Angkor Wat, I love you!

img_8737Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is rated the world’s number 1 site to visit by Lonely Planet. It has also been at the top of my travel bucket list since I first started the list. The famous view of Angkor Wat is recognisable to many, although what most people perhaps do not realise is that Angkor Wat is only one temple amongst over 1,000 in the Angkor area. Thus a visit here actually involves far more than just Angkor Wat alone! 


Angkor was the Capital city of the Khmer Empire between the 9th – 15th centuries. During that time it was the largest pre-industiral city in the world, believed to have housed up to a million inhabitants. Over 1,000 temples were built in this area, ranging in size from what are now simple piles of brick rubble to the most famous landmark in Cambodia – Angkor Wat. A number of the temples here have been restored, and the area now houses the greatest site of Khmer architecture. Even if the history of the site doesn’t particularly interest you, I dare anyone to visit this location and not leave feeling amazed.


As I have already mentioned, Angkor Wat is, for many, the only known temple of this site. At 402 acres it is the largest religious monument in the world, and is truly spectacular. Built in the early 12th century it was originally a Hindu temple, but was converted to Buddhism at the end of the 12th century. Unsurprisingly, it is absolutely swarming with tourists from opening to close. It’s actually possible to do an early morning trip to view the temple at sunrise, but unfortunately the weather forecast was so bad when we were there that we decided against it. (Something new for my bucket list!) For me, reaching this temple gave me the same feeling as viewing the Colosseum in Rome for the very first time. It’s such a famous historical site, and as an Ancient Historian those always make me excited! To view something you have thought of for so long, and for it not only to live up to those expectations but to exceed them is one of the most amazing things ever. This was quite possibly one of the best days of my entire summer.


Since there are such a huge number of temples at Angkor seeing even a small percentage of them is impossible. Personally I would recommend aiming to see five at the most, as this allows you enough time to explore the temples properly, but without getting too sick of them! The number one choice is, pretty obviously, Angkor Wat!


My second recommendation would be Ta Prohm, which is also referred to as the Indiana Jones Temple. The temple was built in the late 12th and early 13th century as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university, and is one of the few temples in the complex that has been left virtually untouched from the way that it was first found. The atmosphere created by the overgrown nature of the temple has made it incredibly popular, and is in fact one of the most visited temples in the complex. Walking around here was a strange mix of amazement and continuous goosebumps. In some ways this temple truly does feel as though it’s a film set rather than a real religious site, I half expected to see Harrison Ford running out of the jungle at any moment! Although Angkor Wat was truly spectacular, I think that this may have actually have been my favourite temple out of the ones we visited. 


I would then recommend going to see Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom was the last capital city built during the Khmer Empire in the late 12th century. Along with the Bayon temple (which I’ll mention later) it is particularly famous for the towers each decorated with four huge faces. They are stunning to see, and when up close to them you realise how incredibly detailed they actually are. Entering the site itself is equally as impressive, as the causeway of the South Gate is flanked by 54 gods and 54 demons, apparently depicting a popular Hindu legend ‘The Churning of the Ocean of Milk.’ For us this site was made even better by the procession of elephants we passed!


My fourth and final recommendation is Bayon temple. Like Angkor Thom this temple is famous for its huge stone faces, although here there are over 200 facing in every direction! Historians aren’t entirely sure who is depicted in these faces, although it is speculated that it may be King Jayavarman VII – the ruler who built both Angkor Thom and Bayon temple, or perhaps a mixture of the ruler and Buddha. Bayon was also built in the 12th century as part of the King’s expansion of his capital Angkor Thom and the Bayon can be found at the exact centre of the city. Like Angkor Wat this site is absolutely swarming with tourists trying to get the perfect photo. It’s also incredibly easy to get lost within the complex and trying to locate the rest of your group is surprisingly difficult – as I personally learnt! But there’s something spine tingling about this site, and I am so pleased that we decided to see one more site before we headed home for the day. 

img_2242img_2256img_2265Well there you have it, my top four recommendations for the Angkor complex! Admittedly I only saw the four temples mentioned in this post, but we found that more than enough for one day. You can get a two day pass for the site but personally I think that for many that may be a bit too long visiting temples! This was one of the best days of my entire trip, and is somewhere I think everyone should try and visit at least once in their lives. Lonely Planet is definitely on to something listing it as the number one place to visit in the world!

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again- to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” Pico Iyer


Phnom Penh adventures


Since we only had a couple of days to explore Phnom Penh we were only able to visit a limited number of sites. We began our second day by visiting the National Museum, which itself is an incredibly beautiful building. The museum houses pottery, bronzes, weaponry, and the world’s best collection of Khmer sculpture which spans over more than a millennium. There were some absolutely stunning exhibits, even if I didn’t really understand the meaning or the context of any of it – I say this as someone who admittedly knows absolutely nothing about the history of Cambodia or the Khmer people! It’s a really interesting museum to have a look around even without truly understanding what it is that you’re seeing (and of course if you’re not cheap students like us you could always invest in one of the information booklets!) It was a beautiful place to spend an hour or two, and if you’re only going to visit one museum or historical sight I would definitely recommend this one. 


