On our Vietnam mega trip we took a diversion to visit Cambodia for 6 days. The first day involved crossing the boarder via boat on the Meekong river and these tours are widely available once you settle in Vietnam. On the second day we took a day trip to Phnom Penh which is usually most travelers first Cambodian destination once they’ve crossed the boarder, some opt to stay over night however alongside 4 new backpacker friends we all hitched a taxi ride straight to Siem Reap, this journey took just under 5 hours and during the journey we booked our hotel!
Staying in Siem Reap for 4 days, our main focus was to visit the spectacular Angkor Wat temples. I’ve day dreamed of visiting this magnificent place since I was 16 and first saw the ancient site in the Tomb Raider film starring Angelina Jolie (Cliche I know but who doesn’t love a lead female character on an adventure in exotic places?)
Angkor Wat didn’t disappoint but Cambodia as a whole, did. I really wanted to love Cambodia to the point where I bugged Jon to include it on our itinery. To my mind, it seemed practical to kill two birds with one stone, cheaper to visit two countries together which is something many travelers practice. Many people who visit Thailand do hop over to neighbouring countries for a week or so, because why not? And I really wanted Cambodia to be the extra special highlight of the entire trip.
However, I felt so fatigued and disappointed by the amount of bartering, attempted swindling and corruption in this place. Everyone seemed dishonest and out to scam any person who looked like a western backpacker. Yes I am aware, to an extent this is how it is in the Far East and I do expect it since I have visited Nepal, China and now Vietnam. But in Cambodia I felt that I couldn’t trust anyone at all. Even our taxi driver attempted to make us use his tour company by lying and telling us it was the bus station! All 6 of us were so tired and refused to get out of his car until he took us to the destination we actually paid him for.
On the whole though, once settled in our hotel and purchased our 3 day pass to enter Ankgor Wat, it was plain sailing from there. Except for me getting heat stroke and feeling really poorly, our time touring around the temples was magical.
Because the grounds of the temples are gigantic, you need a tuk tuk driver. These tuk tuk drivers will take you round where ever you wish to go and can seek out nearby resturants within the complex for when you’re hungry. Included in the price of being driven around the complex, you get free wifi and a large stock of cold water available, because trust me- it gets hot!
I was in awe at every turn, there was something to see or someone to talk to. In one particular temple you get to meet Cambodian Buddhist monks who for a small donation will give you a blessing prayer and hand braided charm bracelet. I am still wearing mine a year later.
The sad side to visiting the temples is, no matter how early you arrive, there are still hundreds, if not thousands of tourists already there and this can make taking photos problematic. Some of the temples have had platforms built around them for selfie loving Japanese tourists to take advantage of, so good luck attempting to get the perfect professional shot of the beautiful archetecture without crowds of Chinese or Japanese tourists standing around in the foreground forever! This is a painful experience for professional photographers who wish to add Angkor Wat to their professioal travel portfolio.
Other than that, spending 3 days in Agkor Wat is an unforgettable experience and I know I am very lucky to have seen such a world wonder. The fairytale I had of visiting such a place was broken by too many crowds and too many stalls attempting to sell cheap tat to tourists. Which I found infuriatingly hypocritical, women are expected to cover up their knees and shoulders which is fair enough considering it is a sacred site and there are clothing police lurking about to make sure this rule is enforced and yet souvenir stalls are literally built on the sides of ancient temple walls and locals can pester you to buy something on sacred ground? Double standards much? These sellers are also very pushy and they follow you, even though your body language is implying you’d much rather take in the beauty of the temple than buy a wrap skirt for one dollar. I’ve lost count at how many times I’ve heard “Laaaaaaddddddddyyyyy, you want coconut? you want skirt?” and this really does diminish the whole experiance to something as tacky as visiting Blackpool during the illuminations.
That being said, knowing what I know now, would I go again? Absolutely! You can’t go to Angkor Wat without being enchanted right to your core and I can not judge an entire country on one place so I really would love to visit Cambodia again and explore other destinations to get a real feel for the culture outside the main tourist attraction.
If you have never visited Angkor Wat before, I highly recommed spending at least 3 days in Siem Reap (which is the city just outside the temple complex) to really settle in and enjoy your time there without rushing because Angkor Wat is huge. If you have time, then a week maximum would be great because you can really be at your leisure over 7 days and most hotels in Siem Reap are geared up to the max for tourists, offering really delicious meals, swimming pool and massage packages too for a good price. Tuk Tuk drivers are readily available right outside your hotel entrance and make sure you book your Tuk Tuk driver through your hotel to be given a good, honest driver who will look after you and you won’t be swindled. So many tourists have fallen prey to renegade drivers not associated with a hotel. Google search horror stories of such scams, you don’t need to hear it from me.
Angkor Wat is breath taking and overall a favourite place I have visited as a traveller. There is no where in the world quite like it. It is steeped in history and charm and I love how nature has, over time wrapped its arms around the now corroding site like a primordial being cradling a man made creation. It is awe-inspiring to day dream what life was like back then, what were the people like? What are their stories and why was this complex built?
Here is a small piece of information about Angkor Wat:
This temple complex is one of the largest religious monuments in the world, on a site measuring 162.6 hectares (1,626,000 m2; 402 acres). Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu for theKhmer Empire, it was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century.
Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple-mountain and the later galleried temple. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology: within a moat more than 5 kilometres (3 mi) long and an outer wall 3.6 kilometres (2.2 mi) long are three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next. At the centre of the temple stands a quincunx of towers. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west; scholars are divided as to the significance of this. The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs, and for the numerous devatas adorning its walls.
This ancient site wasn’t just a temple complex but it used to be a thriving, bustling city for its time, with the main (and famous) temple being the primary holy ground and possibly dedicated to death and the underworld.
Angkor Wat is a labyrinth of intricately carved walls, over-hangings, and statues.
The long wall of images are Bas Relief carvings that circle the perimeter of the temple and tell the story of various battles. I loved the description of the carvings dedicated to the story of the Ramayana. I’ll admit that I first dove into this story when I had a brief but heartfelt obsession with the movie The Little Princess. The guides nearby explained how some of the fading reliefs represented various aspects of Rama’s journey. Angkor Wat delivered in terms of fascinating history and a lot to see and explore independently.
If you enjoyed this short post about Angkor Wat, visit my write up about Phnom Penh and some links below to read more about my travels:
1 week in Ibiza for a training
16 days traveling around Morocco
21 days traveling around Nepal