For the first day of temple hopping, we left the hotel at 4:30am for sunrise at Angkor Wat, which was brutal. Especially after I didn’t sleep well the night before. But it was beautiful. Seeing sunrise was such an experience that it got it’s own post, so I’ll pick up the story from there. After the sun was up, it was time for breakfast and exploring. The hotel had given us a box breakfast of fruit and assorted bread items (croissants and rolls and such), so we pulled up a rock wall and finished our breakfast and coffee. Where’d we get the coffee? One really smart business move: the small vendors in the area sold coffee. As we were setting up in the pitch black, they came around asking if we wanted coffee. Yes please! For $1 USD, they would bring you a cup of coffee, directly to where you were standing. At 5am, waiting for sunrise, that was the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.
Exploring Angkor Wat was an amazing experience. In the Blue Mountains in Australia, we felt physically very small in the world. At Angkor Wat, we spent a lot of time marveling and feeling really small in history and time. The temple is really big, much bigger than I could have imagined. We spent about 3 hours walking around and I’m pretty sure we didn’t see all of it. Most of the carvings and structures were really well preserved, and incredibly detailed. The Lonely Planet book had some pretty good explanations, but I wish we had hired a guide. I think we missed out on a lot of the details and significance of the structure as well as the reliefs.
Strangely enough, for as many people as were there taking pictures at sunrise, not that many people stayed to look at the temple. It never felt too crowded, we felt like we had space and time to appreciate what we were looking at. The guidebook said that many people go back to their hotels for breakfast, which seemed silly to me, but I guess it’s true! As we finished exploring, more buses were pulling up so I think we timed everything well.
Before sunrise, we had asked our driver when we should come back. “Whenever you’re finished, no rush.” Well that’s very nice! But we should have asked where to find him when we were finished. All tuk tuks look the same to an inexperienced eye, and most people arrive at the temples via tuk tuk. At the next temple we made sure to ask where to meet him!
We were off to the next temple, Bayon, and I lost my cell phone en route. This temple was much busier as we were starting to get into the main part of the day with the other tourists. The extra people, coupled with the fact that Bayon was just a smaller temple, made it a little more difficult to appreciate the carvings and details. This temple was more in ruins, which was what I was expecting, and you could see a lot of the archeological process, which I thought was pretty interesting. Another interesting fact is that the archeology and preservation efforts were jointly sponsored by another country. I’m not sure if this is the result of Angkor’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site or what. But that was an interesting fact to see German flags on one sign and Japanese flags on another.
Bayon was my favorite temple, because of all the heads. The heads supposedly portray the king that built the temple, but it wasn’t common to glorify yourself all over your temple in this era. So no one really knows why he decided to do that. I’m really intrigued by this: for all that we do know about the various reliefs, carvings, and structures, there’s still a lot that we don’t know.
After Bayon, we had a delicious lunch at one of the road side vendors. Unfortunately, we didn’t take pictures of it. We made a point to eat traditional Cambodian dishes, and liked everything we tried. The flavors were great, not too spicy or covered in sauce, and most dishes had a lot of vegetables too. (We did take pictures of some of the other food we tried! Available on the Food Postcards page.) The next temple was Ta Prohm, which was Micah’s favorite. This one is also known as the Jungle Temple, for reasons which should be obvious when you see the pictures. Parts of the movie Tomb Raider were filmed here. Or, more likely, filmed on a sound stage recreation of it. Because of looting and other factors, there weren’t a lot of detailed carvings to appreciate here. But it was fascinating to see how the trees and the temple are coexisting structurally at this point. It made a nice contrast with the two other temples we had seen so far, especially because all of the trees provided some welcome shade.
The last temple for the day was tiny Prasat Kravan. After the grand temples we had seen that day, we walked up and thought “This is it? This isn’t some outer temple on the way to the main temple?” It felt like going into a regular church immediately after you’ve been in St. Peter’s Basilica. This temple stands out from the others because it was built by a regular guy, instead of being built by a king. (That’s probably why it was so much smaller.) But, it was really nice because no one was there. It had some beautiful reliefs on the inside, and it was nice to have a quiet moment to wrap up the day.
Throughout the day, we had driven around Angkor Thom as we traveled from temple to temple, which is the ancient city where most of these temples are located. We didn’t really have any understanding of what we were seeing at the time, other than more ruins of more temples. We read about it later in Lonely Planet and had a much better appreciation the next day. I think it really helped seeing it first, then reading about it so we had a mental picture to put with the description, and then seeing it again. As we drove around, enjoying the scenery the next day, we were able to identify various structures, which was exciting. For me, it was really difficult to picture these ancient ruins as a living, breathing, working, city but also stunning to think about the fact that it has endured in fairly good condition for so many centuries.
Here’s a video of driving around Angkor Thom, taken from the back of our tuk tuk. It is a little bumpy, but that’s what the ride felt like! (Also available on our YouTube channel.)
After we were finished with the temples for the day, we changed into swim suits and lounged in the pool for a while. This was one of the best suggestions we saw on Trip Advisor: make sure your hotel has a pool. I thought we’d be so busy seeing and doing things that we wouldn’t want to hang out at the hotel. But it was a really worthwhile amenity. It was really nice to be able to relax and soak, and for me to take the pressure of my knees, hips, and ankles! We swam and relaxed for an hour or so, got cleaned up, and went back to the night market for dinner and more people watching. Our next day would start at the very reasonable hour of 7:30, so it was another early night for us! (Thankfully with no insomnia.)
I had a lot of requests for “lots” of pictures on this trip. We “only” managed to take 1500 photos all weekend, so choosing which ones to post here was very difficult. The idea is that these photos “set the scene” a little bit, and photos that show more detail or require more explanation are on our Flickr site (or see the link on the sidebar on the right). I promise, I won’t post all 1500! (There are an additional 27 that go with this post, a lot of them from Angkor Wat.)
Coming Soon: The Grand Tour of Angkor, plus an extra temple.