Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor Wat
For many people, Angkor Wat is what comes to mind when they think of Southeast Asia. It’s one of the wonders of the world and ranks up there with the Pyramids in Egypt and Machu Picchu in Peru for man-made structures. The area or Angkor, located just about 5 km (3 miles) north of Siem Reap, was the capital of the Khmer Empire which ruled the region from 802 to 1327 AD. During their time in power, they built magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples. The temples range from small to very large and typically feature very detailed sculptures into the sandstone. The temples are spread out over a 50 km (30 mile) area and can be reached by bicycle, car, or tuk-tuk (motorbike pulling a carriage). Even though temperatures get up pretty high, we decided to rent bicycles.
In January, we had booked a flight to fly from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to Singapore on April 7th. As we traveled through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, we stayed in some places longer than we had planned. This caused our time in Cambodia to shrink and shrink until we ended up with just a week, hardly enough time to get a good feel for the country. Because of this, we decided to just spend more time at the Angkor Wat temples and not worry about seeing other parts of the country. We ended up buying the 3-day pass into Angkor Wat ($40). This was a good choice, as 1 day just isn’t enough. Had I had more time, I maybe would’ve even decided on the 1-week pass.
Because of the heat, we woke up early to get started, rested in a restaurant in the early afternoon, and then explored more between a few hours before sunset. Angkor Wat is the main temple, Angkor Thom is the name of the walled city (the actual capital of the Khmer Empire), and there are about 40 other popular temples to visit. Because of this and because of the large distances, it’s necessary to make a plan beforehand of which temples to visit. With my handy Kindle E-Reader, I was able to download a guidebook that provided really good information on each temple and gave us guidance on a route. As recommended, we explored the smaller and less popular temples the first two days and then used the third day to visit Angkor Wat. This was a great choice; saving the best for last makes the others more interesting.
The nice thing about each temple is that each has its distinctive features. With the guidebook, we had much more information on when the temples were built, why (or for whom), outline of their best features, and much more. The temples we visited included Banteay Samre, Thommanon, Chau Say Tevoda, East Mebon, Neak Pean, and a few others. Some of our favorites included Ta Prohm, which is the temple where the movie Tomb Raider was filmed, and Preah Kahn which was surrounded by jungle. Many of the temples were built as Buddhist temples but were converted to Hindu temples when a Hindu king took power. This is done by scratching out the Buddha images and creating new Hindu images in other places. Most of the images that were created in the temples were of stories of Hindu and Buddhist gods. I learned a lot about the Hindu religion and gods through these and through the guidebook.
We finally visited the granddaddy of them all, Angkor Wat, on the third and final day. Waking up at 4:30am, we hustled on our bikes to get into the temple by sunrise. We arrived at 5:30am and found a spot just behind the reflection pool, a perfect spot to snap some photos as the sky lights up. There were hundreds of people at sunrise, making it important to get a spot early on. Soon, the sun started shining over the 800 year old temple. The reflection of the temple in the pond was incredible. One can imagine the villagers back then making the walk across the moat and into the temple to pay their respects to the gods.
Another good decision we made was leaving the sunrise spot before everyone else. We walked into the almost deserted temple while most others watched the sun continue to rise. Getting in early meant that we enjoyed the silence and serenity of the massive temple before it was filled with people. Not only that, but the light of the rising sun was perfect, making the temple light up (in comparison to the beaming sunlight at noon). After two hours, we grabbed lunch at a one of the many food stalls just a short walk from the temples. Then we took another two hours to nap inside the temple and to look around a bit more. Later that day, after resting visiting the Bayon Temple, we made another stop at the Angkor Wat temple to take some pictures of the setting sun. It really is an incredible sight and, I believe, is all that it’s cracked up to be.
We returned to Siem Reap, exhausted after three full days of seeing temples. Like our first day when we arrived in Siem Reap, we took the day and headed to a pool to escape the heat. Afternoon temperatures get up to 100 degrees (34 degrees C), making it almost unbearable to do anything else. Many hotels allow non-residents to use their swimming pool for the day as long as they order $5 of more in food or drinks. This worked perfectly for us, meaning that we just needed to buy lunch and we’d get to use a nice pool for free. It was a very nice way to spend the day, taking a break from the heat and resting our legs after three long days.
We treated ourselves to a grill-your-own food type restaurant. The one we went to included a variety of strange choices, including frog leg, alligator, and snake. The only one we didn’t particularly like was the snake, as it was incredibly chewy and was hard to even break up into pieces.
After a one-hour massage ($6), we took a pleasant night bus to Phnom Penh to spend just two days and then to fly to Singapore, ending our short time in Cambodia. However, the ridiculous heat in Cambodia made me happy that we spent the least amount of time in Cambodia. We braved the heat for three days at Angkor Wat and were ready to move onto something a bit less warm!
Since it’s so hard to describe the temples, I’ve decided to add on several new pictures. Enjoy!