommend them. Good company and he created a fantastic day’s itinerary, telling our tuk tuk driver where to meet us. We were able to walk from one temple to the next a few times, through paths that most tourists would never know existed.
With each temple you see the spectacle grows. From forests of Buddha faces on towers at Bayon to the intricate carvings in the Angkor Thom complex. The ornate elephant carvings of Terrace of the Elephants and the sheer number of massive trees that seem to grasp hold of walls and gateways. You really do get a sense that nature has won the fight here. It’s such a refreshingly new experience for something so old!
The phrase “templed out” is used by many, maybe to describe their aching feet from 2 days of walking. Or maybe it describes the Sensory overload you get from being wowed for 2 entire days. Either way it’s an undeniable feeling. We could have happily stayed longer if we had a few days break between temple exploration.
For more information on the temples of Angkor Wat check out the Wikipedia links below.