They say that Angkor Wat is the mother of all wats – not because she came first (and apparently it’s a “she”), but because she’s so vast, that she gave birth to all the other wats.
Angkor Wat is so important to Cambodia that it’s on the flag, and even the Khmer Rouge left her standing during their rampage of destruction across this landlocked nation. Cambodia is one of only four countries in the world to feature a building on their flag (bonus points for guessing the other three).
Angkor Wat is located just outside Siem Reap, a busy town, dedicated to the tourist trade, and catering for all tastes of tourism from luxury pensioner travel through to families and budget backpackers. Cash is king, and in Cambodia, that means the US Dollar. Prices are quoted in dollars, and everyone from the butcher to the baker and the tuk tuk driver wants those dollars. You can buy 50 cent beers on Pub Street to go along with your $4 meal, and your $2 tuk tuk ride back to your $20 boutique hotel. It’s cheap, but not as cheap as other parts of Southeast Asia.
Angkor Wat isn’t the only wat in town, and we spent three days exploring some (literally) hidden gems throughout the dense jungle surrounding Siem Reap.
A bit of history
Built by a succession of Khmer kings over the course of 700 years, this vast complex of temples and cities are an archaeological marvel, and a masterclass in intricate stone carving and absolute dedication to Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Locked in an eternal battle of “mine is bigger than yours”, these kings blew through an entire natural resource (limestone), and broke the backs of the people over whom they ruled just to one-up the last guy.
Their efforts weren’t entirely for aesthetics though – the advances the Khmers made in hydraulics and irrigation a thousand years ago, made use of the abundance of water in the area, and helped to create a stable, agrarian society that showed remarkable longevity in spite of near continuous turf wars with the Siamese to the west and Viets to the east.
What remains is a network of temples and waterways that will keep you wanting more and more, despite the sweltering heat and humidity. It takes at least three days to see the major temples, and starting at sunrise is highly recommended – for good reason.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Sunrise at Angkor Wat is where the whole pilgrimage begins. A stream of tuk tuks, motorbikes, unfortunate tourists on bicycles, and tourist buses by the dozen wind their way out of Siem Reap and into the vast temple complex in the pre-dawn darkness. From the dark parking lot, tourists with headlamps stream in to the inner compound of Angkor Wat just to get a photo of the towers reflected in the small (almost dry) pond in front of the inner temple.
Angkor Wat was one of the “cornerstone” pieces of our trip. I was giddy with excitement on our way out to the temple, panicked we’d miss it when we first had to stop at the very busy, but also very big ticket hall to buy our passes, and desperately hoping the whole time that it wouldn’t be a let down after the build up I had given it in my mind.
The temple was just barely coming into view as the sky lightened ahead of the sunrise, and the outline of the huge towers loomed in the distance. You approach via an outer moat that does a good enough job of reflecting the temple from afar, and we had a tough decision to make – and one we coudn’t do over if we got it wrong.
Do we follow the masses of people across the floating footpath into the inner complex to watch the sunrise from there, or stay outside the walls to watch it rise from across the moat. Inside or outside?
I was pretty convinced that the outside would be spectacular, and Mark was pretty convinced that inside would be better. So we did the logical thing…we split up.
While Mark when inside the walls, Austin and I stayed outside the wide moat, and watched the sunrise fade in through shades of pink reflected in the still waters, until a fiery orange ball appeared in the sky over the temples. It was well worth the 4:30 am wake up just to see one of the iconic sunrises of the world.
The soft pastels of the early dawn were peaceful and calming. Then the dramatic rising of the sun over the temples raised the excitement levels as it shone bright orange in the haze. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.
Equally, Mark loved watching the crowds inside the outer walls, as they jockeyed for position to catch the perfect photo. People were crammed around one side of a tiny pool, just hoping to get that perfect Instagram shot.
The divide and conquer method worked well for us, and we were able to show one another our photos and described our experiences – and nobody felt like they missed out!
After the sunrise, the tour busses all loaded up to go get breakfast before returning later to properly visit Angkor Wat. We opted for a quick baguette on site, and stayed to wander around the ruins while it was still cool, and without the hordes of people who were arriving just as we were leaving.
Angkor Wat is huge. It is a marvel of the ancient world, and the fact it’s still mostly intact is testament to the feat of engineering that built this enormous masterpiece. Every inch is intricately carved with scrollwork, deities, and carvings depicting the legends of both the Hindu and Buddhist faiths.
But it’s not the only wat around, and among the dozen or so that we toured over the next three days, a few really stood out.
The cult of personality
Bayon is located near Angkor Wat, down a jungle road, and through a set of imposing carved stone gates. It was built in the 12th century by Jayavarman VII, who must have thought a rather lot of himself because it’s covered in faces – his face – pointing out in every direction. 216 of those faces in all. Bayon itself was more ruinous than others, but the uniqueness of its singular feature, repeated about so times really set it apart from the others. It was a bit wacky, and that’s what made it so cool.
The moment when you realise it’s not just about Angkor Wat
Beyond Bayon, is Angkor Thom, an enormous complex of temples that were built over centuries, and stretching out for more than 10km. You enter Angkor Thom but crossing the 100m wide moat via a bridge depicting a famous Hindu legend “The churning of the ocean of milk, which shows some pretty big tough dudes playing tug of war with a sea monster.
Once inside, you walk from one structure to the next, some imposing and grand, others intricately carved. There is the elephant gate, the leper king’s temple, and Baphuon with it’s raised causeway leading to the steep steps that lead to the top of the temple.
