At Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Sitting in the carriage of our tuk tuk we were moving dreamily through a thick grove of old growth trees, the pre-dawn air cool but already hinting of a blistering day ahead. Our first tour of the ruins had been almost unbearably hot, so today we thought it best to beat the heat and get out to Angkor Wat before daybreak. The bonus would be that after the prescribed sunrise over the temples, we would have most of the ruins to ourselves during the cooler morning hours.
Due to inclement weather (a heavy snowfall for the first time in 20 years! see story here) we had missed the opportunity to visit the ancient ruins of Petra in Jordan, one of the main reasons we had decided to layover in that country before flying on to Bangkok. There were times during our trip through South East Asia when we wondered if we would ever make it to Angkor Wat at Siem Reap, Cambodia,which was rapidly becoming one of the major tourist attractions on the planet. Perhaps we were ruin jinxed!
We had arrived in Siem Reap a few days earlier after travelling by bus from Phnom Penh. Bus rides in the third world are always an adrenalin rush (there are no atheists on a bus here!). To our surprise a luxury bus company, Grand Ibis, had recently formed to service the route between Kampot, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap; we booked tickets in both well-appointed vans and buses. Features included comfortable roomy seating, air con, free drinks, snacks, towels, wifi and movies. Our drivers were not the customary maniacs who passed slow-rolling vehicles on blind turns and ducked back in within an inch of smashing headlong into oncoming traffic. Even so, our seats right at the front of the bus afforded us a good look at the many hazards our driver faced: narrow pot holed roads, cows, chickens, children, farmers, motobikes, overflowing trucks with people perched on top, and various makeshift contraptions stuffed with people, to crazy drivers in SUVs (at a rest stop I stood by the side of the road as a BMW 750i flew past at over 100 miles an hour!) so we vowed to get seats further back in the bus on the way back to Phnom Penh.
We had arrived somewhat late to the outskirts of Siem Reap where we were met by our new best friend, Vouen. We couldn’t miss his smiling face as he was holding up a sign with our name on it (we’d pre-arranged for him through our driver Vuth in Phnom Penh who told us he was his brother). Vouen became our fearless driver throughout our five busy days in Siem Reap.. His first task: to deposit us at the River Garden Boutique Hotel, a delightful off the beaten path resort and another in a series of incredible lodgings in Cambodia.
Siem Reap probably has the best tourist infrastructure in Cambodia; the streets are mostly well paved, there are many beautiful hotels in all categories, and bustling Pub Street downtown has a wide range of places to eat in all categories.
So back to our sunrise adventure at Angkor Wat: we arrived at this magnificent temple well before dawn. Despite our hopes to have the place nearly to ourselves by coming so early, we were far from alone. Apparently sunrise is as popular here as sunset is at famed beaches. When we crossed the long stone causeway to the temple (Angkor Wat has a moat) we couldn’t help but notice a very large contingent of South Koreans, which we had noted during our first visit as the dominant nationality touring Angkor. Feeling a bit like we were in a crowd of sheep, we decided to head back across the causeway to catch a different version of sunrise over Angkor, which proved to be magnificent. The Angkor Wat ruins are a challenge to describe; “other-worldly” comes closest. Intrepid novelist, traveler, and TV celeb Anthony Bourdain once said he threw his camera away and gave up photography after visiting Angkor Wat as he felt it was impossible to capture it though the lens.
One of the first Western visitors to the temple was António da Madalena, a Portugese monk who arrived in 1586 and said that it “is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.”
We devoted two days in total to the site, opting for the Little Circuit during the first very long hot day, then rising early for the Big Circuit. At the end we were “ruined out.” There are many places in the world that are oversold to tourism and commercialization. Despite the crowds, Angkor Wat should be on your bucket list – it is a “must see” adventure!
Below are a series of our photos taken on both days of our exploration (despite Bourdain’s reservations we kept our cameras!) We hope they capture some of the magic and flavour of Angkor, which reminded Chris so much of the Mayan ruins in Tikal, Guatemala; Copan, Honduras and the Yucatan Peninsula.
Angkor Wat Facts
- the site is more than 400 square kilometers and comprises the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century
- one of the most important ancient sites in SE Asia, along with Bagan, Burma and Borobudur, Indonesia
- the main temple of Angkor Wat is employed as the symbol of Cambodia, and the name of the national beer
- many villagers still live within the site’s borders on ancient lands; while farming is restricted they have taken to begging and selling cheap tourist “handicrap”
- the Khmer Rouge did not damage the site during the Killing Field years (1975-79)
- Angkor Wat is oriented to the west rather than the east (standard practice); this has led many to believe that founder King Suryavarman intended it to serve as his funerary temple
- Angkor Wat has been compared to the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome
- Angkor Wat was likely constructed by slaves- free labour
- the site was made famous by Angelique Jolie in the movie Tomb Raider
- there are two main tours: the Big and Little Circuit- there are many outlying temples as well
- temperatures can rise to over 100 degrees (40+ Celsius) so it hard to imagine how these were buildings were constructed
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