Editor’s note: Siem Reap, Cambodia is indeed a world-class destination. In three days there, I experienced temple overload, with so many amazing sites blending together. You can read my views of the place by clicking here, then read Sam’s experiences! For more of Sam’s awesome adventures, click here to visit his index page.

In 2006, there was an international vote to determine, out of 21 finalists, what would be the new Seven Wonders of the World. Of the eight winners (as the Pyramids of Giza, the only original wonder still remaining was given an honorary spot), I am proud to say that I have visited six of them (I am just missing the Taj Mahal and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro) and have been to 12 of the 21 finalists. While I am sure that all the winners are worthy, there was one finalist that did not win that was definitely snubbed, and that is Angkor Wat. Built on 402 acres of land in 1113 CE by the Khmer Empire, initially as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, but later converted into a Buddhist temple, the Angkor Wat complex is the largest religious monument in the world.

Angkor Wat

Located today only a few miles away from the city of Siem Reap, Cambodia, Angkor used to be the largest city in the world in its prime, with evidence showing that up to a million people lived in the city that would later be consumed by the jungle. Angkor Wat is filled with intricate carvings along its wall, creating a total of 1,200 square meters of carved bas-reliefs depicting eight different Hindu stories.

While people worldwide have seen the iconic image of the front of the main temple of Angkor Wat, which is depicted on the Cambodian flag as the national symbol, the number of temples in Siem Reap is vast. The first one that you are likely to visit was actually my favorite, and that was the Bayon Temple of Angkor Thom. Built in the Khmer’s baroque architecture, you access this beautiful temple by going across a land bridge across the large square moat that surrounds Angkor Thom. The land bridge is lined on both sides with statues of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, some of which have been modified to look more like Buddha. Entering this area was reminiscent of entering Luxor’s Temple of Karnak with its alley of sphinxes. In this instance as well, this pathway helps build up your expectations that you are about to experience something grand. At the end of the land bridge is a massive baroque gate with a face of Brahma in the center that you pass under to enter the complex.

Upon arrival at the Bayon Temple, you are greeted by more giant faces of Brahma, with numerous stone spires, each with four faces of a smiling Brahma, each one facing a different direction. The temple itself is tiered with different levels that are narrowly separated that you can explore and squeeze between. While the main temple of Angkor Wat gets the most attention and is featured around the world, the detailed carvings of the faces of Bayon Temple are in many ways as, if not more, impressive. The faces, while being of Brahma, also happen to bear a strong resemblance to King Jayavarman VII, the architect of these structures, but were also manipulated some after his death to reflect more Buddhist imagery after the Buddhists took over the site. While the complex once had about two hundred faces, and the Bayon Temple specifically had 49; today there are 37 that are still visible.

Faces of Brahma

Next to the Bayon Temple is another temple that is about a century older also worth visiting called Baphuon. The three-tiered mountain Baphuon Temple was partially destroyed after the Buddhist takeover to create in the stone blocks a 9-meter tall by 70-meter long reclining Buddha depiction on the side of the temple. At Angkor Thom, there are many elephants walking around taking tourists on rides around the complex. I personally do not recommend taking these elephant rides as the weight of tourists and the constant rides to make money without any breaks cause the elephants severe health issues. However, elephants are certainly a part of the history of the site, as depicted in bas-relief in one of the galleries showing Khmer soldiers riding elephants; it was in this gallery that elephants were trained for battle by the Khmer army hundreds of years ago.

Nearby is another must-see temple that is also surrounded by a small moat called Ta Prohm that was built at the same time. Ta Prohm was also built as a devotional to Brahma, with the name meaning “Ancestor Brahma”. Ta Prohm has numerous detailed bas-reliefs also detailing Hindu lore, and some later ones showing the story of Siddhartha becoming the Buddha. While Ta Prohm is does not have the mountain tiered temples that Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom have, rather, its main attraction is one that is not human-made. The galleries at the temple have been overgrown on the sides of the entrances with thick spung tree roots, with often large trees growing out of them. In Ta Prohm, one truly feels like they are in the midst of nature and the jungle. This temple is often known more commonly as the “Lara Croft Temple” because it was prominently featured in the film Tomb Raider.

