21 Jun 2016 22 Comments
Visiting the huge, ancient Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia, has long been on my bucket list, and I can honestly say it has been one of the top three highlights of my journey so far. (The others are seeing my first total solar eclipse and playing for two days with elephants.) I met a lovely young woman at my hostel with whom I spent a few lovely days, including this day. Julia is from Norway, and like me, was traveling for a long time. We were lucky to be there at the beginning of the low season, as there were very few tourists, which allowed for a peaceful, calm, unhurried experience.
There are many, many temples, large and small, in the area that was once Cambodia’s capitol, long, long ago. (Another famous temple in the region is where Tomb Raider was filmed.) The Angkor Wat temple itself is the largest religious monument in the world. Originally built in the early 12th century as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, toward the end of that century it became a Buddhist temple.
Although the capitol of Cambodia eventually moved (more than once), Angkor Wat was never completely abandoned as a temple. While it withstood the stresses and strains of time, by the twentieth century it was in need of restoration. The preservation project was interrupted during the Pol Pot regime, when it suffered slight bullet damage on a bas relief. However, art thieves in the late 1980s and early 1990s did the most damage when they came and lopped off the heads of almost every Buddha at the temple. Nearly every statue remains headless.
The experience of mindfully meandering through such ancient ruins, imagining my feet stepping on the same paths as the orange-clad monks of centuries ago, is surreal. Time slows. Breathing quiets. Eyes, ears, and nose take in the crumbling stones, the timeless stillness, the dusty, rocky smell of slowly decaying stone. It is enough to stand still, frozen in time, within the echo of rectangular frames that canter down long, roofless corridors.
From the vast vista of the monumental structures to the single chip mark from a stone carver’s tool, the scenes must be taken in with a relaxed, attentive mind. The heat beats down mercilessly, sharpening the rough surfaces of the ancient blocks of stone—some tumbled from their workplace, some precariously balanced as they hold up the sky, an occasional few propped up by thick poles shoved underneath by modern hands.
An intricate, delicately carved bas relief catches my eye amid the soaring blocks of stone. The details are still perfectly clear and crisp.
I gingerly pick my way over heaps of rubble, once the walls and stupas of ancient places of worship. There is not a single sign of life save for the enormous trees and magnificent roots that shoot high up above the tops of the crumbling ruins.
The enormity of the Angkor Wat temple itself is stunning, overwhelming. I wander the hallways and corridors, the only person in this part of the temple.
Julia and I ride in our private tuk tuk from temple to temple, a brief respite from the relentless heat, a moment to lay my fan to rest. Then, another temple, another lack of history, another trek back in time to an age I cannot know but can vividly imagine.
This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one I will never forget. Just looking through my photographs of the temples brings me serenity, an ancient calm, a stillness inside. If you ever get the chance, do go.
The following photos are my own and are a mix of the various temples in the complex. If some of the photos appear sideways, try using a different web browser.
If you go: The temple complex requires a ticket. I saw two options: a one-day pass and a three-day pass. I suggest that the one-day pass is fine if you don’t mind putting in a long day. The one-day pass runs about $20 USD, the three-day pass $40 USD. There are two “loops” you can follow from temple to temple, the big loop and the small loop. We hired a tuk tuk driver for the day, which is the most common way to see the temples. If you go through your hostel or hotel, prices commonly start at $35 USD. The day before our trip to the temples, Julia and I negotiated with a tuk tuk driver on the street to take us on both loops for a whopping $20 USD, and we bought him lunch and water throughout the day. (This is in addition to the ticket price.) He picked us up at 4:30 am to be at Angkor Wat for the sunrise.
Bring a camera, sunscreen, snacks, and plenty of water (although you can buy water along the way). Also plan on doing a lot of walking, so make sure you wear shoes that are comfortable on rough and rocky terrain.
If you like this post, please comment, like, and share! Thanks! ~Vagabond Queen