Is there such a thing as a bad day to go to Angkor? The sometimes oppressive heat can seem like a rite of passage, the strenuous climbs, a test of mettle. It rained on me at times, but it added atmosphere to the experience. I was an explorer hiding out in the shelter of a broken stone temple beneath the jungle trees with their gnarled roots slipping into razor thin crevices and patiently working blocks apart until whole walls fell. The rumble of thunder passed through the halls and stones. It captures the imagination, Angkor, mysterious and alien, forgotten in a jungle and waiting to be discovered again and again.
Like Ozymandias, fallen but not quite forgotten, Angkor possesses us. our movies return to these places either literally, as in Tomb Raider, or in a Hollywood recreation, seeking to bring us into the tomb of the ancients, the temple of the dead, the kingdom that is no more. And even as I contemplate this, two children humming the theme to Raiders of the Lost Ark burst from a temple doorway into the lens of their parents’ video camera. I am envious remembering family vacations to Green Bay Wisconsin to visit the mall for back-to-school shopping.
Angkor represents just over six hundred years of the Khmer Kingdom from 802 A.D. to 1431 A.D. when the Thais attacked and drove the empire out. Angkor’s most famous site is Angkor Wat which often gives its name to the whole place, but there are actually over 1000 temples spread throughout over 240 square miles, and not nearly all of them have been uncovered, restored or opened to visitors. The actual city was even larger and now considered to be the largest pre-industrial city in history with perhaps more than a million people at its peak.
Angkor for most is a once in a lifetime trip. (Though frankly it is not cost prohibitive or so terribly demanding to get there like say Galapagos. and I hope to return someday years from now to see what archaeologists have further uncovered and reconstructed.)
A guide from First Travel Travel met with us the first day and gave us an itinerary for exploring the temples for three days. The entry tickets are for 1, 3 and 7 days and are priced $20, $40 and $60 (April 2009). I agree three days is perfect (see our itinerary below). One is just silly, like going to one ride at Disneyland and going home or watching the last 15 minutes of a thriller. Building up to a visit to Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat is like a fabulous multi-course meal where the appetizers might impress you as much as the primo and secondo piatti.
I also recommend getting to Phnom Penh for the National Museum to see the statues and other objects from these sites. The National Museum of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap is quite a spectacle of the state of the art, but the old school exhibits in the capital are just as impressive. (Plus the new-fangled museum costs double at $12).
Tip: Get your three day pass at 5 p.m. the night before. You can immediately use it to get into Angkor Wat for the sunset and it does not count toward your three-day allowance! You no longer need to bring a passport photo for the park pass. As our guide told us, “We don’t allow your own pictures anymore. Now it is all digital.” He laughed, and covered his mouth a bit with embarrassment, “It’s because for us all the Europeans look the same!”
A dinosaur in Ta Prohm?? Did they know about the dinosaurs?