Upon landing in Siem Reap there was really only one destination I had in mind: Angkor Wat. Of course there are other things to do in the thriving Cambodian city, but our plan was to see Angkor and then figure out the rest as we went.
There are different ways you can go and explore Angkor Wat, but Mike and I opted to get our own tuk-tuk driver and a personal guide (allowing us to set our own pace and see what WE wanted to see). After a good night sleep and a hearty breakfast we were ready to be amazed. And amazed we were. I have been to a few Wonders of the World and other World Heritage Sites, but Angkor Wat is in a class of its own. I was instantly captured by its beauty, lost in the amazement and often found myself racing to catch up to Mike and our guide.
Angkor Wat is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that occupies over 400 square kilometers and includes three large temples: Bayon, Ta Prohm and Ankor Wat. Once the capital of the Khmer Empire, the temple city contains temples and monuments that pay homage to both its Hindu and Buddhist past. Initially a Hindu temple dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, it was later converted into a Buddhist temple and statutes of Buddha, along with other elements and symbols of Buddhism, were added everywhere. As a city deeply rooted in religion, Angkor was once the largest religious pilgrimage site in Southeast Asia.
Angkor is an architect’s dream. There is purpose and meaning in every structure, adding to the city’s brilliance. It has been the setting for some epic battles in Cambodia – first with the Chams and Thais, and then amongst the Cambodians during the Civil War – and it is tragic that some of the temples and statues became victims of the wars. During our tour, we saw massive bullet holes along bridges and structures and missing Buddha heads, all evidence of the violence and invasions the city endured.
It is hard to describe in words the beauty and magnificence of Angkor Wat, so let me show you with photos what I can’t do with words. But even these pictures don’t properly convey the magic of Angkor. It is something you really need to experience.
The enormity of Angkor Wat is a bit overwhelming, so here are some helpful tips for visiting Angkor:
- Hire a guide: the history and stories are just as important as the temples themselves, so hire a guide who can give you valuable information and provide context to what you are seeing. This will allow you to appreciate the site so much more. Also, a guide can show you where the more popular points of interest are or tricks to avoid bottlenecks, which are helpful especially if your time is limited.
- Give yourself plenty of time: there is a reason why Angkor is considered a temple city. It is enormous, so make sure you have enough time to enjoy yourself so you aren’t rushing from one temple to the next.
- Weather: it can get extremely hot, so it is better to go early in the morning or late in the afternoon (when the sun is not beaming down on you). A lot of people try to make it to Angkor for the sun rise, which I’m sure would be breathtaking, but given that I’m not an early riser (especially on my vacation) it was something we didn’t get the opportunity to experience. Also, bring lots of water, sunscreen, and a hat to shield you from the direct sunlight.
- Respect the dress code: there is a lot of walking, so make sure you are dressed comfortably but remember no sleeveless shirts, and pants and skirts must be below the knee. You don’t want to be in a situation where you are refused entrance to one of the temples.
- Be patient: there are a lot of tourists and it can get congested, especially in places where only “one-way” traffic is permitted and you have to wait for a good break in the flow before you go up or down. Don’t let this frustrate or annoy you, just accept it as being part of the experience. Also, it can be difficult to get the perfect picture in front of a temple or statue without tons of people being in your frame, but check out Travel Hack #3 to get the perfect shot.
- Enjoy and live in the moment: it is easy to get lost in the busyness of Angkor and want to move from one place to another, but find a place to sit back and soak in the wonder. Be present.
These stories and adventures give me something to smile about everyday, I hope that it brings you a little something too.