After a short and uneventful flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, we were picked up by our driver for our time in Cambodia. We arranged for him via our Airbnb, and he was great with our boys! Mao, our amazing Airbnb host, worked with us to develop an action-packed and customized itinerary for our time in Cambodia, and then communicated our plans to the driver, who made it happen. He picked us up on time first thing in the morning and took us to the Angkor Wat ticket office. The ticket office is located a few kilometers from the park entrance, in a separate group of buildings with upscale souvenir booths. Tickets for Angkor Wat are pretty expensive- $37 for a one-day pass, $62 for a three-day pass, or $72 for a seven-day pass. The tickets are pretty advanced with photos on the actual ticket, and must be presented at the entrance to each temple complex. We tried to get an early start, but had to go back to our Airbnb to retrieve Landon’s camera so he could capture his own pictures.
With tickets and cameras in hand, we drove to the most famous of the ruins in Siem Reap- Angkor Wat. Of course, as soon as we arrived, it started pouring rain. With over $70 in entry tickets in hand and many temples on our itinerary, we did not want to wait for the rain to stop to begin exploring. So, we threw on our rain jackets and braved the downpour. During our visit, the main gate and bridge to the ruins were under construction, so we crossed the square moat surrounding the ruins via a temporary floating bridge.
We soon discovered that Angkor Wat had many layers. First of many square structures is the square moat – 200 m wide and 5.5 km around. The scale of this ruin is incredibly large, especially considering it was constructed in a 30 year period within the time frame 113B.C. -5 B.C. Originally, it was constructed as a funeral monument to King Suryavarman II. Unlike most temples, it is oriented facing west, toward the setting sun symbolizing death. The layout of the temple is a series of squares of decreasing size, starting with the moat, then getting smaller and smaller and higher off the ground. While the downpour continued outside, we explored the first building under which we could find shelter- the gate house. In the rain and clouds, it was very difficult to see the iconic towers from the gate, as they are connected to each other by a long causeway and the main temple was obscured by the storm clouds. There were tons of tourists taking cover, and so we hiked along the inside of the gatehouse structure, admiring the architecture and the carvings in the stone.
When the rain died down, we made a break for it along the very long causeway from the gate to the temple proper. We stopped to check out some of the side buildings along the way, although they looked much cooler on the outside while the inside was more plain. Upon reaching the stone steps up to the first temple level, we were blown away by the detail and craftmanship in the stone wall carvings. The carvings spanned the walls surrounding the temple, with stone columns and coverings providing shelter and shade. If we had come sans kids, hiring a guide and learning more about what each carving symbolized would have been awesome. With our two spunky boys, though, we did a fairly quick walk through of the galleries, pointing out some of the battle scenes and animals along the way. When we visited, half of the monument was blocked off, so instead of going all the way around each level, we only ventured partially around before ascending to the next level.
Angkor Wat is a representation of the universe, with the highest tower symbolizing Mt. Meru, the mythical center of the universe. The five towers represent the peaks surrouding Mt. Meru, and the moat the ocean surrounding the peak. As we ascended the monument from the “earth” level with battles and the dealings of men, we came to the second level featuring extended reliefs of asparas, or heavenly dancers. We climbed up to the third level of squares, now covering a significantly smaller area. On this level was a courtyard with the top level in the center. By now, the rain had stopped and there were giant puddles in the courtyard. Owen had spent quite awhile in the backpack and wanted to run around. Of course, he made quite a scene as he ran full speed through deep puddles in the courtyard giggling loudly as he went. He was already soaked, but at one point he went right under caution tape marking off a certain section and I had to run after him, getting even more soaked than I already was. To reach the summit of the ruins, there were very steep stairs and a long line. Only those 12 years and old were allowed up to the top, and only small groups were allowed up at one time. Since our boys couldn’t go up and we only had one day to explore all of the ruins in the area, we skipped taking turns going up to the top. Instead, we took some photos with the tallest, most central level in the background and then headed back down the front of the ruins. Again, if you’re visiting without kids, or have a three-day pass, go to the top!
