The largest religious monument in the world —the temple complex of Angkor Wat —is a spectacle, says Christine Karan.
Sometimes amazing… sometimes upsetting. A visit to the massive spread of Angkor Wat, once the capital of the flourishing Khmer Kingdom of Cambodia, now in ruins consumed by the power of nature, is surely an overwhelming experience.
Not very popular, except for ardent tourists interested in history, heritage and art, the global spotlight fell on Angkor Wat, thanks to Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider movie (released in 2001) that was filmed in and around this temple complex.
Today it is one of the top 25 tourist destinations! Built by Khmer kings Jayavarman and Suryavarman dynasties between 9 and 14 centuries, the massive temple complexes give you a glimpse of how life would have been during the golden reign of the Khmer Kings. A quick research shows the Khmers enjoyed a great life; they played competitive ball games and festivals that were marked by firework displays, dance and music, wild-boar fights and what not!
Just a short 40-50 minutes flight (or a 4 hour bus ride) from Bangkok to Siem Reap, will land you in Cambodia’s second largest city – the touch point to Angkor Wat.
Life at Angkor Wat begins very early – even before sunrise! Hordes of tourists armed with smartphones, amateur photographers with Nikons and Canons and professionals with their Leicas and Hassleblads start assembling from 4am around the lotus pond in front of the temple entrance to grab a vantage point and wait for the famed, picture-postcard event of the golden-orange sunrise from behind the temple towers.
Soon after, scores of tourist coaches start arriving, offloading hundreds of tourists. The usual itinerary begins here; the Angkor Wat temple complex, then Angkor Thom complex followed by Preahkhan temple and the Roulos Group of temples.
The main Angkor Wat temple complex – the largest religious monument in the world – is the heart and soul of Cambodia and a national pride. Spread over 200 hectares, Angkor Wat is both awe-inspiring and stunning for its grand scale and its architectural excellence. Unlike Angkor Thom, this one is well-preserved having withstood the test of times. The main entrance, with five intricately carved towers perched on top, welcomes you to an awe-inspiring experience, but be prepared to walk through the long, stone-paved corridors with decorative doorways and up and down the steps. Almost every pillar and doorway feature twin Apsaras (nymphs) richly decorated with fashionable hairstyles and creative accessories.
Past the massive stone gate of Angkor Thom made of giant faces, the Bayon temple is your next stop. Towers, small and big, with each one of them featuring four huge, carved, bas-relief faces represent the classic Khmer art and architecture. Stand next to one of the faces and see how dwarfed you are by the faces.
Next is Angkor Thom temple (yes, the famed Tomb Raider locale!) The sprawling Buddhist temple with unique Khmer sculptures featuring exquisite carvings of designs, motifs and figurines have almost been devoured by massive trees growing over them over centuries. An unexplainable, eerie feeling takes over you as you walk around soaking it all in.
The Preah Khan temple is more or less the same but has some buildings other than temples probably residences and social gathering halls – all in ruins.
Is Angkor Wat only about temples and ruins? Reserve your evenings to visit Siem Reap Town. Though very touristy, the town has plenty of cafes and restaurants to suit every taste and purse. The well-organised new market offers every type of souvenir that you want to take home. Walk across the small river and enter the old market area and mingle with the locals. Wander through the alleys and see the local shopkeepers’ wares – from wooden pots and earthen wares to spices and dry fishes.
My favourite place- Without a doubt, it has to be the temple complexes of the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.
Highlights- The sunrise at Angkor Wat and the sunset at Phnom Bakheng terrace, will set the tone for your day.
Lowlights- Summer months can be very hot, humid and exhausting. Try to visit between November and March.
Souvenirs- Cambodian handicrafts (eg: dolls and puppets) from the handicraft market near the old market.
Getting there- Oman Air flies directly from Muscat to Bangkok. Bangkok Airways and Air Asia fly several times a day from Bangkok, and is a relatively quick 40-minute flight.
Where to stay- Siem Reap has a wealth of hotels and guest houses ranging in classes. But, if you’re on a budget, you can also avail the ‘backpackers accommodation’.
1. If you want to beat the crowds, do the tour in reverse(!): start with Angkor Thom and by the time you reach Angkor Wat the crowds would be long gone!
2. Enjoy the sunrise spectacle at Angor Wat; it’s an experience worth sacrificing your early morning sleep for one day.
3. Watch the sunset from the terraces of Pre Rup temple.
4. If you have more time at your disposal, make a day trip to the floating village on the outskirts of Siem Reap.
5. Visit one of the local handicrafts factories supported by the local government to preserve their handicrafts skills.