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Day 45 – Angkor Wat Is Overrated

April 17, 2010

Dateline: Siem Riep, Cambodia and surrounding Angkor temples – Saturday, April 17, 2010

Angkor Wat is overrated. Yeah, I said it.

Everyone I’ve talked to has said that it will be a spiritual experience. That it’s awe inspiring. That it’s mesmerizing. That it’s the eighth wonder of the world. I had no reason to think otherwise. A million visitors a year can’t be wrong.

Well they are. It may be one of the most revered sites in the world, but not by me. Before you dismiss me as a crank, hear me out.

Angkor Wat is the largest of a host of temples located near Siem Riep, Cambodia. It appears on the Cambodian flag. Built in the early 12th century, it is the best preserved temple of the Angkor era of Cambodia. It first served as a Hindu center, then shifted to Buddhist with the whims of the reigning king. It exemplifies Khmer architecture.

None of this matters to me. I acknowledge that it is an impressive structure. It is amazing to think that people hacked down a section of jungle and constructed one of the biggest preindustrial structures in the world. It didn’t move me, though.

Bigness does not impress me. In fact, I think its reputation for being large works against it. It’s large but not stunningly large. It’s large for what it is, but like most celebrities, it feels smaller in person. It doesn’t help that it’s crawling with tourists.

I’ve said before that I don’t hate on hordes of tourists coming to popular places . I still believe that. Why hate on people for wanting to see the beautiful thing that you’re also visiting.

The horde, however, does take away from what could be a more meditative experience. It’s not like they’re in a cathedral, either. No priests are running around shushing people. Here, the tourists are outdoors, talking loud, posing for pictures, listening to their guides, queuing up to climb stairs, and everything else that you’d expect people to do when visiting a famous landmark, not a sacred shrine.

I think it was all expectation for me. I wanted more than an old, big building—I wanted a religious experience. I wanted to stand in awe of the past. I wanted to see Buddha and Vishnu. I wanted to feel small and insignificant in the face of one of the best temples in the world. The crowds, however, had conquered the complex and made it just another old building. The whole time I kept thinking the place needed to be bigger so I could find some peace–I felt like one of the herd, shuffling around grazing on the past.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. It just isn’t what it’s hyped to be. I’m going back for the sunrise. I wouldn’t mind spending more time at the bas reliefs. Next time, I’d focus on finding secluded pockets of temple where I can feel the history. Places that feel expansive instead of cramped.

If you get a chance, you should go. Go there before it gets even more crowded. It only started really being touristed in 1998 upon the defeat of the remnants of the Khmer Rouge movement. The number of visitors has been climbing every year. Get in there before they have to shut it down to preserve it.

Now, I’ve been a little sneaky. Those steeped in all that’s Angkor will have noticed that I only talked about Angkor Wat, not the Angkor temples themselves. Yes, there are others. Hundreds of others.

After Angkor Wat, Collin, Haley, and I visited Bayon, The Terrace of Elephants, The Terrace of the Leper King, Ta Keo, and Ta Phrom (i.e. the “Tomb Raider Temple). Collin and Haley were trying to cram in the highlights of the Angkor Temples into one day. I’d given myself four days to explore the temples.

I don’t want to give you temple fatigue. You’re going to hear a lot about temples for the next few days. I’ll keep it brief and let the pictures do most of the talking. I’ve read that after a day or two everything starts to blend together. I’ll do my best to not let that happen here. With that in mind, I’ll stick to the highlights.

Bayon

This temple is really a ruin. From far away it looks like rubble, a haphazard stack of dark rock. As we got closer we realized what we were looking it. This is the temple with all the faces. You know it even if you don’t realize it. The towers throughout the structure have a face carved into each of the four sides. There are supposed to be over 250 faces in the complex. I’d believe it.

Collin, Haley, and I all agreed we liked this better than Angkor Wat. Evidence: We took way more pictures here than at Angkor Wat. The place was just plain cool. There were tons of little details carved into the walls and around doorways.

