Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

by | Nov 7, 2021 | Place Going & Thing Doing | 0 comments

I can’t adequately express the peace and beauty of the sun rising behind Angkor Wat…feeling the humidity of the jungle and soaking in the ancientness of the buildings, watching as the sun crept up behind them and turned the murky shadows into intricate carvings. It was another bucket list achievement for me. Our taxi driver had picked us up from the hotel at 4:15 in the morning. That’s not an hour I typically recommend, especially if you just landed at midnight, but it was absolutely worth it. (See “Some Warnings” below, though.) Not only did we witness the magic of the sun rising on a new day, but we were able to get a good view of the main temple at the “left reflection pool” before too many other people came and then wander around the main temple complex as the sun worked its way higher into the sky.

There are so many amazing temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park complex. One full day was not enough, but that’s all we had made time for in our Thailand/Cambodia trip, and I needed to get back to the UK for work so we couldn’t extend the stay. We were in Siem Reap for just 2 days/2.5 nights. I would love to go back and take 3-5 days to really explore the Archaeological Park, visit more of the temples, and take a slower pace to savor the history. But here are the highlights from our short trip.

The Main Angkor Wat Temple

It’s fascinating to me to realize this temple is “only” 900 years old. It feels older, probably because the site itself is older and carries an ancient authority. The humidity of the jungle and war have also taken a heavy toll on the buildings to give them a premature aging. I watched a really interesting History Channel show about Angkor Wat many years ago and I wish I could find it again (History Channel: would you please please please make more actual historical content available on demand!), but I remember something about the key to the Khmer Empire thriving here was the water engineering through a system of canals to divert river water and harness the monsoon rains and mountain run-off. A large rectangular canal was built around the entire complex as a central hub for the canal system and, unsurprisingly, when the balance between life and water was thrown off through war, drought, etc., and they failed to maintain the waterways the civilization declined. (Duh. Maybe someday we’ll learn?)

Anyway it was amazing to have another one of those moments where I’m standing in front of a thing realizing that I’ve seen it on a History Channel show and now I’m here in person seeing it with my own eyes. It’s a gratifying and humbling experience that makes me so grateful for my freedom and ability to travel the world seeing amazing things. Like someone randomly riding past on an elephant, or a monkey falling asleep in the middle of the walkway, making me wonder if I can just tip toe past him or what. These are the random experiences you can’t plan but that make life so worthwhile.

Smiling Faces of Bayon Temple (Angkor Thom)

I absolutely loved Bayon Temple. The smiling stone faces fascinate me. Angkor Thom is technically not Angkor Wat, although I think most people (incorrectly) just assume “Angkor Wat” refers to the entire area…I know I did. But it turns out that Angkor Thom is actually a separate city from the Angkor Wat temple grounds, and the Bayon Temple is the main attraction within the Angkor Thom city ruins. I’m still not exactly sure why all these stone faces are smiling, but I choose to take the message at face value (omg the pun!): this is a place where we seek peace and happiness through enlightenment. To me, a temple is a place not only to worship the god it was dedicated to, but also a consecrated space to do our own spiritual work as flawed human beings. By putting 20 foot stone faces on the towers visible from all directions, I think the Bayon Temple builders were reminding us that the desired outcome of that spiritual work is joy. So that’s how I choose to interpret these smiling faces, and I love them.

Jungle Roots at Ta Prohm

If you’re old enough to remember Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft swinging through Ta Prohm temple on a vine you’ll have an appreciation of how fun it was to be there in person. But you might be just a tiny bit disappointed to discover that there is absolutely no vine riding and you can’t go inside any of the temples. So even though there’s absolutely no touching of the things, it’s totally worth gawking at the massive tree roots crawling over and consuming the stone buildings like very very slow-moving jungle Ents marching in utter slow motion towards world domination. I loved it.

Other Angkor Wat Temples

Although our taxi driver was trying to rush us out so he could get us shopping, I took my time and tried to see some of the less-visited temples. The temple complex is quite large and sprawling, and I didn’t have enough time to go to as many temples as I would have liked to. You can walk, and I would have preferred to, despite the crushing heat. There are also tuk-tuks waiting outside the main temples who are more than happy to take you where ever you want to go for a very reasonable price. But we had our dedicated taxi tour guide so we just had him take us around. I really recommend you spend more time than we did. I wish that I had planned better and didn’t try to just slide this in during our Thailand trip.

Siem Reap to Bangkok by bus

We flew from Bangkok to Siem Reap, but we took the bus back when it was time to return to Thailand. I loved watching the countryside roll by outside my window. It took all day, but to me, it was so much better than flying because we got to see the rice paddies, the cows, the people, the trees and grass and way of life on the road. You don’t get this glimpse of real life from the air. We stopped frequently for bathroom breaks where we could stretch, get snacks, and experience Cambodia a little. Transferring at the border with Thailand was hot, crowded, and a little nutty (you go through one building full of people waiting to exit Cambodia and then you walk over to another building full of people waiting to enter Thailand and then you have to go find the right bus you’re supposed to be on somewhere in the parking lots) but there were enough English signs and people pointing the general direction we were supposed to go, so we did make it to our bus on time. It worked out ok but I will admit it seemed a bit confusing at the time.

