It was finally time to visit the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat! I had been looking forward to this since I started planning this trip, as Angkor Wat has been on my bucket list for ages! We had decided to experience the fabled sunrise at the temple and for the first time in my life I wasn’t depressed to be getting up early! Chamrong, our guide picked us up at 5 am in a tuk tuk and we made our way to the ticket terminal next to Angkor Wat. Once there we joined some of the more than 2,4 million annual visitors, to buy a day pass for the sum of 37 dollars per person. Interestingly this revenue does not go to the Cambodian state and indeed only 28 % of the income from ticket sales goes to the care and renovation of the temples. This is because Sokimex, a private company founded by an ethnic Vietnamese-Cambodian businessman, has rented Angkor Wat from Cambodia since 1990 and manages tourism there for profit. It’s strange to imagine a site of such huge historical and cultural importance being monetized by a private company, but it really is! And imagine the income! 88 800 000 million dollars per year if all the tourists only buy 1-day passes!
All set with our passes for the day we continued through the darkness in our tuk tuk, to the entrance of Angkor Wat. A moat surrounds the temple and we crossed a pontoon bridge in the dark to get to the big grass plateau facing Angkor Wat. Straining our eyes to get that first look at the iconic towers we had seen in countless photos and documentaries, we had to arm ourselves with patience as shadows still enveloped the magical building we had come to see. However upon arriving to the spot where we would watch the sun rise behind the buildings, we were immediately set upon by a small army of salespeople and waiters trying to hock their wares. We were offered everything from noodles and coffee to flutes and postcards. It was overwhelming and did in fact seem a bit too profane for this ethereal place.
Nonetheless we found a good spot where we would be able to view the sunrise across a small lake of water in front of the temple and finally the sun began to cast it’s golden and red light across the horizon. It rose in silent majesty revealing not only the most breathtaking temple but also the thousands of other tourists with whom we shared the experience.
But little did it matter, for Angkor Wat was exactly as magical and awe-inspiring as I had expected! It exuded a serene yet powerful elegance and you could sense the whisperings of history all around, as it slowly came into view. I was overwhelmed with emotion and excitement and 1000 photos later we began upon our exploration of the temple’s interior, guided by our knowledgable guide Chamrong.
Angkor Wat is said to be the largest religious monument in the world and spreads across 400 square kilometers just outside of Siem Reap. Originally built in the first half of the 12th century as a Hindu temple, it was converted to a Buddhist temple by the end of the 13th century. Angkor Wat deviates from traditional temples of the time in several interesting ways. Firstly the buildings were constructed as a tribute to Vishnu rather than to King Suryavarman II, ruler at the time. Also the temple complex is oriented to the West rather than the East as traditionally prescribed. In Hindu tradition this direction would typically be associated with death. Additionally the bas-reliefs that adorn the temples are read counter-clockwise and this also alludes to a possibility of the temples having been associated with death and/or funeral rituals.
Chamrong led us past these beautiful bas-reliefs telling us of the stories they depicted. And the might of the once powerful Khmer Empire was palpable. They were a great people, whose empire at one point spread all the way to Da Nang in Vietnam and Java in Indonesia! We visited 3 temples in the complex during that day. Firstly Angkor Wat (the most iconic and well-known) where we learned some of the stories of the Khmer empire.
Then the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom (the most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire) with it’s many beautiful Buddha heads.
And finally Ta Prohm (also known as the Tomb Raider temple, as the movie used it as a location during filming) with it’s crumbling structures that seem like they are about to be swallowed up by nature as tree roots entwine them.
Now, we could definitely have spent a lot more time at Angkor Wat and visited many more temples. But honestly at this point we were beat! The early start, the endless walking and the blistering heat had taken their toll and after 6 hours we were soooo ready to go back to our hotel for a nap!
In conclusion I just want to say to anyone wondering whether Siem Reap and Angkor Wat are worth a visit, the answer is a loud resounding YES! I am so happy to have experienced all that I have here. The feelings Angkor Wat evoked and the beauty it provided will forever be a magical memory for me!