Angkor is perhaps the greatest of Man’s essays in rectangular architecture that has yet been brought to life.
– Arnold Joseph Toynbee, East to West
Exhibit A: Sunrise at Angkor Wat – The Clichéd (and Beautiful) Pilgrimage Point of Cambodia
A spread of ruins; archaeological remnants of an ancient civilization.
A bit bewildering; there for the seeing, for the picture-taking, with secrets lost from time.
Take several days, they said. We took one, and filled it as full as we could.
First things first.
Angkor Wat gets the limelight; it’s the photogenic temple that gathers sunrise seekers (see Exhibit A above) and gets splashed around on everything from Cambodian flags to cheap beer cans. Yet, Ankgor Wat is just one among many significant, impressive ruins within the Angkor complex dating back to 9th-15th century development of the Khmer Empire.
During those centuries, a series of cities, waterways, transportation connections, temples, and service buildings were constructed as what’s now known as “the most extensive urban complex of the preindustrial world.”(1) To put it in perspective, the greater Angkor Metro Area boasted somewhere from 600,000 to one million residents at a time when London held a cozy group of 30,000 people (that’s, uh, half the occupancy of Autzen Stadium?).
Thanks to efforts of the Cambodian government, UNESCO, and others to stabilize, preserve, and showcase these remarkable remnants of the past, the 400+/- square kilometers of Angkor Archaeological Park are accessible to visitors from around the world.
This isn’t some saunter-through-a-museum visit, though. Those 400 square kilometers? That’s 154 square miles – compared to the 145 square mile city of Portland, Oregon. Not a chance we’d be hoofing it on foot!
Enter, “Mr. 1!” – top tuk tuk transportation service in all of Siem Reap! (Well, if we could be so bold as to make the nomination.)
He works for Gloria Angkor Hotel (where we stayed and paid the full price of $22.00/night for air conditioning, top notch service, wifi, complimentary breakfast day or night, welcome drinks and banana chips, clean, cold drinking water, hot shower with water pressure, and a complimentary one hour in-room couples’ massage – not comped in any way, just a great deal we think worth mentioning), and “Mr. 1!”‘s price of $20 for the day of customized touring around the park was a steal in our book.
He picked us before dawn to shuttle us to the entry gate to buy tickets and came prepared with a cooler filled with bottle after bottle of ice-cold water to keep us hydrated during the humid weather. We stayed out all day, following roads from ruin to ruin through 600 years of history.
Bonus? No crazy antics. (Which is more than can be said for some of our transportation options in Southeast Asia…)
Exhibit D: Too much fun in a tuk tuk?
Try any guidebook, any online resource, any other visitor’s recommendations, and your head will be swimming before breakfast as you try to make your plans to visit.
Well, ours were swimming anyway. (Maybe because we hadn’t eaten breakfast yet?)
Pulling out the little pocket guide maps and reading names to piece together an itinerary made me sit back and realize that I wanted to have fun and enjoy the day more than I wanted to conquer each and every monument and structure of significance. So, Ted and I outlined a basic route and hit the road:
The Temple Complex of Angkor Wat for Sunrise
+Water, water, and more water.
The “Great City” of Angkor Thom for Morning (including Bayon, Baphuon, the Terrace of the Leopard King, Phimeanakas, and Preah Palilay)
+A break for lunch and more water. Plus a little extra water for good measure.
Preah Khan, Ta Keo, and Ta Prohm for the Afternoon
+Just a little more water, and a few big scoops of Blue Pumpkin ice cream back in Siem Reap to cap off the day.
Angkor Wat in the cool of the day…
Beat the heat, beat the crowds, feel the size and scale…
Choice A: a mixed-review balloon ride above Angkor Wat, or Choice B: all alone in the ancient courtyards? We’re glad we went with the second option.
Side Note: A post I appreciated from Amy at The Messy Middle: How Angkor Wat Messed with my Sense of Scale
Once the sun was up and we’d enjoyed our wanders through the empty halls, we backtracked toward the entrance…
The water surrounding the temple: not a river, but a giant, rectangular man-made moat, part of an intricate water system fed by channelized natural water sources.
The current state of the ruins bears witness to the effects of time and, more recently, tourists. Certainly centuries of weather and jungle plant growth and natural wear and tear are partially to blame, but likewise everything from tourists in high heel shoes (you think I’m kidding?) to vibrations from planes landing on Siem Reap airport runways are slowly undermining the stability of the structures and walkways.
