The Secrets of Angkor Wat
Days 238-240 (March 21-23):
After we arrived back to the mainland, we boarded an overnight bus bound for Siem Reap, the home of the one of the world’s most famous temple complexes: Angkor Wat. The bus ride itself, was quite the adventure. We did not realize when selecting top or bottom on the bus, that you were selecting your bunk. While Adam and I lucked out and got the top bunk, Katie and Justin were stuck on the bottom bunk, which was essentially a small mattress on the floor of the bus. Not only was it louder and bumpier, but it was about six inches shorter than the top bunk and had absolutely no windows. A long bout with car sickness ensued for the two of them. So, in the future, when they ask you top or bottom on an overnight bus, ALWAYS go with the top.
However, we survived and arrived in Siem Reap early in the morning, ready to sightsee. The city itself is almost entirely focused on tourism for the temple complex, so tourist traps, westernized food, and hotels abound. We stayed at a hostel off the beaten track a bit with a pool and a bar. As we did in Phnom Pehn, we ended up hiring our tuk tuk driver to take us to Angkor Wat. We relaxed a bit at the hostel and walked around the town before we met up with him to take us for sunset at the temple that evening. You can get into Angkor Wat for an hour before it closes if you buy a ticket for the next day, so we decided to check it out early. We only made it into the main Angkor Wat temple for a bit to snap some quick pics before we were ushered out to watch sunset in front of the temple with throngs of other tourists. The sunset was not really anything to write home about, as it sets on the opposite side of the temple. So, there was nice light cast on its front, but no pictures with the actual sun in them. We managed to negotiate with our driver to get a guide for the next day, to explain more of the history of the different temples as we wandered through.
Now let me explain something I didn’t really realize when we were looking into Angkor Wat. The name, Angkor Wat is actually the name of the most famous temple complex in the group. However, there are many, many more temples and complexes spanning 400 acres, making it the largest religious monument in the world. It is IMPOSSIBLE to see in one or even two days. Additionally, the tickets for visiting are fairly expensive and have gone up even higher in price recently. It costs $37 for a one day ticket and $62 for a three-day pass. Cambodian citizens, of course, visit free. But given the higher price, and our limited budget, we opted for a highlights tour of the most popular and well-known temples to be seen in a single day. It is doable, but be prepared for a lot of walking and sweating. The exact sights we saw were Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, the Bayon, Elephant Terrace, Ta Keo, Ta Som, Srah, Srang, and the Terrace of the Leper King.
Our full-day tour of Angkor Wat started with a visit to the Bayon, where away from any other tourists we watched the sunlight slowly creep up and enlighten the large stone faces bedecking this temple. It was very, very eerie being there by ourselves in the dimness of the early morning. After, we made it back to Angkor Wat in time to see the orange sun cresting behind the three temple mountains. While the pictures of this event were stunning, watching sunrise here is the most popular thing to do, and you will be fighting with masses of tourists all angling for the same shot. I was glad we got some solitude at the Bayon to really experience that ethereal feel that Angkor Wat has.
The rest of our day was spent touring the various temples I mentioned. While we waited with crowds of others to see the main sites of Angkor Wat, and somewhat in Ta Prohm as well, but the complex is so large, I really never felt like I was in some sort of herd while moving through the ruins. Our guide did well enough at explaining the various sites, and histories of the temple, although his English was not the greatest and required constant focus to understand. We all thoroughly enjoyed Ta Prohm, the temple made famous by the movie Tomb Raider. I enjoyed it not just because I had seen it in film, but because with this temple specifically, it feels as if the jungle was really trying to reclaim it, swallowing whole walls in trees, some of which have become so integral to the structural integrity of the temples, they cannot be removed. We took more pictures than I can count and spent some time to just stand and marvel at the scale of what these peoples had achieved. We returned to our hostel exhausted, opting out of seeing sunset again.
Although we had another day here which we spent wandering around the markets taking advantage of the cheap street food offerings and $1 massages, Angkor Wat is really all there is to see. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We got to wander through a chapter of living history and check yet another item off of our bucket lists. Seeing what we did in one day is a bit insane, and having more time to appreciate the temples and relax one the grounds would have great, but we made the best of it. And, looking back, I feel like we left Cambodia on a real high note.