Angkor Wat is one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Built in the 12th century and never completely abandoned, it is also one of the longest continuously used. With almost 2 million tourists visiting each year, it must also be one of the most visited.
Originally a Hindu then a Buddhist temple it was built as the main city temple for the city of Angkor, the one time capital of the Khmer empire. "Wat" means temple so Angkor Wat literally means Angkor temple. Angkor comes from the Sanskrit word for city so is Angkor Wat "city temple" in the city of "city"? Given that the ancient city of Angkor is believed to have occupied over 1000 square kilometres, making it the largest pre-industrial city to have ever existed, simply referring to it as "city" is perhaps justified. Although Angkor Wat is the most famous single temple there are actually the remains of over 1000 temples scattered around the Angkor Archaeological Park.
We arrived in Siem Reap, about 5 km from Angkor Wat, in the Cambodian hot season. As far as I can tell there's no cold season. Warm and crazy hot are your options. Given the oppressive heat during the middle of the day we opted to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. We organised a tuk tuk through our hotel that picked us up well before dawn. It was $20 for four of us with a pick up at 4:30am. You can save a few bucks by selecting your own tuk tuk driver from the many available on the streets of Siem Reap but we decided the saving wasn't worth the headache.
You need to buy an entry pass to get into the Angkor Archaeological Park. You can pick one up on your way in. They are $20 for one day, $40 for 3 days and $60 for the ambitious 7 day pass.
Arriving in the pre-dawn definitely added to the atmosphere of the place. We had to share the atmosphere with hundreds of other tourists but that was to be expected. It's possible to get some of the lesser known temples to yourself but your chances of a quiet moment around Angkor Wat itself are slim.
For some reason we were corralled off to the extreme left as you faced the temple. This put us a in a position of having the temple ahead of us but the rising sun off to our left. Over hanging trees plus the volume of people jammed together made getting good photos difficult. We took our fill of photos from this position then moved around to the right to get some from a different perspective. Locals wandering through the crowd offering drinks, snacks, and guide services repeatedly stopped us and insisted that we not leave the area. I'm not sure why they were so insistent. We politely thanked them but went on our way to where we could get some different shots.
Its possible to join a large organized tour of the major temples. Typically these go to Angkor Wat for sunrise then return to Siem Reap for breakfast before returning to the temples. That means that if you proceed directly into Angkor Wat after sunrise it is relatively deserted. After that I suspect you'll have a lot more trouble getting photos without other tourists in your shot.
Angkor Wat itself is certainly impressive. It's a vast stone complex of inter-connected courtyards, towers and hallways. The level of detail is amazing. Every available surface has been decorated. Plenty of movies and computer games have drawn on Angkor Wat as inspiration. Parts of it felt oddly familiar.
We wandered through Angkor War and eventually reached the other end of the complex. It is surrounded by grass so we decided to walk back around the outside wall rather than finding our way back through the interior.
It was time for us to move on to some of the other temples in the area. First up was Angkor Thom. Even the road between Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom had been decorated.
Our tuk tuk driver took to a series of quieter temples. First within Angkor Thom then elsewhere. We were pleasantly surprised by just how quiet they were. We were able to spend much of the morning wandering around in relative solitude. After being part of the crowd at Angkor Wat it was a nice change.
The day eventually started to really heat up. Walking around temples in Cambodia is a very sweaty activity. Fortunately the whole area is dotted with food sellers offering a range of snacks and cool drinks. You can also find everything from t-shirts and postcards to handmade wooden flutes.
At some of the quieter temples the tug of war against the jungle was more obvious. There were some spots where attempts have been made to remove trees. I'm not sure if the attempts were abandoned to avoid further damaging the ruins or if they were just poorly done. The spots that have, thus far, been left to be reclaimed by the jungle are definitely the most beautiful. However, allowing the ruins to be slowly disassembled by plants poses obvious problems for the long term survival of the ruins.
We made our way to Ta Prohm, a temple where a lot of the Angkor postcard photographs originate. It's the best site to get those classic "tree melting into the rock" photographs that are so strongly associated with Angkor Wat (although Angkor Thom is actually a separate temple from nearby Angkor Wat). The downside of this temple's popularity is it's possibly even busier than Angkor Wat. Due to the large numbers of hot weary people jammed into a small space tempers began to fray. Particularly at some of the spots where you need to take turns to take photographs. With different people having different ideas about how a queue works and with people frequently having no common language in which to say "excuse me, I believe I was next" this ancient temple has undoubtedly been the site of quite a few screaming matches.
After Ta Prohm we had pretty much had our fill. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the crowd. Whatever it was, one day at Angkor Wat was plenty for us. There is certainly plenty more to see but, at this point in our trip, we felt like we'd seen our fair share of temples. Fortunately our tuk tuk driver was able to round out our long sweaty day at the Angkor Archaeological Park by taking us to what became one of our favourite restaurants in Siem Reap. I haven't enjoyed a cool drink and a sit down in the shade this much for a very long time