Many don’t realize that Angkor Wat is more than just a single temple in Cambodia (and apparently the largest religious monument in the world!). While the namesake temple is probably the most famous, it’s surrounded by miles of land containing many many more temples that make up the Angkor complex. The entire area was built up by various rulers of the Khmer Empire from the 9th century to the 13th century. The temples served important religious purposes but were also political in the sense that the presence of such a large complex added to the grandeur of the area as being the capital of the empire.
If I have only one recommendation to make about Angkor Wat, it’s that you should go see it at sunrise. Yes, getting up before 5 am is never pleasant, but in this case, it’s worth it. The only downside is that you have to deal with other tired tourists who get (more than) a little cranky if you are perceived as encroaching on the turf they staked out from which to view the sunrise. You’d think that viewing such a beautiful spectacle in such a peaceful place would mean everyone would chill out a bit, but apparently not. Oh well.
|Angkor Wat at sunrise|
The rest of the temples of Angkor Wat may not be as famous as the namesake, but they are all beautiful and interesting. I spent close to 3 full days exploring the complex and still feel like there was plenty more to see. Some of my favorites were:
1. Bayon Temple
At the center of Angkor Thom, the last capital city of the Khmer empire, this temple is distinctive for its many towers (~54 of them), each with 4 faces of the Buddha aligned in the cardinal directions. According to my tour guide, the 4 faces represent compassion, equality, sympathy, and charity. The temple was built by king Jayavarman VII, who was responsible for or contributed to an enormous amount of the temples built in the complex. He was Buddhist, so the temple was originally built to honor Buddha, but a later king was Hindu and converted all of the Buddha statues to statues of Shiva or Vishnu. Later Buddhist kings didn’t change them back, so you can still see the Long ears of Buddha and the third eye of Hindu gods on the same stone. The name of the temple comes from a mispronunciation of the banyan tree, under which Buddha reached enlightenment.
2. Ta Prohm
Otherwise known as the “tomb raider temple” because of the scenes filmed here for the 2003 movie, this temple inspires even the dullest imagination. Ancient trees and vines are interspersed throughout the ruins, making it seem like the temple grew from the jungle itself.
3. Banteay Srei
One of the cool things about the temples around Angkor Wat is the mixture between Hinduism and Buddhism. This particular temple was built in the 10th century to honor Shiva, and its red sandstone exterior shows a surprising amount of detail in the carvings, given how old they are. It's farther away than most of the other temples - about 45 minutes away from Angkor Wat by tuk tuk - which means I got to see some beautiful Cambodian countryside. They've also developed the site around the temple to include some other things - a local musical group, shopping, and an incredibly scenic boat ride with the option for fishing.
|Pop quiz: Cambodian countryside or Microsoft Windows stock background photo?|
|Just think of me flapping in the breeze..|
Side note: I started the day wearing these new comfy pants that I bought at a market the day before - they're basically these light cotton pajama pants with an elastic waist, elastic ankles, and vibrant colorful prints. All was well...until I maneuvered myself onto the boat, and heard a loud 'RIPPPP.' Turns out the seams in the $3 pants weren't built for a lot of movement, so the entire crotch ripped, leaving my ass hanging out for all to see. So when you look at the photos from that halcyon boat ride, I hope you can share a giggle with me that those were taken amidst an inner monologue that was freaking out about how on earth I was going to exit the boat gracefully (note: I didn't). In that moment, I was extremely grateful that 1) I always carry a scarf in my bag when I travel, and 2) the aforementioned shops next to the temple carried an abundance of unripped $3 pants.
As for Siem Reap, it was clearly a city that runs on tourism. The night market area was a lot of fun to explore and reminded me a bit of Thailand. It even had the weird critters roasted on sticks for tourists' consumption. I decided I would be adventurous and try something new, so I ate snake (!!), but decided I'd rather eat one that was prepared by an actual restaurant rather than sold on a stick on the street. The snake wasn't bad, but it also didn't have a lot of flavor itself - it just absorbed the flavor of the sauce. The unpleasant thing about eating snake was that they didn't (perhaps couldn't?) remove the spine, so you had to pick around vertebrae to get the meat, and the meat was scarce nonetheless. We ran into another group of Germans later that evening who bought and ate one each of the critters on sticks - apparently the crickets were the tastiest. Probably the only competition a cricket will win against a scorpion, right?
|Spiders and scorpions and snakes, oh my|