Angkor Wat, Cambodia: robbed of its rightful place as one of the 7 wonders?

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat was without doubt the most famous and most visited stop on our SE Asian journey. I don’t think I met anyone who was travelling in Cambodia for whom this wasn’t the main purpose of visiting the country. Yet I have to confess that by leaving Angkor Wat to the end of our itinerary I felt a lack of excitement and anticipation about visiting a place that had captivated me for many years through seeing images and historical accounts in books and atlases. We had seen so many amazing places already, could this really blow us away?

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

We hired a tuk-tuk for the first day to take us around the ‘Grand Circuit’ – a 26km route that takes you around the most accessible and most visited temples of Angkor Wat. We started soon after 6am, not only to beat the crowds but also to beat the intense heat and humidity of the midday sun; and we were there in the cool season! Our first stop was Angkor Wat itself, with its iconic towers and carvings. It was still quiet at 7am and we were able to wander around without too many people jostling for the same photos. It is a stunning building, although by no means the most impressive of the overall Angkor complex, which comprises over 70 temples spread over an area that exceeds 3,000 sq. km. One thing that strikes most visitors is the freedom to climb so many of the structures and explore almost every corner of the temples. Tourists mingle with excavation teams and maintenance staff. Nowhere appears to be out of bounds.

The Bayon, Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The second major stop on the Grand Circuit is Angkor Thom, a walled complex around 3km from Angkor Wat. A number of temples are found here, most notably the Bayon, renowned for the hundreds of stone faces carved on almost every available space of rock. By now it was getting busy, and almost every doorway and every staircase had at least a couple of cameras pointing at it and from it (we came back here on the final day at around 10am and it was truly horrendous: the crowds were packed in so tightly that it was difficult to stop and appreciate anything in front of us).The other sites in Angkor Thom were far less busy, as they required a short walk to reach them.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Our driver then took us to another six or seven temple sites on the Grand Circuit; some set on a lake, others atop giant steep staircases. To be honest after a while the memories of each merged into one another, and thankfully our photos are stamped with the times they were taken, as without this clue we would have no idea at which temple they were taken.

This does not detract from the amazing impression these structures made on us; it is the magnitude of the site as a whole and the diversity in styles and locations of the temples that for me would make the Angkor complex a worthy member of the 7 wonders. Other wonders such as Chichen Itza in Mexico or the Taj Mahal have an instant Wow factor. Their visual impact is immediate and stunning. Angkor Wat for me does not have that heart-stopping impression. Where it wins is in the size of the site and the range of surprising discoveries, many of which we had to ourselves thanks to our early starts.

Our second day was a case in point. Our driver didn’t stop for the sunrise but kept going to get us to Banteay Srei, around 35km from Angkor Wat, by 7am. This is a truly beautiful temple, and being one of the only visitors there for around 15 minutes we were able to enjoy the site in absolute solitude. An exquisitely carved temple set against a wooded backdrop, it is well worth the trip away from the major sights in the central complex.

Banteay Srei

Even further out was the waterfall of Kbal Spean. It is around 40 minutes walk from the parking lot, and while the walk takes you through a dense woodland, even this does not protect you from the intensity of the heat. We reached the falls around 10am and it was already sweltering. The purpose of visiting Kbal Spean is to witness the beautiful carvings set in the bed of the river. These consist of lingas (fertility symbols) and many other designs from Hindu mythology. It is a peaceful, secluded site, and it would be easy to sit up in the shade and enjoy an hour or two listening to the water running gently over the carved rocks.

Kbal Spean

Of all the many temples we witnessed perhaps the most memorable was Ta Promh, made famous as the setting for the Lara Croft movie. Here tree roots intertwine with temple rocks, and around every corner is another doorway, another corridor, another shrine. It is also a very popular stop on the circuit, and certainly one of the ‘must-see’ sites on an Angkor visit.

We hired bicycles on the final day to have a look around, and these are not for the faint-hearted. Getting out of Siem Reap requires negotiating several ‘free-for-all’ junctions, where you may as well close your eyes and pedal across in hope. Once at the temples too, beware of the scams that many of the traders pull, saying that parking is free if you buy something from their shop. There are no parking charges for a bicycle anywhere at Angkor Wat, but you may need to be ready to argue that point. In my view the bikes were not worth the hassle, not to mention the exertion of cycling in the heat.

Ta Promh

Would I put it on my 7 wonders list? Without a doubt. For its sheer size, its variety of temple structures, backdrops and locations it is hard to equal. If you are visiting beware the sheer volume of people at the main temples. It is well worth waking up early and visiting the most popular sites (Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Promh) before the tour buses arrive. Three days is long enough to appreciate the site, although we didn’t get to see everything we could have done. One day however, would have been woefully inadequate.

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13 Responses to “Angkor Wat, Cambodia: robbed of its rightful place as one of the 7 wonders?”

