Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Stunning Angkor Wat and the Royal Temples

Angkor in Cambodia is known world over as one of the greatest archaeological sites to grace the planet. With its most famous temple, Angkor Wat, getting all of the attention, some people don’t realize that the whole of the site spans over 150 square miles (about 400 square km) and can take a week to explore the known crevasses.
So if you were only planning on staying a few days in Siem Reap, you’ll want to get the best out of your trip, or face imminent regret over what you have missed. Viator’s private full-day tour gives you the opportunity to see the great Angkor and equips you with the knowledge you’ll need to have a fulfilling trip, while effectively seeing exactly what it is you came to see.

The Never-Ending Wonders of Angkor Wat

In my case, with the help of Siem Reap-born guide, Woody, we set out to explore one of the world’s greatest historical landmarks, going straight to the famous Angkor Wat. He recommends this be the first thing to see because not only does it let you know where you are, but it is centrally located in the archaeological park. With a seemingly endless knowledge of the complex, Woody seemed to know something about every facet that caught my eye.
Angkor Wat
Cambodia's famous Angkor Wat temple with Lotus pond
He explained that all Angkor guides must go through four months of schooling to become a guide. Without many guards on site, the park was our playground. We could climb almost any of the majestic viewpoints and scour any chamber we pleased.  We found ourselves constantly lost in the vastness of this gargantuan temple, feeling at times that we were the only ones here.

Temples at Every Turn

Upon exiting the temple, we took the famous stroll through Angkor Thom, passing through the various ruins, on to the temple of a hundred faces, Bayon.
There was no question this would be our second destination, with more than 200 sculpted faces engrained in its stone construct. We climbed over stone after stone, into a multitude of picturesque chambers and courtyards. A thousand photos couldn’t do justice to the detailed quality of this gigantic and stunning temple.
Bayon Temple
Some of the many carved faces of Bayon Temple, 12th-13th centuries, Angkor, Cambodia
Around the corner we found Baphoun. Although not as awe-inspiring as the first two temples initially, I quickly changed my mind when we rounded its west wall to discover a huge stone façade shaped in the reclining Buddha.

Respite and Reward

Fatigued by the piercing heat of the sun, as it is notoriously hot in Cambodia, it was time for lunch. Just across from Angkor Wat we enjoyed the inclusive three-course meal, composed of fresh gourmet Khmer cuisine – quite tasty to my western sensibilities.
A short breather with a cool beer in the hotel’s pool (standard in Siem Reap), and it was time for the short drive over to what was personally my favorite part of the day: the jungle temple, Ta Phrom. With the tropical afternoon rains pouring over us, there was no better way to explore this 1,000-year-old temple, consumed in winding tree roots that partially uproot and tilt parts of the complex.
Ta Prohm Temple
Part of Ta Phrom temple, enveloped by enormous tree roots, near Angkor Wat
With each flooded courtyard there was a boardwalk just perfectly rising over the water, giving us safe passage. The red- and green-charred stone perfectly indicated just how nature could overcome even man’s greatest accomplishments.

A Breathtaking End to the Day

The clouds had cleared and the rain had stopped and the sun had had enough for the day, slowly winding over the horizon. Woody said he knew just the spot to see what might be the best sunset in Cambodia.
Phnom Bakheng Sunset
The warm glow of sunset at Phnom Bakheng overlooking Angkor, Cambodia
At the hills of Phnom Bakheng, we climbed our way to the top. With a panoramic view of all of Angkor’s plush green trees and man made lake, the bright orange glow of the sunset through the bustling palm trees was just the way to close out the day.