I am curious as to how many people go to Angkor Wat twice before the age of 28. An undisputed “once in a lifetime” type of destination, I somehow found myself back at the gates of the ancient Angkor Kingdom for the second time in as many years.
As strange as it may sound, I feel that two days in two years is the perfect amount of time to visit. If you’ve never been, here’s the deal with Angkor Wat (at least in my humble, vagabonding opinion): The place is inarguably one of the most awe-inspiring and majestic on the planet, but after an entire day of wandering amongst ruins—particularly if you started with sunrise over Angkor Wat temple—it’s easy to get, for lack of a better term, “templed out”. There is a certain sense of cultural failure in only being able to handle one full day of ancient temples, but much as it is possible to get “cathedraled out” in Europe or “beached out” on an island, so too after a while do all of the temples admittedly start to all appear the same.
As anyone who has visited Angkor will tell you, 4 or 5 temples in one day is really all the mind (and camera battery) can handle. With so many temples springing from the flat, forested Earth, however, it takes more than a single day to really explore Angkor in depth.
This is why, after a solid two year break, I was freshly rejuvenated for a second round of contemplating some really old buildings. Another upside to returning to Angkor for a second time is the ability to craft an itinerary around some of the lesser-visited temples that don’t fall on the usual first timer’s circuit (Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm, etc.) Much as I mentioned while trekking to Macchu Pichu, it’s an unfortunate reality than many of the world’s wonders have been turned into a bad version of Disneyworld. Tacky souvenir stands, tour buses blasting clouds of exhaust, and mass tour groups of awkward looking Asian tourists all following a bouncing orange flag.
On this return to Angkor, I held out a naïve hope of having an ancient Angkor temple all to myself.
Unfortunately, after a 45 minute tuk-tuk ride from the town of Siem Reap and a sobering stop at the Cambodia Land Mine Museum, we pulled into out-of-the-way Banteay Srey temple only to discover…a horde of tour buses full of flag-following Chinese tourists! Ugh.
Even with the crowds, it’s hard to understate just how impressive this impeccable carved sandstone temple really is. Over 1200 years old, it’s still possible to press your face nearly right up against intricate carvings that feature such incredible attention to detail you can almost imagine a Khmer man with a handcrafted tool taking an entire week to ensure that a single face carved in the stone has the exact right number of eyelashes.
Then, just as you’re contemplating the precision of the ancient mastercraft, a Korean man with an open umbrella squeezes himself through a narrow alleyway, scraping his sunshade along the sandstone walls the entire way through. Sigh…
Though Banteay Srey was as jam-packed as Angkor Wat itself, the following temples were nowhere near as crowded. At Neak Pean, a wooden walkway leads out over a flooded waterway to a temple that appears to be a floating island when visiting just after the rainy season.
Similarly, at Ta Som, a long, wooded corridor leads to a spot where a massive tree is growing and wrapping its way around an oversized stone face which has been peering down at passerby since around the 10th century. When walking the grounds of the temples of Angkor, you constantly need to be reminding yourself of just how old and how well preserved these temples really are.
Finally, with some late season thunderclouds hovering above, the rains actually created the unthinkable. While wandering the grounds of East Mebon temple, which was already refreshingly uncrowded with only around 30 people, the heavens opened up and unleashed a ten minute torrent of rain onto the massive stone slabs of the temple. Seeking the nearest dry spot, I took shelter in a stone archway which forms the entrance to the multi-tiered temple. Everyone else, however, had apparently run for cover back by the restaurants in the parking lot, which meant for a minute…and it probably was only a minute…I looked around me, relished in the silence, and realized I had a 1200 year old Angkor temple completely all to myself.