A Cambodian guy approached me and started telling me about the temple. He showed me a well, bats hanging in a tower, some details on the wall where Buddha figurines used to hang. He’s one of the illegal guides I’d heard about that hang around the temples. They work for tips.

He sent me off upstairs to meet Collin and Haley and asked if I could pay him. I gave him two dollars. He said he preferred baht. I gave him 100 baht instead which is about $3. He asked for 500 baht “for his schooling.” I laughed in his face. An official guide with an AC cab costs $25—he was asking for almost $17. He said something about bribing guards. This sounded plausible and I like the guy. I dropped him 40 more baht, against my better judgment. I think I got hustled. I chalked it up as a learning experience.

Terrace of Elephants

Way too hot to appreciate this adequately. There was no shade because it’s a 300 meter long parade stand. It had elephants on it.

Terrace of the Leper King

This is a 6-meter tall stand probably used as a crematorium. On it is a statue that is either of a legendary Khmer leper king or of a Hindu god. The one there now is a replica. The real one is in a museum. The highlight is the inner wall around the base which as all sorts of well-preserved carvings along the wall.

I liked this one because, between the inner and outer wall, there was shade.

Ta Keo

This is a tall temple that was never completed. Our tuk-tuk driver said it was because lightning stuck the temple and the king took it as a sign that the site was unlucky.

Maybe the gods struck this temple down because the king who built it was an arrogant prick. The thing has some of the steepest steps I’ve ever climbed. The steps were as thin as the width of my foot and each one was almost knee high. The proud king basically made you “crawl” up the steps to get to the top of his shrine. I think the gods went out of their way to humble him.

Haley passed on the steps. Collin and I laddered our way to the top. We both wondered out loud how we’d get down. At the top I ran into a French family with two small kids. There was a 3-year old and a 7-year old girl. I wondered how they’d get down.

We ended up finding some wider steps on the opposite side of the tower and decided to climb down from there. A Cambodian guide told us that a few months ago a Japanese girl in her twenties had died going down the opposite steps. Guess we were lucky to find the easier ones.

When I walked back around the base of the tower towards the exit, I saw the French family descending the Stairs of Death. Actually, I saw the dad and kids coming down. Mom was at the bottom taking pictures of the descent. Dad wasn’t even holding his son’s hand. This confirms that French parents are the most awesome parents in the world.


Ta Prohm

This temple is the reason Angelina Jolie loves Cambodia. She had to come to this temple to film parts of Tomb Raider. Every Cambodian refers to it as such. The Tomb Raider temple is ridiculous. If I drugged you and dragged you here, told you that I’d constructed this place as the movie set for an upcoming adventure movie and that I wanted your honest opinion, you’d tell me that I’d gone too over the top and to tone it down. Really. It looks fake.

You know on the Indiana Jones ride in Disneyland, where they have those roots and trees growing out of rock? You touch the roots and they feel like cement, confirming that you’re in the real world and not in an Indy movie. Well here, the roots are real and the trees are bigger.


I could have spent all day here. Even the mass of tourists didn’t take away from the atmosphere. Well, almost. I sat around waiting for a gap in the tour groups so I could take a clean picture of a tree that’s draped its roots over a doorway (aka, the Tomb Raider tree). I was shooting pics up close when I realized everyone behind me was gone. I sprinted to the back of the plaza, whirled around, centered the shot, and clicked just as a blond with big boobs walked out a side door. Turns out that there is a situation where a chesty blonde doesn’t make it better.

We ended the day with Ta Prohm. Collin, Haley, and I had dinner at a French-owned Khmer and pizza restaurant, a place geared towards tourists. They let me tag along on their honeymoon, so who was I to argue.

After a visit to the night market, we headed back to the hostel. They head out tomorrow. Me, I’ll be hitting up more temples, trying to find ways to not make it all blend together. Guaranteed, though, that none of them will be overrated, if nothing else because I know nothing about them.

Click here for Day 45 in pictures that you may not have seen!

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