Safety Third at Angkor Wat

I found what I was missing in Siem Reap. The magical mixture of history, culture, nightlife, and people made me fall in love with Cambodia, even if it was only my second location in that country. The days I spent in Siem Reap have made it to my “highlights of the trip” list.

Angkor Wat was one of the pillars of my trip and it deserved to be. The entire Angkor complex is one of the best places I’ve been. It’s a massive collection of temples that expands well beyond just Angkor Wat, the largest and most well-known. There are different opinions on how best to visit the temples, depending on order and time of day, but really any way you do it will you will be impressed. I was happy with how things worked out for my three days there (entry tickets are 1 day, 3 days or 1 week; I opted for the 3-day US$40 pass, which seemed to be the most popular one).

I started big: Angkor Wat at sunrise. I’d read to work my way up, save the best for last, but I decided instead to go big or go home. Plus I had met Ben the night before and we decided to share a tuktuk for the day, seriously helping reduce the cost of getting around. We were joined by hundreds of our closest friends (read: obnoxious tourists) to witness the spectacle of the sun rising behind the temple. Instead we got total cloud cover. It was still impressive to see the temple slowly reveal itself to us as the morning went from dark to light, but I was more distracted by all the people around us trying to get the perfect image on their iPads and selfie-stick-secured camera phones. We broke away from the crowd when we were sure the sun was up, even if we couldn’t see it, and and went into the temple.

This was the best part about getting to Angkor Wat for sunrise: the temple was nearly empty. We had two hours to wander around with just a handful of other people, leisurely exploring the different levels, taking tons of pictures, and ooing and awwing at the incredible level of detail of the carvings. The entirety of Angkor Wat is carved relief. There are walls of stories with thousands of figures at first intertwined and later perfectly organized. Ceilings, columns, platforms, walls – everything is decorated. It was extraordinary. The huge size of Angkor Wat also contributed to the sense of awe. After our initial 2 hours of exploring we took a much-needed breakfast break (surprisingly delicious pancakes, fruit and coffee right next to the temple) before going back in for another hour or so to finish the top level. At that point the tour groups had arrived and our peaceful time was over, but with just the one level left we weren’t too bothered. I was thrilled with my experience at Angkor Wat and the decision to start with this temple. The morning timing was perfect and something about getting the big one over-with let me relax about the rest of my time there.

As impressive as Angkor Wat was, I don’t think I could say it was my favorite. Academically I feel obliged to say that it was, but experientially Bayon and Ta Prohm were tied for favorite, perhaps with Bayon slightly in the lead.

Bayon is hard to describe. The reason it had such an impact was the experience of walking around. It is a towering temple with oversized stone faces all around. You circumambulate the temple on a narrow pathway that almost feels claustrophobic in between the stone walls. It is this dwarfed feeling that leads to the impressive nature of the experience of Bayon.

Ta Prohm was a totally difference experience that was impressive in its own right. This is known as the temple that nature has taken over. Massive trees claw over the edges of walls and grow out of piles of rubble. We wandered through parts where no one else was, feeling like we were discovering the temple for the first time. I could’ve wandered around in the quiet parts all day. I heard it was magical at sunrise when no one else was there; I believe it. It is eerie, it is man versus nature, it is fantastical.

There are tons of smaller temples in various states of preservation around Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. The second day was mainly filled with these and I was happily surprised that I was still amazed by them even after seeing the big three on day 1. It’s hard to not feel wonder when walking down a narrow wooden path hovering over an expansive lake with barren trees and at the end finding a solo temple structure in a circular pond.

My highlight of day 2 has to be Banteay Srei. It was a long tuktuk ride to get there but totally worth it. The carvings were the most delicate, detailed, gorgeous reliefs I saw. Angkor Wat had impressive art but Banteay Srei was a different level of ornate. The small temple didn’t take long to walk around, so we walked the nature path back out, stopping at all the Points of View overlooking the landscape of Cambodia. It was beautiful.

It is hard to keep the energy up when seeing so many temples in a day, but I’m so glad I packed in as much as possible on the first two days. Day three was a highlight in a totally different way. Ben, Alex and I (more on them in the next post) had done two days of intense temple exploring but knew we had one more day left on our ticket, so we decided to experience Angkor Thom in an alternative way. We picked a corner of Angkor Thom that wasn’t one of the highlighted temples on the tourist map and took a tuktuk straight there. We were the only three people at this temple. We climbed to the top and each took an alcove. For the next hour and a half it was like I was the only person in this ancient site. I stared out at the scenery around me, I meditated, I reflected on my week. It was perfect. When the temple was closing it was time to go, and we all left relaxed and happy to have had some quiet time in such a remarkable place.

I can’t say enough how incredible the temples at Angkor are, and I even if I never stopped this blog post it would not do them justice. You just have to go. These temples are monumental feats of architecture, important in art, history, and culture. But apart from that, I couldn’t help but be amazed at one thing: we were allowed to climb all over them. At one point a policeman even took us climbing over rubble and up onto a wall so we could get the best view (for a small tip of course). There are no rails next to huge drops, uneven stone steps, some places are still under construction, and no place is made tourist-friendly. I appreciated it, but also wondered at it. At one place Ben and I wandered into a hallway that was being held up by wooden posts. I felt like we shouldn’t be there so we turned around. Sure enough after leaving we saw a sign on the other side: dangerous area. Oops. But oh well, it’s Cambodia, so Safety Third.

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