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silky smooth
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hanging with the monks
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run, don't walk, to cambodia
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my favorite
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Phnom Penh, Jan 2, 2005

not WAT i expected (my troubled relationship with angkor wat)

Ever since we started planning our trip, in fact ever since we starting even thinking about it several years ago, I have been waiting anxiously to see Angkor Wat. Countless friends and acquaintances have proclaimed its greatness: "The most amazing thing I've ever seen," "a religious experience," etc.

Up until a few years ago, I didn't even know what it was, but slowly I learned bits and pieces (see sidebar). Somehow, however, I had never seen a picture. So when we started planning the trip, I made a special effort to maintain my visual ignorance. I wanted my first viewing to be in person, instead of via a photograph; I wanted to see it in its full glory. (Please accept my profound apologies if you were hoping to do the same, 'cause here's a picture.)

the view of Angkor Wat from the main road

Countless times, I narrowly escaped catching an unwanted glimpse (searching for Cambodian hotels online, studying the Cambodian guidebook). And when we finally arrived at the airport two days ago, I walked out staring stoically ahead to make sure that I didn't accidentally see a brochure or tour offer. We found our driver (most hotels in Cambodia will send a car to pick you up at the airport) and jumped in the car. I had made it. In 36 hours, we would meet the guide we had hired and hike through the jungle to see the temple for ourselves. I was extremely excited; I had been waiting for this for a long time.

On the way to the hotel, our driver told us that he was taking a slightly longer, more scenic route. And before I knew it, much to my dismay, he proudly announced our arrival at… Angkor Wat! There was no hike through the jungle; it was right there on the main road. Or rather, they had built the main road right next to it. There was a large parking lot filled with buses. And a whole section to the left of the main entrance bridge was under construction with tarps all over it. I was crushed.
Shouldn't it require some amount of effort to see this thing? Shouldn't we trudge up slippery slopes and slap bugs for several hours? Make no mistake, it *was* impressive, in the extreme, but somehow it all seemed… well… too easy.

A day and a half later (which was yesterday), our guide taught us a lot about Angkor Wat. We learned who built it, how it was built (at least as much as they know), when it was built, etc. It was all amazing. Unfortunately, having 8 billion other people learning about it at the same time made it a bit harder to appreciate. (But hey, Susan and I are just two *more* tourists clogging up the scenery, so who are we to complain?)

I decided to go back early the next morning to beat the crowds and catch the sunrise. Susan slept in while I got up before dawn, packed up the camera, and headed off (I paid our driver an extra $5 to pick me up at 4:30am). We arrived at the temple and I waited around until 5am - that's the earliest they let you in. I walked into the center area (across the large bridge) to view the main tower from the other side of the lake. To my horror, within 30 minutes, the bank of the lake was lined with photographers and backpackers and God-knows-who-else. I'm pretty sure Elvis was there, too. Didn’t these people realize it was way too early to be prowling Cambodian ruins? The sun came up. We all took pictures. I was sad...

Angkor Wat in the early morning

I walked farther in to the temple to escape the throngs. I decided to climb up to the top of the tower. Susan and I had done this the day before (along with several hundred others), but for some reason I thought that maybe it would make me feel better. And I was right. Amazingly, nobody else had decided to go up there, at least at the same time that I had. So I sat by myself (finally), looking out over the forest (instead of in the other direction over the rest of the temple, since that would have meant looking down at all the other early bird tourist ants scurrying around). Eventually, some other folks climbed up the tower, too, but only a few, and we all kept our distance from each other, somehow silently agreeing that this would be, for each of us, our own special moment with Angkor Wat.

Call me a grouch, but sometimes I like to see things without the crowds. And after all these months of anticipation, I really wanted my own special time with the granddaddy of all wats. It was a tough journey (through competing tourists instead of thick jungle), but I made it. And it really was spectacular. I will remember it fondly for the rest of my life.

© 2004-2012 susan & grace, all rights reserved

-- comments from readers --


I am so happy to learn of you. I was born to travel, or live to travel. Plan to take 3 grandsons to see Asia next summer. Angkor Wat is my dream and want it to be their intro to a life of travel. Sorry to hear of such crowds. How about special guides and other lesser wats in area? All crowed? Thanks for sharing such great work.

--Dick H. (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA); Jul 31, 2005

That's so great that you're taking your grandsons and introducing them to world travel. They are very lucky boys!

We often choose not to hire a guide and just do a bunch of reading beforehand or afterwards, but the Cambodian temples are one place where we're really glad that we hired a guide. Again, we'd recommend our guide Sam (see cambodia: the low down for his contact info). He'd also be great with kids since he used to be a teacher.

In regards to the other temples, they are not all crowded (phew). But it can really pay off to time your visits (both in terms of time of year and time of day) to avoid the biggest crowds. The farther out you go (i.e., the farther away from Angkor Wat), the less tourists you'll see. So it's worth paying the extra $5 or $10 to get out to some of the more remote sites if you have time.

Take care, and have a great trip!

--Grace & Susan; Aug 1, 2005


In my opinion, Angkor Wat faces west not only because it was used as a funeral temple, but also because of the geography. They built it to face to the main road that ran from the center of the city to Tonle Sap lake. Along that same road, about 10km south of Angkor Wat, a temple called Wat Atwea was built, also facing west. There are several other funeral temples that were built facing east, not west.

--Kao Samreth (Sam, our guide!); Apr 23, 2005