Travel Report: Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
November 2015. It was pitch black as we rumbled through the streets of Siem Reap in our tuk tuk. The time was a downright grisly 4:30 in the morning, way too early for me and my three zombified companions. Nevertheless, we were full of anticipation. After all, we were about to arrive at one of Planet Earth’s most stupendous temples.
That tuk-tuk ride from the city centre was a bumpy one. Hence I was delighted when we finally arrived, the morning sky already beginning to break. Disembarking, and turning a corner on foot, there was a collective wow moment as Angkor Wat came into view.
Due to our obnoxiously early start, I had wondered if… just maybe… the place wasn’t going to be as crowded as I first thought. But of course I was wrong… after all this was Angkor Wat, where dealing with crazy crowds is simply part of the package.
The Sunrise Crowds.
A large concentration of the masses had settled at the edge of the moat, directly in front of the entrance gates. This is the spot for photographs as the sun rises. It really is an amazing moment as the temple’s black, shadowy form begins to bleed into its signature golden glow.
Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II in tribute to the Hindu god Vishnu. This was an unusual move at the time, because most temples of the era stood dedicated to Shiva, the destroyer of Evil. Gradually, in the decades that followed, it morphed into a Buddhist temple.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
King Suryavarman became obsessed with expanding Angkor Wat, adding more and more residential wings, gardens and strategic military posts. Eventually, it became the centrepiece of the Khmer Empire! Described as the very “heart and soul of Cambodia”, today the temple stands as the world’s largest religious monument. If you’re wondering just how big that is, I’m talking 500 acres!
Inside, there are stone courtyards, column arcades, dusty alleyways, vast open squares and crumbling balconies aplenty. Moreover, just about everything is stuffed with Buddhist and Hindu images. It is so beautiful and intricate in its design, especially when you read one historian’s theory that the original ground plan aimed to replicate the position of the stars in the Draco constellation.
Parts of the complex remain wonderfully wild and unfinished. Some historians say construction was ongoing even at the time of King Suryavarman’s death, somewhere between 1145-1150.
The cause of the temple’s actual abandonment has a pleasing air of mystery about it. Generally, historians agree that the city of Angkor collapsed at some point in the 15th century. The culprit? A prolonged period of drought followed by devastating monsoon rains.
Angkor Wat roughly translates as temple city. Right enough, the sheer scale of the place was overwhelming. After a solid hour of wandering we eventually sought respite on this giant balcony, with views over a large grassy courtyard.
Angkor Wat is the chief attraction of Angkor Archeological Park, located roughly seven kilometres outside Siem Reap city centre. Thus you’re looking at about twenty minutes in a private car, forty minutes or so in a rickety old tuk-tuk like the one we took that day. If you want to see more Angkor temples (and you definitely do), hire a tuk tuk driver for the day from $30 upwards…
You can visit Angkor Wat with The Angkor Pass, purchased both online and in person at The Angkor Archaeological Park Ticket office. At the time of writing, foreign tourists have been virtually wiped out due to COVID-19. As a result, those lucky enough to be in Cambodia have an unprecedented opportunity to see the temple free from the usual crowds. If you can, don’t even hesitate!
Planning to visit? You might want to check out the excellent visitangkor.org.
For more on this incredible region of Cambodia, check out my other travel reports on The Temples of Angkor.
You can also check out my exhaustive guide to the sights, cafes, restaurants and hotels of Siem Reap.
Or maybe delve further afield with my articles from across Cambodia.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.