It’s no secret that I love ruins. Classics majors usually do.
While I can’t say that Angkor Wat has been on my to-do list for as long as the Parthenon, I was more than a little excited to visit the famous Cambodian ruins. A 10th century archaeological site with religious significance? Sign me up.
You’re probably familiar with the iconic skyline of Angkor’s most famous strip: the temple situated atop a shallow reflecting pool that seems like it was made for the sole purpose of sunset photography.
You may also recognize these other photogenic sites: the bodhisattva faces carved into stone, and the trees that grow in and around the temple (remember Tomb Raider?).
Droves of backpackers have raved to me about this place, whipping out iPhones at hostel bars to display photos of the carved faces or the temple’s silhouette at sunrise, gushing about how Angkor Wat is “amazing… Seriously. You have to go.”
Hearing so many people talk about “Angkor Wat” in reference to these images led me to believe they were features of one single structure. I envisioned a majestic temple draped in tree roots, reaching for the heavens with turret-esque peaks boasting massive stone faces.
But as it turns out, “Angkor Wat” refers to only one temple within in an incredibly vast archaeological complex. The faces? They’re in a separate temple called Angkor Thom, almost 5km from the classic postcard snapshot of the Angkor Wat turrets. And the tree roots that seep into the temple foundations are in yet another structure called Ta Prohm — 7km away from the faces!
In short, to refer to this historical landmark as “Angkor Wat” is misleading. Angkor Archaeological Park stretches over 400 square kilometers and includes so many separate sites that guidebooks propose a 3-day itinerary that is still jam-packed. So, be sure to rent a bike or scooter or have a tuk-tuk driver at the ready, because walking will get you nowhere.
When a landmark has reached a certain level of sightseeing acclaim, the traveler’s fear is that the site itself won’t live up to its illustrious reputation. You only have to listen to so many people wax poetic about a place before you become curious if it’s really all that great.
Well, the jury is in on Angkor. As far as this backpacker is concerned, it absolutely does live up to its immense hype.
As a classicist, I’m accustomed to studying ruins that have been almost entirely eaten away by millennia of exposure to the elements. It generally takes a great imagination (and education) to be able to picture a place like the Roman Forum in full working order because what remains are bare bones of a once-living, breathing metropolitan organism. Time has stripped the site of its humanity and pared it down to piles of rocks. Most visitors wander among ruins like this somewhat listlessly, unable to imagine the place as it may have once been.
But the Angkor complex has the advantage of youth, historically speaking. Its oldest portions are just over one thousand years old. Full staircases, complete hallways and courtyards still stand. The ruins are by no means in perfect condition, but they are astonishingly complete (or in some cases, astonishingly restored). Modern monks traverse the grounds just as monks in the 12th century might have. There’s a sense of continuity with the past, as if the place simply needs a makeover, not an entire remodel. It almost feels like if you were to take away the selfie-sticks and street vendors, Angkor would be a direct portal to antiquity.
As Cambodia’s most popular tourist attraction, the park sees a lot of traffic on a daily basis whether or not it’s high season, but ultimately I don’t think the tourist congestion detracts from the experience of Angkor. The site is actually so large that you barely notice the constant influx of visitors. There are multiple entrances, and a whole network of roads that funnel you down different intra-complex routes. You have total autonomy (if you want it) once you’re in the park, so you can tour the temples at your leisure, eliminate the sites you’re less enthusiastic about, et cetera.
I must admit: there’s certainly a reoccurring theme. It’s not necessary to see everything; some of the shine does indeed wear off, and the ruins become monotonous. That, and you get really hot and sore from being on-the-go all day.
But as you scramble up the very stairs that the ancients once climbed and wind through the same passageways that they designed and built and navigated, you forget about the heat. You forget about your sore legs, or the tour group posing for a photo in front of Angkor Thom. You’re transported. It doesn’t take historical knowledge or an overly active imagination to envision Angkor in its heyday; the past is inherently and almost tangibly present.
So… I guess I’ll be the one at the hostel bar whipping out my iPhone tonight.