My first stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap, which is best known for the incredible Angkor Wat, a 12th century stone Hindu temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world. But did you know that Angkor, which means “holy city” in Khmer, is actually just that — a city?
There is much more to Angkor than Angkor Wat.
The temple complexes at Angkor are just a few kilometers outside Siem Reap and are easily reached by tuk tuk or bike. Foreigners are not allowed to rent motos in SR, which I’m told is because of all the accidents caused. There are a lot of drunk kids running around Pub Street, so this is probably for the best. Anyway, Leja, a German traveler I met on my way in from Bangkok, and I rented bikes for the day and pedaled our way out to the complex.
We passed right on by Angkor Wat and headed instead to Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is another “city” made up of various temples and shrines, and it hasn’t been restored nearly as well as Angkor Wat. This is what I loved about it. There are piles of stone and bumpy walkways and all kinds of nooks and crannies, and you can climb ANYWHERE.
Despite the heat and high midday sun, the inside passages were really cool and the light beautiful.
The faces carved into stone are incredible. Wikipedia tells me that historians aren’t really sure whether they represent gods or kings or a combination of the two. My photos are from the main temple, Prasat Bayon, and I didn’t realize until later that there are many interesting things to be seen all around this structure as well, like entrance gates and the Elephant Terrace.
After some accidental offroading, we wound our way to Ta Prohm, which is the same style as Angkor Thom but unique for the huge trees that have grown into and around the stone walls.
It’s best known as the set of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. I got the sense that a lot of people wandering around were only interested in figuring out where Angelina Jolie filmed various scenes, and Angkor was kind enough to put up platform stages in said locations. You, too, can pose for the cover of a movie poster.
I liked Ta Prohm for the same reason that I liked Angkor Thom — it feels a bit more untouched, and there are all kinds of hidden corners to explore. More restoration is being done at this site, and there were parts that were closed off, but in general we could wander just about anywhere. It would be a sick place to play hide and seek.
Leja and I stopped at a few more small temples along the road, but I was pretty much done for the day and ready to head back to town for lunch and to take a break from the heat. I decided to save Angkor Wat for early the next morning.
And when I say early, I mean that I grabbed a bike from my hostel around 4:45 am and headed out in the dark to catch the sunrise. I arrived around 5:15 and found crowds of people already heading into the complex and lines of tuk tuks coming up the road. It was well worth it to go that early, though, because I got a front-row seat right on the edge of the water. Had I been much later, I would have been stuck behind rows of other people standing and therefore unable to see.
To be perfectly honest, the sunrise was a bit anticlimactic. The air in Cambodia is so hazy that the brilliant color I was expecting to see just never appeared. I imagine sunset might be better, although then you’d miss the reflection in the lake. In any case, I quickly headed into the central temple area ahead of the crowds.
If you ever get the chance to do sunrise at Angkor, make sure you go inside to catch the great light in and around the buildings.
I wandered up and down corridors and admired the stone reliefs carved into the walls and the awesome (and highly recognizable) beehive towers that make up the central temple. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a guidebook or any information about what I was looking at. The advantage of hiring a tuk tuk is that the driver can act as a guide, and while going at my own pace on a bicycle was lovely, if I had to do it again, I’d probably take that route instead.
The complex is built on several levels and in sort of concentric circles, and the part everyone knows is at the top and in the middle. It’s the only part that’s regulated in that it has specific opening hours, a dress code, and staff monitoring the entrances and exits. It’s still a functioning temple — what makes Angkor Wat unique is that it was never abandoned as a religious site — and so it makes perfect sense that there are some limitations on visitor activity.
I had to wait in line for an hour for it to open at 7:40.
And then when I got to the front, I was turned away because my dress was sleeveless. I was kicking myself because I carried a scarf and sarong to cover up the previous day and hadn’t needed either, so I left them out of my bag when I left to watch the sunrise. A woman in line tried to give me her scarf, but the guard wasn’t having it. I was too hungry and overwhelmed to argue or to ride back the half hour in the heat to my hostel only to turn around, so I had to cut my losses on this one.
Obviously Angkor Wat is hugely impressive — it’s hard to imagine this and the pyramids and other such structures being built before heavy-lifting machines were invented — but it lacks some of the character of the other temples I saw. Interestingly enough, everyone that I talked to in Siem Reap said they preferred most of the other sites to what is supposed to be the main event. Because I was on a bike, I actually missed some of the less-visited temples further afield, and if I had to do it over, again, I would hire a tuk tuk.
Additional tips for visiting Angkor: 1) Take water and snacks. There are vendors all over, but they overcharge compared to what you’d pay back in town. 2) If you go for sunrise, a flashlight or headlamp is really helpful (critical if you’re riding a bike). Obviously there’s no light until the sun comes up. 3) Go first thing or later in the morning (even if it’s hot). The lines at the ticket booth and on the roads are ridiculous around 8am. 4) Buy a three-day pass. You won’t want to spend an entire day seeing everything. It’s 100 percent worth it.
So Angkor was what I went to Siem Reap to see, but these spots don’t really figure in to the history of modern Cambodia, about which I knew nothing (seriously, NOTHING) aside from the fact that the Khmer Rouge killed people. It took a trip to Battambang, the country’s “second city,” to begin scratching the surface of what has quickly become my favorite destination so far.