Wake up now, come on, we are late! I know, it is only 4.30am and yesterday we had a hell of a day to come here. But, trust me, you don’t want to miss this and we better get going before it gets too crowded. Don’t forget to bring water, it is hot out there!
The largest religious monument in the world
The lost city of Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer Empire which dominated much of South East Asia from the 11th to the 13th century. At its peak, the city was the largest pre-industrial urban centre in the world, with a water and agricultural systems strong enough to support up to one million people. In other words, this was the place to be back in the day. And of course, it was home to Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat started off as a Hindu temple before being gradually converted into a Buddhist one following the transformation of the Khmer empire. Despite its size, it does not feel overwhelmingly huge. Although that may be because there is something different hidden behind each corner.
However, being the largest religious monument in the world, it does attract huge crowds: from just over 7000 visitors in 1993, to more than two million in 2012. Yeah, it can get busy at sunrise.
But Angkor Wat delivers. Yes, it is crowded, and chances are that the heat will be intense. Selfie sticks have found their holy site here and you are never far from loud Chinese tourists. But if you can ignore all that, the views are well worth it.
Having said all that, Angkor is much more than that. Over a thousand temples are scattered through the forest north of the modern city of Siem Reap, some are no more than a pile of bricks, others… well, others are arguably even more impressive than a sunrise at Angkor Wat.
The one with many faces
Bayon is part of Angkor Thom (Great City), the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer Empire. You know you are in for something good when the gateway to the city looks like this:
Once inside Bayon, a multitude of serene and smiling stone faces welcomes the visitor. The significance behind the number of faces – 200 still stand today – remains a mystery which makes the whole tour around the temple even more magical.
Where the forest is king
Unlike other temples at Angkor, Ta Prohm has been left as it was found, preserved as an example of what a tropical forest will do to an architectural monument when the protective hands of humans are withdrawn. Some minor work has been done to prevent further damage but from the minute you set foot inside, you know who rules this temple – and no, it is not Lara Croft.
Ah yes, it is a beautiful struggle. An army of hundreds of trees are slowly claiming back their natural ground against a defenceless bunch of stones, forgotten and abandoned a long time ago.
And now, one last picture please. I know you are all tired of temples and photos and yes, it is really hot but please, this one is for the blog. 3, 2, 1… Cambodia!
Don’t forget the others
Everyone seems to concentrate around the most popular spots in Angkor, which fortunately means that you are free to explore the less known temples almost on your own.
Whilst it is quite possible to be templed-out in Angkor, it would be a huge mistake to stop after visiting the big three (Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm). Nothing compares to the feeling of approaching one of these other temples, away from the noise of a tuk-tuk with your imagination on one hand – and a water bottle on the other!
Farewell, you beautiful country
That was the end of our trip to Cambodia. It worked out quite well in the end – and there were no major stomach issues to report. Meeting our family after six months was emotional and it is fair to say that everyone had an amazing time.
We have learnt about some of the best and the worst episodes of this country’s history and witnessed first hand how it still struggles to recover from its darkest time. But there has also been joy and smiles and people trying to make this a better place, which is always reassuring.
Bye for now Cambodia and thank you for having us!