Cambodia, Destinations, Landscape Architecture

Six Hundred Years After Sunrise, or, Angkor in a Day

February 20, 2013

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.

Exhibit B: Destination Cambodia’s Temple Guide & Helpful Photo Directory

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!

Exhibit C: Nasa Satellite Image of Angkor with Temple Plans

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?

Angkor overwhelms.

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

Exhibit E: Angkor Temple Plans for My Fellow Architecture Nerds

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.

No handrails.

No guardrails.

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:

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

Coming Soon in the Adventures at the Temples of Angkor Series:
Cheesy Connections – Lara Croft: Tomb Raider Filming Locations
Project Preah Khan: Workforce Training Among the Ruins

And nearby in Siem Reap:
Tonlé Sap Tour: Visiting the Floating Villages of Cambodia
Frogs and Eels and Pig Heads: Up Close at a Cambodian Market

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?

You Might Also Like


  • Reply Carmel February 20, 2013 at 10:52 am

    This looks like so much fun and thanks for the accommodations link. Although our SE Asia travels are still way up in the air, I’m sure I’ll be glad I pinned this info!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians February 27, 2013 at 11:43 am

      Very cool, Carmel. I’m glad to be able to pass on the tidbits on accommodation and transportation. Some fellow travelers told us about the place when we were all together in Laos, and when Ted and I arrived in Siem Reap we weren’t disappointed. I love the planning/dreaming phase – enjoy all of it!

      • Reply Kathleen & bob Hockett. February 27, 2013 at 4:59 pm

        How awesome. The hockett’s bob & kathleeno

  • Reply Lindsay February 20, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    I took a bike tour but the guide ended up getting sick part way through visiting the first temple (I was the only one on the tour). He tried to get another guide to fill in for him but no luck. He was perplexed as to what to do so I suggested he leave me with the bike and a map and I could take another tour the next day. I ended up spending the whole day riding around the temples, stopping to explore, and getting almost lost. I didn’t have much information (left the guide book home since I was taking a tour) but it was a thoroughly enjoyable an peaceful day. And the next day I got a bike your of the countryside free of charge!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians February 27, 2013 at 11:47 am

      Oh my word – how terrible that your guide got sick. In a way, though, it sounds like it worked out for you to get an additional tour of the countryside and to take your own leisurely pace through the temples. We had a basic guidebook with us – and whether this was a symptom of 10 months of travel and a bit of history fatigue or what I’m not sure – but I actually preferred putting the book away and just wandering and letting the day be more of a tactile experience. You can always read and research after the fact, right?

      Thanks for sharing your link! Sounds like you met a relative of the kiddos trying to sell us stuff at sunrise ; )

  • Reply Madhu Nair February 20, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    A great post – lots of details.
    Never been to Cambodia … on my list though.
    So many places … so little time :)

    I really liked the way you have posted the portrait pictures side by side so that it takes the full width of the post. I usually avoid putting up portrait style pictures. Will try your idea the next time around.

    Gloria Angkor Hotel sounds really nice.

    Are you guys done with your trip? Or just taking a breather?

    p.s. Loved you blog format (nice and clean)

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians February 27, 2013 at 11:50 am

      Madhu, thanks for stopping by and thank you for the kind words about the blog. I like the side by side vertical pictures as well, though sometimes I tell myself I should shake off the habit and try something new with images from time to time… We’re home from our big round-the-world trip and we’re scheming about our next adventures. I agree with you – so many places, so little time!

      • Reply Madhu Nair February 27, 2013 at 1:26 pm

        I think the vertical images look great … I could never figure out how to post them along with landscape ones … As a result I would normally avoid taking portraits unless absolutely necessary.

        Any thoughts on where you would want to go?
        I want to cover Latin America in the coming years …

  • Reply Kim February 20, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    Beautiful photos guys. I can’t wait to see it for myself.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians February 27, 2013 at 11:50 am

      I hope you love it, Kim! Do you have an idea on what time of year do you think you’ll be there?

  • Reply Maria February 23, 2013 at 8:55 am

    Glad to see you’re enjoying Cambodia – it’s a magical place. Get down to Kampot and Kep! Well worth the journey.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians February 27, 2013 at 11:54 am

      Thanks very much, Maria.

      I sincerely wish we had had more time to explore a few more corners of the country. Kep especially came recommended, and there just weren’t enough days (or bus-ride-miles) left for these tired travelers.

      It was great to pop over and read more of your Cambodia posts >> Thanks so much for sharing on your blog and for reading up on our travels over here.


  • Reply Hogga February 25, 2013 at 6:32 pm

    That first pic is gorgeous

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians February 27, 2013 at 11:59 am

      Thanks, Lindsay – I *think* it made the 4:30am wake-up call worth it? ; )

  • Reply Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - Scenes from Angkor Thom, Bayon, and Ta Prohm - twoOregonians February 27, 2013 at 11:23 am

    […] Post navigation ← Previous […]

  • Reply Preah Khan: Architecture Education in Ruins - twoOregonians March 12, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    […] in the Adventures at the Temples of Angkor Series: Six Hundred Years After Sunrise, Or, Angkor in a Day Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – Scenes from Angkor Thom, Bayon, and Ta […]

  • Leave a Reply to Bethany ~ twoOregonians Cancel reply