Ta Prohm

Just southwest of Ta Prohm is the main temple of Angkor Wat, which, like the other prominent temples, is surrounded by a moat. The bas-reliefs of Hindu mythology continue through Angkor Wat and there are galleries and the ruins of what were once libraries. Throughout Angkor Wat’s many chambers, it is not uncommon to see young Buddhist monks in their yellow and saffron-colored robes. While exploring the vast interior of the temple, visitors will make their way up a stairwell into a raised gallery that overlooks the surrounding jungle. The various spires of Angkor Wat are designed to look like mountains, with the largest and most central spire looking like Mount Meru, the mountain where the deities of Hinduism dwell. In front of Angkor Wat is where the iconic pictures are taken. There are reflecting pools that reflect the temple onto the water, making a worthwhile site and photograph. It is popular to come at sunrise to watch as the sun ascends behind the temple and the sky surrounding it turns purple and orange, with the pools turning the same beautiful hues as they reflect the sky. In front of the temple are numerous macaque monkeys, which, despite looking adorable, are vicious and thieves. One stole my water bottle and when I tried to retrieve it, hissed and showed his sharp fangs (needless to say, I let him get away with his loot).

Angkor Wat from the reflecting pools

Beyond Angkor Wat, I was surprised to find that there was much more to do in the Siem Reap area, including seeing many Buddhist temples. A big part of traveling is discovering who you are, but an equally big part can be discovering who you are not. Siem Reap has the biggest party scene of any city that I have been to, and Pub Street was a nonstop party full of nightclubs, street concerts, and bars with people serving you alcohol in literal buckets with a straw. Needless to say, I partied way too much and got myself pretty sick for the rest of my time in Cambodia, which was the moment that I realized that my late 20s were very different than my early 20s, and that getting completely wasted was no longer an enjoyable activity from which I could easily rebound. As a result, I had one of my biggest regrets in travel which was that I was not able to enjoy Cambodia as much as I wanted to because I was nursing a hangover and battling a fever that I likely got as a result of sharing my bucket of alcohol with too many people. If the purpose of your trip is to party, then by all means go crazy; if it is to learn history and culture and tour, then do not do this. Despite partying too hard one night, I was still able to enjoy (to some degree) some pretty incredible other sites in Cambodia.

Siem Reap is a very artist-focused city and has markets that sell authentic handicrafts. While there, go to a performance called the Phare Circus. With high-flying acrobats, Phare is very similar to Cirque du Soleil, though I will actually admit that having seen both, I enjoyed Phare more! Beyond being an entertaining and jaw dropping show, the acrobats and performers are largely young people who escaped poverty, and the proceeds of the show and the artwork that is sold goes to help young Cambodian artists escape poverty. Another must see art experience in Siem Reap is the performances of bands of amputees who lost limbs from landmines. As a result of the brutal wars that plagued Cambodia in the 1970s that killed millions of people, and also the dropping of cluster bombs by the United States military during the Vietnam War, the forests and rural areas of Cambodia are covered with unexploded ordinances that still kill and maim people to this day. These musicians, despite missing hands or feet, are able to play instruments and create beautiful melodies; they sell their CDs and DVDs about their stories and work in front of tourist attractions, with proceeds not only helping them, but going towards the demining process.


Finally, when going to Siem Reap, be sure to do something that many tourists omit: go to Southeast Asia’s largest lake, Tonle Sap. With inflows and outflows from the Tonle Sap River, part of the Mekong Delta, the lake is 160 miles long by 62 miles wide and covers a range of 1,000 to 6,200 square miles in surface area depending on the time of year. Tonle Sap has always been an important part of the area’s agriculture and fishing and is considered to be one of the world’s most unique and productive ecosystems. I took a private tour of the lake (it was a private tour because nobody else signed up, not realizing what a gem this place is). Upon arriving at the lake, you will see very poor villages with homes that do not have electricity and are built on top of stilts. The stilt homes are a fascinating spectacle and are built this way so that the homes do not flood during the monsoon season. As I was there during the dry season, I got to see the huts ten feet above the ground, held up only by thin poles. Along the shore and marshland of the lake are numerous lotus flower farms, which are used for the making of textiles. The beautiful pink and purple lotus flowers are a fragrant and pleasing sight. Hop on a motorboat and tour around the lake. You will see dark and thick mangrove forests soaking up the water, and numerous houseboats and even churches. Numerous Vietnamese who were refugees from the Vietnam War settled in this area, and a Vietnamese Catholic church floats on the lake. You will pass numerous locals fishing either with nets from the shore or on boats, and small boats can pull up to large boats and barges that have restaurants and shops. I even stopped at one barge that had an entire crocodile farm on it!

A stilt village

Siem Reap is a destination that every traveler to Southeast Asia should go to, because it has, in this one town, everything that would lead someone to Southeast Asia. If you want arts and entertainment, nature, culture that you would never see in America, or some of the most impressive ruins and historical sites anywhere on Earth, or if you want to just party way too hard and wake up with a bunch of regrets (or maybe not), then Siem Reap has what you are looking for. For better or worse, I got to experience it all, and am really glad that I included Cambodia on my itinerary.

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