AWE (the Angkor Wat Experience)


We were both eager with anticipation as our bus pulled into a stop in Siem Reap – for the next five days this would be our base from which to explore the fabled temples of Angkor.

Bayon at Angkor Thom

These temples, built between the 9th and 13th centuries, are the crown jewels of Cambodia and a proud symbol of the country’s glorious past. They are so central to national identity that the towers of Angkor Wat figure in the centre of the Cambodian flag. Once you see them for yourself it is not hard to see why they are held in such high esteem throughout the country.

Angkor Wat

The temples of Angkor are in fact a sprawling complex of hundreds of temples mainly to the north of the town of Siem Reap, 7km away, though some temples are situated as far as 80km away. We chose to visit a selection over two days – the first with a guide to familiarise ourselves with the historical context and symbolism of the most important temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Tha Prohm (of Tomb Raider fame), and the second by ourselves to the further temples of Banteay Srei, and the breathtaking Preah Khan.

Demons holding the Naga – Angkor Thom

Marc looks for the Croft lady at Tha Prohm

Holes and stones at Tha Prohm

For anyone thinking of visiting these temples, we found that having a guide for at least one day was key to our appreciation of them. Without a knowledgeable guide, these architectural wonders risk becoming just a pile of rocks, albeit very beautiful and impressive ones.

Wall carvings depicting everyday life

Each temple was built by a king, not only as a way of documenting his glory but also as a religious monument and some as entire cities. Cambodia today is devoutly Buddhist, these temples tell the tale of how Hinduism, followed by Buddhism, made their way into the country and were adopted as the national religions, not always without resistance from the general population but always in accordance to the preferences of the reigning monarch.

Hindu imagery in a Buddhist temple

Roaming through the temples

The only temple still in use today is Angkor Wat, which is consequently the best preserved of the whole complex. Many of the surrounding temples are going through massive preservation and restoration projects, funded by a slew of countries and international organisations. There is a huge amount of work to be done, as many of temples are in complete ruins, but the mysterious beauty of these crumbling buildings is what makes them most attractive. From the centennial trees whose roots are both destroying and holding up temple walls to the big blocks of carved stone which must be put back together like pieces of a giant, 3-D puzzle, there is much to marvel and wonder at the Temples of Angkor.

Be Careful

Banteay Srei

Siem Reap town itself was nothing to write home about. The Temples of Angkor are the most touristed monuments in Cambodia, the prices of accommodation and food reflected this accordingly. There are many restaurants and hotels that wouldn’t look out of place among the most exclusive establishments in the developed West.

Hangin out

But it was impossible not to notice the extreme poverty in which the majority of the population lives. In fact, the population in this region is some of the poorest in Cambodia. Outside of town and all around the temples we saw rickety shacks on stilts, with grubby babies being held by their mothers and dirty children running around naked, when they were not selling postcards to tourists in the temples. We did see a lot of kids in school uniform too, so it was heartening to know that some of them at least were going to school and getting an education.

Experts on the giant bikes

Perhaps as a result of the high tourist population at any given time of the year, I also noticed a very high number of NGO projects all around the area. Every other house and all schools we passed seem to have a dirty old sign out front announcing that Mr and Mrs John Doe of the USA/Canada/Japan/Germany donated money to build this well/school/paid for a brick for this wall and we are thankful. As much as it seemed generous of these individuals to make these donations, it also felt a little like a twisted marketing scheme.  I do know from personal experience that the NGO/international development world, although well-meaning, is about who secures the most funding, and sadly that is all dependent on numbers and marketing anyway.

Playing with sticks

There are a million problems here like rampant corruption and inequality and abject poverty and little or no healthcare and no clean drinking water and child sex tourism and mines and a gruesome genocide which occurred not so long ago. There is a lot work to do but there are a lot of good people willing to do it. There does seem to be a lot of foreign funding going into the temples spilling over into the surrounding population. Hopefully this will have a real and positive impact in the not so distant future.

Despite – and because of – this not so fluffy reality, it was amazing and awe-inspiring to see the temples of Angkor. We are very lucky people.

Library of Preah Kahn, with circular pillars

Cooling off

The jungle takes over

Old and new

The pink stone and intricate carvings of Banteay Srei

IndiManna Jones: The (Sweaty) Return

Elephant tree trunk

Dancing allowed

Surveying the scenery

Sunset over Angkor

Heading home


2 Responses to “AWE (the Angkor Wat Experience)”

  1. DW Says:

    Great pictures as usual! Your observations about the poverty and the children reminded me of the news story out of Canada yesterday. A man was convicted of sex tourism and importing child pornography, and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Cambodia was one of the places he committed his crimes. Hopefully more Western countries start putting in place laws against this kind of crime.

  2. cynthia cutler Says:

    You are sill making me gasp in amazement. How will you face reality. Yes you are both lucky to havehad such wonderful experiences.

    I agree about the poverty. When I visited Cambodia there were 5 star hotels being built but people were living in cardboard boxes. Take care xx

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