One of the great things about travel is getting outside yourself and everything you know by becoming immersed in all things foreign – language, culture, food, landscape, people, religion, and so on. It’s about becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable, shaking up our routines and throwing ourselves into the unfamiliar. And what better way to do that, to reconnect with our deepest selves, our history, and humanity than by visiting some of the most impressive ruins this world has to offer: Angkor Wat?
On the outskirts of what is now known as Siem Reap in Cambodia, the relics of the Khmer Empire’s once thriving ancient city and temple complex attract thousands of visitors daily, making it Cambodia’s top tourist attraction.
For many Cambodians and traveling Buddhists, the temples remain sacred places of worship, but no matter your religion, Angkor Wat and its accompanying archeological sites will move you with their incredible history, artistry, presence and soul. To stand in Angkor Wat you are at once humbled by thoughtful, living architecture surviving the Khmer Empire, and elate with wonder like a fascinated child yearning to learn more.
USD is the Official Tourist Currency – Having some US cash on arrival is a plus, but if you don’t, there are plenty of ATMs and banks where USD can be easily obtained. It’s important to note that only fresh bills are accepted (they must be unmarked and recently issued). So save those crumpled and ripped dollars in your wallet for another destination.
Dress Code – The temples remain places of worship for many, and you can be denied entry for wearing inappropriate garb. Women and men are expected to cover their shoulders and their legs past the knee.
Get Your Pass – Passes can be obtained at the main archeological museum for 1, 3, and 7 days. Pass purchases are cash only with fresh US notes. Proper attire is required, and visitors can be turned away for improper dress. The pass is a photo ID that you will have to present at each temple entry point. It will be stamped each day it’s used.
Tuk Tuk’s – Hiring a tuk tuk driver to take you to the sites within the main archeological park (ie - near Siem Reap) costs about $20/day. With this fee you are hiring a private driver (picture a motorbike pulling a cart) who will wait for you at each site and take you to your next destination. Alternatively, you can bike to Angkor Wat and the surrounding area, but do keep in mind the possibility for extreme heat.
What to Bring - Sunscreen, your pass, water, camera, snacks, handkerchief, hat or parasol, USD (small bills a plus).
As soon as you arrive, you are likely to be greeted by would-be tour guides. If you’re interested in hiring a guide for any of your temple visits, Angkor Wat should be first on the list, as it is considered the most important temple complex of the ancient empire, and therefore will set the stage for most of what you’ll see afterward, providing some context. Our guide, Thomason, was from the tourism department. Look for the guides in uniform with official tourism patches and badges. A two-hour tour with lots of precious photos taken by our guide was only $15 plus a well-deserved tip. In our opinion, it was more than worth it.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ANGKOR WAT
Angkor Wat, meaning ‘temple city’ is the main attraction at Angkor Archeological Park, consisting of hundreds of temples spread over 154 square miles of jungle and farmland. Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire, which thrived from the 9th to 15th centuries, and may have supported over 1 million people!
The entirety of Angkor was a hydraulic city with a complex water management system used not only for irrigation, but also to stabilize its architectural foundations by preventing groundwater from getting too high or low. UNESCO declared the archeological park a World Heritage site in 1992, and considers the remnants of this once great civilization to be one of the most important archeological sites in Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat is such an important symbol to Cambodians it even appears on the national flag.
Built in the 12th century by Suryavarman II as the king’s state temple and capital city, Angkor Wat, which was originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, was transformed into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, and remains an internationally relevant Buddhist site today. The complex is unlike most other Khmer temples in that it is oriented west instead of east, likely in reverence to Vishnu, who is associated with the west. The temple features five towers in the image of Mount Meru, the legendary home of the Hindu gods, along with a series of enclosing walls and moats representing mountain chains and the ocean. The temple is aligned with the spring equinox, during which the sun rises directly over the central tower. Throughout the rest of the year the sun travels up and down the western entrance gate. The temple incorporates many other examples of advanced mathematics, astrology, astronomy, and numerology – all evidence of the Khmer Empire’s expansive knowledge.
After Suryavarman II’s death and the ransacking of the area by the Khmer’s enemies, King Jayavarman VII, moved the capital to Angkor Thom and restored Angkor Wat. When the Khmer Empire left Angkor in the 15th century to build a new capital, Phnom Penh, near the coast, Angkor Wat remained one of the only temples that, while neglected, was never fully abandoned. Historians believe it has remained much intact for this reason, and because of its large moat, which stopped the jungle from reclaiming it.
In the mid-1800s French explorer Henri Mouhot successfully exposed Angkor to westerners, drawing comparisons to the pyramids of Egypt, thereby popularizing the now internationally treasured archeological site.
ENJOY YOUR VISIT!
We humans are explorers at heart. Visiting Angkor Wat and the surrounding archeological sites awakens this part in us, stirring a place in the soul that craves exploration and a deeper connection to the earth and our ancestry. It is a reminder that our world, our existence, and our history are at once mysterious and mystical, opening our eyes, as travel often does, to new ways of seeing.