I don’t remember when Angkor Wat first captured my imagination, but for me it has always seemed like an enchanting and exotic place. Obviously I’m not the only one given how many movies have been filmed on-site.
There is no denying that the Angkor temples are incredible both in architecture and design. Huge pyramids and towers covered in carvings, the pyramids are an inspiring site from up close and afar. Incredibly detailed despite time and weathering, the temples are nothing less than enchanting. Strangling trees wrap intricately carved religious figures and buildings giving the area an almost Narnia feel. It was exactly as I imagined it and standing below the main level in the Bayon looking up at the towering faces carved into the stone I felt as though I stood in an exotic, fantasy world.
The temples at Angkor, dozens in all, are left over from the reign of the Khmer empire which reigned at an interesting point in Cambodia’s history. Extending over land from Myanmar to China and the Malay Peninsula the empire reigned for nearly 500 years. During the Khmer empire the court changed religions, from Hindu to Buddhism. Most interestingly, the temples were still used and hardly changed at all and scenes, gods and religious figures from both religions are found through out the sites even today. Angkor Wat itself is in fact, is decorated in some pretty fabulous bas-reliefs depicting the Hindu epic Ramayana and Mahabharata. The cultural and religious mixing made for some really interesting art, I only wish I had an art historian or religious scholar with me to tell me the stories.
Although my sister originally planned to visit us again for Thailand we convinced her to extend her vacation a little bit and join us starting in Cambodia. With so much history and atmosphere the only thing the three of us could really do to take it all in was spend the whole day wandering around. From temple to temple we roamed, picnicking in the cool shade of Ta Prohm and climbing through the Bayon. Despite the numerous roaming vendors and pushy souvenir stalls, the temples maintain an captivating atmosphere.
IF YOU GO: One day was enough to do what the tours call the “petit tour” of the major sites, after that we were templed out. We stayed outside of town at Angkor Spirit Palace which we highly recommend. Shuttle buses run regularly to/from Phnom Penh. Despite what the guidebooks say there are connections from Siem Reap to eastern Cambodia that don’t go through Phnom Penh. Be careful with the Khmer massages- ours was basically an hour long tiger balm rub down. There is good and inexpensive souvenir shopping in Siem Reap. Browse the “old market”, but buy what you want at the Central Market further down Sivatha Street where starting prices are about half that of the “old market.” Check the quality of everything though, most clothing in the market is irregular or second-quality. Please do NOT buy from children selling in the temple complexes. Simply responding to their requests by saying firmly that you do not buy from children will send most of them away. They wouldn’t be there if tourists didn’t buy from them – they belong in school not selling trinkets.