Admittedly, I have always found the concept of having a bucket list, unless you know your own expiration date, a bit tacky. I have a list of places I want to see, experiences I would like to experience and people I would like to meet, but my list is fluctuating and depends a lot on my mood and current plans. But when that is said, the top of that list, that I still call a bucket list, has always been 3 things. Visiting the pyramids in Giza (which I did in 2004), visiting Machu Picchu and visiting Angkor Wat.
So it was with a lot of butterflies an excitement, that I tumbled down the stairs of Viroth’s at 04.30 in the morning, to meet up with our guide, for our trip to Angkor Wat. Once again I have to praise Viroth‘s! We booked an entire package through the reception, with both a driver, an official guide, food and drinks – and they put together the tour brilliantly. We could even choose to do the tour in their vintage Rolls Royce 🙂 But we opted for the more original version, with a tuk tuk – I just love tuk tuks 🙂
Stepping out of the hotel, we met our guide Chamrong – who would be the most brilliant guide, and our driver. And I gotta say, the driver was the most funny sight – dressed in Thermo wear from top to toe, and a huge thick beanie, as if we were taking a tour of the Southpole! He hands gestured that he thought it was freezing, and couldn’t quite grasp my shorts and t-shirt 😀
There was a short distance from our hotel, to the Angkor complex, and after a memorable 20 minutes tuk tuk ride, we made a stop at the official ticket terminal to get our passes for the area. Luckily we came early for with 3.5 million visitors and a budgeted 5 million visitors this year, the Angkor complex can be a very busy place. The counter clock at the entrance said 268000 visitors already had passed through this year – And January hadn’t even passed yet!
With our $37 passes in hand, paid to a private company – yes the Cambodian state has sold the rights to an Unesco Heritage Site to a privately owned company! – we ventured on through the dark in our tuk tuk. Chamrong had a tight schedule running, to get us to a great spot by sunrise, and the pace totally made sense when we realised how many other spectators were battling for the best photo-op. Instead of standing in the crowd of 3.000 others, we found a small hill, bought a coffee and prepared mentally for the experience we had looked most forward to – seeing Angkor Wat for the first time.
And finally emerging out of the darkness, the iconic and majestical outline of Angkor Wat appeared – and what an experience! But honestly, it’s just a sunrise. A sunrise in a special place, and with amazing colours, but still just a sunrise. It was what came afterwards that were the amazing part.
Angkor Wat – The city of temples – is one of the largest religious sites in the world, build in the 12th century. The site measures 1.626.000 m2 and were originally constructed as a Hindu temple but converted into a Buddhist temple by the end of the century. Angkor Wat was built for king Suryavarman II as the state temple and capital city – and as a tribute to the God Vishnu. Moulded over the design of the sacred mountain Mount Meru, Angkor Wat comprises 5 glooming towers, with the centerpiece being 65 meters high – giving the temple it’s iconic look.
After the initial shock of the number of people fighting for the perfect Instagram photo, we were ready to embark on the real tour of Angkor Wat. And what an amazing experience. The temple is full of beautiful architectural details and some amazing bas reliefs showing different parts of Hindu scriptures. And Chamrong was an excellent storyteller. For me, one of the most fascinating stories was about Henri Mouhot.
In the mid-19th century, the French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot, who told the French colonial power about the site through travel notes effectively rediscovered the Angkor Wat. In one of the notes, he wrote: “One of these temples, a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo, might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.” The only problem was that nobody believed that they could have left this temple in the jungle for so many years – so they discarded his discovery and he didn’t get the kudos for it until after his death.
When we had concluded walking through the entire Angkor Wat and done small photo sessions on the grounds surrounding, we found our way back to the tuk tuk and ventured on towards Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom succeeded Angkor Wat as the capital city of the Khmer Empire and as we approached 1 of the 4 bridges leading into the city, our guide decided it was time to enjoy our breakfast. So sitting on the remains of a temple we enjoyed hot drinks, croissants, fruit and cake. What an experience! Sitting in the jungle, just taking in the experience of Angkor Wat and enjoying the peace, it really dawned on me what place I had just visited.
The next 2 temples we visited was Bayon in Angkor Thom – the temple most know for all the towering stone faces and then Ta Prohm, better known as the Tomb Raider temple. Ta Prohm was by far the most interesting place because this is where you really can experience that the jungle had taken back the land. Giant trees with roots intertwined with the temple structures, a Buddha hidden in the trees and the decay of the temples gave an amazing experience of nature overcoming the structures of Man.
Some would argue that we could easily have spent much more time here – but we were ‘templed out’. The Angkor complex and surroundings are an amazing place, but after 6 hours trawling the temples, the cosiness of a nap at the hotel were way more appealing!
The tuk tuk ride back to the hotel were also a great contrast to the ride out in the morning. Out of the darkness, the jungle had appeared, but also the hotel resorts and the city surrounding Angkor were visible and were a huge contrast to the serenity of the temples.
We said farewell to Chamroun and the driver outside the hotel and thanked them for a great morning, grabbed some lunch in the hotel restaurant and went to bed. And while talking and vividly sharing our experiences during the day, we fell asleep cuddled up with great big smiles on our faces. I think we could have slept through to the next day. But we needed food, and it was the eve of my birthday. So I dragged Siggy out of the hotel, with a motto of ‘it’s my birthday soon’, and we ventured into the Siem Riep night once again.