We managed to get up and out of bed by around 9am on our first morning in Siem Reap – pretty impressive, considering the wild night we had the night before. After a lovely poolside breakfast at the hotel, we set off to explore the city. The first impression we had while walking the smaller side streets towards the “downtown” area is that Cambodia is definitely a third world country. In Thailand, we never really felt that way – people are certainly poorer there than in most of the Western world, but they still have most of the amenities we’ve come to take for granted in the first world. But Cambodia is still recovering from the effects of a genocide in the late 1970s, the eight years of America bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War, and millions of land mines placed by several different factions (don’t worry – we are in *zero* danger of land mines in the touristy areas). Only a few minutes walk from the main market of Siem Reap, families live in little more than huts – usually with no electricity or running water. Children – many of them orphans – often forego school in favor of begging or selling things to tourists. It’s a sobering reminder of how fortunate we are to have been born and raised in America.
We found a place that rented bicycles, and set off for Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is actually just one temple of a much larger area called Angkor Archaeological Park, which has seventy-two major temples and hundreds of minor temples or other structures in an area comprising roughly seventy-five square miles. That’s just the highest concentration of buildings – there are major temples part of the Angkor area that are thirty miles away!
Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer empire, and was populated from the 9th to 15th centuries before it was abandoned. There may have been up to a million people (a thousand years ago!) living in this city at the height of its power, which flourished due to a complicated water distribution system that was truly an engineering marvel of its time. Most temples were originally built honoring Hindu gods (first Shiva, then Vishnu), but this changed to Buddhism in the late 12th century and would go back and forth between those religions depending on who was king. Angkor collapsed in 1431 when it was sacked by Ayutthaya invaders (from Thailand), and was abandoned shortly after. Angkor was largely unknown to the western world until the late 19th century, when it was “discovered” by a French explorer. In the past couple decades, many nations have done their part to restore the largest temples of Angkor to make it the draw to tourists that it is today.
The entrance to Angkor is just three miles from our hotel, so we rode up and bought tickets ($40 for a three day pass that is definitely worth every penny). All of the major temples of Angkor have paved roads that drive right up to them, which makes exploring the area much easier. There are two main roads – one is a mini loop that is about eight miles long, the other much longer at around twenty-one miles. We decided to do the mini loop on the first day, with the option of hiring a driver for the longer loop.
The first stop on both loops is Angkor Wat, the central temple of Angkor and the largest religious monument in the world. As we biked on the main road, we were first met by the moat – 620 feet wide and over two miles long on all sides, and all dug by hand! As we turned the corner around the moat, Angkor Wat finally came into view. It’s hard to imagine how amazing it must have been to come across an abandoned temple of this magnitude, and how glorious it must have been during the height of the Khmer empire. During the height of their reign, about one third of the temples were covered with bronze plate or stucco designs, which are no longer there. (The other two thirds still have carved walls, although some designs have eroded.) They were filled with fountains and statues, many of which were destroyed, stolen, or dried up over the centuries. It’s impossible to explain what a sight it is to behold – I was a little worried that after weeks of seeing various temples across Thailand that I’d be a little disappointed with “just another temple”, but that fear was quickly put to rest.
We parked and locked our bikes, and started the walk to the temple. There were a lot of tourists, to be sure, but it never felt crowded. Angkor Wat gets nearly 2.5 million tourists per year, but the area to walk around is so big that it feels practically empty compared to places like Pike Place Market or the Eiffel Tower. I mean, we were able to get this picture in front of the main entrance to Angkor Wat with (almost) nobody else in the background!
We walked through the entrance and up to the main temple. The first impression we got is that nearly every surface of every block is carved in some way. Some are simple designs, but many – if not most – are actual works of art. It wasn’t just like this in the center of the main temple of Angkor Wat, but in virtually every section of every temple that we would visit! Secondly – the stairs are steep. The original stone steps of the temple are very tall and very narrow, so that it is more like climbing a ladder than walking up stairs. Some of the more popular temples (and scarier stairs) have wooden stairs built over the top of them, but even those are pretty tough to manage. Going down them is downright frightening! We later learned that the stairs were made to be intentionally difficult to climb, to symbolize the difficulty of reaching the kingdom of gods.
We spent a few hours walking around Angkor Wat and the surrounding area, then went back to our bikes to explore the next temple. On the road, we decided to stop for a quick lunch. There are of course many locals who sell all sorts of things to tourists – not only food and drinks, but all of the souvenirs that you’d expect to find. We sat down at a table in a place that was little more than a hut. As we waited for our food, we looked at our surroundings. The huts that were all together were not just restaurants, but a place to live. Though obviously nobody lives in the temples, Angkor is still inhabited by many Cambodians today – we saw several different schools as well!
Back on the road, we approached the moated gate to Angkor Thom, a giant walled city that contains many temples. On the side of the road, we saw a family of monkeys and just had to stop and watch – especially the baby monkey that hung on to its mom to get around! They are very tame, probably from years of tourists that like to feed them. Just off the side of the road, we saw a small temple that didn’t seem to have a lot of attention, so we took the opportunity to explore with no other tourists around. Climbing the temple by ourselves, away from the roads and traffic really made us feel like we were explorers of Angkor! We then passed through the gate and headed to the giant temple of Bayon, famous for its large faces on various spires.
We exited Angkor Thom through the East Gate (the North Gate is a longer loop that is best taken by car), towards Ta Keo. It can’t be overstated how magnificent everything in Angkor is, even between all of the biggest, most popular temples.
We parked outside Ta Keo and started the climb to the top. Late in the day, most of the tourists appear to have exited the park or are in other locations. With the temple almost completely to ourselves, it made for some glorious sights.
With the sun setting and us still nearly ten miles from our hotel, we decided to end our first day at Angkor. Craving a little comfort food, we decided to stop at the Hard Rock Cafe (we know, we know) for some happy hour. Cheap drinks, cheap outdoor barbecue food, and even an acoustic duo playing covers of some great classic rock songs! A very relaxing finish to a great day of exploring – and we couldn’t wait to get back out there!