When we began planning this epic adventure of traveling to a dozen cities on the way from London the U.S., Cambodia was one of the first countries that came up. I hate to admit that I knew very little about the country except that it was “exotic” and a backdrop to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. So, when Jeff told me about an ancient temple spanning over 400 acres of jungle land largely untouched by modern technologies, I was enthralled.
We spent our first day in Cambodia getting acclimated to the surroundings because we knew the temples would take multiple full-days to explore. Mr. Narong, our tuk tuk driver for the duration of our stay, was our guide as he picked us up and drove us to the ticket office bright and early in the morning. While we only had two more days in Siem Reap, it was more cost-effective to purchase the 3-day pass at $40 per person than buying two one-day passes. (However, it looks like prices are rising for the compound starting next year.)
The ticket office is in a separate compound from the temples about 2 km away, so make sure to head there first. There are about thirty or so lines to choose from where you pay and get your photo taken for your ID, which you must hold onto because they hole-punch it at the entrance of the park when you arrive.
If you’re hoping to grab breakfast at the Visitor’s Center, there is only coffee and muffins for sale (and none are gluten-free). However, there are many pop-tent restaurants on the Angkor Wat compound that cater to locals and tourists for all meals of the day. The prices are not extreme, but they are a bit higher than other locations around town. I’ll explain a bit more about that later in this post.
At 9:30am, the sun was already blazing and the asphalt looked to be melting, but Jeff and I were ready to finally walk in the footsteps of the ancient warriors. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple in the 12th century under Suryavarman II, the massive compound was to be a royal palace, but when Suryavarman II died leaving the temple unfinished, it was easily taken by the Chams, a notorious Khmer enemy. It was Jayavarman VII who continued construction on Angkor Wat and then Angkor Thom, a separate temple dedicated to Buddha.
Buddhism is still practiced at the Wat today, but starting in the 16th century, the temples were largely forgotten and left to nature to reclaim. While never completely abandoned by worshipers, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s when French explorer Henri Mouhot “rediscovered” it and exposed its ruins to the world.
Restoration began and was starting to take shape when Cambodia was rocked by the devastating invasion of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. While the Wat didn’t sustain much damage from the conflict, the preservation took a step back when funding and access was cut off.
Today, there is a lot of controversy over the ownership of the Wat. Mr. Narong told us that the company we bought our tickets from was actually Vietnamese and that the vast majority of the money coming in for the Wat was going back to Vietnam rather than Cambodia. There are some claims that debunk these theories, but with the level of government and economic corruption in the country, either side of the argument is completely feasible. When we heard this story, Jeff and I felt very conflicted about our trip. Was it good that we were there putting money into the local economy or were we exploiting it by giving the government more power? It’s a fine line that can be dangerous to explore.
As I walked up the stone path to the entrance of Angkor Wat, I was in complete awe. This was the first time in all of our travels that we saw something so ancient and so accessible. In places like the ruins of Rome or Greece, most of the attraction is roped off for conservation, but here, we could walk wherever we wanted, explore whatever hallway we desired, and crawl into any space we could see. It was like a playground for history fanatics.
The compound of Angkor Wat, the biggest temple compound on the entire estate, had many towers and rooms to walk through. While the surrounding fortress was certainly astounding to see with the intricate carvings and depictions of ancient war, it was the Bakan or center tower that was the main sight. There was a line to climb the steep flight of stairs, and it is imperative that you dress accordingly out of respect because you will be turned away if you’re wearing a tank top or shorts. After about fifteen minutes of waiting, we climbed to the top of the Bakan to get a lovely overview of the compound but also a view into the center temple to the gods.
Angkor Wat is just one of the dozens of temples in the small city, so after an hour and a half, we found Mr. Narong among the many other tuk tuk drivers hired by tourists to drive to one of the other temples on the grounds. If you think you can walk from temple to temple, let me give you a piece of advice and say, “don’t.” The temples are much farther apart than they look on the map, but more importantly, the heat will eventually take you down. We consumed more bottles of water and coconuts than we ever had in our lives, but we were still severely dehydrated and hot by the afternoon.
But when Mr. Narong brought us in front of Angkor Thom, the second temple on our itinerary, my heart nearly stopped. Angkor Wat was gorgeous and complex, but Angkor Thom had Buddha’s face on every tower, in every corner, and on every side. It was breathtaking.
Literally meaning “Great City,” Angkor Thom was built many years after Angkor Wat by the next ruler, Jayavarman VII, who worshiped Buddha over Vishnu. The Bayon, or center temple, was thought to have been a gift to Jayavarman’s bride in the 12th or 13th century. If you’re familiar with the Nickelodeon show, Legends of the Hidden Temple, the faces on the ancient towers will be very familiar. My inner child looked at these Buddha faces in awe while my adult mind admired the preservation of these gorgeous towers.
As we wandered from room to room, I came across a kitten bouncing on its sleeping mother. It was about midday, so the mother cat was snoozing in the sun trying desperately to ignore her child, so Jeff and I took it upon ourselves to play with the little guy to give the mom a break from the rambunctious toddler. After the yawning kitten at Big Buddha in Phuket, I found this little creature a motif in our SE Asia travels.