Ascending to the next level
On our way, we passed a small Buddhist temple alcove. From the 16th century on, Buddhist monks have been caretakers on the site, although originally it was a Hindu funerary temple. There were monks chanting prayers, with mats set out for worshipers. There were other monks giving blessings to tourists while tying bracelets on their wrists, for a small donation of course. Some of the monks were very young and were smitten by little Owen especially. On the walls around this area, we saw the remnants of color on the walls, and imagined what this giant complex must have looked like with vibrant fresh paint when it was first built! As we continued down the front of the temple, we enjoyed the view out over the complex as the clouds parted. I attempted to get some good photos of us in front of the temple, but photos don’t really do this place justice in its size or grandeur. It is only possible to see all five towers from a few viewpoints in the complex, and most of these are from afar off. We tried to get someone’s attention to take a photo of all of us at the front of the main complex, but failed. Nearby was a professional photographer taking pictures for pay. When he saw our predicament, he came over, shrugged his shoulders, and took a few pictures for us with our camera. What a nice guy!
One of our weaknesses during long sightseeing days is not making time for meals and then getting stuck places with no food, So, we decided to eat lunch at the small group of pop-up restaurants located just to the side of the main temple area, inside the gates. There were several tent restaurants to choose from, and each one had a similar menu and prices. There were workers scattered along the causeway funneling people to whatever restaurant they worked for. There were also tons of kids sellng souvenirs and trinkets. In general, it is advised to not buy from them because it encourages the kids to keep working and selling things instead of going to school. In practice, this boy about Landon’s size(but probably 7-8 years old) started showing magnets to Landon. Landon asked if we could get some, and I just couldn’t say no.
Currency in Cambodia is a little weird- the most widely accepted currency is U.S. dollars, but change is typically given (and cash dispensed out of ATMs) in a mixture of USD and Cambodian Riels. Landon picked out 3 magnets for a dollar and I wondered how this poor little guy made any money. Once the other kids saw that we were suckers and were even eating at the restaurant, they all came over with their wares. I was super impressed with their English, even though I’m sure they have an advantage because they get to practice it with native English speakers every day. One boy in particular stood out to me. He was selling a book of photographs of Angkor for$10. We didn’t have room in our luggage for it, and kept telling him no, even as he dropped the price over and over again. His English was so good and he was so persistent, even coming back a second time to check back with us. Later, after we’d eaten lunch and Landon was running around playing with the souvenir sellers, I went looking for Landon and this boy told me where he was. Then he sadly asked me, “Why didn’t you buy my book?” It was heartbreaking. While Austin paid for our lunch, I watched the boys play by a little lake. Landon found a tiny cute puppy there and was playing around with him. Usually, I am SUPER against him playing with animals in foreign countries, but this puppy was really cute and looked well taken care of. Owen loves dogs so much and wanted to join in the game of tug-of-war Landon and the puppy were playing with a stick. I’m not sure exactly what happened next, but I looked to see Owen running as fast as he could and screaming with the puppy pulling on his pants! Owen was terrified, so I quickly saved him and we made our way back to the gate, bellies full, ready to explore our next temple complex, Angkor Thom.
We traveled to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat. It was a truly amazing experience to visit this iconic temple. Having visited tons of other temples in Asia, Austin left feeling a little underwhelmed (maybe because we didn’t go to the top), saying that he liked Borobudur temple in Indonesia better. I thought it was really difficult to grasp how gigantic this complex was and how much man power it took to build it. Of course, I think that our experience was dampened (literally and figuratively) by the rain, but I’m so glad we visited. Major bucket list item for sure! Our whole family actually enjoyed Ta Prohm, the jungle temple more, but I’ll save that for another post, Ok, now for kid travel recommendations. I would not recommend bringing a stroller. There are many staircases and the stones of the causeways are uneven. Pack your toddlers and babies in baby carriers. Also pack snacks and plenty of water for everyone as there is the one restaurant area but not abundant other places to purchase these things. Guides are not that expensive, and I would recommend hiring one if visiting with older kids. We liked our time there and couldn’t have gone as slowly as a guide would want to with our kids (5&1) but older kids would probably enjoy some of the stories depicted in the bas reliefs. Lastly, pack the sunscreen and insect repellent. There are nasty mosquito-borne diseases in Cambodia and it’s better to just wear the insect repellent and be safe!