Angkor Wat. One of the most iconic buildings in the world. Star of a billion bucket lists. The dictionary has been bled dry of superlatives in homage to its grandeur.
It’s almost a heresy not to join the hallelujah chorus of adoration for the biggest religious building in the world.
But let me try.
I might be in a minority of one but here’s some Angkor rancour.
I so wanted this to be a lifetime event, an Olympian moment. And I tried, I really did. But after a couple of hours I left with a heavy heart. My Angkor Wat experience was a major disappointment.
So what was the problem? Well, there wasn’t just one, there were many. In fact there were thousands of them. Angkor was heaving and bursting with tourists.
This is an icon best enjoyed at a slow, considered pace. Quiet moments are needed to take in the vastness of the whole; time to stop and pause is crucial to appreciate the intricacies of the friezes and stone carvings.
But it was impossible. Tourists were here, there and everywhere. And before you say it, yes, I accept I was a part of the problem, one of thousands throttling the place.
I never climbed the steps to its upper levels, the queue to get up snaked and twisted forever.
It was the same at nearby Bakheng Hill, a great place for an Angkor sunset. Unfortunately a tidal wave of humanity was making the short trek up. For some unfathomable reason I joined them, knowing in my heart of hearts that it was futile. At the top is a wooden staircase leading to the huge viewing platform. The queue was hundreds long and wasn’t moving.
I came, I saw, I conceded. Back down I went.
But this is a place of second chances. Although Angkor Wat gets top billing there are many other temples. Some are truly mesmerizing.
Ta Prohm is one such case. Like many temples here it was ignored for centuries and taken over by the jungle. Its ruination has left a stupefying spectacle.
Many are here solely because of the power of Hollywood. A scene from the Lara Croft: Tomb Raiders movie was shot At Ta Prohm. It features Angelina Jolie at the entrance of a tomb straddled by the roots of a giant tree. I haven’t seen the film but I know the scene. Here’s the entrance in all it’s glory.
It is spectacular but whoever said the camera never lies is kidding themselves. The camera often tells monster porkies. The photo gives an impression that I had the place all to myself. That’s a long way from the truth.
And that’s what we can be guilty of with our travel photos. We sometimes beautify and idealize a moment which in reality can be a lot less than perfect.
Look at the scrum I had to wade through to get my close up shot. I had a few precious seconds to take my photo before being jostled and nudged out-of-the-way. Like Angkor Wat it was at bursting point.
Before you slump into depression and scratch it off your wish list, there is some good news.
I went back for a second day (at least a couple are needed here) and visited more temples. They were much quieter and the experience was so much better. Many are magnificent. This, in no small part, is due to the impact the jungle had on them as they lay neglected for centuries.
It’s a shame that so many have fallen into disrepair but the creep of Mother Nature has given them an otherworldly quality. Decay and neglect have left something a little magical.
If you are thinking of going I highly recommend it. Just think of the temples as a collection rather than simply Angkor Wat. I don’t usually give travel tips but if you are planning to visit here’s a couple of thoughts. Avoid peak season (November to March) if you can, although other months can get very hot and wet. Check the local climate charts.
If you do go in the busy months, to really appreciate Angkor Wat get there early. It opens at 5am. I didn’t do it, I’m not sure why.
Visit at least half a dozen temples, the variety is breathtaking. Again, try early morning or late afternoon when most tourists head to Angkor Wat for sunset. Resist its lure and you can have the other temples to yourself.
I’m now writing this in Borneo (apologies for being a few weeks behind). A couple of days ago I met Josiane and Michel Guitard from France. They were at Angkor at almost exactly the same time in 2013 and happily told me they saw no crowds anywhere! Perhaps pot luck is all you need.
Anyway, to whet your appetite here’s some of the amazing sights that await you in the other Temples of Angkor.