The most iconic image of Cambodia has to be Angkor Wat; it’s even on their national flag. So when I was in Siem Reap, I decided to visit it. Especially as I heard that they were going to double the price in the next few months (sorry parents, you’ll have to pay that when you come to visit me). I went with another colleague who was new to the country (she’d been in Cambodia three days longer than I had).
We asked our hotel to get a tuk tuk driver for us, and we tried to bargain on the price. I think we got it down to about $7-8. Seeing as he was going to be with us for at least two and half hours, it’s really a bargain. He took us through the short ride through the Siem Reap countryside to one of the ticket offices. These were more efficient than customs at Taipei, even though it felt the same. You were ushered to a desk.
“Stand here! Look here!” they told us pointing at a small camera. Startled and confused, I complied. Photo taken. “English? Twenty dollars.” Money handed exchanged hands, then I was passed my ticket, complete with yet another unflattering photograph. I will cherish it forever.
We mounted the tuk tuk carriage and continued our travels through the jungle. To our right there was a large body of water, and in the jungle I could just see glimpses of what seemed like silhouettes of tall structures. Slowly, out of the thick canopy and dense foliage emerged the walls that surrounded the Angkor Wat complex.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, being a temple complex that is about 163 hectares. Built in the first half of the 12th century, it was originally a Hindu temple, but was converted to a Buddhist temple towards the end of that century. It has been in use as a Buddhist place of worship, in some way or another, almost continuously since being built. This is one of the reasons as to why it is better preserved than the other structures within the Angkor area.
It consists of a central structure, which is the temple mountain. It represents the Hindu home of the gods, the five-peaked Mount Meru. This is then surrounded by walls, galleries and moats, that represent the surrounding mountain ranges and the ocean. This moat also provided protection from the encroaching jungle, which helped preserve the site. In fact, a lot of the damage done to the site was in the later-half of the 20th century by art thieves.
The site is beautiful and the structure is ornate, with carvings apparently on most visible surfaces. The climb to the top of temple mountain was a steep one. Before you leave your hotel, make sure you are suitably dressed. It is a religious site, still in use today, so modest dress is required for visitors if they wish to get to the top. The general rule is no shoulders, no knees. So, no vests, strappy tops, short shorts or glittery hot pants. (This is true of other sites in Cambodia, including the Royal Palace. It is not requested at Tuol Sleng Genocide Musem or Choeung Ek but I would advise it just to be respectful.) Also, if you’re a woman, don’t touch the monks.
There is a market area in the outer enclosure, which I went to, but it’s probably worth avoiding. After getting very hot climbing the temple mountain, I found the stall-keepers’ passionate entreaties a bit overwhelming. My response was probably a bit rude: I refused to make eye-contact to the point of turning my head sharply so they couldn’t get my attention. (This was a trick I learnt from a girl from my church when she was younger. If she didn’t want your attention, you knew about it.)
We then took a trip to Angkor Thom, which was a capital city built to the north of Angkor. It featured in Tomb Raider and, if I’m honest, I preferred the site (or the little I saw of it) to Angkor Wat. First, you get driven over a bridge across the city’s moat, then through a gate in the walls. (Unfortunately, my recording of this wasn’t good enough to put on the little film.) As you drive up to the Bayan (the city’s temple), you sometimes see hints of crumbling structures in the jungle. The Bayan has not weathered the years so well, but that made it even more enthralling. I felt a bit like Indianna Jones exploring dangerous, unknown ruins (the other tourists, tuk tuk drivers and English signposts ruined it a little bit, but when you have the imagination of an English teacher…).
Also, the journey reminded me a little of being back home. As we were driving through the jungle, we saw a variety of animals wondering around, obstructing traffic or just content wallowing in muddy puddles ignoring the passing humans, much like they do back in the New Forest. We saw pigs, cows, ducks and monkeys. Okay, so maybe the last one was not quite like the New Forest. Same but different (different being no monkeys or spectacular ancient monuments).
We didn’t spend too long there and there is a wealth of other places to visit around the site. We didn’t see the famous Elephant Gallery or visit any of the other temples (of which there are many). Your pass lets you into all of them and if you have a tuk tuk driver for the day, they’ll happily take you around them. Just agree on prices before and make sure you are clear about what you expect.