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When we arrived in Siem Reap, it was too late in the day to take a trek out to Angkor Wat. We explored the city a little bit, ate some street food from a cart on the corner near where our hostel was, and then turned in early, so that we could wake up before the sunrise the next morning. Along with a few other people staying in the hostel, we got up before dawn and took a taxi (tuk tuk) to Angkor Wat while it was still dark. Mist clung to the stone of the temples, and being there in the early morning was almost spooky.
The place definitely exudes this atmosphere of reverence, but in the dark of the morning, you can almost feel the spirits around you. When the sun came up over the spires of the temple, the entire area was bathed in pink and orange light. If you think that the morning you are going to visit Angkor Wat is going to be clear and you want a truly unique experience, get up before dawn so you can watch the sun come over the temple.
When to Visit Angkor Wat?
April is touted as the best time to see a sunrise over Angkor Wat, as it is the least likely to be cloudy, while also being warm enough to enjoy the sunrise, any time of the year is really a good time to visit the temple. It is maybe even too hot in March and April at noon. As with most Buddhist religious sites, you will need to cover your shoulders and knees (that means wearing a shirt with sleeves and pants or shorts that cover the knee), in order to show respect.
Angkor Wat is truly a unique sight. The dark stone, the walls, the jungle that surrounds the place, all provide this place a sense of peace. The architecture is spectacular. While you can get a sense for how amazing it is in pictures, you can only really experience the grandeur, the intricacy of the stonework and the sheer size of the temples in person. If you are in the area, do not miss Angkor Wat. It is truly one of the most beautiful and most unique places in the world.
And don’t spend all of your time just taking pictures. There will be plenty of people there documenting their experience through the lens of a camera. Don’t let the camera become an obstacle between you and the sights. Look first, take a picture second. Lots of people were just looking through the view finder on their cameras and not actually looking at what was in front of them. You will want some pictures to spark your memories, but don’t make taking pictures the sole purpose of your trek to the temple. You’ll miss out on the experience that should go along with those pictures.
This temple was built in between 802 and 1220 AD. It is widely regarded as one of the most significant and enduring achievements not just of the time period, but in all of human history, simply for its scale and the fact that it has been so well-preserved for so many years. There are more than a hundred buildings on this site, which were used not just for religious ceremonies, but also for social gatherings and by the government.
Why this specific site was chosen is unknown. Some believe that the position was chosen because it has the potential of being strategically or financially profitable for the government at the time. Others believe that this location was chosen because, in the tradition of sacred geometry, the site offered the ability to build temples so that they aligned perfectly with that geometry. For whatever reason this site was chosen, the temples were built to honor the Hindu god Vishnu. In centuries following the building of this temple, it was converted for use by Buddhists.
Other Temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Angkor Wat is perhaps the largest and most impressive temple in the area, but it is far from the only one. The others in this area all provide similar majesty and beauty, and while Angkor Wat is definitely not to be missed, if you’re looking for other temples to tour while in Cambodia, the area around Angkor has plenty to offer.
Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm
In the immediate vicinity, there is Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. Many group Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom in with Angkor Wat, but don’t let that trick you into thinking you don’t need to visit them.
They both have their own unique architecture to offer and they will be significantly less popular than Angkor Wat itself. The main temples in Angkor Wat are usually overrun, even early in the morning or towards the end of the day, by noisy tour groups. You can avoid this groups by going very early in the morning, to watch the sunrise, and then by peeling off to take a look at some of the smaller temples surrounding this site. Angkor Thom, for example, was the last capital for the Khmer empire. The huge, stone gate and accompanying temple are truly something to behold, but it somehow sees far less traffic that the main Angkor Wat complex. Be sure, while you are visiting Angkor Thom, that you don’t miss the perfectly preserved Terrace of Elephants.
One of the most beautiful places is Beng Mealea. This location was built around the same time as Angkor Wat, but unlike the larger temple complex, it has not been as well-preserved. Trees have begun to mingle with the stone architecture and are growing unchecked. Moss, shrubs, and grass have grown around the buildings—it’s what the temples of Angkor Wat would look like if nature had been allowed to reclaim them over the centuries.
Bayon is another of the more popular temples in the area. It is an intricate, massive piece of architecture, with a large, carved Buddha featured on the main spire of the temple. It was built somewhere in between the 12th and 13th centuries and is an excellent example of the building style. Not too far from Bayon is Phnom Bakheng. While it is more in ruins than many of the other temples in the area, it is far less trafficked, making it the ideal place for those who want to beat the crowds. It is also one of the older temples in the area, having been built around the 9th century.
These are only a few of the literally hundreds of temples that surround Angkor Wat. Banteay Srei, Baphuon, Banteay Kdei, and more all have something to offer to the intrepid traveler who wants to experience the majesty of the Cambodian temples in this area. Unless you are planning on moving to Siem Reap, you might not be able to visit all of them—so make a list of the ones you most want to see and give yourself enough time to really explore the grounds and experience the temples.
© 2016 Sam Shepards