Temples of Angkor
Check out the Cambodia homepage
It is an all too common occurrence nowadays that hordes of visitors detract from the overall experience of a place. For some strange reason, locations usually seem to lose their luster when you are sharing them with hundreds of other camera and guidebook toting folk. A very select handful of places, however, are so incredibly magical, powerful, and vast that they are able to shine through the crowd of visitors and still leave the casual observer awe-struck, despite the suffocating crowds. Simply put, the Temples of Angkor are exactly such a place.
The heart of the Angkor Kingdom that vanished nearly a millennium ago, the Temples of Angkor are so sprawling and numerous that despite the crowds it isn’t difficult to find yourself lurking through a dark temple corridor with nobody else around. There are over 1000 known temples in the Angkor Archeological Park, and it is widely believed to have been home to the largest and most expansive civilization of its time with over 1 million inhabitants in a time where most European cities had mere thousands. That being said, there are of course those places that still draw the huge crowds, but for incredibly justified reasons.
Set in the expansive flat plain of Northwestern Cambodia just north of the town of Siem Reap, nearly all park visitors at sunset flock to one of the lone hills in the area to catch a panoramic view of the dramatic end to the day. Atop Pnomh Bekheng stands Bekhen Temple, and while the view of the sunset from atop the temple is spectacular, the best time to visit is to stay past sunset and let all the crowds disperse. In the last traces of light is when the temple really comes alive.
For those wanting to watch the day begin from the park grounds, few will argue that there is anything more dramatic than watching sun break the horizon from the grounds of Angkor Wat. The largest religious complex in the entire world, the towering silhouette of the famous temple begins to etch itself against the pre-dawn sky for the onlookers hardy enough to secure a place on its lawn. As the scene is reflected in the lilyponds fronting the temple entrance, the sun stages an epic battle with the outline of the temple until the sky finally relents, allowing the sun to explode above the temple spires. Obviously such a spectacle is going to draw a crowd, but the plus side is that once the temple’s battle with nature has finished, the crowds disperse and its possible to wander the hulking temple grounds with few other people following your path. Angkor Wat is, in a word, completely breathtaking.
Aside from Angkor Wat, for those on a tight itinerary the two areas not to be missed are the compound of Angkor Thom, and the impossibly rugged temple at Ta Prohm. Contained within intricately sculpted stone walls, the complex of Angkor Thom contains the towering Bayon temple, featuring the massive faces of hundreds of smiling Buddhas. Within Angkor Thom, the deciduous forest houses a collection of smaller temples tucked away in the trees, and I believe the stone carvings found on the temple of the Three Elephants are some of the best in the entire park.
The other must-see on the Angkor itinerary is the jungle-setting of Ta Prohm. Used for the set of Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider, the true age of these temples is finally put into a visual context in seeing massive trees simply decimating the ancient stone walls. Enormous roots snake their way above and through the walls themselves, and it becomes immediately apparent that these walls must have been here for a really long time. The entire scene is just completely surreal. Few places I have found actually live up to lofty expectations set before them, but the Temples of Angkor exceeded mine by far.
The only thing more jaw-dropping than the stone carvings and the archeological genius displayed in the temple complex is the staggering price of entry into the park. A single day ticket will run you $20, while 3-day and 7-day are $40/$60, respectively. There is no charge after 5pm, however, and a ticket purchased at 5pm is good until 5pm the following day, allowing for both sunset and sunrise on the same ticket. It’s not to say that the ruins aren’t worth the cost, because they are, it just comes as a surprise in a nation that survives on so little. All of the entry fee is obviously going to something, however, as the grounds are immaculately maintained and manicured walking paths and easy to read signs aid the visitor in their own personal temple quest. The easiest way to get around the Temple is to simply hire a driver for the entire day. For a total of $15 you get your own personal driver and tuk-tuk to chauffer you wherever you want in the Park, serving as a knowledgeable guide and shaving precious hours off of transport time between temples.