  1. Your photos bring back fond memories as I was just here about this time last year. It truly is an amazing place.

    For me, the “wow” moment was when we asked where the large river went, and our guide said “no, that is the moat.” *WHA!?!*

    The Angor Wat complex was one the largest cities in history. It was massive. And for me it doesn’t need that instant wow factor to make it a world wonder. Seeing the trees holding up ancient temples, and crossing through bridges and ages with centuries old stone faces was enough for me.

    January 9, 2010 at 2:29 pm
  2. Thanks Andy, yes the water channels were amazing; yet another monumental achievement among so many there. We passed on the view of Angkor Wat at sunrise (were travelling elsewhere) and sunset (we were knackered!) – did you see it at these times?
    I wonder what the criteria are that determine the official 7 wonders in any case?

    January 9, 2010 at 3:16 pm
  3. I agree 1 day is way too little. We had only 2 (owing to a 12 hour+ delayed flight) and it was a lot to do in 2 days. We were there a few years ago and saw nothing like the crowds you’re describing. I wonder if it’s simply grown more popular or if it’s just that we were crazy enough to visit in July? I would gladly put up with crowds to see it in a more reasonable temperature!

    We were really blown away with how many temples there are and how large the sites are. We truly had no idea before we visited. It’s so hard to judge size from a photo.

    I totally agree it deserves a spot amoungst the 7 wonders – it’s definitely one of the most amazing places we’ve been and ranks with our experience seeing the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall, the Colloseum, and Petra.

    January 9, 2010 at 3:18 pm
  4. Andy,
    Great to “meet” you. I look forward to following your blog and tweets. I have only traveled a few places so far – Hawaii, Virgin Gorda, Canada, Mexico and Belize but look forward to traveling through Asia very soon. I am leaving for India on Monday for a six week journey and was glad to read your comment about the Taj Mahal. Hopefully one day soon I can experience Angkor Wat.

    January 9, 2010 at 5:48 pm
  5. Thanks Dawson, and have a great time in India. It’s an amazing place which I’m sure will leave you breathless, amazed, frustrated, contented, saddened, and all in the space of a day. Will look forward to reading of your adventures.

    January 9, 2010 at 6:47 pm
  6. Your photos bring me back there as well. I woefully missed the waterfall of Kbal Spean though. The structures not only impressed me, but I pictured daily life during the kingdom’s heyday. Imagine the relationship one would have to foster with the jungle? The jungle was ‘bigger’ than the structures in my mind. Thanks for the memories!

    January 9, 2010 at 7:07 pm
  7. I absolutely agree with you. They belong to the 7 wonders. All of Angkor Watt is stunning. I loved the faces of the Bayon, but like you, Ta Promh fascinated me. I couldn’t stop making black and white photos – now framed up on a wall;) and reminding me every day of that wonderful time. I was there exactly 12 years ago and spent a whole week exploring Angkor and the surrounding areas of Seam Reap.

    January 9, 2010 at 10:56 pm
  8. Beautiful! We are heading to Angkor Wat in a month and a half and can’t wait. I have never been able to figure out how the “wonders” people figure out which sites are worth making the list and which aren’t. I have no idea why the Leaning Tower of Pisa regularly makes the 7 Wonders list because it honestly isn’t that amazing.

    January 10, 2010 at 3:37 am
  9. Thanks Nomadic Chick, Fida, Akila for stopping by and your comments. As the others will agree, you’ll have a great time there Akila. Look forward to reading about it. Just take your time, get up early, and be prepared for lots of kids selling stuff at the entrance to every temple. But it’s a unique place, and I suspect almost every first-time visitor underestimates the sheer size of the complex; we certainly did.

    January 10, 2010 at 11:32 am
  10. We enjoyed Angkor Wat. I can’t imagine what the crowds are like now as we were there in 2004. The package tourists were just starting to arrive. It was busy then and we spent our day one step ahead of the pack. I have heard that it is insane now. But that still could never detract from its beauty.

    January 10, 2010 at 12:21 pm
  11. Yna #

    Ta Phrom is just breathtaking, next to Angkor Wat in my fav list. Thanks for sharing these nice insights. Did you do the tour on your own or you had a guide?

    January 11, 2010 at 2:06 am
  12. Siem Reap is indeed a fabulous wonder! I prefer going there over the Pyramids in Egypt even. At only an hour away from BKK, it is a perfect trip if you only have a short time to spare. Fly to Siem Reap Friday night, visit the wats Sat/Sunday, fly back to BKK early Monday morning. Perfect.

    January 11, 2010 at 10:31 am
  13. Yna, we chose to go without a guide, and just had a driver. We accepted that we missed out on a lot of extra information that a guide would have provided but we balanced that with our own short attention spans,particularly in the heat, and our happiness at moving at our own pace.
    Catherine, yes it is easily accessible. I was surprised just how short the flight to BKK was. There are so many great places to visit within an hour’s flight of BKK.
    Dave and Deb, you would not recognise it these days I reckon, particularly Siem Reap itself. It is still possible to enjoy the temples without crowds but the windows of quiet time will keep getting smaller.

    January 11, 2010 at 2:32 pm