My Visit to Angkor Wat and Siem Reap – Cambodia
Cambodia’s Angkor Wat is considered one of the man-made wonders of the world. It’s the largest Hindu temple complex in the world. In 1992 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also one of three major ancient temples in SE Asia. The other two are Borobudur in Java, Indonesia and Bagan in Myanmar.
Of all the places I visited in Cambodia, Angkor Wat and nearby Siem Reap town were easily the most enjoyable and impressive. While I did not particularly like the rest of Cambodia, I absolutely loved the Angkor Wat region. I personally always tell travelers considering Cambodia holidays to make a bee-line to Siem Reap and visit the astounding Angkor Wat region for a few days. Here’s what I discovered during my week-long visit:
Brief history of Angkor Wat:
The temples of Angkor were built by the Khmer kingdom (pronounced “come ere”) which flourished in the region between roughly 800-1400 AD. Cambodians are descendents of the Khmers and refer to themselves and their language as Khmer.
Eventually, the old kingdom fell into decline and the entire temple complex was forgotten (How could that happen?) and ‘eaten’ by the jungle. The temples were ‘discovered’ again in the mid 1800s by Frenchman Henri Mouhot. In the early 1900s French expeditions began reclaiming the temples from the jungle and renovating them. More extensive renovations continue to this day.
Angkor Wat today:
Angkor Wat (wat = temple) is a somewhat confusing name as it refers to both Angkor Wat, the region’s most famous temple, and the vast area containing hundreds of temples spread through a huge forest.
Angkor Wat is the largest and best preserved temple. It was the sole temple not forgotten or eaten by jungle, as it continued being used by Buddhist monks after the Khmer Empire disappeared. So, truth be told, when the French ‘discovered’ Angkor Wat it was already well-known by local monks.
Angkor Wat (the temple) is an indisputably impressive sight with it’s giant surrounding moat, five majestic towers and dozens of stone walls intricately carved with floral designs, dancing nymphs and massive battle scenes.
My visit to Angkor Wat:
It took me several hours to explore just that one temple. I’m sure any sculptor/geology/temple aficionado could easily spend a whole day, or an entire week, examining all the carvings, towers and architectural details.
In addition to Angkor Wat’s grandeur, what made Angkor Wat (the region) particularly impressive to me was the amazing forest. Giant trees with massive trunks send thick sprawling branches and dense foliage up into the sky, way overhead. The few roads passing through the area are lined and shaded by those magnificent towering trees.
Although the region is technically a jungle, to me it felt more like a deciduous forest. The graceful giants give Angkor a serene, peaceful atmosphere. Huge leaves drift down from the sky, birds chirp eagerly and cicadas add their loud buzzing drone.
Scattered around that serene forest of giants are several other temples, walls and former ‘temple cities’. Each temple has its point of fame. One is being engulfed by giant trees. One has 54 stone towers of huge carved faces. One is massive but crumbled. One consists of five large stone bathing pools.
Many old ‘temple city’ walls still stand, protecting their interiors. Narrow stone gates lead inside. Once I stepped inside though, I was always surprised to find myself simply standing amidst more forest. It was mind-boggling to try imagining that those vast walled spaces full of trees used to be cities.
Inside those walled forests I also stumbled upon scattered temples in various states of ruin or repair. Some had mostly crumbled into piles of rubble. Some were slowly being crushed, hugged and swallowed by giant trees.
The walls themselves and their intricate carvings were also in various states of decay, the work of rain, wind, lichens, mosses and trees. In many places I could faintly make out formerly-elaborate carvings, though they were much softened by weather and jungle. Occasionally I stumbled upon a very well-preserved section of carvings and discovered that they were even more elaborate than I’d guessed.
I couldn’t help but think that the Angkor region would be heaven for anyone interested in the process of natural deterioration. Scientists could excitedly examine all the varieties of lichens, the process of stone flaking and crumbling and softening, how trees manage to move stone.
Exploring Angkor Wat by bicycle:
I spent three glorious days exploring the Angkor Wat complex by bicycle. Each morning I excitedly pedaled 10 km (6 miles) from my guest house in nearby Siam Riep town. I intently visited temples, walls, carvings and statues for two days. The third day I spent blissfully cycling amidst the wonderful giant trees and relaxing in the supremely serene forest.
On my final evening I enjoyed a spectacular sunset from Angkor’s most famous mountaintop temple, which affords sweeping views over Angkor Wat, the grand forest and a distant lake.
Meanwhile, I spent my evenings in charming Siem Reap. Truth be told, it’s the only town I liked in Cambodia. Siem Reap is full of lovely old French colonial architecture. The town sits along a small river, which is lined by parkland and more giant trees. There’s also a separate city park full of more giants. The compact town has a large local market, which makes it easy to find cheap food.
A few big international hotels are located in Siem Reap. They offer traditional Khmer dance/dinner buffet shows. I didn’t want to join an expensive buffet dinner, so asked one hotel receptist about just having a cocktail or dessert instead. “Sure, that’s no problem”! So for the price of a Singapore Sling I got to sit in their outdoor garden and watch traditional Khmer dance and have a cocktail.
All in all, visiting Siem Reap and Angkor Wat was a wonderful experience which I highly recommend to any and all travelers to SE Asia.
Have you visited Angkor Wat yet?
If so, what did you like best?
If not, would you like to go?
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