There are certain destinations around the world that quite simply are musts. The Taj Mahal, the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Barrier Reef, if you are nearby and don’t visit them, you are doing yourself a disservice, no matter who you are or where you come from.
Angkor is one of these sites. It is beyond spectacular, one of the most amazing sites in existence. Angkor is so amazing that it is a must for anyone visiting Thailand, this despite it not even being in Thailand; instead, Angkor is in neighboring Cambodia. The nearest town to Angkor is Siem Reap, which we covered in our previous post. That leaves this entire post for this one destination, so lets do it!
For those who don’t know, Angkor was the capitol of the Khmer empire, which flourished from the 9th to 15th centuries. When the empire fell, Angkor was almost completely abandoned, this despite it being a megacity that once contained more than 0.1% of the entire world’s population (approximately equivalent to New York City today).
Several centuries later, Westerners discovered the ruins of Angkor, and they were blown away, comparing what they found to the works of Michelangelo and ancient Rome. In the late-20th century, an international coalition came together to restore the city, resulting in one of the most spectacular tourist destinations in the world. Since the restoration, annual visitorship has increasing from less than 8,000 to more than 2,000,000, making this an extremely popular tourist destination, especially considering that it is in the middle of nowhere.
This ruins of Angkor contain statues, bridges, canals, reservoirs, fortifications, and buildings, more than 1,000 of which are temples. These ruins have been divided into at least 30 sites, with even more being discovered to this day. Inna and I visited the five most prominent sites on our visit, plus some others located near these main five.
And so, without further ado, our visit to Angkor. First up: Angkor’s most famous site, Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat, Angkor’s most famous destination, was built as a Hindu temple in the 12th century, but was converted to Buddhism less than a century after its construction. The most impressive aspect of this temple: it and its grounds cover 402 acres, making it the largest religious monument in the world.
Here are the mythical Nagas (giant snakelike creatures, just like we saw at Wat Phra Kaew), protecting the entrance to Angkor Wat. These statues, particularly the one on the left, should give a good impression of how deteriorated Angkor was before it was restored.
The previous pictures were taken outside Angkor Wat’s grounds, while this one was taken inside. From here, you can see the temple’s iconic spire-like towers (called prangs), which are featured on Cambodian money, the Cambodian flag, and are recognized all over the world. You can also see just how big this temple really is.
The temple at its grounds (a small sliver at least) just before sunset.
As soon as the sun set, Angkor was closed and everyone was kicked out. Inna and I took our time leaving so we could get this photograph, with (almost) no one in front.
If you’re wondering why were started our Angkor visit at sunset, here’s why:
Entry into Angkor is pricy, so much so that we only bought a one-day ticket for each of us. However, if you buy next-day one-day tickets after 5pm, they will let you in the same day to view the sunset for free. So that’s what we did.
The next morning, we got up early to watch the sunrise. It was one of the most beautiful sunrises we’ve ever seen.
We weren’t the only ones who woke up early today…
Yesterday we only had sunset but today we have all day. So lets get up close, go inside, and take some selfies!
Honestly, I have no idea how to describe the inside of Angkor Wat. Suffice it to say, it was really impressive, and unlike any place we’ve ever been.
In the center of Angkor Wat was a massive courtyard, with the iconic prangs on a platform in the center and a staircase leading up to them.
One of the iconic prangs, up close. There are actually five of these prangs, although photographs generally only capture three, as the temple is so big the two prangs furthest from the photographer are usually blocked from view.
This picture, taken from next to Angkor Wat’s prangs, features the entrance to the temple and also the courtyard where we viewed the sunset and sunrise. This picture also features the jungle that surrounds Angkor Wat, a jungle that was really cool, unlike any jungle we’d been to before. This jungle actually felt like a movie jungle, like where Indiana Jones or Lara Croft would be.
At this point, we continued to our second Angkor site. But how about one last Angkor Wat picture before we go? Some of these decorations were too good to pass up, I mean, check out those… feet. The sculptures here were obviously still figuring things out.
