Day 2: Angkor Archaeological Park
Our day in Angkor Wat was one of the most mystical days I’ve ever experienced. For years, I yearned to visit the archeological complex of temples, monuments, and canals after reading about it in National Geographic. The 400 square kilometer site is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and is considered the largest pre-industrial city in the world. To avoid the hoards of visitors who flock to the grounds at sunset for photo ops, we bravely opted to greet Angkor Wat at sunrise. Luckily, it wasn’t too difficult to wake up at an ungodly hour since we were still a little jet lagged. We met our private guide at 5:00 am in the hotel lobby and set out in the dark to Angkor Archaeological Park.
As mentioned in my previous post, licensed guides to Angkor can be hired for a flat, standard rate of $25 a day plus an additional $18-$25 for a driver (prices subject to change in the future). I highly recommend hiring a private guide to view the park: you can set your own pace, visit what interests you, and receive expert knowledge. Hiring a guide contributes to the local economy and is a great way to connect with someone from the community who can offer insider advice. We followed the Short Circuit route of the park. It gives a solid overview of architectural highlights from the park. Since the sites are near each other, it’s easy to complete in a day without feeling temple fatigue.
Sunrise Over Angkor Wat
We arrived at the complex shrouded in blackness and set out with our guide and a flashlight to stake a seat for daylight’s grand reveal. Up until this point, it was so dark that we could only see a little of our surrounding environment. Most tourists were crowded around the lotus moat in front of the grand temple. Our guide, knowing we were photo buffs, suggested a more isolated spot on the steps of the old library where we could steadily set up our tripod. We munched on croissants and danishes packaged for us by the hotel and eagerly waited for the sun’s ascent. It felt surreal. A random white stallion kept neighing and running around the field in front of us—probably the closest I’d ever come to seeing a unicorn. Soft light slowly exposed the delicate outlines of the temple and flora. The sky gradually warmed to coral pink, unveiling the regal beauty of Angkor Wat. Spectacular is an understatement. There is no doubt why this magical place has been awarded the title “8th Wonder of the World.”
Our guide, a master at avoiding crowds, suggested we start right away with a tour of the Angkor Wat since most visitors would be heading to breakfast. We explored the many halls and courtyards of the massive temple, marveling at the intricate carvings of swirling flowers, deities, heroes, and creatures that adorned the walls. We learned that many of these bas-reliefs told stories of Hindu mythology, my favorite depicting demons pulling a monstrous serpent to churn the Ocean of Milk.
Angkor Thom : the Last Capital of the Khmer Empire
Angkor Thom translates into “Great City”, and as we approached the entrance of the ancient Khmer capital, we could see why. The bridge leading up to the south gate was flanked with life-sized demons playing tug of war with serpents (another reference to the Ocean of Milk). Giant, sculpted face-towers guarded the city’s border. Once within the walls, we visited the 12th century Buddhist temple, Prasat Bayon. The fantastical structure represents the union between heaven and earth and is decorated with 49 towers, each carved on four sides with the compassionate faces of the Buddhist deity, Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. I was disturbed and saddened to see swarms of oblivious tour groups touching and climbing in delicate areas of the temple that were clearly restricted. It was not uncommon to see women touring the sites in damaging 3-inch high heels.
We continued to stroll the grounds, stopping at the royal pools of Sras Srei. We next admired the carved reliefs at Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King. These spots overlooked an expansive field that acted as a giant stage where the high court would watch animal fights and entertainment. By now, we had worked up an appetite for an early lunch and sampled Khmer curries at the family-owned restaurant, Heritage.
The Eerie Allure of Ta Prohm
Our next stop was my favorite—the the monastic temple of Ta Prohm, best known as the setting for the movie Tomb Raider. Our guide strategically timed our early lunch so that we had the grounds to ourselves while the giant tour bus groups were eating. Unlike most of the other Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm has been left mostly unrestored and engulfed by the jungle. Imposing banyan and strangler fig trees have overtaken the crumbling ruins, harmoniously entwining their tentacle-like roots into the structure. We roamed the austere corridors in awe of the site’s haunting beauty.
Finishing the Small Circuit
We spent the rest of our tour visiting some of the smaller monuments along the small circuit. We saw Banteay Kdei, the “Citadel of Chambers” composed of galleries and chambers still visited by Buddhist monks. Next, we climbed the steep stairs to the top of the five-tiered, sandstone temple Ta Keo. The circuit ended at Prasat Kravan, built around 921 A.D. The small brick temple consists of five towers and detailed sculpted interior. It was there that we also spotted a two-nosed, mutant dog.
After a long day of trekking around the park, we returned to Siem Reap and pampered ourselves to spa treatments at Bodia Spa. It’s a tranquil, stylish space with mid-ranged prices for Siem Reap, but still about a third less than what you’d pay in the U.S. I finished my day with a relaxing aromatherapy massage and salt scrub.
– Lara Dalinsky