As Cambodia’s most famous icon and the pride of the nation, Angkor Wat impresses on a massive scale. It’s the central temple in Angkor, once capital of the old Khmer Empire, and also the largest religious monument in the world. Most people recognise the term Angkor Wat and know it to be a something of magnificence, however few realise that it’s one of many temples in the Angkor complex. Some of these are equal in splendour, but others are small or largely ruined – though these are often the better ones to visit as the hoards of tour-group tourists don’t venture to these temples.
I spent a few days in Siem Reap visiting the Angkor site. Twice by tuk-tuk – which is a fantastic, quick and easy way to explore the temples on the main circuit, and I also spent a day exploring on a bicycle – though because of Angkor’s vastness, it’s difficult to venture further afield. I visited all of the major sites, and many of the smaller ones – here it was enjoyable to simply soak up the surroundings away from all the other tourists. Angkor is gaining more and more visitors every year. As well as this endangering the already crumbling buildings, it also makes a visit less enjoyable when you have to duck and dive around a large Chinese tour group because they decide to stand in the middle of a small passageway, or take it in turns to have their photo taken in front of an iconic structure whilst everyone else has to patiently wait to get a shot with no one else in – like those we see in guidebooks. Oh how misleading they are.
Nonetheless, Angkor is indeed worth a couple of days visit – time to explore and find those less visited locations. Though these may not be featured in Tomb Raider (Angkor Thom was completely inundated with visitors it became suffocating – this is the famous crumbling temple covered in trees), or featured on the Cambodian flag (Angkor Wat), these help to paint a picture of how vast the ancient city was, and how devoted the people were to their religious worship. No houses or living quarters survive, as only the gods were worthy of living in the stone structures. Each temple is unique in design, carvings and size – every temple has something noteworthy to make a visit worth it. But no one can deny the immense beauty of the 5 iconic towers at Angkor Wat and the amazing feeling you get when walking down the promenade towards the temple – and imagining what it was like for the original inhabitants who walked the same path.
Every tourist who ventures here will start with sunrise at the most majestic temple – Angkor Wat. Though we were unlucky and didn’t actually see the sun rise, we saw the colours change and the temple gradually appear in the morning sun.
After the early 5am start, we explored the rest of the temple – visiting this early meant we avoided most tour-groups and only had the company of the other few hundred people who viewed the sunrise with us. The below picture shows an empty passageway within Angkor Wat, complete with a headless Buddha. Nearly all surviving statues throughout the Angkor complex are without their heads – most likely stolen by looters across the centuries.
A few of the temples are overgrown with trees, which twist and wind their way around the stone buildings. The first picture below shows the sheer size of some of these trees – can you spot me? The second is taken at Angkor Thom – I had to wait here patiently for quite a while to take a photo without anyone in it. This was by far the most congested temple we visited, it’s become so famous probably because it’s so over-run with trees and crumbling structures – which give it a rather unique look. Most guidebooks say this temple has an ethereal feel and surreal beauty about it, however this was somewhat ruined by the bus loads of Chinese tour groups, complete with identifiable flags.
My favourite temple by far was Bayon – the upper section is covered in large faces that have been carved out of the stone. I actually visited twice, the second time it was nearing sunset and so the number of visitors was significantly lessened. In some areas it felt like I was the only person there.
During the first visit to Bayon a truck fully loaded with a school of monks showed up. The little boys all hopped out with their teacher monks and set off to explore the temple – all clad in the distinctive brightly coloured orange. I managed to capture a photo of some of them standing in a doorway:
There were also a couple of entertainers dressed in the clothing used for traditional dances that were performed at Angkor festivals and religious events.
The sun was beginning to set as I cycled out of the grounds, my final view of Angkor Wat and the last photo I took in Cambodia is the below shot. The clouds had formed an unusual shape, and when reflected on the water the image captured looks like the wings of an angel. With the iconic Angkor Wat silhouetted in the distance, and the vibrant sunset colours, I do believe that this is my favourite picture taken here.
Angkor Wat, though incredibly touristy, provides a fascinating and totally unique experience. The whole area is alive with history, architectural beauty and stunning scenery. It was a fantastic way to finish my Asian adventures before setting off for Australia, and a place that every person visiting Cambodia should not miss.