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At first, I wasn’t too impressed with Angkor Wat. I then moved on to appreciate it more. But lets start from the beginning.
Driving into the lush temple area on our hired tuktuk, I got my first glimpse of the characteristic towers rising behind palm trees and the long, rectangular galleries. Although Angkor Wat was as pretty as the pictures had already suggested, my attention got mainly captured by the chaos of activity around it. The bridge crossing the surrounding moat was covered in people and the whole immediate area had basically been turned into a huge parking lot, complete with tuktuk chaos and hundreds of souvenir and food stalls lining the road. This most famous spot inside the Angkor Wat Archeological Park, Angkor Wat itself, was far from the serene temple I had pictured in my mind. Imagine your typical tourist hotspot multiplied by… well a lot. The area around the main temple of Angkor Wat remains to this day the most touristy spot I’ve ever seen.
Angkor Wat Will Test Your Patience
I can’t really complain about too many tourists, as I’m one of them. But I have to say that more than once the thought crossed my mind, that they should really limit the amount of people they let into the park during certain hours of the day. After a disastrous sunset stint on a hill, where I left after 10 minutes because I couldn’t see anything except the heads of a thousand other people, the next thing on the agenda was watching – and in my case photographing – the sunrise over the main temple Angkor Wat.
I expected it to be busy, but what I encountered was simply a zoo. Hundreds of people lined the shores of the small pond in front of the temple, camera’s, iPads and everything inbetween flashing away at the still dark sky and the silhouette of Angkor Wat across the water. I was lucky enough to wade through mud and get a spot in the front row, set up my tripod and get a couple good pictures in. I left sooner than most though, which turned out to be quite the blessing. While everyone was still at the pond, I went into the temple itself and had it all to myself for another half an hour or so. And I daresay Angkor Wat on the inside – especially without people in it – is just as stunning as on the outside.
Here’s what you have to do if you want to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat:
Pop some happy pills (just kidding!). Honestly, get there as early as possible, ideally an hour before sunrise and grab a spot right on the water. The crowds show up really early and especially if you have a tripod, you don’t want to be standing in the back. When you are happy with the shots you got, head to the temple while everyone is still outside and explore Angkor Wat without any people around.
There’s Much More to Angkor Wat than Just the Main Temple
Luckily, all my above complaints are pretty much limited to the Angkor Wat temple. The famous centerpiece is actually just one temple among many in the Angkor Wat Archeological Park and while this one famous temple is beautiful, I liked a couple of the lesser known ones way more. The park stretches over 400 square kilometers and it takes a whole day rushing around on a tuktuk to see even half of the ruins consisting of the remains of several Khmer Empire capitals.
Immediately after the crowded sunset and sunrise experiences, I had almost given up on Angkor Wat and expected the rest of the park to be equally overrun. Instead, I got pleasantly surprised. Most of the temples only had a few travellers wandering through and some of the lesser known ones were even completely deserted. Only the more famous Tomb Raider Temple, Ta Prohm, with it’s doorways and walls overgrown with tree roots was a bit crowded as well. But I generally observed that most visitors seem to stick to tour busses and apart from crowding around Angkor Wat, only visit the same few other locations.
How to get around in the Angkor Wat Archeological Park:
Definitely skip the busses. Apart from being hearded around in big groups, they also only stop at a few of the big locations and skip a lot. Bicyles might seem like a good option, but the the climate in Angkor Wat is incredibly hot and humid and the distances are huge. Renting motorbikes and scooters is prohibited. Instead, hire a tuktuk for a day. They are affordable, the drivers are willing to take you wherever you want and are pretty knowledgeable as well.
So, is Angkor Wat worth it? I’d say absolutely and while the sunset and sunrise experiences are incredibly annoying and require nerves of steel, you can do so much more in the park than just stare at the silhouette of a famous temple. The details on the temples, the statues and stonecarvings are simply astonishing and are definitely worth a close-up look. Make sure to drink a lot of water to stay hydrated (believe me, you will sweat buckets) and don’t forget to bring something to cover up. Shawls are not allowed and despite the sweltering heat, the Cambodians seem to be especially nitpicky about that rule, so make sure to pack a long sleeved blouse/shirt.
And now I’ll stop talking and let you enjoy some more photos from the Angkor Wat Archeological Park: