Angkor Wat truly is one of the ‘Wonders of the Ancient World’ – it is a majestic, sprawling temple complex set amongst Cambodia’s tropical jungles – and the scale and grandeur of the temples of Angkor attest to the might and sophistication of the Khmer societies that built it.
Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s biggest tourist attraction by a long way. A large percentage of tourists fly in to Siem Reap, spend a few days visiting the temples, and fly out. In Vietnam we saw people with guidebooks for “Vietnam and Angkor Wat”, as though its the only part of Cambodia that warrants a mention. In some ways its a shame that people fly in and out, but if Angkor Wat can get the tourists in to the country, then it will help have a flow-on effect for tourism in other areas of the country.
We had seen a lot of temples, wats and pagodas on our trip, but none of them compared to the awesome, crumbling beauty of the temples around Siem Reap. The only time I have been so impressed by temples was during a 2005 trip to Tibet. What impressed me first was they way the Angkor temples are surrounded by the jungle. It provides an element of surreal mystisicm – finding temples which have almost become part of the jungle around them. When the French naturalist Henri Mahout “re-discovered” Angkor Wat in 1860, it had been abandoned for 400 years and was overgrown with thick jungle. Rather than small girls selling bracelets and guide books with their big eyes, Mahout had to contend with insects, snakes and tigers.
You could spend a week visiting all of the temples around Siem Reap, but we decided that our budget and levels of temple fatigue meant that one day should do it. So we set off in our own tuk-tuk for the day ($13) and with a very knowledgable guide (Johnny – $25) we set off to spend 7 hours visiting some of the “must-see” temples. We had picked the hottest day in weeks, and the heat at the temples was oven-like. The stone structures just radiate heat, and the day is spent walking up and down huge stone staircases. Needless to say, take a lot of water.
The Angkor Wat temple itself is really impressive, but for me the ‘Angelina Jolie’ temples (where the movie tomb raider was filmed) were easily the best. Huge trees with sprawling roots have taken over the Ta Prohm temples, and sit atop many of them. The trees have destroyed some of the temples, but others have been held together over the years by the tree roots. A ongoing operation is putting the temples back together stone by a stone – a bafflingly complex operation that involves sorting through the rubble and identifying where each stone sits.
If you are heading to Angkor Wat, I really recommend taking a guide. Our guide and tuk-tuk driver provided great entertainment throughout the day. It is worth mentioning that both spent a lot of the day bemoaning the state of Cambodia’s government, and drawing parallels between the failures of the past and what is happening in the present day. The Cambodian Prime Minister, who took power in 1979 following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, still clings to power. Our tuk-tuk driver told us that the government makes him want to cry. He said he has been in the military, a police officer, a district chief, a school teacher and a tuk-tuk driver – and his favourite of those is definitely the latter.
We had grand hopes for the end of the day – we were going to ride elephants up to a small temple on top of a hill and watch the sunset over the Angkor region. However the monsoon again got wind of our plans and in late afternoon the sky opened and, well, we were tol the elephants can’t go uphill in the mud. So we will leave that for next-time.