Bucket List: The Temples of Angkor Wat

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I feel as though everyone must have grown up seeing otherworldly photos of Angkor Wat in magazines like National Geographic. For me, the images of the strange pointed towers, large faces stacked on top of one another, and trees growing out of stone prompted me to invent some much cooler, more worldly version of myself to step inside this mysterious place and discover all its secrets. At the time I had no idea I would be partially right. It was just one out of a million dreams I created, and I never expected it to come true.

Since this week marks 2 years since I was in Siem Reap Cambodia, it seems only fitting that I cover the Temples of Angkor Wat in a bucket list post to commemorate all the years it was nothing more than a childhood dream and an item on a list. Unlike most childhood dreams, my visit to the Angkor Wat temple complex was better than I imagined thanks to a hang over and Ana and Jo, the two wonderful friends I spend the day with, and feel privileged to have met in the first place. While it may not sound so great to be hung over in the sweltering heat of Cambodia while walking endless sections of a rather large complex, the comedic memory of the three of us shuffling our feet and cracking jokes about the “possibility of visit” sign are far better than I could ever have dreamed up at 10.

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The first temple we came to was Angkor Wat, which was partially covered in a teal tarp and scaffolding that detracted from the intricate towers and iconic view we were all probably expecting. Honestly, I think it was a good thing we were all too hung over to really care. I can say with confidence that for my part I was more concerned with the sweltering heat and the glaring sun, and that I spent the entire walk up this pathway staring at the large stone tiles underfoot.

The inside of the temple was surprisingly bare, with the occasional statue standing alone in an empty passageway, and beautiful railings and carvings dotting the most random places that seemed to hit you as you turned a corner. Its unlit hallways and rooms lent a coolness to the day that I was more than happy to absorb for as long as possible, and seemed to give the building a sad feeling. The weathered walls and broken columns made me wonder about all the years and people and events that had passed by before. Cool to the touch, the stone that stood all around me still feels a little bit unreal in my memory, despite the two visits I experienced in almost as many days.

Next we got into our tuk tuk and were driven over to the temples of Bayon and Angkor Thom which are, for all intents and purposes, next door to one another. The three of us were instantly in awe of what stood before us, finally having that moment you expect when visiting the temple complex. Bayon was more unreal in person than any photograph had ever even suggested. The weathered, pieced together look of the faces stacked tall into the sky, the passages with an endless amount of carvings to examine and gape at, and stairways that seemed to climb forever and go nowhere in particular as if they knew some secret you were in on. It was almost too overwhelming to be real.

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We walked next door past playing monkeys and random sections of stone, and were met with the broken windows and doorways that lead into Angkor Thom (or Angry Tom as we like to call it), which although is not as impressive as Bayon, it’s a marvel in its own right when you happen to find yourself standing at the bottom of the excessively tall staircases. Admittedly this section is a bit of a haze in my memory, and while I don’t remember anything about the inside of the temple, I do remember a lot of Angry Tom jokes that started the moment Jo thought I was mispronouncing the name of the temple, and didn’t end until we found something else to snicker about.

Finding something else to laugh about didn’t take very long. While I can say I have walked across both the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King (which btw is the worst title ever), all I remember is a long discussion about the “possibility of visit sign” and stumbling along while staring at the beautiful ring around the sun. I’d love to tell you this was due to my hangover and/or the fact that I had only had water and a coke to drink the entire day, but the truth is that I would have done both sober and that the conversation was more interesting than the terraces we were walking on.

Last but not least is the temple of Ta Prohm, which I saw both in middle of the afternoon on my first trip with Ana and Jo, and just before the complex closed for the day (which is the best time to visit) the second time around. I think maybe what I like most about this temple is not the trees swallowing the structure, or even the chaotic, broken impression it leaves on you, but rather the entrance that doesn’t even hint at what lies ahead of you. Since this is without a doubt the most popular temple, you’re going to be waiting for other people a lot, which was actually sort of perfect because it gave us the chance to sit down and take everything in for the first time that day.

Not only are the trees much larger and more entwined in the temple than I was aware of, but the structure itself is also more beautiful than you expect. Apart from the dilapidated appearance of broken walls, piles of rubble, and sectioned off areas, the temple walls have beautiful carvings hidden behind the massive roots and trees that have over run them, and doorways of pale blue stone in sections away from the crowded mess of temple walls and trees fighting for space. It was the perfect way to end my visit, and I’m so happy to have been able to cross it off my bucket list.