Discovering Angkor

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On my first full day in Siem Reap, I headed to the world famous Angkor Wat and spent the day exploring the ancient ruins and temples. This region of Cambodia known as Angkor was once the seat of the Khmer Empire, a Hindu kingdom that ruled from the 9th to 15th centuries. The Khmer kings were known by many powerful names like “god-king”, “lion-man”, and universal monarchs. The architecture that was constructed during under Khmer rule are sprawling and magnificent; fit for nothing less than a “god-king”.

Because of the sheer size and number of archeological sights to visit at Angkor, you need to start your day with the sun in order to fit it all in and not faint from heat exhaustion. Located about 15 minutes outside of Siem Reap town, the temples are best reached by hired tuk-tuk driver who will be your personal driver all day for about $15 USD.

I headed out at seven a.m. and was happy to see that the day was hazy but not rainy, ideal weather for exploring outdoor temples in the heat. After purchasing a ticket and temple pass for $20 USD, the first and most anticipated stop is the principal temple of the region, Angkor Wat. Built around 1113, it’s easy to see why this is one of the most famous religious monuments in the world, not to mention the largest religious structure in the world.

Approaching the temple is like approaching the Eiffel Tower. You crane your neck to see it as you’re turning the corner, but nothing can prepare you for the actual sight. This temple is absolutely massive, it’s surrounded by walls on all sides as well as a giant moat and was once enclosed by another outer wall that occupied a space of 203 acres. Talk about massive!

Because of my early arrival at the temple, I was able to explore the grounds mostly alone. It’s easy to get lost in there, the hallways that encompass the central tower go on forever; I must’ve only seen about 50% of the temple in two hours. The imposing structure is built of sandstone and is a classical example of Khmer architecture. Towers are shaped like lotus buds, bas-reliefs cover the walls depicting ancient scenes, with vaulted archways similar to ones used in Gothic structures.

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There are many other sights to visit within the Angkor grounds, and it’s easy to spend an entire day exploring. Ta Phrom is a smaller temple, yet it is still large and sprawling. Dense jungle has grown around and literally through this temple fusing the natural and the man made. There are literally huge trees that have engulfed parts of the temple walls and grown upward towards the jungle canopy.

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You can walk amongst the ruins here and get lost in the maze of corridors that sometimes end abruptly from the roof caving in.  I loved the ruined feel of this sight and how it’s located deep in the jungle. Walking through it made me feel like I was the first person to explore the temple, just like Indiana Jones. Ta Phrom made its big screen debut in 2001’s “Tomb Raider” film starring Angelina Jolie, which is how it’s known today.

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Another well known sight is Angkor Thom, which was one of my favorites. It was the capital city during reign of King Jayavaman. The temple that lies at the center of this sight is known as Bayon Temple.  Because of my late morning timing at this temple, it was literally mobbed with tourists who arrived by the busload. I tried to ignore the hordes of people but it soon became overwhelming as I could hardly take two steps and not bump into someone. The most unique feature of the Bayon are the  200 “face towers” that are located on the top level. These massive stone faces silently watch over the 1 million tourists that visit Angkor every year.

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I really liked the details that are present at the Bayon Temple. The walls are carved with historical scenes from ancient Angkor, from battles to everyday life in the city.

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After wandering through the temples for the better part of the day, it was safe to say I was templed out, hungry, and dehydrated. The skies turned dark around the fourth or fifth temple, so I decided to call it a day and head to the nearest restaurant. The temple tour finished with a fruit shake and famous Cambodian curry fish amok, which was served in a large coconut.

I would love to see Angkor again in my lifetime, it’s almost too much to internalize in a single trip. What I would love most is to visit with my Dad, who is a history buff and was most excited for me to see the temples. If you are ever in Southeast Asia, take the time to go to Siem Reap and visit the Angkor Temples, I don’t think there is anything like it in the world… and you can fulfill your childhood dream of pretending to be Indiana Jones for one day.