Because Angkor was a giant megacity, the ruins today aren’t superclose to each other. And everyone seemed to have their own way of getting from one site to the next: walking, bicycles, tuk tuks (our method), tour vans, elephants, and more.
For our second Angkor site, we visited Bayon, the main temple in Angkor Thom, the capital district of Angkor. Bayon was the last of Angkor’s major temples to be built, having been constructed sometime around the turn of the 13th century.
Oh my God, it’s Legends of the Hidden Temple! Bayon is famous for these faces, and it has tons (200+) of them.
One face on the main prang (pictured left) and two on some other (pictured right). Historians are unsure exactly who these faces represent, although they have two theories: King Jayavarman VII (the most powerful Khmer monarch of all time) or Avalokitesvara (the Buddhist enlighted-mind embodiment of compassion). The faces may even be a combination of these two figures.
There are five faces in this photograph. Can you find them all?
Finally, here is Bayon almost in its entirety. I scaled a prang inside the complex to get this view. Scaling the prang was fun, and this panorama made it totally worth it.
From Bayon we headed to our third Angkor destination. On the way, we rode by Terrace of the Elephants, a beautiful stone elephant mural along a platform the king used to greet his victorious returning army.
The third Angkor site we visited was Ta Keo, a 150 foot pyramid shaped temple. This was probably the least spectacular of the five major sites we visited at Angkor.
This is the view from the top of Ta Keo. As I mentioned previously, Ta Keo (this view included) was the least spectacular of the five main sites we visited in Angkor. If that doesn’t give you an idea how amazing Angkor was, then I don’t know what does.
Up next, destination number four on our Angkor tour: Ta Prohm. And despite it not being as famous as Angkor Wat, this was both Inna and my favorite ruins in all of Angkor.
There is one reason Ta Prohm is the best: trees. Now Inna and I are from California, so we’ve seen some spectacular trees, but trees growing out of stone? Trees completely destroying stone structures with their massive tree powers? We’ve never seen anything like that.
Seriously, have you ever seen anything like this?
Apparently, when Angkor was re-discovered by westerners, almost all the ruins were like this. The previous ruins we visited (Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Keo) were restored, but minus making it safe, Ta Prohm was kept in its discovered state.
It is so hard to appreciate what Ta Prohm was like; the whole place, quite simply, was absurd. The trees reminded us of Ents and the whole location felt like something out of Tomb Raider (probably because they shot that film here). This site, even more the Angkor Wat, is what makes Angkor a must-visit destination in my book.
The final major site we visited was Banteay Kdei, this one significant because it is one of the most dilapidated sites in Angkor.
Historians believe Banteay Kdei’s extreme dilapidated-ness was due to both faulty construction and inferior sandstone used during construction. But despite this, the complex remains standing and has also been made safe by restorers, who are currently working to restore the complex completely.
Banteay Kdei may already be undergoing restoration, but those restorers still have a lot to do…
Banteay Kdei was the last Angkor complex we visited, but it wasn’t the last stop on our tour. For just outside was Srah Srang, a 10th century reservoir still filled with water today. And while this reservoir may seem large, it is actually dwarfed by Angkor’s two largest reservoirs, which were ~50-60 times larger.
From here, we reached the end of our Angkor visit. We saw a lot of stuff in this one tiring day (about half of what Angkor has to offer), but it was so worth it. Angkor Wat was amazing, it completely obliterates the hype, repeatedly leaving us in awe at every site we went. And this despite the place being filled with tourists. The ruins of Angkor really are some of the most spectacular destinations in the world, and Inna and I both feel that the above pictures don’t capture it at all…
Up next, we stayed in Cambodia and explored more of what the country had to offer. Specifically, several travelers we met recommended Cambodia’s southern coast, saying it was even better than Thailand. And so, while it wasn’t part of our original plan, Cambodia’s coast is where we went next!