After spending a wonderful week in Phnom Penh, I was ready to set out on an adventure to the heart and soul of Cambodia – Siem Reap and the nearby temples of Angkor Wat. After touring a small Buddhist monastery near our wonderful hotel, the Steung Siem Reap, and indulging in a delicious lunch at the Peace Cafe, my friend, Kathrin, and I headed to Angkor Wat to catch our first glimpse of the ancient temples that are now considered one of the 7 wonders of the world.
We purchased a three-day pass to ensure we had enough time to explore the ruins, which cover 402 acres and is the largest religious site in the world. Given we arrived just before the Khmer lunar new year, when Cambodians from all over the country congregate at Angkor Wat, we saw street vendors setting up stalls, stages being erected, and families setting up tents and hammocks in the surrounding areas of Angkor. The temples are a source of inspiration and national pride to the Khmers and point of pilgrimage for all Cambodians – particularly during the new year.
The hundreds of temples remaining today are a small but precious remainder of the political, religious, and social center of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer empire ruled by god-kings for 600 years between 800 and 1400 AD. The temples are primarily built out of sandstone blocks, which were carved by artisans and hauled to their location, for the most part, by elephant and erected by rope and bamboo scaffolding. Each king tried to outdo the last in terms of size, scale and symmetry. The entrance to the temple area is stunning in and of itself, as you are greeted by hundreds of buddhas lining the bridge at the east gate. In the past, the only way to tour the temples was by elephant. Today, the best way to do it is by tuk-tuk, though some still opt to take a short elephant ride around the entrance. Once inside the gate, you’ll find shop vendors outside each of the temples and locals going for a swim in the rivers.
The temples all have unique motifs, but one consistent theme is the appearance of asparas, or heavenly nymphs, and buddha statues. More than 3,000 asparas are carved into the walls of Angkor Wat alone, the largest temple on site. Aside from ornate carvings, Buddhist-Hindu fusion architecture and symbolism is evident throughout the temples. The site was unknown to the West until the 1850’s when it was discovered by a French explorer, Henri Mouhout, who wrote and published articles about it.
Each temple sits on a unique site, often several kilometers from the other. One temple, Preah Neak Poan, was a beautiful reverse temple on an island out in the water.
On the walk out to the island, we stopped to listen to a beautiful musical performance on the water.
Angkor Wat is best experienced at sunrise, as seen in these stunning images. Due to the Khmer New Year, however, it was not as peaceful as I had hoped. We were surrounded by hundreds of other tourists and locals visiting the temple complex during the Khmer New Year.
My favorite moment of the visit was when Kathrin and I received a Buddhist Monk’s blessing. I was trying to take it very seriously but, as you will see, it was hard to keep a straight face with all the water being splashed on my face.
Angkor Thom, an immense complex, was home to my very favorite temple, Bayon, the temple of the god king faces. A local tour guide decided he wanted to be my photographer, and the resulting shots were pretty fun!
The stunning Ta Prohm, featured in the Tomb Raider film, was also stunning with its overgrown trees and lush forest setting.
We also enjoyed sunrise views and a journaling session on our third day from the more remote hill-top temple, Phnom Bok, a less visited temple. We spent the remainder of the day exploring further, smaller temples in the area- all stunning in scale and grandeur.
Here are also a few shots from a local dance show we visited. For a mere $13 we had an amazing dinner and show.
5 Tips for Maximizing Your Visit to Angkor Wat
- Skip the tour bus and opt to visit the temples by tuk-tuk for a more customized overview
- See the sun rise over the holiest of holies, Angkor Wat
- Save the best for last – the serenity and splendour of Bayon and its 216 faces
- See nature reclaim the stones at the mysterious ruin of Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple
- Unless you want to be around thousands of other people, do not visit during Khmer New Year in April