It’s 8 a.m. on our second day in Angkor Wat, and our tour guide Salon is adjusting our itinerary. “We are supposed to visit Angkor Thom first,” he tells us, “but I’d rather start at Ta Prohm. This is a very special temple, and if we go early, we’ll avoid the crowds. Everyone seems to start at Angkor Thom.”

Our group is on board with Salon’s plan. In the short time we’ve known him, he has proven to be an exceptional guide, navigating crowds and maximizing our time to deal with the high temperatures and humidity. He is also extremely kind and considerate, spraying arms and ankles with mosquito repellant in case anyone forgot to bring their own and pointing out steep or slippery areas at the ruins. “Every day someone gets injured climbing around Angkor Wat,” he told us yesterday. “I don’t want that to happen to anyone in my group!”

I’m also amazed by Salon’s knack for photography. He stops frequently at his “best spots” and offers to take photos of everyone, never rushing or telling us there isn’t time to stop. I don’t think Herb and I have ever had so many photos of us taken in such a special place.

Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm Temple is all about the trees. Tree roots, that is – mammoth, twisted, gnarled extensions that wrap around temple walls and structures like a monster’s fingers. The temple was built without mortar in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, and the trees took root in the loosened stones when it was abandoned. Originally created as a Buddhist monastery, Ta Prohm was once home to 80,000 residents. The temple has a sort of cult following for fans of the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, filmed here in 2000.

We enter the temple grounds on a dirt road. Brown cracked leaves cover the ground, looking like fossils imbedded in clay. As we approach the first building, women with brooms are sweeping the stone entry. It seems like an impossible task in this jungle-like setting, but the stones look as clean and leaf-free as they can possibly be. A thick-trunked tree curves crookedly skyward from the top of the building, telling us that if we’re looking for Ta Prohm, we’ve come to the right place.

Workers keep the entrance to Ta Prohm clean and leaf-free.
Pink-toned walls and multiple carvings surround a doorway.
The terraced room just beyond.
Detail of a carved figure.
Salon tells us that the tree is called a spung tree.
Our lovely group of kindred spirit travelers.
A window to the outside world.
Color and carvings and framed niches.
This dinosaur carving, Salon tells us, has been a source of curiosity ever since it was discovered.
Another fascinating tree.

Angkor Thom

The name Angkor Thom translates as great city and was once the longest-lasting capital of the Khmer Empire. Constructed in the late 12th century, the city covered about three-and-a-half square miles and is believed to have had a population of 80,000 to 150,000 residents. Once filled with temples, a Royal Palace and other important sites, Angkor Thom was abandoned sometime in the early 16th century.

Bayon Temple

Angkor Thom’s most famous landmark is Bayon Temple, built exactly in the center of the city in the 12th century. Fifty-four stone towers each carved with four serene, smiling faces look down from the temple’s upper levels. Some scholars have speculated that the faces represent Buddha; others believe they are likenesses of King Jayavarman VII, who is responsible for building the temple as well as other contributions to Angkor Thom.

When French naturalist and explorer Henri Moutot saw the faces at Bayon Temple on his expedition to Angkor Wat, he described them as “four immense heads in the Egyptian style.”

“One of these temples – a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michaelangelo – might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”

~Henri Mouhot, Travels in Siam, Cambodia & Laos (published posthumously, 1863)

From a distance, the towers don’t appear to have distinguishable carvings. But as you get closer, the faces begin appearing, and soon it’s astounding to realize how many there are. According to Salon, the number is based on the lucky number 9…54 towers x 4 faces each = 216 faces; 2 + 1 + 6 = 9.

Bayon Temple.
Faces, faces everywhere…

Carved pillars and narrow passageways.
Walls of bas-relief carvings depict scenes of battles as well as daily life.
Detail of a battle scene.
Another Salon “best spot.” Our son Andrew told me that it’s too bad we’re not a rock band because this would make a great album cover!

Terrace of the Elephants

Our last stop of the morning is a 1,000-foot-long platform built in the late 12th century. Named after the parade of elephants that adorn the platform walls, the Terrace of the Elephants was used for public ceremonies and as a viewing sport for King Jayavarman VII to watch processions and military parades on the grounds below. Like everything else at Angkor Thom, it’s built on a grand scale. A larger-than-life part of a city that was once larger than life.

Terrace of the Elephants.
Elephants form pillars around the terrace…
…and are carved into the surrounding wall.
I loved this scene as I looked back from Terrace of the Elephants.

