Exploring Angkor Wat is a hauntingly beautiful, awe inspiring experience. We started our adventure at 4:30 am on Monday morning, waking up before dawn to get tot he park, buy our three day passes, and claim a spot on the banks of the reflecting pool to watch the sun come up behind Angkor Wat Temple, through it’s beautiful towers into stark relief. Unfortunately, the day was cloudy, and we only know the beauty that could have been from the many paintings and photos set up everywhere to tempt tourists. Although we were understandably disappointed that we missed out on the much-heralded sunrise experience, we were in for no shortage of breath-taking views.
Day one (Monday) was hampered by a malfunctioning tuk tuk that broke down roughly every 30 km until the beleaguered driver finally gave up. All five of us piled into the one working tuk tuk and resigned ourselves to an early evening back at the hotel. Despite the technical difficulties, Day 1 still saw plenty of adventure before we had to call it quits. We trekked out to an incredible waterfall. The river feeding the waterfall tumbled and gamboled over ancient statues, formations, and writings put there by the early peoples of Cambodia. Only after an hour long trek up a jungle path that sometimes was not a path (good thing I did a lot of scrambling over boulders in Montana to prepare me for those stretches) did we reach the top and were shown the many mysterious wonders of the river by an ancient Cambodian man with a walking stick. Despite knowing very little English, the man was patient with our clambering and American loudness. He was a godsend, as I’m sure we would have discovered little to nothing on our own. We also explored Angkor Wat temple (the flagship of the temple complex) and Banteay Srey. While Angkor Wat was majestic and incredible in it’s own right, I preferred Banteay Srey – the Citadel of Woman – with it’s red stone, intricate carvings, and quiet beauty.
Day two, free of tuk tuk troubles (at least of the mechanical sort, one driver seriously ripped us off), was chock full of temples, and the photographs largely speak for themselves. We visited temples nearly overtaken by the jungle, green and lush in their ancient majesty. We climbed temples with staircases that caused your breath to hitch but led to fantastic views and fascinating monuments. We walked the grounds of the Khmer Royal Palace and encountered Bayon. Bayon is a well-known temple of Angkor due to the 216 massive stone faces carved into the temple’s towers. The countenance is serene, strong, and said to resemble closely that of King Jayavarman VII of the Khmer empire. Is was an almost eerie place, but you couldn’t help at wondering at the prowess of the carvers and the incredible man-power it must have taken to construct such a spectacle.
Day three was much more relaxed. Slightly templed-out, we spent the morning at the hotel. We caught up on sleep, communication, and personal hygiene. We then attempted to catch the sunset at Angkor Wat temple. Once again foiled by clouds, we nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed the nearly empty temple complex. Without the crowds of tourists, the temple felt much more personal. It was much easier to picture it as the thriving, brilliant center of civilization it once was. I could almost feel the shadows of the monks, officials, elites, and kings who once walked it’s stony halls, but the shadows were comforting and welcoming instead of frightening. I felt warm there despite the light rain, and Angkor Wat earned a permanent place in my heart. Not to mention I found and petted a real horse – so maybe I’m just biased due to that.
Angkor Wat is the name of the largest and grandest of the Angkor temples, but when people say they visited Angkor Wat, they’re usually referring to the entire sprawling complex. I feel so lucky to say that I got the chance to explore these incredible ruins. It was well-worth the expensive pass, tuk tuk difficulties, and patience-trying vendors around every corner. It is an experience I will never forget. The Cambodians have got a jewel on their hands.