Initially I didn’t plan to use a tour guide at all while I was in Siem Reap. The whole point was to be alone and away from everyone. However, my hotel encouraged me to have a guide and on the first day (Saturday) it did seem like a reasonable idea to help me get my bearings.
After doing my first attempt at sunrise photography, I headed back to the hotel to get breakfast and prepare myself for the day. The first thing I had to do was purchase a new top. It is generally preferred by Cambodians that you cover your shoulders and your knees to visit the temples, but it is required to visit the top level of Angkor Wat and Bakheng Hill (where people watch sunset over Angkor Wat). I don’t really own anything like that, but as luck would have it, one of my pairs of shorts did cover my knees, and I was able to purchase a top in my hotel’s gift shop.
TIP-bring a thin top that will cover your shoulders, and shorts or very light pants to cover your legs. Avoid skirts as the steps to the top level of Angkor Wat are incredibly steep and you’ll give a free view to whomever is beneath you. Some steps (especially at other temples) are also very awkward to climb, and a skirt will be a hindrance.
I met my guide and we got into the tuktuk. I had reserved the tuktuk for the entire day, including sunset (which was roughly 30 USD, and my guide was maybe another 40-50–I’ve already begun to forget–both billed to my hotel). We began at Angkor Wat with a plan to visit Angkor Thom, Bayon, and other temples in the afternoon.
Angkor Wat is huge. I have several hundred photos, but I’ll spare you the entire index.
One of the things that you will notice at most of the temples it that statues are often missing their heads. These heads were cut off during revolutions, during difficult religious transitions, or stolen by temple robbers.
However, while statues no longer have their heads, most carvings do. These apsara (Cambodian traditional ballet) dancers are just one example of the beautiful wall carvings you’ll find there. (Although wait for my Banteay Srei pictures–those put these carvings to shame).
While very little remains today, there are the occasional small glimpses into what Angkor Wat must have looked like at the height of its glory. The burnt orange behind the King was probably originally covered in gold, according to my guide. There are also holes in the walls, which my guide told me were where jewels were once part of the wall, and thieves cut them out.
Most of the first level is covered, and even as the day was getting hotter, was not oppressive.
The climb from the first to the second story was a bit difficult–the steps are quite shallow and high from one another. I didn’t explore much on the second level because I wanted to go up to the third. There are guards at the bottom of the staircase who check your attire to see if you are appropriately clothed to go up. It is important to note that a scarf or a wrap won’t cut it. Your shirt must cover your shoulders, and your pants cover your knees.
The reason is that this top level is meant to represent the top of Mt. Meru, where the gods live in Hindu mythology. It is also a sacred place for Buddhists, so you must respect their request for appropriate dress, or you won’t be allowed to go.
For me, the best part about this level was the view out over the temple complex and the forest.
After I descended I got to see the echo chamber (which only echoes when you pound your chest by your heart, but no other part of your body), the very center point of the temple, and more carvings.
This is one of the staircases up to the third level. The approach used by the public has wooden stairs covering the stone in order to protect it. Ironically, the tourism that the temples bring important capital to Cambodia (25% of the GDP–3.6 billion USD in 2012 and 10% of jobs in Cambodia in 2012) are also threatening to destroy those same temples. So measures are being taken to protect to the temples from the damage caused by tourist foot traffic. But you can see what I meant when I say that the climb was steep.
When we saw the King’s staircase (a special staircase that only he could use), four or five little temple boys were scampering up and down the stairs that made me both envious of their agility and nervous for their lives. One misstep would cause grave damage.
One touristy thing I did was pose for several pictures with these people dressed as an Apsara dance troupe. However, few opportunities would arise to have my picture taken (and apart from sunrise/sunset photography I skipped using my tripod) so I’m including it.
The temple is gigantic. I’m betting I could have spent all three days there in full and not seen every inch of it.
Having a guide made Angkor Wat a worthwhile experience. He explained some of the stories behind the carvings, as well as what things like the holes in the wall meant. He told me some of the history of the buildings. However, it did keep me on an agenda–what he wanted to show me, his usual spiel, and so forth. I sometimes felt bad that I was slowing the pace in order to take the pictures I wanted, which was counterproductive (and more about my feeling uncomfortable with dictating the pace, which I know is silly as I was the one he was trying to give a good tour to).
One of the reasons I skipped a tour guide on days 2 and 3 were that I did want to wander temples at my own pace. It did mean missing out on some things, not knowing the whole story, but it gave me more time to do the photography that I was there for.
My full set of Angkor Wat photos can be found here.