Angkor Wat Temple Complex

Angkor Wat Temple Complex

Before coming to Cambodia, we had an image in mind of what Angkor Wat looked like. This is what we had in mind:

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The standard Ankgor Wat photo.

I knew that the temple was well known for being large and detailed, but I had no idea what sort of scale we would be dealing with. Indeed, Angkor Wat (Wat meaning temple), which is pictured above, is majestic. But, it is only one of many monuments worth visiting within the Angkor Archaeological Park. There are over a thousand temples in the park, which spans 150 square miles (including temple “suburbs” outside of the main square). Part of what makes the archaeological complex so amazing is the scale and variety of structures, which vary in size, building materials, color, detail, and style.

Reading about the Angkor complex before our visit, I found conflicting advice. Some people advised that a one day visit would be sufficient, after all once “you’ve seen one [temple], you’ve seen ’em all”. Others advised that three days would be required, at a minimum, and a week would be preferable. Reading this debate and reading the Wikipedia article on the Angkor Archaeological Park, I realized that the site was much bigger than I had imagined. Angkor Wat is perhaps the centerpiece of the Angkor Archeological Park, but there is much more there as well. We weren’t sure how many days we should spend in town and what sort of pass we should purchase for visiting the temples. You can buy a one day pass ($20), a three day pass ($40), or a seven day pass ($60). You are not allowed to trade or modify your pass once purchased. We just couldn’t make up our minds and we literally left the decision to be made at the very last second as we were getting in line to buy our pass. We decided on the three day pass, then immediately changed our minds and settled on the seven day pass. I am happy with our decision; there have been a few times throughout our trip that we have experienced the “you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all” feeling, but this was definitely not one of them. As time rich and money poor travellers, it actually made more sense for us to take our time with the temples. Only paying $20 more than we would have paid for the three day pass, we were able to spread out the cost of the pass over the span of a week. Furthermore, lodging was quite affordable at $8 a night (including breakfast) and meals at the nearby restaurants ranged from $1-$2 per plate. Staying a week, we were able to take our time and experience the Angkor Archeological Park at our own pace, on our own schedule, and within our budget. We bought a cheap guide book and used it to read about the temples as we visited them. We took one tuk tuk tour to the temples which were further away and then biked around ourselves on the other days.

A bit of history

Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It was constructed as the Khmer empire’s capitol city. Initially constructed to be Hindu places of worship, the temples were gradually transformed into Buddhist buildings. Construction of Ankgor began in the early 12th century, and the buildings there were continually worked on and added to until the 16th century. According to Wikipedia, Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city in the world, with an urban sprawl of at least 1,000 square kilometers (390 sq mi). To put that into scale, the second largest pre-industrial city, the Mayan Tikal, was only 60 square miles. The Angkor civilization began to decline in the 14th century, and by the 16th century, the city was abandoned and mostly forgotten (though locals continued to know of its existence). The complex was not popularized in the west until the mid 19th century when European archaeologists began to study it. Since then, there has been ongoing restoration that still continues today. One can see signs around the complex displaying the names of different countries which are sponsoring the restoration of individual structures. The temple complex is known for its skillful architecture and design as well as its extensive decoration, including intricate bas-relief friezes.

Common themes and highlights of our tour:

A nāga bridge. It was very common for nāgas to be displayed fanned out like this at the entrance to structures.

A nāga bridge. It was very common for nāgas to be displayed fanned out like this at the entrance to structures.

A garuda is a diving being which is part man, part bird and is often found at the entrance to structures, serving as a protectorate.

Garuda is a divine being which is part man, part bird and is often found at the entrance to structures, serving as a protector.

Jon in front of one of the temples covered with a strangler fig.

Jon in front of one of the temples (Banteay Kdei) which was covered with a strangler fig.

Intricate sandstone carvings and Banteay Srei

Intricate sandstone carvings at Banteay Srei

Kala, a hindu monster who has eaten his own body. He is often found at the entrance to temples in Asia.

Kala, a hindu monster who has eaten his own body. He is often found at the entrance to temples.

A Nāga sits atop a structure at Banteay Srei.

A Nāga sits atop a structure at Banteay Srei.

Dancing apsaras at the hall of dancers.

Dancing Apsaras at the Hall of Dancers in at Preah Kanh.

More dancing apsaras from the Hall of Dancers.

More dancing apsaras from the Hall of Dancers.

A giant strangler fig grows atop Preah Khan.

A giant fig tree grows atop Preah Khan.

A seated rishi (a hindu ascetic) commonly found at the base of doorways.

A seated rishi (a Hindu ascetic) commonly found at the base of doorways.

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A dvarapala – a temple guardian.

Some of the stairs were very steep.

Many of the stairs were very steep.

Jon by a gigantic strangler fig.

Jon by a gigantic strangler fig.

Another devata.

Another devata.

Another giant strangler fig at Ta Prohm. This is one of the more popular sites in the park.

Another giant strangler fig at Ta Prohm. This is one of the more popular sites in the park (Tomb Raider, anyone?)

Another view of Ta Prohm.

Another view of Ta Prohm.

The steps at many of the temples are notoriously thin, steep, and degraded.

The steps at many of the temples are notoriously thin, steep, and degraded.

More thin, steep, degraded steps.

More thin, steep, degraded steps.

Baksei Chamkrong, a temple mountain and the owner of the previously displayed steps. We used our hands and feet to climb the steps!

Baksei Chamkrong, a temple mountain. This is where the previous photo was taken. We used our hands and feet to climb the steps!

At Angkor Wat.

At Angkor Wat.

False windows at Angkor Wat.

False windows at Angkor Wat.

The Churning of the Sea of Milk, one of the most famous bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat.

The Churning of the Sea of Milk, one of the most famous bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat.

More Apsaras at Angkor Wat, doesn't it look like they are having a good time?

More Apsaras at Angkor Wat, doesn’t it look like they are having a good time?

Elephants at the Elephant Terrace.

Elephants at the Elephant Terrace.

Carvings at the Leper King Terrace.

Carvings at the Leper Terrace.

The Leper Terrace.

The Leper Terrace.

Bayon Temple.

Bayon Temple.

One of over 200 faces at Bayon.

Two of over 200 faces at Bayon.

Faces at Bayon.

Faces at Bayon.

Dancing Apsaras at Bayon.

Dancing Apsaras at Bayon.

The funny thing is, even not being particularly big history buffs we felt like there was so much more to see even after spending a week visiting the site. Angkor Archaeological Park is interesting and unique and has so many little details to take in. I can’t say that I would have the stamina to visit the temples for 7 full days in a row, but if I went back on another vacation in the future, I would find plenty of new and interesting things to admire.