I’d heard so much about Angkor Wat before I went there. I’d seen hundreds of photos. I’d read a dozen other blog posts. I’d looked it up in the guide books. I built up a picture of what it would be like – wandering through ancient temple sites to the chirping calls from the jungle – long before I even booked my flight.
Of course, all this inspiration gathering was a good thing: it’s what inspired me to go there in the first place. After all, I knew nothing else about Cambodia, other than having a very vague and imprecise knowledge of some of the atrocities committed there by the Khmer Rouge.
After thirty-something hours of travel, I touched down at Siem Reap airport: a small terminal built in the middle of the jungle, on the edge of the Tonle Sap. Already I could tell that Cambodia would be like nowhere I’d ever visited before. From the air, I’d seen tuk-tuks and ox carts making their way along the narrow roads, some throwing up a trail of dust in their wake. Lining the roads were expansive fields and low, colourful houses. (I later discovered that high-rise buildings are prohibited in Siem Reap, where no building is permitted to be higher than Angkor Wat.)
As I left the airport, I was hit by the wall of heat. Still dressed in my England-appropriate leggings and jumper, it felt like stepping into a sauna. All around me were hotel reps waiting for their clients, and tuk-tuk drivers looking for passengers. I took a taxi from the airport, drawn by the lure of the air conditioning, and started chatting to my driver.
Already I was learning so much more about this part of Cambodia. Siem Reap, the driver told me, was a quiet little town until about twenty years ago. There’d been no mains electricity, and the only buildings with generators were the two hotels, which lit up like beacons at night. Now, Siem Reap is crammed with hotels, hostels and restaurants. Everywhere you go, you see other tourists, desperate to explore the world-famous temples.
Don’t get me wrong, this post isn’t a rant about vast numbers of tourists spoiling travel destinations. From what I saw of Cambodia, and what I heard from talking to locals, there’s a lot of poverty in the country, so if tourism provides a boost to the economy then I’m all for it.
No, what this post is about is choosing the type of traveller you want to be.
For me, a temple is a sacred place. It doesn’t matter what religion it belongs to, or whether it belongs to no religion at all. I believe that if somebody reveres a place, or has revered it in the past, then it takes on a kind of spiritual energy. Like that feeling you get when you enter a cathedral, and there’s a hush that sends tingles up your spine. Dusty old libraries have it too: the reverence of knowledge.
That’s precisely why I love visiting temples: for that very feeling. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but I love spending time in sacred places. I love the feeling of stillness, the sense of allowing myself to just be, respecting the existence of something greater than myself, whether that’s a god, nature, or the building itself. I don’t push for total silence in these places – I recognise that they often now also function as tourist attractions, and that this helps pay for their upkeep. What I do expect, though, is respect for the sanctity of the space, and behaviour that reflects that.
Angkor Wat is no longer a sacred space. It’s a tourist trap.
True, Angkor Wat does require people to be appropriately dressed in order to enter the temple complex (covered knees and shoulders), but I saw a few people who’d taken off that outer covering as soon as they were inside, and were strolling around in strappy tops, some with bare midriffs.
Groups of tourists jostled each other out of the way and shouted across the grass to friends. Couples made out with each other for selfies. A small boy drove his remote control toy tank across the temple floor, flashing and emitting tinny gunfire noises as it rammed people’s legs.
And if you think it might be quieter earlier in the morning, think again. Sunrise at Angkor Wat is such a big bucket list item, that it feels barely less crowded than the rest of the day. Because the temple itself isn’t yet open, everyone clusters in the same small patch in front of the little lake, for that iconic reflection shot. I took a few of those photos myself – until I looked away from the camera and realised all I could see in front of me were dozens of phone & camera screens, each showing the exact same shot. At that point I gave up and wandered away from the bulk of the crowd to where the view was less spectacular, but at least I wasn’t in danger of being jostled into the water.
That isn’t to say that it isn’t worth experiencing. It is. Angkor Wat is spectacular, and fascinating to wander round. Just don’t go expecting calm and solitude.
Things to remember when visiting Angkor Wat:
- Angkor Wat is just one temple. There are hundreds of others. Bayon Temple (part of Angkor Thom complex) and Ta Prohm are the most visited after Angkor Wat – both spectacular and slightly less overrun.
- Sunrise over Angkor Wat may sound idyllic, but it’s far from peaceful.
- Those famous photos of the jungle reclaiming the temple are not taken at Angkor Wat. They’re taken at Ta Prohm, another temple just down the road.
- Spend some time exploring the temples on your own. Tuk-tuks are cheap, so there’s no need to take an organised tour.
- Hire a tuk-tuk to take you to some other temples more off the beaten track. This is what I didn’t do nearly enough of, and what I’d change if I were to do the trip again.
- It is possible to find a peaceful corner at Angkor Wat, if you wander right away from the crowds. But ‘peaceful’ is a relative term. If you want real peacefulness, try exploring some of the other temples as well.
Photos from the temples: