Seven Surprising Things About Cambodia's Angkor Wat
Boy, does this place pass my "Indiana Jones" travel test!
Everyone refers to Cambodia’s most famous tourist attraction as “Angkor Wat.” But Angkor Wat is actually just one temple complex in the much larger ruins of the ancient city of Angkor.
Granted, Angkor Wat — “Wat” means “temple” in the local language — is extremely large. In fact, it’s often deemed the largest religious structure on Earth.
But the area that was once home to the ancient city of Angkor also includes hundreds of other temples, including at least 72 “major” ones.
And — get this! — there are more ruins of more ancient cities beyond that. Cambodia is home to some four thousand ruined temples in other abandoned cities. And there are almost certainly many more cities and temples still to be discovered in the jungles.
These days, “Angkor Wat” is often used to mean all the temples in the massive Angkor Archaeological Park — remnants from the Khmer Empire, which dominated much of southeast Asia from the 9th century until 1432, when they were conquered by the Ayutthaya Empire of Siam in what is now Thailand.
Much of Angkor, the actual city, was built with wood, which didn’t survive the ages. But the many temples themselves — originally Hindu but later, in the 12th century, mostly converted to Buddhism — were built with stone, which is why only they remain, along with ancient city walls.
Even worse, after the 17th century, Angkor was abandoned and quickly overwhelmed by the jungle. Angkor Wat itself was the one temple to be more or less occupied continuously — although most of those structures eventually collapsed into ruins too.
In the 20th century, the Angkor Wat complex that we know today was rebuilt by France, which had been given control of the area by Siam.
These are all things that surprised me — just some of the many surprising things I’ve discovered about this incredible area.
Here are seven more:
1) This! Place! Is! So! Cool!
In a previous article, I wrote that, as a traveler, I sometimes use something called the Indiana Jones Travel Test. This means I ask myself: “Is this location or attraction cool enough to be featured in an Indiana Jones movie?”
Perhaps no place on Earth passes the Indiana Jones Travel Test better than the ruins of Angkor. It’s not just these incredible ruins; it’s also the vibrant green jungle that still surrounds and engulfs it all. It’s like walking into a Lara Croft video game — and, indeed, the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was partially filmed here (in some places, with no digital alteration whatsoever).
Incidentally, how did they carry all these massive stones from the mountain quarries to make all these temples? Thousands of elephants, of course — and even more slaves, sadly.
Anyway, I expected to be blown away by Angkor, but it still easily surpassed even these sky-high expectations. It’s one of the most fantastic places on Earth.
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2) But Angkor Wat itself was a bit of a disappointment.
Angkor Wat — the massive temple complex — is big. And I love that it’s surrounded by jungle on an island that is likewise surrounded by a massive, human-made moat that stretches some five kilometers around.
In fact, all the major temples in this area had moats, because ancient Khmer engineers discovered that this was one way to stabilize the loose ground and keep the temples upright. Part of the reason most of the temples collapsed so dramatically was because these moats were all allowed to dry out.
All that said, at the risk of sounding like that ex-boyfriend of Taylor Swift, who was apparently always going on about some indie record that was much cooler than hers…I wasn’t all that impressed by Angkor Water itself. I preferred some of the smaller temples, including some that were quite far away and difficult to reach.
To be clear: Angkor Wat is absolutely must-see, if only because of its fame and massive size, and also that fantastically lush setting. And hey, you may completely disagree with my opinion of the place.
But this leads me to my next surprise…
3) I prefer my temples ruined, not reassembled.
Look, I get it: it’s a very good thing that some of these temples have been reassembled, so we can get some sense of what they looked like back in the day.
Also, the encroaching jungle is still doing significant damage to all these structures. The famous strangler fig trees look fantastic — which is why they were featured so prominently in Tomb Raider — but they’re literally tearing the buildings apart. Most of these trees have already been removed, and many more are slated to go.
The warm, humid climate isn’t helping these ruins either. Thankfully, the brutal reign of terror by the Khmer Rouge back in the 70s only did minor damage to the site.
That said, the reassembled temples are sometimes kind of repetitive and boring. And the ruined temples are usually completely different and often incredibly beautiful. During the rainy season, a green lichen grows on many of the buildings which — yes, okay — is terrible for the stone, but it looks absolutely stunning.
The Cambodian government and UNESCO, which helps fund and manage the site, plan to reassemble more of the temples, and I do understand if the rest of the strangler fig trees really do need to go.
But I hope they leave at least some of these beautifully ruined ruins mostly the way they are.
4) Siem Reap is charming! And incredibly safe.
The nearest town to Angkor — and the area’s tourist hub — is the city of Siem Reap.
We’d heard mixed things about the place: that it’s gritty and too touristy. And we’d also heard from more than one person that Cambodia in general has a serious “crime” problem.
