As you step through the entrance of Angkor Wat, immerse yourself in the grandiose Khmer architectual of the 12th century. Give yourself time to take it all in. For a moment, mentally block out the tourist groups that are slowly crowding out the place. Then ponder. The building you’re stepping on was built in a time when computers and calculators didn’t exist. A time before cranes, lifts and tractors were invented. Look at the huge brick stones beneath you, they must weigh a tonne. How they managed to ferry those without modern equipment is one question, how they managed to erect a complete structure in symmetrical harmony is another.
Step into the open hall, take a look at the bas-relief that contains Hindu motifs. Look at how detailed they are and how little room for error the sculptors had. Understand the devotion people back then had for not only to the ruling group, but also to a greater deity. Start climbing up the stairs and exploring halls after halls, structures within structures.
Then stop, take a look at the bigger picture. Just how powerful and influential was the Khmer Empire to be able to build all the Angkor temples? And after all the turmoil this country has seen, especially in the last century, how did something so magnificent stay intact and untouched?
Once you have got a good feel of the place, only are you allowed to look into your camera and snap away like the rest. Then, as you walk through the crowd, try to determine which nationality of tourist groups is the loudest. Hmm…
I used to have the misconception that Angkor Wat is just a temple and an attraction that you could do in a day. I’m sure many others do too when in fact it’s not. The attraction of the area is actually called the Angkor Archaeological Park, a large area consisting various important archaeological sites, including Angkor Wat.
Since it’s almost impossible and tiring to cover all the sights, people usually break them down into 2 or 3-day visits. The most popular routes are the small and big circuits. The small circuits covers the sites nearer to Siem Reap and since it includes Angkor Wat, it’s a must-do. The big circuit on the other hand covers a larger area and is further away from town.
There are several way to visit the park – you could hire a tuk-tuk driver, rent a car or maybe follow a tour group. Of course, you could cycle if you’re adventurous but some sites are quite far apart and don’t underestimate the day’s heat. For convenience’s sake, I went a tuk-tuk. It was easier because the hostel I stayed in had a few tuk-tuk drivers stand-by and since they were interviewed beforehand, there’s no need to haggle or be cautious of. There is a market price for each circuits. (It was USD$15 per tuk-tuk for small circuit half-day trip, including sunrise. March 2013 price.) I urge you to pay the accepted rate and not below it as seeing how stiff the local competition is, many of these drivers undercut each other and struggle to make ends meet.
I booked Vai for the big circuit but there seemed to be a mix up and I found out in wee hours of the day that he was instead going to the small circuit. There was already another person – Christine from Canada – in Vai’s tuk-tuk so I thought I might as well tag along. We introduced each other and I found out that she was travelling around Southeast Asia for months. She was travelling alone too and we had a good chat about her journey, until the tuk-tuk started to slow down. Vai seemed to have a problem with the vehicle. Eventually it came to a halt. Vai got down to check the engine and judging from his look, things wasn’t looking good. He made a quick phone call and then turned to us, “It’s ok, I’ve called for backup. He will be here in awhile and fetch you. I will fix the tuk-tuk and come later.”
Not a good start. Good thing it was still early in the morning and sunrise wasn’t due until 1 1/2 hours later. We watched as tuk-tuks after tuk-tuks and the odd cars and bicycles passed us by. I wondered if we would face any more difficulties.
It didn’t take long for the backup to arrive. We quickly hopped onto the other tuk-tuk and left. Since it was our first time to the archaeological park, we were dropped at the ticket booth first. A one-day pass costs USD$20, three-day USD$40 and one-week USD$60. Most people get the three-day pass, I went for one week instead and was given a proper laminated pass with my photo on it.
We arrived at Angkor Wat in time, as the morning light start to come through. I found myself a nice spot at the small pond outside the main entrance. There was a crowd gathering already, all waiting for the Sun to make its appearance. We didn’t need to wait for long. Before we knew it, the dark blue sky started to glow an orange hue. Like a snail, the Sun slowly rised behind the main structure, creating a silhouette of Angkor Wat. The pool ahead of me created a nice reflection of the silhouette. It was beautiful.
While Angkor Wat was fun to explore, my favourite sight was Prasat Bayon in Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom was an ancient capital city of the Khmer empire and although vegetation has mostly occupied the area, the ancient walls and gates still stand. You will most definitely pass by the Southern gate of Angkor Thom when you visit, although I reckon the west wall is worth a visit too. In the heart of the ancient city, lies the ancient temple of Prasat Bayon. The most distinctive feature of Bayon – and seen on many postcards and travelogues – is the sheer number of stone faces that were built to face all corners of the temple. The temple wasn’t huge though and since many of the tour groups visit Bayon after sunrise at Angkor, it gets crowded really fast. It was hard to enjoy the place as the heat was slowly making its presence. It was frustrating. I decided to return to Bayon a few days later in the evening and to my surprise, there was virtually no one at the temple! It felt like I had the entire temple to myself. As the Sun was about to set, the temple glows a golden yellow colour. The stone faces that otherwise look flat and dull now have light and shade that pops out of photos.
Ta Prohm is another famous sight. Abandoned a long time ago, nature took its course and many trees have since taken over the area. You could see roots and branches growing out of bricks with large thounsand year old trees swallowing whole temples. Nature intertwined with man-made. A truly bizarre sight. The temple was also one of the filming locations for Tomb Raider (The movie that fired Angelina Jolie into mainstream fame) and thus, there will always be a queue at the empty doorway seen in the movie.
On the second day, Christine and I did the big circuit and this time we were joined by Brazilian João. Amongst the sights of the big circuit, the Banteay Srei stood out for me. Although it’s smaller in scale compared to the other temples, the cravings here are very well-preserved and worth a look. This is because different materials were used and they withstood the weather better.
Preah Khan was another one. It was huge, fun to explore and for some reason was less visited by tourists. Trees to have taken over parts of Preah Khan, although for restoration and tourism purposes, some have been cleared and chopped down.
Even though I bought a one-week pass, I was templed out by the fourth day. They all started to look the same to me. This varies from person to person though as some could spend a week exploring the ruins, while others feel like leaving after an hour. Perhaps if I do return to Cambodia in the future, I would like to explore ruins located further away from Siem Reap such as Bang Mealea or Koh Ker. Few ever travel visit these sites and apparently they look the same as how they were initially discovered.
Having that said, Angkor was the highlight of my trip to Cambodia. Large tourist groups and hot weather aside, the temples were mysterious, charming and full of photographic opportunities. The number of photos on this post could testify to that.
On March 2013, I bought a one-way ticket to Siem Reap and travelled to various places for 5 months. I returned home in September and decided to blog all the memorable stories and photos. I believe it’s the best way to conserve these memories and also share them with my friends. All posts are tagged to the category 2013 Travels, should you need to browse the entire series.
I was in Cambodia from March 4 to March 20. Most of the shots were taken with Olympus OM-D E-M5, with either the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens or the original Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. They were shot in RAW and processed, edited in Adobe Lightroom. Others shots are taken with my HTC Desire HD smartphone.