Angkor Wat (“Temple City”) is the largest religious monument in the world. It’s iconic and overwhelming and more beautiful and mystifying in person than in any photos you’ve seen. I tend to be pretty skeptical of seeing specific sights or sites since I feel like they usually let you down after all the hype. Not the case here. I teared up a little when it first came into view.
But just outside the small city of Siem Reap, Cambodia where Angkor Wat lies, there are dozens of other temples. Our eight days in Cambodia were mostly spent exploring all of these interesting, intriguing, and well-preserved wonders. They were all built between 800-1100AD, commissioned by kings in the Khmer Empire, mostly as Hindu temples originally, and then changed to Buddhist temples as the population changed. Many of the temples have a somewhat similar structure and similar engravings. Part of the fun in seeing so many temples was noticing the small variations between them all in etchings, materials, and layout.
Visitors to Angkor Wat can buy a one-, three-, or seven-day ticket. Since you can use your ticket on non-consecutive days within a certain time frame (one week for three-day and one month for seven-day), and since there were additional temples we wanted to see that were included in the ticket, we bought three-day passes ($40/each). A nice bonus is that if you buy a ticket after 5:00pm, you can enter that evening (or other evenings thereafter if you’re a multi-day ticket holder) and it won’t count towards your visit day. Taking advantage of this, we bought our tickets around 5:00 and headed straight to see the famous Angkor Wat for the first time.
Siem Reap is an incredibly easy city to get around. Tuk tuks are everywhere; our guesthouse even offered to beckon them for us and negotiate lower prices than on the street. So in all our travels, except when we were brave enough to walk across town to dinner by navigating the chaotic roads, we hired a tuk tuk for the day – $6-$30 depending on how far and how long we were going. Drivers were exceptionally friendly and hold a lot of local knowledge in terms of where to go and what to do. Taking tuk tuks also has the hidden advantage of acting as a coolant: the days are hot in Siem Reap but jumping in the open-air tuk tuk from temple to temple offers a nice breeze and rest for a few minutes until the next exploration begins.
To be honest, several days exploring the temples was amazing but they do all start to look alike. The people in Siem Reap call it “temple fatigue” and the struggle is real. If you ever want to travel here and don’t have a stay as long as ours, my suggestion would be to see Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm in one day with a half-day visit to Beng Melea if you can. These were our favorites by far!
Beng Melea, outside of Siem Reap, was our first taste of the temples. It’s a bit of a mystery, since it lies so far beyond any of the other Angkor temples; no one quite knows when it was built or by who, but it has many similarities to Angkor Wat. Beng Melea is unique because hardly any reconstruction work has been done at all. Most of it has crumbled down over hundreds of years, but climbing through it, we could imagine what it once looked like in all its glory.
Known as one of the “jungle temples”, Beng Melea is completely overrun by trees and moss and has not enjoyed any of the reconstruction efforts that most Angkor temples have undergone. It took us about 90 minutes down dusty country roads by tuk tuk, and though we had to cover out mouths most of the time in order to not eat dirt, it was a great way to see the countryside and how rural Cambodians live. This was our first visit to any temple and it certainly gave us an adventurous afternoon exploring its many hallways and paths. We felt like Indiana Jones and it was wildly cool.
Angkor Wat is big enough that if you want to find some quiet corners, you can. But it’s mostly overrun with visitors at all times of day. Our first evening, we went for sunset and walked the long stone path that leads to the main temple as hundreds of tourists were walking out of the complex. The temples all close at 5:30pm so there wasn’t much time to be there, but knowing that we would come back several more times, we just enjoyed being in such an awe-inspiring place.
Our second visit to Angkor Wat was the last stop on our “small circuit” tour. We were exhausted by the time we got there, so we took advantage of the many stalls around the temple grounds and got some fruit smoothies to cool us off and give us some energy. While we sat there, two kids came up trying to sell souvenir trinkets. This is a tricky thing in developing nations: the kids should be in school and it’s possible that buying from them could encourage the notion that hocking their wares is better than getting an education. Knowing this, we decided that when approached by kids, we would tell them a strong “no” but also take the opportunity to practice English with them, a very valuable skill to have in this tourist town. These kids, who had a rare afternoon off and were helping their mom, seemed to really enjoy chatting with us, so we had a conversation with them for quite awhile. As in every country, they really do love their futbol! We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Angkor Wat, finding some quiet corners and paths, and just sitting in general awe of this place.
One of the most astounding things about Angkor Wat isn’t the temple itself, but the “moat” around it. It is a hand-dug moat 620 feet wide around the 2 mile long temple walls. Each time we visited, we marveled at the amount of manpower it must have taken to create such a gigantic border.
Our third visit to Angkor Wat began in the dark. One of the things most people do when visiting Siem Reap is to go to Angkor Wat for sunrise. We were on the fence, knowing that it would be super crowded, but eventually we decided to go. We left our hotel at 5:00am, jumped in our tuk tuk for a chilly ride in the dark, and joined hundreds of others in a dark pilgrimage to the main temple. The most iconic spot for photos is over the reflecting pool to the left of the main temple, but seeing a quiet set of steps to sit on over to the right, we opted for the much calmer section with a few others. For the most part, the tourists we joined were pretty quiet and respectful and we enjoyed a lovely hour watching the sky change colors, and monkeys run around the temple grounds, from our ancient perch on one of the crumbling temple “libraries”.
Ta Prohm is known as the “Tomb Raider” temple since it was featured in the movie. I went expecting to see a couple of the tree-covered doorways iconic of Ta Prohm. In reality there are tons of these tree-covered everythings! The trees have completely taken over the temple, reaching their huge, strong roots straight through windows and even walls. When we went the first time, huge crowds were stopped at the most famous spots, but we avoided them and found some quiet spots with equally cool sights. Frustrated by the crowds during the day, we went back to Ta Prohm at 7:00am and found a lovely, serene, quiet world. Walking through in the early morning was one of my favorite moments of our time in Cambodia.
Bayon is known as “the one with the faces” and is actually a little creepy as you drive up to it. Before it’s anywhere in sight though, you pass over a hand-dug moat and through one of Bayon’s iconic gates.
Built almost 100 years after nearby Angkor Wat by King Jayavarman VII as his captial, Bayon has 216 gigantic, serenly smiling faces on its towers, which some claim are the likeness of Jayavarman VII himself.
In addition to a day at Beng Melea, we did three other temple exploration days. The short circuit includes the most popular temples, plus a few others, ending at Angkor Wat. The long circuit goes in a larger circle around the complex, hitting different temples, but ends at Angkor Wat as well. On the third exploration day, we woke up early for the sunrise at Angkor Wat and then visited some nearby temples that we had been intrigued by but too exhausted to check out before.
Including all the temples we saw here in the blog would get monotonous but we enjoyed each for different reasons. There were tiny temples amid giant man-made lakes, temples hundreds of feet in the air with crumbling stairways leading up to them, temples the vermillion of red clay, temples of bright-green moss, temples with intricate stories etched on their walls, and temples actually more tree than temple. The mystery and intrigue that surrounds the temples near Siem Reap will likely never be illuminated any more than they are now. Living spaces and tools haven’t been found at these sites. They signify millions of hours of back-breaking human labor and yet we know next to nothing about the people who built them. Walking among these temples, through the vines and the spiderwebs, you listen hard for some whispers from an ancient past and stand in awe of how much we can accomplish as humans, and how much we still don’t know.