Cleanup efforts, site maintenance, and long-term preservation strategies enacted after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and since Angkor’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site are helping, but much remains to be done to stabilize the conditions of the structures and canals.
Moving between ruins, we encountered many of the Cambodian people living among the ruins.
There is no easy life for many of these families. They’re still climbing out from under history’s ugly stories. Past Khmer Rouge soldiers may now be park rangers. Landmine victims play musical instruments in the streets, loss of limb garnering tip-jar offerings. Children beg from tourists at the behest of their parents, offering unwanted tour guide services – rattling off historical tidbits and holding a palm out for a tip – or selling trinkets for a dollar. Adults tout guidebooks or call out with offers from their ridiculously-named meal stands – “Good breakfast at ‘Angelina Jolie,’ my friend!”
The human struggle to grow in this place of complex history is achingly real…unmissable.
The bridge crossing to Angkor Thom (more faces from this corner in the next post…)
We spent the latter half of the morning wandering through temples recognizable from cheesy action flick Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, walking through jungle paths, stepping over who-knows-how-old pieces of history captured in stone.
Truth is, Hollywood and photos and blog posts can’t fully capture the feelings, the grandeur, the complexity or the mystery of these ruins.
Our hot and sticky effort to see Angkor in a day proved an exercise in being, breathing, seeing…and standing gratefully in awe, knowing full well we were unable to soak it all in.
Up close encounters with ruins and roots…
On the walk to Baphuon and through the twisted trees…
One of my favorite moments of the day came from a last minute stop.
“Mr. 1!” pulled the tuk tuk off to the side of the road. We hopped out, looked both ways (swarming tuk tuks and motorbikes and taxis…oi!), and crossed the street toward the towers of Ta Keo, a smaller and less visited temple just off the road between Preah Khan and Ta Prohm. (I know these names most likely mean nothing – if you’re hoping for a memory-jogger, check the helpful visual directory.)
Up, up, up the stairs to the first level. And then a steeper series to the very top. Ted stayed below with the camera, and I braved the tripping hazards in my dress and flip flops.
Just a breath and a smile at the top of the world.
Lighthearted, eyes open, pressure off, we made the most of our decision to see Angkor in a day.
No regrets, either.
For those who may visit in the future, a few tidbits to keep in mind:
WHAT TO KNOW:
Know How Long You Want to Visit
You could literally spend a week visiting ruins, exploring endless nooks and crannies. Or, you could soak up a pretty massive experience in a single day. It’s up to you. Just know your own style and don’t feel pressured to follow someone else’s itinerary.
Single Day Tickets: $20 each (three day tickets available for $40, one-week for $60)
“Angkor Passes issued between 5 a.m. in the morning and 5 p.m. in the afternoon are valid the same day. Angkor Passes issued after 5 p.m. in the afternoon are valid the same day until sunset and also the next day. Other than this exception, visitors may NOT buy a ticket in advance.” -APSARA Pass
Read: if you’re ambitious, head into the park for sunset views the day before you explore.
We didn’t. It was all part of that “Avoiding Wat Weariness” thing.
Know Which Temples You Don’t Want to Miss
There are so many things to see…do yourself a favor and picks the musts and then enjoy the serendipity of unplanned visits to other spots along the way.
Private Tuk Tuk: $20.00
So worth it. If you can manage to track down “Mr. 1!” at Gloria Angkor Hotel, he’ll treat you right. Such a sincerely nice guy!
Bring Lots of Water
It’s muggy and hot, it’s crowded, and there are people everywhere trying to sell you water.
(Or go with our terrific driver who supplied us with endless clean, ice cold water all day long — and the following day when we left. Literally – he was shoving water bottles into our hands through the minibus door as we pulled out of the parking lot to head toward Thailand.)
Check the Park Toilets for Spiders
Seriously. That fuzzy thing was enormous.
One last bonus for backpack and armchair travelers alike:
A Digital Reconstruction of Angkor Wat produced by the Smithsonian Channel
Gotta say, after all the hype and after 10 months on the road, we loved visiting Angkor. It lived up to its reputation and made a mark on our psyches. If you have photos from your own visit or similar one-day-wonder stories, please leave a link in the comments.
As always, thanks for traveling memory lane with us. Hopefully it’s slightly more fun than hanging a sheet and projecting old slides?