Asia Cambodia Sightseeing

Angkor Wat: The Ruin that will Spoil You

Angkor Wat: The Ruin that will Spoil You March 18, 20136 Comments

Monk at Angkor Wat

My father recently asked me which of my trips was the best.  I whined that it was an unfair question and refused to answer.  My favorite trip is the last one.  And the next one.  But there are a handful of experiences that rise to the top in my memories, that stick out as highlights.  One of them is my visit to Angkor Wat.  The temples at Angkor are spectacular.  And if you’ve been there, you know. If it’s not already on your bucket list, it should be.

marek.krzystkiewicz' photo of monk at Angkor Wat.
Strolling through the temples at Angkor. Photo by marek.krzystkiewicz.


Angkor Wat is the main temple in this “City of Temples” and was the center of an empire that nearly covered the SE Asian mainland.  Initial construction took place under the rule of Suryavarman II, a dedicated Hindu, during the first part of the 12th century.  After Suryavarman’s death, the city was sacked by the nearby kingdom of Cham.  It was rebuilt by Jayavaman VII, who established his new capital at Angkor Thom y Bayon.  Religion began to shift from Hinduism towards Buddhism, and the site is plentiful with images from both.

Angkor Wat photo

The largest religious monument in the world,  Angkor Wat itself is a model of the Hindu universe.  It is Mount Meru, home of the gods, the five tours representing the five peaks of the mountain, the moat representing the ocean.

The Thing About Angkor Wat…

I love ruins.  I love imaging what life was like in another era.  I daydream about what it would be like to be the first modern person who stumbled upon these ancient cities; or being a child and having this place as my secret fort.  Angkor Wat fit these fantasies perfectly.

Like other ruins, the temples at Angkor are gigantic and awe-inspiring. They are also just plain aesthetically beautiful.

Midway through my week-long visit, a vendor targeted me for the person who would provide his all-important “first sale of the day”.  He practically forced me to buy a copy of Michael Freeman’s and Claude Jacques’ book Ancient Angkor at a very low price.  It’s a lovely book full of detailed explanations and striking photos.  After I had visited all of the major structures at least once, I returned to Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Bayon to study the bas reliefs using the descriptions in the book.  The fantastically well executed reliefs depict images of daily life and historic battles, as well as scenes from Hindu mythology.

Even the more mundane structures were stunning.  On a hot, sticky afternoon I headed for what I had decided would be my last temple of the day.  Glancing at the guidebook, I was disappointed to learn that the building I was approaching was made of brick.  I had become a huge fan of the pink-tan-gray sandstone that made up the other structures.  When I reached the temple I found myself standing in front of the most beautiful brick-work I’d ever seen.  And inside, something I had never seen- bas-reliefs carved into brick.

Even the forces of decline and decay at Angkor are aesthetically pleasing.  The ruins and the jungle seem to be in constant tension, with the roots of fig trees intertwining gracefully with the enduring stone buildings.

Keith Parker's photo of tree-enveloped ruin.
Man-made and natural structures, hand in hand. Photo by Keith Parker.

I’m not the only one who was struck by the beauty of this place. Among other travelers, I saw something that one rarely sees these days – film. Real film. I asked a woman about it and she said, “Oh, I have a digital camera too. But for the temples I want real film.”

Anandajoti Bhikkhu's photo of a relief at Angkor Wat.
Relief of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Photo by Anandajoti Bhikkhu.
A creation story in Hindu mythology tells of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Gods and demons pulled back and forth on a giant serpent (cosmic tug-o-war) who was wrapped around a mountain. The tugging turned the mountain, thus churning the Cosmic Sea. The churning caused Amrita, the nectar of immortal life to be released from the Sea. This story is depicted in bas-reliefs around Angkor Wat, as well as in the causeway that leads across the moat to the temple.

Ticket and Transport Options

Tickets:  There are three ticket options for visiting Angkor, a one day pass, a three day pass and a week pass.  Most travelers I met had purchased the three day pass and been satisfied. (I can’t imagine why anyone would come for only one day.)  I bought the seven day pass, planning to take a one day break from viewing temples in the middle of the week.  However, my plans fell through and I ended up going to the temples every day.  I was not sorry.

Transport: There are literally hundreds of structures, spread out over a large area.  If you’re planning to spend the day at one particular temple, Angkor Wat or Bayon, you can have some one drop you off and spend the rest of the day on foot.  Motorcycle taxis and tuk-tuks are easy to find.  However, if you’re planning to cover some ground, you’ll want wheels.  A bike or motorbike is perfect.  I found a pleasant, punctual and reasonable motorbike driver whom I hired for the week.

Food & Lodging: Siem Reap has ample restaurant (too many good choices- by the time I left, I had started going out for “second dinners”) and lodging options.  The place I stayed was spacious, clean, $10 per night and even had a small swimming pool which was great for refreshing oneself after a dusty day of sightseeing.