After Angkor Thom, we did make the short walk to the Temple of the Elephants and then the Temple of the Leper King. The Temple of the Elephants had extraordinary carvings of elephants on the walls and sculptures of the creatures keeping guard on the platform.
Mr. Narong met us again and took us to Ta Keo. This temple was the first to be built entirely of sandstone. The climb to the top of this temple was incredibly steep, but apparently, the difficult climb was to depict the struggle of getting to heaven. But once at the top, we could see endless trees around us, so it was a version of heaven.
We headed for lunch after Ta Keo to a restaurant with air conditioning, so we were thrilled to have a break from the heat. But since this cafe was geared for tourists melting in the sun, there were many children peddling magnets, snow globes, and other trinkets. Many of the signs on the compound say not to indulge these kids by giving them money because it is likely the cash is not going to their families. It was completely heartbreaking to hear these four year olds already learning how to barter by saying, “a magnet for a dollar,” and then, “okay, two magnets for a dollar.”
Something Mr. Narong had told us about the cafes and vendors on the compound of Angkor Wat was that the prices are a little higher than in-town because they must pay for “police protection.” However, the kickbacks never benefit the vendor because the police do not actually protect them at all. It’s a sort of “rent” these vendors owe the police, and if they can’t pay, then they are thrown out. Again, we found ourselves conflicted about our time there if we were helping or hurting the people of Cambodia.
We ended our first day at Ta Prohm, the famous Lara Croft temple. While most known for its inspiration in the blockbuster Angelina Jolie film, it was actually one of the more striking temples on the entire compound. Unlike the others, Ta Prohm, originally a monastery and university, was largely left to nature.
As we crept through the ancient hallways and doorways, massive and gorgeous trees towered high above us coming directly from the stone buildings. Over time, nature found a way to either knock down walls or keep the stones firmly in place by their roots. Our jaws dropped at the sheer size of these trees, and it nearly brought us to tears. Our photos couldn’t do it justice, so we took a short video, which still doesn’t show a fraction of what we saw with our own eyes.
The next morning, Mr. Narong met us at our little house for another day at Angkor Wat. It was over breakfast that morning that Mr. Narong gave us more insight into life in Cambodia. While Jeff and I like to break away from social media and the constant need for our phones, we learned that the smart phone and Facebook are vital in places like Siem Reap. The government monitors and censors everything that is shown on the television, so without things like Facebook, Cambodians never would have learned that one of their own was killed for speaking out against corruption. It was eye-opening that something we use to stalk our friends with is a lifeline to citizens across the globe.
We finished our breakfast in stunned silence before he took us to the first temple of the day: Preah Khan, the ancient hospital on the grounds. This structure was also largely left alone to conservationists since many of the other temples grab the attention of the tourists and there isn’t enough funding to go around. Something we found interesting about the ownership of Angkor Wat was that it seemed that Cambodia was not funding all of the preservation of their own property. India and Germany were the big financial institutions paying for the restoration. Whether that is down to lack of money or government allocations, we couldn’t be sure.
Our next stop on our Angkor tour was Neak Pean, a small temple with a moat surrounding the small stone monument, but you must cross an incredibly long wooden plank bridge surrounded by Lion King-esque marsh land to get there. This area was meant as a sort of medical retreat. The water was thought to be healing in nature, so people would go there to swim in the water and relax. Today, the site is much diminished, but the beauty is still there.
There were three more temples we saw: Ta Som, East Mebon, and Banteay Kdei. East Mebon was the first temple we saw that had structural support to keep the walls from falling down, but each temple was still gorgeous to walk through, even if we didn’t know much about each one. I would not take away any of the temples we walked through despite the heat and the repetition in style because never again will I step foot in something so ancient and unadulterated.
Mr. Narong met us back at the tuk tuk with ice cold palm fruit that was largely flavorless but juicy and refreshing. It was exactly what we needed after nearly succumbing to heat stroke under the relentless sun.
The next morning was our last as we packed up our bags for the next city on our tour. As we got ready, I listened to Buddhist chants in the wind from a nearby temple and the quiet echos of the remaining geckos in the house. We brought our bags down and saw a few stray dogs play-fighting in the street. Mr. Narong saw us looking at the rough-looking animals and made a comment about them being free to be themselves while Americans tend to imprison their pets by keeping them inside against their nature.
As we drove off toward the airport, I thought about this completely different perspective on something as innocuous as pets. It was a completely valid statement, and while we may think it’s wrong to leave animals outside to their own devices un-vaccinated and un-neutered, people from halfway around the world think it wrong to keep them away from outside danger and unnaturally altered. It made me realize how much Cambodia meant to me for opening my eyes and finally seeing another side of the world I had no idea existed.
Even though we said goodbye to Siem Reap, we did not bid farewell to Cambodia. Stay tuned for the next entry as we explore the capital city of Phnom Penh.
For a comprehensive map of the Angkor Wat temple, click here.