Our next stop of the day was the Royal Palace.  The palace complex was built in 1866 after the capital was moved to Phnom Penh and still to this day houses the King of Cambodia. Unfortunately it was closed when we went to visit and so we were only able to walk outside the palace walls. It was still a very pretty area though, with lots of grassy areas to sit and have a break. I suppose it just gives me one more reason to come back and visit Cambodia again! 


Anybody visiting Phnom Penh must take the time to see Psar Thmei – also known as the Central Market (referring to its location and size). I simply cannot begin to describe the complexity of this market. You walk through what is essentially a huge rabbits warren, with stalls spreading out around you in every single direction. The shops seem to be organised roughly in theme, so one moment you’re walking through women’s clothing, then shoes, then men’s clothing, electronics, underwear etc. No matter what way you turn there are stalls, their owners calling out to you to come and buy their goods! It was a great place to buy more travel pants (although apparently it has a reputation amongst the locals for being overpriced). Be warned, as we soon found out it is incredibly easy to get lost within this maze, and if you loose a member of the group you’d better have a phone on you, since finding each other without one proved impossible! 


I only had a very short period of time within Cambodia, and this is perhaps the only thing I regret of my entire summer travels. Even just a couple of days in Phnom Penh showed me how incredibly vibrant and friendly this country is, and it is definitely high on my list of countries I need to return to when I have the chance! But part of me was also incredibly excited to be leaving this city and to be travelling on to Siem Reap. Why? Because it was there that I would finally be able to see Angkor Wat, the site that has been number one on my travel bucket list since I first started the list! 

“It is so hard to leave—until you leave. And then it is the easiest goddamned thing in the world.”  John Green

A brief view of Cambodia

The next country in my Asian adventure of 2016 was Cambodia! Sadly, whilst planning our summer travels I was informed of some unexpected changes in my dates for teaching in China. This meant that I had about two weeks less time travelling with my uni friends than I had been expecting. What made me particularly upset was the thought that I was going to miss out on seeing Cambodia – the country I had been most excited to visit (out of Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand). But my travel buddies were amazing and happily rearranged some of our dates so that I would be able to get a few days to visit this amazing country, and, in particular, to see Angkor Wat!!! 

14163909_10210241896388908_1818979631_oOur journey into Cambodia began with a rather long bus ride from Vietnam, which ended in Phnom Penh – a name which I still find absolutely impossible to say correctly for some strange reason. Phnom Penh has been the capital of the country since the French colonisation, and in the 1920s was referred to as the “Pearl of Asia” as it was believed to be one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina. Some of the French styled buildings can still be seen within the city, mixed together with the more traditional architectural styles which make it a truly intriguing place to visit.

Since we only had a very short period to see the city we decided to take a tut-tut tour. Well… I say we decided, it was more that one driver was so persistent and offered such a good price that we just couldn’t resist! It was actually a really interesting way to see the city. As we had learnt when we first arrived at the bus station from Vietnam, the taxi’s in Cambodia are all tut-tut’s! It was my first ever ride in one and I have to admit they were great fun. It was a different way to travel, and in the heat it was lovely to have the continuous breeze. A word of warning however, if you’re a nervous person then perhaps you won’t enjoy it so much. There were multiple occasions where we were driving into ongoing traffic, or squeezing into spaces that seemed far too small to be possible! Even facing away from the driver didn’t help much, as the reactions of the people watching what was going on behind you was almost worse! But like I said – I personally enjoyed it! 

First stop on our tut-tut tour was Wat Phnom, a pretty buddhist temple built in 1373. At 27 metres high it’s actually the tallest religious building within the capital. It was a nice little temple to visit, and I always find it interesting to compare architectural styles between the different countries. I must admit however, it wasn’t the most impressive religious site i’ve ever visited, and I certainly found pagodas in Vietnam had a greater visual impact. But it was still a pretty site, and an interesting spot to visit. 


Our guide then took  us to see the Independence monument and the statue of the Late King Norodom Sihanouk, which are only a short walk away from each other. The Independence monument, shockingly enough, was built in 1958 to commemorate the independence from the French five years earlier. The building takes the form of a  lotus-shaped stupa, the architectural style of the monument mirroring that of the famous site Angkor Wat and other Khmer historical sites. The statue of King Norodom Sihanouk, who died in 2012, was built to commemorate a ruler loved deeply by his subjects. The memorial is open to the public, although we weren’t actually sure about this when we were there since no one was approaching any closer than the steps of the structure. It’s a very impressive monument, due partly to the sheer size of it – the statue itself is 4.5 metres tall, and is housed within a 27 metre shrine! 


Not a bad first day in Cambodia – and especially considering that the weather was pretty bad (as you can see in my photos)! I’m really happy that we did the tut-tut tour. It wasn’t something we had ever planned to do, just one of those things you stumble across as you’re out exploring. Our guide was really lovely and gave us little bits of information about each of the sites we visited, and waited patiently in his tut-tut until we were ready to move on to the next place. The truly amazing thing is that the entire tour was only £5 each! It’s something I would definitely recommend for anyone who’s planning on visiting the city – although make sure you’re getting a good deal for your money!

Our lovely driver/tour-guide!

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Ernest Hemingway