Some warnings about scams and unpleasant things

Taxi “tour guides” will only guide you to their kickbacks

First, your taxi driver is not your friend, although he will work hard to make you believe he is. We were a bit insecure about getting around Cambodia, so when we were greeted with a friendly, English-speaking taxi driver right out of the airport who could take us to our hotel after landing at midnight, we gladly accepted. And when he offered to come back in a few hours to take us to Angkor Wat and then be our tour guide for the next two days at $50/day, we accepted. Well, I accepted. Aaron recommended we decline the offer, and just see what we could find, but I felt like the peace of mind would be worth it. It seemed like a good deal, and it probably was, but I don’t actually recommend it to others. Our hotel also offered us a tour guide, and there were hundreds of tuk-tuk drivers everywhere we could have relied on. We would have been ok, but I get anxious in countries where I don’t read or speak the language and have a tight timeline.

It turned out that our “tour guide” was far more motivated to take us to his friends’ businesses and places where he would get a kickback on our purchases than actually taking us where we wanted to go. He kept wanting us to leave Angkor Wat to go shopping, etc. that first day and I was not having it. This did not make him happy, and he tried to hide it, but I could tell something was up. I think he was counting on us getting too hot and/or bored quickly and wanting to do the American thing and go shopping, spend many hundreds of dollars on rugs, vases, art, etc. so he could get a kickback. Nope. Sorry, not sorry. The second day of touring Siem Reap was really a half day for us because we had the Angkor Smile program we wanted to go to in the evening so although we did go a few places our “guide” suggested, he was extremely disappointed.

We did love the restaurants he took us to, and to his credit he did show up on time and he never abandoned us, but there was always a tension between what we wanted and what he wanted which I didn’t enjoy.

You will be mobbed by beggars at the temples

Next, be prepared to feel like you’re in a piranha tank at the temples. You will be swarmed by vendors, especially children, hawking their trinkets and begging you to buy from them. They will pull you into their shops if you walk anywhere near them; they will grab you by the arms, plead, and probably pick-pocket you (although I’ve been around the world too much to make it easy to pickpocket me; I keep my belongings tight at all times). They will literally chase after you and ruin the experience for you outside the temples because you just want to get away, they’re so numerous and desperate. It’s just an anthill of beggars. You have to just ignore them, shake your head, repeat “no thank you” a thousand times, pull your arm and hands back to yourself, and keep going towards the temple. Because if you do buy something, you’re instantly marked as a sucker and the beggar traffic will literally prevent you from walking anywhere because there are so many children, teenagers, and women shoving trinkets in your face begging you to buy. They were crawling into the taxi after us; we had to make sure none of them got caught in the sliding door of our minivan taxi as we were trying to leave. One child I encountered should be nominated for an Oscar; he’s mastered the art of sobbing and giving you the dramatic, pathetic yet angry evil eye for saying no to him, and then instantly rebounding to descend on the next target as my taxi pulled away.

Inside the temple grounds, it’s harder for the trinket-sellers to get through but for some reason you will still find map-sellers, tour guides and other real nuisances trying really, really hard to separate you from your money. Maybe there’s some licensing scheme inside but anyone can sell outside. I don’t know. But they will follow you, walk behind you and keep talking to you as long as they can. It’s hard to ignore them, and it really detracted from the experience for me, but I just kept focusing on how happy I was to be at Angkor Wat.

Be prepared to pay for the best picture spots

Third, beware the official temple guard/docent who offers to show you the best spots to take a picture. He’ll be friendly, very official (uniform and all) and informative. He will not disclose to you up front that he expects you to pay him, and he will not name a price until after he has guided you to 3-4 spots and gauged how much he think he can get. After showing you around, he will say “$50 now” or some other amount, hold out his hand, and block your path. The first temple was a shock; I was not expecting to be asked for $50 (I was going to tip him $10) but we settled for $20 and I figured it was worth it. After that I knew the drill, so I was prepared to shell out. So if it’s not worth it, or you’re broke, don’t accept the guard’s advice on where to take the best picture because I don’t know what happens if you don’t pay them when they demand it.

Pay with any currency…except theirs, and never let them see your cash

Don’t bother getting more than about $20 converted into local currency when you arrive. It turns out they will accept basically any currency except their own. They prefer dollars, of course, but then they ask for Euros, Yen, basically anything besides their own money because their currency is so unstable. And if you do buy something, do not, under any circumstances let them see how many bills you have. Not because they will pick pocket you (although I have heard of this) but because their prices are all verbal, negotiated on the spot, and will change depending on how much they think they can get from you. They’re experts at guessing your willingness to pay and if they see an opportunity to suddenly triple the price, they will.

I know this sounds negative, but in hindsight it’s just another travel experience and the good far outweighed the annoyances. I do want to go back sometime when I have more time to wander around Angkor Wat, but I’m so glad we made time to visit while we could.


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