Children aren’t allowed to climb to the tops of some of these temples because they’re steep and unprotected. Austin and I sat outside on the causeway to Baphuon while Mark explored inside. To pass the time, Austin started wobbling his very loose tooth. And it was here, on the causeway leading to Baphuon is where he lost his first tooth.
I can’t remember losing my first tooth, but I’m certain this little boy will never forget. All day long he would say, breathlessly, “aren’t you so happy? Aren’t you so amazed? “I finally lost my very first tooth.” He walked on clouds for the rest of the day.
We’ve had to do some fancy talking regarding the tooth fairy while travelling. His teeth first came loose in Nepal, and continued to hang in there through Malaysia, Thailand, Bali and Australia before finally coming out that day. We invented a network of international tooth fairies who hand over paperwork from one to the next once a loose tooth enters their jurisdiction. The Cambodian tooth fairy left some Cambodian Riels and a Cambodian key chain. The keychain was soon lost, but he’s sworn to never spend those first riels from his first tooth.
While the Angkor Thom complex was impressive for its sheer sprawl and size, it was also overwhelming for the same reason, and we were eventually “watted out” for the day. Our tuk tuk driver offered to take us to his “friend’s” restaurant located on the grounds among a dozen other restaurants. The food was tasty, but at $7 USD for a plate of ramen noodles – double the price of a full meal in town – we learned to hold our hunger until we’re well clear of the tourist site!
In front of Angor Thom is a good sized lake with grassy banks leading down to the water. All along the roadside and along the lake were little sites set up with colourful hammocks to rent by the hour. Renting out a place to nap is a brilliant concept, and one I’ve often wished existed a lot of places, not least of which was my office! How awesome would it be to lay back in one of those hammocks under a tree after a hot morning of climbing over ancient ruins and dodging selfies? We didn’t try them. We should have. But the swimming pool at our hotel was calling, and that was pretty awesome too!
The Tomb Raider Temple
Next to Angkor, the most famous temple is one that has a proper name, but is now called the Tomb Raider Temple. For the record, it’s name is Ta Phrohm, and it didn’t need Angelina Jolie to make it cool.
Ta Phrom was definitely the coolest temple we visited. It is being slowly taken back over by the jungle, and the whole place has a jungly post-apocalyptic feel to it. After standing for 1000 years, trees, vines and roots have slowly worked their way back to the stones, spilling over walls and stretching through roofs and windows. Everywhere you turn, another enormous arm is stretching over the stones in yet another weird way, and no two corners are alike. It is creepy / cool in the extreme, and we spent hours here just wandering through in wonder.
We were lucky to have arrived first thing in the morning, ahead of the throngs of tourist buses, and had the place almost to ourselves for well over an hour. That added to the mystery of the place. It felt like we were invading a sacred spot, owned by the enormous appropriately named strangler fig trees, and being watched over by the territorial monkeys and lizards who just sit there…watching. Always watching.
Austin was inspired, and starting putting Mark and I into different poses in different settings, taking dozens of photographs. He looked like a miniature master photographer, making sure everything was just right before snapping a masterpiece. He adjusted our poses, insisted we remove our hats, and started snapping away. There was a young family seated on a rock nearby, taking a break to feed their baby. I wonder what they must have thought, watching him, and wondering what life and personality have in store for their own little intrepid bundle of joy.
It wasn’t just the roots and vines here that made Ta Phrom so amazing. The stone carving work was more detailed, more beautiful, and more pronounced than the other temples. The architecture was more imaginative, and it must have once been a spectacularly beautiful location, hidden within the deep jungle. It was simply my favourite of all the temples.
The water wat
A small side wat that might not get much attention is Preah Neak Poan. It’s approached by a 1 km long wooden pier over a still lake that is punctuated with gnarled trees and green lily pads. It turns out that lake is a spectacularly wide moat, that doesn’t resemble a moat at all.
The wat itself is tiny, situated in the middle of a small man made lake with additional reflecting pools that make for some excellent photos. It was just so different to any of the other sites we had visited, and the long walk over the lake was a departure from the dusty paths of the other temples.
Preah Khan was unexpected in that we hadn’t heard much about it. It’s not Ta Phrom with its creepy roots and vines, or Bayon with its weird faces. It also didn’t look like much from the outside, and seemed particularly more ruinous than others. Our driver deposited us there, just like he had at the other sites, and told us where we could meet him when we were done. I noticed that he then set up his hammock across the back of the tuk tuk, indicating that he expected us to be there for a while.
We walked in through the main entrance to the ruined temple, and followed the path through the rubble of concentric rings of corridors, extending out into the four cardinal directions. As we walked further and further toward the centre, we stepped over fallen stones, their magnificent carving still clearly visible even after centuries of ruin. We climbed from one courtyard to the next by crossing the narrow corridors running perpendicular to the central path, many still intact.
From the round room at the very centre, you can look down the long open corridors in each of the four directions. It was a bit of a weird effect that you had come so far, but really were only half way.
In it’s heyday (around 1100 AD), the temple was dedicated to 515 deities, and hosted more than 18 major festivals a year, requiring a full time staff of thousands just to maintain it. Serving both Hindu and Buddhist gods, Preah Khan is another example of the historical relationship between the two religions.
It’s impossible to see all of the temples in a day, and a huge task to do it in just three. But the tickets are good for three visits to the park over 7 days, and we needed every bit of those three days to get around to them all. Our tuk tuk driver was ever patient, always waiting right where he said he’d be…under a shade tree, having a nap in the hammock he strung across the back of his tuk tuk.
We came for the temples, but we really liked Siem Reap and the surrounding area as well. After some nightlife in the town, we really got off the beaten track and stayed in a small village that would give us some memories to last a lifetime.