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Angkor Wat – one of life’s essential experiences

Exploring Angkor Wat

I could hardly believe it.

Here I was, standing at the top of Angkor Wat. It was a moment to excite the young boy inside me.

I ignored the people thronging around and leaned out a window. My hand rested on the ancient stone wall.

How many generations had touched this same spot? What had been their dreams, hopes and fears?

View from Angkor Wat of the temple grounds

Green trees stretched to the horizon. To my imagination it was rainforest, filled with screaming monkeys and strange monuments, covered in vines and awaiting discovery.

A heat haze blurred the line where the treetops met the sky. The shimmering mist hovered, as it’d done everyday since time immemorial.

View from top of Angkor Wat

I thought of Khmer kings, Buddhist priests and French explorers. All had once stood here, surveying this realm.

Now it was my turn.

First impressions of Angkor Wat


It’s the first thing you notice about Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat from distance

Angkor Wat dominates the land, thrusting skywards like a defiant mountain. It attests to humanity’s creative vision.

The central tower is tallest and gives rise to some burning questions.

Who designed it? How did they build it? Did their faith in the design ever waiver? Did they know it would it stand, so resolute, so strong, for so long?

The stairs to Angkor Wat

To see Angkor Wat with your own eyes is humbling.

You feel like you are in the presence of a real god.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

To get a real sense for the majestic, Angkor Wat must be seen at sunrise.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

The power this site evokes is strongest right before the sun crests the temple’s crown, painting the sky a violent pink hue.

Silhouetted Angkor Wat is a stark contrast, its dark towers and walls coated in mystery before the black slowly fades.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

As light seeps through its windows and openings, grey stone replaces the black morass. Ancient Khmers jump to life from the carved walls.

This whole drama plays out simultaneously on the reflecting pond, a natural mirror.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

All time stops for a moment, and Angkor Wat becomes the centre of the world. Nothing else existed as I gazed into that water, my mind transfixed by the view.

The pool at Neak Pean

After finishing exploring Angkor Wat, the tuk-tuk sputtered to a stop. Before me was a huge reservoir, the earthwork of a thousand slaves.

A narrow causeway pierced the lake. It tapered into a bridge at its far end, where it connected to an artificial island.

Causeway to Neak Pean

The stagnant waters remained motionless as I walked, a barren wasteland of dead trees and floating logs.

I reached the island and crossed a vibrant green swamp, careful not to fall in. Through the swamp was a temple, ringed by pools in a lotus pattern.

Neak Pean

Each pool represented either earth, wind, water or fire. The ancients believed that the elements balanced the pool water, giving it healing power.

Sweat dripped off my nose. I needed to cool down. I peered into the the water. It was rank, an uninviting black mass.

I decided I’d better take the ancients at their word.

Ta Prohm’s ruins

The famous spung tree smothered the temple roof, nature’s suffocating embrace.

People standing in front of tree at Ta Prohm

The customary photo taken, I longed to escape the milling crowd. Ta Prohm’s aura was drawing me in.

 Various parts of Ta Prohm

As I probed deeper, the source of this aura was revealed. Ta Prohm is unique because of its neglect and resulting reclamation by the jungle.

Unlike other temples at Angkor which have been restored, Ta Prohm is still in ruins. Tree roots adorn the walls. Huge pieces of wall lie in piles. It’s eerie. You can feel the ghosts.

People on ruins at Ta Prohm

This mystery makes it impossible not to fantasize about being an old explorer, discovering Ta Prohm for the first time.

I was guilty of that as I clambered over some masonry, completely lost in another world.

Man climbing ruins at Ta Prohm

The woman at Angkor Thom

North of Angkor Wat lies Angkor Thom, the former capital city of the Khmer empire.

I’d walked past the Terrace of the Leper King, dodged wild monkeys, and now stood at the bottom of an unknown temple.

Monkeys and monks at Angkor Wat

It was different to Angkor Wat, resembling a Mayan pyramid. Although small in stature, it rose sharply upwards, making an ascent treacherous.

Curiosity got the better of me, and I started to climb. The loose stones wobbled underfoot. My palms were sweaty when I reached the summit.

I looked around, sticking to the shadows as best I could. The sun was furious. All was quiet.

Man sitting on temple at Angkor Thom

But I was not alone. I rounded a corner, and there stood an old Khmer woman guarding a Buddhist shrine.

She had long braided hair, and was wrapped in a dirty red robe. Her skin was dark and wrinkled, with an emaciated frame ravaged by either poverty or old age. Or both.

Others had been here, as there were offerings beneath the Buddha. Bottled water, fruit, cash. Incense burned, adding to the cloying atmosphere.

Temple in Angkor Thom

The old women approached and took my hand. She muttered in Khmer, then wrapped red string around my wrist. It made a bracelet.

She put her hands together, indicating that I do the same. She bowed, I copied.

She then held out a cupped hand. Perplexed, I mimicked this. She shook her head. I didn’t understand.

Taking a dollar bill from her pocket, she pointed at me.

Recognition flooded my face.

She broke into a massive grin; a mouth of brown teeth and ruinous gaps.

I’d been done, but I reached for my wallet. No way could I deny a smile like that.

Sunset at Pre Rup

The sun hesitated, as if responding to the pleas of the humans gathered atop Pre Rup.

Front of Pre Rup

They sat with cameras out, snapping away at the orange orb, begging for its light to shine a few minutes more.

Out of battery, I watched the sun descend, inching closer to the horizon.

As the gloaming approached, I took a sip from the beer at my side, still unsure whether I should be drinking on this sacred spot.

From my perch I could see the Cambodian countryside for miles all around. The lush flora stood still, punctuated in places by the indelible marks of an ancient civilization.

Sunset from Pre Rup

It was a fantastic vista, and I was gutted that the day was nearly over.

My beer went empty, and the sun vanished, preparing for another unveiling in 12 hours.

I noticed a group of Cambodian men kicking a ball in a field below the temple, oblivious to the wonder I’d just seen.

Easy for me to say, but I doubted I’d ever grow bored of this view.

Do you want to visit Angkor Wat? What’s the most impressive tourist sight you’ve been to? Leave a comment below

One comment

  1. Gma says:

    Angkor wat! What a place! Fantastic and so well written Dan I was with you all the way. I’ve always been misterfied by the age of places and wondered about all the people of the past who have stood in the spot one now occupies.Been transported in a sense to that time.Photos tell their own story as well . So enjoyed this.

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