Angkor Wat – Visiting Sacred Spaces

Siem Reap is a city in Northwest Cambodia, and one of the most popular destinations for travelers due to its proximity to one of Southeast Asia’s biggest attractions: Angkor Archaeological Park. The park contains the remains of the world’s largest pre-industrial city in the world, covering approximately 250 square miles.  The temples and other structures were not thought to have been built all at the same time, but the complex is approximated to be about 1,000 years old.

Like most visitors of Southeast Asia, Angkor was one of our top destinations–about 2 million people visit each year.  Our hotel was about 4.5 miles away from the entrance to the complex, so we decided to rent bicycles to get there.  Once we arrived, we had to choose which ticket we wanted.  A one day pass is $20 and a three day pass is $40.  Knowing that one day is not nearly enough to see more than a fraction of the park, we decided to go for the three day pass.

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A screen shot of Angkor on Google Maps.  It’s seriously huge!

We decided to dedicate our first day solely to the park’s most famous temple, Angkor Wat.  Angkor Wat is so famous that many people don’t even know that the park has its own name, they think the whole complex is just called Angkor Wat! Once we reached the front of the temple, we parked our bikes across the street and made our way to the entrance.  It’s really hard to justly describe in words, luckily we took plenty of photos!

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The entrance to the outer wall, within the (man-made!) moat
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The entrance
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Closeup of the outer wall
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Another close up of the outer wall
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Inside the outer wall
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Wall detail in the outer wall
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Once inside the outer wall, we followed the causeway to the central structure
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Lying on either side of the causeway are libraries
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Angkor Wat, the temple proper
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…and some local monkeys hanging out 🙂
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The walls were sculpted into masterful depictions of things like war and work

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There were a lot of repeated patterns in the architecture, like these columns, for example.
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One of the coolest parts is that you don’t get to just walk around and look at it from afar, visitors get to climb up, around, and through the temple.
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A courtyard

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The temple is so impossibly huge that people look tiny when walking around.

Another good thing about the three day pass is that you don’t feel pressured to spend all day temple hopping.  It was insanely hot and the sun just zaps the energy right out of you.  This way, we were able to spend a relaxed afternoon at Angkor Wat and save the rest for the other days.

…and we did just that! Except this time, we were planning on going further than just Angkor Wat so we had to decide what we wanted to do about transport.  You can rent a tuk tuk to take you around for the day, but we ended up deciding to rent electric bicycles instead.  They don’t allow motorbike rentals in Siem Reap, so the electric bike was the next best thing.  Plus, they’re fun and better for the environment (and Siem Reap is pretty polluted.)

There are two popular routes that take visitors to some of the other major and minor temples in the complex called the ‘small circuit’ and the ‘grand circuit.’  We decided to do the small circuit, which is about 10 miles starting at Angkor Wat. The bike ride was an experience in itself.  The scenery was beautiful and the breeze felt great in the heat of the afternoon.

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We followed the road into Angkor Thom which translates to “Great City.”  It was built in the late 12th century, covers about 5.5 square miles and is believed to have housed between 80,000 and 150,000 people. In the center of Angkor Thom lies The Bayon, a well-known Khmer temple decorated with hundreds of faces.  This ended up being one of our favorite sites and we spent quite a while exploring it.

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Entering The Bayon

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After exploring The Bayon, we hopped back on our bikes and moved on to Ta Prohm, another popular temple.  Ta Prohm is one of the temples that was left as it was found, because its merging with the jungle was so impressive and picturesque.  It was also used as a location in the movie, Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie. Ta Prohm was undeniably stunning, but it was crowded with hoards of tourists to the point of discomfort, so we didn’t spend as much time there as we might have liked.

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Riding to Ta Prohm

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We followed the road to Banteay Kdei, which means “Citadel of Chambers.”  It is not entirely known what purpose this temple originally served, but it did house monks at various times up until the 1960s.

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Banteay Kdei

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We were exhausted by the time we neared the end of the circuit, but on our way back home, we spotted a bunch of monkeys on the side of the road and decided to give them a couple of our bananas.  One of them hopped on our bike and started looking at himself in the mirror!  It was funny until he wouldn’t get off…

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We decided to give this guy a little treat.
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Then, he hopped on one of our bikes and started watching himself in the mirror!
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He kept putting his weight on the handlebars and we were afraid he was going to tip the bike over. Joe tried to step in, but he was really difficult to shoo away!

Once we got back into town, we finished the day with dinner on Siem Reap’s Pub Street where all the hip bars and restaurants are.  We had a lot of fun there!

The electric bicycles ended up being perfect because we rented them in the afternoon the second day, so we didn’t have to return them until afternoon the next day.  So when we got up to go to Angkor Wat at sunrise, we didn’t have to pay for another day of transportation which was great.

We woke up at about 5am and groggily got on our bikes to ride to Angkor Wat.  Sunrise is a really popular time for tourists to go, so it was very crowded!  It was kind of funny to see all of the people packed around the lake in front to get the stereotypical shot of the reflection in the water.  We ended up getting some pretty nice pictures in between our yawns!

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Riding through the streets of Siem Reap before sunrise
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Just arriving at Angkor Wat
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People waiting to get their picture of sunrise reflected in the lake. Apparently people get there at like 4am to get the best spot!!
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Sunrise just peeking over the temple
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Funnily enough, the crowds vanished about 3 minutes after the sun made its appearance. We just strolled over a few minutes later and got virtually the exact same shot!

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We had to have the bikes back before 1pm so we decided to spend the morning doing the Grand Circuit to check out some of the temples we hadn’t seen yet.  The first one was The Terrace of the Elephants, a viewing platform for public ceremonies.

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There were pictures of elephants carved into all of the walls
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Elephant sculptures on either side of the entrance

Beyond the Terrace of the Elephants, we explored and climbed the temple, Phimeanakas.

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The walkway leading to Phimeanakas

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The very top
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The view from the top

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Next we rode on to Preah Khan, a lesser known temple that has also been left largely unrestored.  There was a lot of rubble, but the trees growing over the stones were beautiful.  Plus, it was a lot less crowded that Ta Prohm (the Angelina Jolie one.)

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The next temple was Neak Pean, a Buddhist temple built on an artificial island.  It is surrounded by four connecting pools that are believed to represent the four elements.  The temple was originally designed as a sort of hospital, so people were meant to bathe in each of the pools to cure diseases by restoring balance.

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An ornate balustrade
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The middle of Neak Pean

The final temple we visited was Ta Som, another small temple left mostly unrestored.  One of the entrance ways is overgrown by an enormous strangler fig!

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Words really don’t do it justice, but Angkor was beyond breathtaking and we were really glad we decided to invest in a three day pass.  Despite all of our exploring, we barely scratched the surface.  The complex is so huge, it’s impossible to fit it all in in three days (or four, or five, or six, etc…) but we got to see most of the commonly visited temples and a few of the lesser-known, as well.

Definitely a major highlight of backpacking through Southeast Asia!