Angkor Wat: The definition of amazing

Angkor Wat. It is one of the most awe inspiring sights you’ll ever see. This post is just about the main temple, Angkor Wat. More posts on other temples you’ll find on Tour 2, Siem Reap, and how to get there still to come. Stay tuned!

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat. Built in 1113AD by King Suryavarman II, perhaps the most bad-ass conquering king of the Khmer empire, its 5-tower quincunx makes this former state temple and capital city the most recognizable silhouette in Asia and the most famous jewel in the collection of temples and monuments that lie just outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Words like amazing, mind blowing, and breathtaking don’t even begin to describe what you feel when you first experience the temple. And experience it I finally did. 

Angkor Wat by day

The most recognizable silhouette in Asia

Angkor Wat has two of the main features of Khmer architecture: pyramids and concentric galleries. The pyramids — the towers that rise from the temple — represent Mount Meru, the centre of the Hindu universe. Yes, you read that correctly: Hindu. The Khmer culture embraced both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu temple, and only became Buddhist in later years, after the 15th century. If only other countries could tolerate the concept of multiple religious faiths as well as they did (and still do) in Cambodia. 

The Angkor Wat bucket list
When you visit Angkor Wat, there are three main things you’ll want to do:

1. See it from the pond as the sun rises in the eastern sky.
2. Walk about the third enclosure gallery and take in the bas relief stone work.
3. Explore every nook and cranny right up to the top level.

Two things you WON’T want to do, but will have to are:
1. Politely ignore a gajillion sales people when you’re watching the sunrise.
2. Less politely ignore and dodge a gajillion noisy, spitting, obnoxious package tourists from elsewhere in Asia.

To keep this post positive, I’ll ignore the negative bits. More on those in a future post.

1. Angkor Wat at dawn
I kick myself for even thinking this, but I was actually considering not going to see the sunrise. I’d heard about the crowds and just though it wouldn’t be worth it. I was wrong.

Even if you’re not an early riser, get your ass out of bed and get there. As long as you are there before the sun rises over the temples, it’s early enough. So no need to go there at 3am unless you are a hard-core photographer. 6am should do just fine (although check what time the sun rises — it depends on the season you’re there).  Note that I am not in any way a photographer, which is why these photos are so low quality.

Angkor Wat at dawn

The sun peeks out from behind Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat at dawn

Almost bright enough to head into the temple to check out the bas relief carvings!

In reality, this is what it looks like by the pond at about 7am.

Crowds at sunrise over Angkor Wat

You’ll never feel lonely at sunrise at Angkor Wat.

In spite of the crowds, if you just take a few minutes right at the pond’s shore, you’ll get this view…and this is the view that will remain in your memory. So be sure to make the sunrise over Angkor Wat a part of your itinerary.

Angkor Wat at dawn

Yes, another sunrise pic. One of about 100 on my iPod Touch.

2. Bas-relief stone carvings
As with the rest of the tourist hordes, you’ll enter from the main West bridge, walking about a 1/2 km along the causeway through the gopura (the gateway to a Hindu temple). When you enter what you’ll perceive as the main enclosure of the temple, turn to the southwest gallery and be prepared to soak in about 600 meters+ of bas relief stone carvings. (Bas relief are carvings that are only slightly raised out of the stone). Seen below, you’ll enter from the left entrance, then immediately turn right. 

The concentric galleries at Angkor Wat.

The concentric galleries at Angkor Wat. Hang a right when you get in the door to see the stone relief carvings.

Angkor Wat bas relief

Most of the scenes are from Hindu mythology, and most involve bloody battles and severed heads

Bas relief soldiers Angkor Wat

These are the poor guys doing the fighting. Ooo-rah! Semper Fi!


Check out the carnage!

Bas relief princess Angkor Wat

Meanwhile, this “Princess in a palanquin” enjoys the chilled life.

Bas relief king Angkor Wat

King Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat, on his thrown.

Apsaras Angkor Wat

Meanwhile, a couple of Apsaras (heavenly maidens) can be found outside of the bas relief galleries.

Apsara pair Angkor Wat

Another Apsara nymph pair

3. Nooks and crannies
I have not put any photos here, but be prepared to spend an hour just walking around the grounds just after the first entrance to the temple-city area. What follows here is all within the 3rd enclosure.

I love this so much more than the alternative, "Do Not Enter."

I love this so much more than the alternative, “Do Not Enter.”

Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu. However, in the 14th-15th centuries the main temple at the highest level of Angkor Wat (near the eyesore science balloon below) was converted to Theravada Buddhist worship, and the four vestibules were turned into Buddhist shrines. They’re hard to see, but here’s what to expect.

Buddha at Angkor Wat

Buddha sculpture

Buddha at Angkor Wat

Another Buddha image

An eyesore, Tokyo University keeps its 3D laser imaging project balloon right at the top of the temple area. It’s one of the first things you see after you climb the final — and VERY steep — set of steps to the highest level.

Tokyo university Angkor Wat

Tokyo university’s high-tech 3D laser imaging project of the Angkor temples sits right in the very top gallery area

The east (back) end of the temple area is all jungle, but you can explore the roads there, which used to be a part of the actual city that thrived around the temple hundreds of years before.

East Angkor Wat

The south-east side of Angkor Wat

Happy 49th birthday to me!
This trip was a part of my yearly pledge to myself to visit a new place on earth every year on or around my birthday. It’s a great way to force you to break out of your comfort zone. Last year was in El Nido, Philippines. The year before, Malapascua Island off of Cebu, Philippines. This year, I did the trip to Cambodia (my first time ever), and went from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap.

Then, in an über-awesome display of friendship, my best buddy in Japan, “Okkun,” flew over to escape from work in Tokyo for a few days and to have a lot of birthday beers with me in Siem Reap. Thanks, Okkun! You’re a great friend! And next time, wear black. It hides the sweat. lol

Mike and Okkun at Angkor Wat

My best Japanese buddy flew over to have a birthday beer at Angkor Wat: The definition of a great guy!

Turning 49 at Angkor Wat

Turning 49 at Angkor Wat