Angkor Wat: The Theatre of Dreams

It was a dream come true to finally visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I was in awe of the monumental scale of this sprawling temple complex!

Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the World. It began as a Hindu temple (notice the architectural similarities to Candi Prambanan in Indonesia?), but has since been converted into a Buddhist temple. Built by the old Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century and dedicated to Vishnu, Angkor Wat serves as a symbol of both old and modern day Cambodia – even appearing on its national flag! Until invasion by the Cham people in 1177, Angkor Wat was the capital city of the Angkor Empire. However, in the aftermath of this invasion, ruling King Jayavarman VII moved the capital city northwards to nearby Angkor Thom.

The temple is made primarily from sandstone, and the design of the temple’s towers represent the formation of a quincunx: that means a cross within a square (think of a 5 side of a dice). There are also many famous bas-reliefs around Angkor Wat, which are small three-dimensional images engraved into stone at a shallow depth to present a story, much like those seen on coins of local currency. I have seen such bas-reliefs at other sites in south east Asia, most notably at Candi Borobudur in Indonesia. Throughout the 20th century, Angkor Wat required considerable restoration, including the removal of earth and vegetation, although the strategically placed moat around the temple serves as a buffer between it and the ever-encroaching jungle.

Angkor Wat moat
The beginning, with the moat either side of you.
Angkor Wat first sight
Walking through the first wall to get a glimpse of the famous towers
Angkor Wat clear
And now an unobstructed clear view of Angkor Wat in all its glory!

I arrived at dusk in Siem Reap from Da Nang in Vietnam (where I had just had a very bad time at the My Son ruins). However, it gets very dark around here very quickly after sunset, so by the time I had obtained by visa on arrival and collected my luggage, I found that my trip to my hotel in the taxi would be in complete night time darkness. Nevertheless, the very next morning I made an early journey down to the hotel lobby where the concierge called me a Tuktuk. The guy’s name driving my Tuktuk today was Mr Sokva. I informed him that I wanted to visit Angkor Wat and Bayon this morning, so this was effectively a half-day trip with him. It is not really possible to get taxis in Cambodia; only a Tuktuk. From my hotel in Siem Reap, it took just 10 minutes approximately for Mr Sokva to drive me to the entrance to Angkor Wat. Along the way, I had to buy my 3 day Angkor Archaeological Park pass for what was $40USD. Some people think is quite expensive, but I actually think it’s good value if you have a genuine interest in Khmer Angkorian temples.

Map of Angkor Wat

As you can see from my own photos and the map of the Angkor Wat complex posted above, from when you get your tickets checked by staff, there is a long sandstone causeway crossing the moat. I don’t know what you would find in those moats as far as wildlife is concerned, but I wouldn’t want to fall in, despite being assured that crocodiles are now extinct in Cambodia. As you finish crossing this causeway and reach the other side, you then walk through the first wall into the actual temple area itself. From here you can get your first proper unobstructed glimpse of the famous five Angkor Wat towers (although you can actually also see them from afar when on the main road between Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom). Then you will walk along a very long pathway up to the temple. I have since reflected on the length of this pathway; at the time I did not even realise how long it is, but I guess when you are walking towards such architectural splendours as Angkor Wat you don’t really mind how long it takes you to get there as long as you know you are going in the right direction!

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Standing under the shadow of Angkor Wat, looking back at how far you just walked to get there!
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The outer wall of Angkor Wat. I walked all round the perimeter.

As I approached the outer wall of Angkor Wat, I noticed two pools either side of the pathway. Only the pool on the left had water in it, which I thought was strange, and I don’t know if it is always like this, or whether there was a small drought at my time of visiting. Nonetheless, I saw kids (locals, mainly) bathing in these pools, and they looked like they were having a good time! I think it is around these pools where people gather for the typical Angkor Wat sunrise photos every morning. I am not a big fan of early rises, so I had to give the sunrise tour a miss, but I imagine it must be an epic experience.

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Notice the bas-reliefs on the walls?
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Vast dry plains around the temple
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Looking at the outside of the lower cruciform gallery

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the design and style of Angkor Wat, but I can certainly appreciate some nice architecture when I see it! In fact, modern European explorers who came here to see Angkor Wat could not believe that it could be built by the Khmers, and rather it must have been erected by either the Greeks or the Romans. As I was walking around the temple, I came across many points of interest, from things such as the numerous bas-reliefs on the walls, to even things like the statues of lizard or dragon like creatures. I don’t know what these were called, they looked similar to some Indonesian mythological creatures like the naga or a garuda.

I did not seem to get a photo of this area myself, but I can assure you that the upper reaches of Angkor Wat can only be accessed by climbing a very steep set of stairs. So steep in fact, that I had to think twice as to whether I wanted to go up there. In the end, I succumbed; I didn’t come all this way not to get a view from the top of the temple. This part of Angkor Wat is known as the pyramid, and I had just ascended to the pinnacle. Back in the days of King Suryavarman II, this level was only reachable by the King himself, and a few select others. I enjoyed walking around up here, and it gives great views over the galleries below, and of the entire temple complex. However, I was mindful that after a little while I would need to climb down those steep stairs again, and although there is a railing for your assistance, it is still a very scary descent. Please also keep in mind that the top level of Angkor Wat is a religious area, and you cannot go up here if you are scantily-clad. I was wearing a t-shirt and cargo shorts, I was allowed up there, but I presume no vests, and no short shorts!

Angkor Wat
The steps leading up the pinnacle of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat jungle
The outer perimeter; and jungle beyond!

After more than two hours walking around Angkor Wat, and trying to tick off as many sights within the temple complex as possible that I had researched beforehand (whether I took photos or not!), I had decided that I had seen pretty much everything I had needed to see. Some people spend hours and hours here, but I still had to get to Bayon up the road, so I figured it was time to head back to Mr Sokva who promised me that he would be waiting for me across the road, back over the moat to the main entrance at the West Gate. Eventually, I found him, but it was difficult to spot him in a roadside bay full of Tuktuks! I recommend that you really speak with your Tuktuk driver before you leave him and make sure you really know exactly where he will be waiting for you to avoid confusion!

Want to know what an Angkorian sunrise looks like? Check out this blog experience from Sukanya Ramanujan!

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12 thoughts on “Angkor Wat: The Theatre of Dreams

  1. thousands of years ago. Asia was more powerful and rich than Europe. east asia and southeast asia buildings had not influence by buildings of Greek or Roman. angkor wat, angkor thom, Borobudur temple, Prambanan temple , bagan tample,the great wall of china,Forbidden Palace, taj mahal, etc. more magnificent and spectacular than buildings greek and roman.

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  2. Thank so much for all the Angkor posts, I based my trip on all your tips! I can’t wait to come back again, luckily, I’m close by in Bangkok. Wondering, what kind of camera did you use for the above pictures? They are beautiful.

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    1. Hi there, thanks for commenting – I’m glad I was able to inspire you a little 😉 I think the pics were with a Sony CyberShot (taken mid-2014). I don’t use that camera anymore though – however the CyberShot range is highly recommended!

      Anyway, I would love to live so close to Cambodia like you! 😀

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