But we loved it — and felt completely safe at all times.
It’s partly because Siem Reap is not nearly as gritty as it was even a few years ago. Thanks to Covid, tourism in Cambodia was completely shut down for more than two years — which gave the country the chance to repave and re-sidewalk the entire central area.
Better still, while Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh really does have a serious crime problem, Siem Reap is extremely safe.
We loved the night markets, bustling Pub Street, the various parks and squares, and the city’s many lovely cafes and restaurants.
That said, part of the reason we loved this area so much was surely because…
5) The place is deserted…for now.
By most accounts, right before Covid, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat were starting to experience a serious over-tourism problem. The year before things closed, more than five million people visited the area, and as massive as these temple complexes are, they were still often overwhelmed by the crowds, with especially long lines at Angkor Wat itself.
Last year’s high season, which stretches from October to March, saw a fifth of those numbers. Half the hotels in town have yet to even reopen.
In short, Michael and I visited in the low season of an already low year.
This is partly because Chinese tourists, which make up more than half the visitors to the area, have not yet started returning in significant numbers.
(Chinese tourism to Cambodia is complicated. The people I talked to all told me that these tourists are very insular, and tend to only support Chinese-owned local businesses, mostly avoiding contact with Khmer locals. But the Cambodian government is aggressively targeting Chinese tourists in order to make money from their visas.)
Regardless of how deserted this area was for Michael and me, the status quo is expected to change very soon. In October, a massive new airport will open, which will allow the arrival of bigger planes — and more direct flights from various international destinations. The new airport will also be much farther from the city center.
I loved both Angkor Wat and Siem Reap, but my advice is to visit as soon as possible, before it is once again overrun. And if you can’t visit soon, wait for low season, which can be hot and/or rainy, but in my opinion, any amount of heat and rain are far preferable to higher prices and crushing crowds.
As with most destinations these days, I would never visit here in the high season.
6) Cambodia is very, very poor — and the people are very, very nice.
Speaking of the locals, I was delighted and charmed. We had been warned that the tuk tuk drivers would be overly aggressive, and you will definitely be hit up when out and about, but we saw nothing inappropriate.
In fact, one tuk tuk driver smiled at us and said, “I bet you think I’m going to harass you for a ride!” This made me laugh so hard I wish we hadn’t already had transportation.
Michael and I believe that, when traveling, it’s important to always spend as locally as possible — to keep as much of your money in the actual community you’re visiting and impacting. That means we avoid chains and corporations, stay in city centers, and try to patronize small, local businesses.
I think this mode of travel is especially important in a country like Cambodia, which saw more than three million of its citizens ruthlessly slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge back in the 1970s. These days, it’s still profoundly impoverished. During Covid, many families stayed alive only by capturing and eating bugs.
Cambodia is the most affordable country Michael and I have ever visited. By Western standards, everything is extremely low-priced. Luxury accommodations can be had for $40 USD a night, and you can easily have a fantastic meal out for $5 USD or less.
So go and take advantage of these prices, be friendly and gracious — and tip very, very generously.
7) The ancient Khmer civilization coexisted with dinosaurs!
Take a look at this picture shared by a friend who happened to be in town at the same time as us. It’s a carving in the Ta Prohm temple.
I clearly see dinosaurs — mostly obviously, a stegosaurus in the center circle.
In other words, in addition to its other obvious wonders, Angkor is providing us with clear proof that humans in the fifteenth century may have coexisted with dinosaurs — possibly, a remnant population that may yet survive in the jungles of Cambodia!
Yeah, no. That’s all bullshit, sorry. Actual dinosaurs went extinct sixty-six million years ago — although their direct descendants, birds, are now quite plentiful.
Back in the 90s, the Dinosaur of Ta Prohm was briefly a sensation and, depressingly, some Young Earth adherents and creationists still use this engraving today as “proof” that humans and dinosaurs once coexisted.
There is no definitive explanation for this one dinosaur-like figure on this one column in one temple. Did the ancient Khmer find dinosaur fossils? Is it a hoax — someone recently altering an older engraving?
One prominent theory is that the figure was of a real-world animal, possibly a rhinoceros — there used to be a species with a very short horn in Cambodia. Meanwhile, those “plates” are likely the same stylized plants which are visible on other carvings in this temple.
It’s also possible it was a mythical creature, since one of the carvings below it is of a dog with the head of a monkey.
Truthfully, the carving doesn’t really look like a stegosaurus anyway, which had two rows of plates and a much narrower head.
But its presence still surprised me — just like so many things about Angkor Wat.
Coming soon! We’ll have the names and more details about all these temples, including the perfect proposed itinerary, but it’ll be for paid subscribers only. If you’re not yet one, here’s a special discount:
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Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author. Check out my new newsletter about my books and movies at www.BrentHartinger.com.