The Angkor World Heritage Site in Siem Reap, Cambodia is one of the most incredible places we have visited. Before visiting, I had heard of Angkor Wat – a large temple – and knew that parts of the Angelina Jolie movie, Tomb Raider, were filmed at the Angkor site. However, as we researched more about our planned visit, I discovered that Angkor was so much more than just Angkor Wat and a movie location site.
The Angkor area was built up from the 9th through the 15th centuries. At its peak in the 1200’s, Angkor was a city that was home to one million people. The overall area of the city covered 390 square miles (1000 hectares). Most of the residential buildings were made of wood, so very little remains of them today. However, numerous temples and palaces made of stone are still there. Of the close to 300 temples in the complex, about 30 have been restored and can be visited.
We spent a total of three days visiting the Angkor complex. We chose to hire our own professional guide and driver. We are typically “do-it-ourselves” travelers and almost never go on organized packaged tours. However, we do find a private guide can be well worth the money. We can learn and experience so much more in a short period versus doing it on our own. For the three of us it was $320 USD total for three days. This gave us air-conditioned transportation in a Lexus SUV with a driver plus a guide. Throughout the day, when we returned to the SUV after looking at a temple, we were offered a cold towel and a cold bottle of water – very refreshing. Add to that $180 total for three, three-day temple passes and the total cost came to $500 for three days. This is not super cheap, especially for us early retired people travelling on a budget, but was well worth it. To put this into perspective, if instead, we went to Disney World and got a three-day Park Hopper pass, we would have spent $1035 for three days on entrance tickets alone, over twice the price as our three days at Angkor! Although I love Disney World, there is no comparison to the awesome reality of Angkor. To us it was a real bargain!
Over the three days we saw many temples and other structures. We took hundreds of pictures. It really has to be seen in person to fully appreciate, and the sites are too numerous to talk about everything in a single blog post, but here are some of the highlights.
Day 1 – Angkor Thom
Angkor translates as “capital” and Thom as “city”, so literally Angkor Thom means Capital City. The city is a walled city complete with a moat. A key feature of the whole Angkor site is the extensive infrastructure of canals, reservoirs and waterways. This system not only provided water for drinking, bathing and irrigation, but also provided a method of transportation, and perhaps most importantly, stabilized the soil around the city to prevent the destabilization of buildings due to the ground drying out and rehydrating during the wet season and dry season cycle.
Inside the city wall are numerous palaces and temples. The construction methods are pretty incredible. The base structures are made of laterite – a porous rock – and are then faced with sandstone. All the structures were built without the use of mortar. They fit so perfectly that sometimes it is difficult to see where one brick or piece of stone stops and the other starts. This allowed for spectacular carvings of large walls with various scenes and stories.
Day 2 – Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom
A wat is a Buddhist temple. So, Angkor Wat means Capital Temple. It was originally built as a Hindu temple, but when the Khmer (Cambodian) Empire converted to Buddhism, the use of the temple was converted and is now a Buddhist wat.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world. It covers 400 acres (163 hectares), larger than any of the ancient Greek and Roman temples, Meca, any Christian cathedral, or any other religious structure.
We left the hotel at 5AM to see sunrise at Angkor Wat. This is a very popular thing to do. There are two main vantage points that people use to see sunrise at Angkor Wat: inside the wat itself or outside the wat beside the moat that acts as a reflecting pond. We talked with someone who saw sunrise inside the wat and was disappointed with the experience. It is supposed to be spectacular as you see the colors of the walls change as the sun rises from inside. However, our friend didn’t like it. I was glad when our guide told us we would be sitting on the bank of the moat. We got a good spot sitting on the laterite steps down to the moat. I set up my iPhone on time-lapse mode and positioned it beside me. The time-lapse photo worked well. If I had to do it again, I probably would have tried to get a tripod and/or sit down closer to the moat so no one got in the shot. As the morning wore on, more people came for the sunrise and our private spot ended up not being so private and there were a few people that got in the shot.
The nice thing about having the private guide is that we can direct the schedule and pace somewhat. After sunrise, about 6:30AM, we went back to the hotel for breakfast and rested a while before hitting the road again at 9:00AM.
Angkor Wat itself was pretty amazing. It took only 32 years to build. That might seem like a long time, but considering it was built in the 12th century completely by hand, that is quick. For example, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris took over a century to build. Ground breaking for Notre Dame was at about the same time as Angkor Wat and Notre Dame is considerably smaller.
Susan was almost prevented from climbing up the main towers of Angkor Wat. Our experience in Thailand and Cambodia is that when visiting temples, and even some palaces or museums, modest clothing is required for both men and women. This means no shorts, no skirts above the knee, no tank tops or sleeveless shirts, no low necklines. At many wats, shawls to wrap around bare shoulders or cover up a low neckline are available to rent. You can also rent a wrap to cover your legs if you are wearing shorts or a skirt above the knee. However, Angkor Wat, and especially the upper towers, are considered especially holy and you are not allowed to use a shawl or wrap to temporarily make yourself more modest. Susan always wears skirts below the knees, but on the day we visited Angkor Wat she was aware of the significance and perceived holiness of the site and purposely decided to wear a full length skirt out of respect. However, her skirt was a wraparound type. She was stopped by one of the staff and told she could not go up to the upper level since she was wearing a temporary wrap. After a minute or two of discussion with the official, aided by our guide, they finally understood that this was her actual skirt and not a temporary wrap, she was allowed to go up.
After Angkor Wat, we visited probably the second most famous structure in the Angkor complex, Ta Phrom, or as it more commonly known, Angelina Jolie Temple or The Tomb Raider Temple. Ta Phrom was used for several scenes in the 2001 movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie. Bootleg DVD copies of the movie can be found all over Siem Reap. I had never watched the movie before, but found it later on Thai Netflix and recognized a few of the places in the movie from our visit.
Besides being famous for the movie, another distinctive feature of Ta Phrom are that there are many large trees growing up over walls and roofs of buildings. Angkor was mostly abandoned in the 16th century and the jungle took over until it was “rediscovered” in 1860. Some of the trees have been removed because they are weakening the structure of the building, however, the popularity of seeing trees growing out of ruins has meant that alternative methods of stabilizing the structures are being used so that the trees can remain in places.
Day 3 – Pink Temples – Banteay Srey, Beng Melea
Our last day exploring the temple took us about 60kms from our hotel. The temples here were built in the 9th and 10th century, more than 100 years before Angkor Wat. These temples are constructed of a red sandstone and are smaller than the temples in Angkor Thom. They are very intricately carved and were well worth the trip out of the city to see.
Angkor Wat is well worth putting on the list of places to places to see before you die. It ranks up there with The Great Wall in China, Macha Picchu in Peru, Teotihuacan in Mexico – places we have seen. We plan to visit again before we leave Southeast Asia. We are very glad we took the three-day tour with a guide. Now that we have seen the highlights, next time our thought is to get a week-long temple pass and visit on our own, maybe hitting the site from 6:30AM until about 10:00AM and then coming back in the late afternoon for a few hours to avoid the heat. I would be very interested in learning more and seeing more about the engineering of the water management system of canals, waterways and reservoirs developed at the time.