*     *     *     *     *

After Angkor

The rest of the day included a Khmer lunch and optional shopping excursions around Siem Reap. Salon’s driver provided transportation for group and individual requests. Except for the evening’s farewell dinner and entertainment at the hotel, we had free time to customize our afternoon plans.

About That Ever-Present Coconut

I continued to deal with my inability to tolerate coconut with set menus in Cambodia, just as I had in Thailand. When it was part of a sauce mixed with other ingredients, I was fine. But when coconut was on its own or as the main headliner – coconut soup, coconut ice cream – I had to politely decline. From what I could tell, these weren’t dining experiences that dealt with food allergies or special requests. I adopted a When in Rome attitude, tried what I could and said “no thank you” when I simply couldn’t.

Our lunch menu at Mahob Khmer Cuisine.
Guess what’s under the cone…
…Ta-da! 

Satcha Project

One of the optional shopping stops was Satcha Project, an artisan educational center for young Cambodians to develop traditional Khmer craftsmanship skills in making a variety of products. I was a bit dubious after visiting an artisan center in Nha Trang, Vietnam, but this was a very different experience. The group’s website describes the project as “incubated artisans” and has an impressive mission statement.

“To create the first Cambodian handicraft center that incubates local artisans, mixing traditional knowledge with contemporary design to showcase Cambodian talents to local and international visitors and to transmit these know-how(s) over time while having a sustainable social, economic and environmental impact.”

~Satcha Handicraft Mission Statement

We watched artists working in their studio, an open-air, bamboo-covered pavilion with individual stations for wood and stone carving, weaving, painting and lacquer work. The grounds are lovely and peaceful, filled with trees and walking paths, a small outdoor café and a pond. A shop featuring the artists’ work is housed in a separate building. I bought a small stone elephant to add to our ever-growing collection of travel treasures.

Satcha Project entrance.
Wood and stone artisans in the studio.
A pottery artist…
…and a weaver.
The Satcha Project’s tranquil grounds.

Scenes from Siem Reap

As we were leaving Satcha Project, Salon offered to stop at Siem Reap’s Old Market before dropping us off at the hotel. The market was more of a place for souvenirs, he told us, where it was expected that you’d bargain on pricing. But it wasn’t so much the market I wanted to experience, but the city itself.

Before our trip, I had somehow pictured Siem Reap as a small town with a few hotels and dirt roads leading to Angkor Wat. I couldn’t have been more wrong! With a population of almost a quarter of a million residents, Siem Reap is the second-largest city in Cambodia. Salon told us that the city made good use of the non-visitor pandemic months by completing renovation and road work projects. It’s a vibrant, busy city, and it was great fun to walk its streets.

12 Comments

    • Jennifer, I’m so happy to have rekindled some great travel memories! It’s interesting, isn’t it, how experiences from ten years ago can still be as fresh and relevant as if they happened yesterday. Thanks so much for sharing your blog. I’m heading over right now to have a read!

  • Your excursions are so much more magical than ours. Your eyes see so much more. Maybe our Barcelona – Cape Town would have been a “not going back” adventure, seen through your camera lens. Where are you going next? Can we come along??

    • You are too kind, Maria…thank you! Angkor Wat is truly a magical place, a feast for the eyes as well as the camera. I can’t recommend this itinerary enough – from Tokyo to the places in between as well as the grand finale land trip to Cambodia. Regent did a fantastic job with the excursion choices in these ports, and the companies they hired for the land tours were top-notch. We’re home for a while now, but will be planning our next adventure…stay tuned! 😊

  • Me too 😂 I really can’t get enough of this magical place. I recall being “templed out” after a couple of days here, and yet felt as though we’d merely scratched the surface. I can’t imagine ever feeling as if I’d “been there, seen that” because there is just so much to see. Looking at your photos from Bayon reminded me of how I’d wished to have the time to sit and stare…maybe get my sketchbook out and just look closely at all of those faces! But I know that, had I got that time to do that, I’d have wanted to be moving on, because just around the corner there were other riches to be explored!! Aaagh! Thank you for taking me back there Mary, for reminding me how special it is and for prompting the memory of going shopping in that market for an “overflow” piece of luggage for the homeward journey – otherwise forgotten! (I am also off to read Jennifer’s blog now)

    • Hahaha, Gill. I remember hearing comments throughout the trip about getting “templed out” in Japan and SE Asia. But you are so right that two days at Angkor Wat is just scratching the surface. We covered the main attractions, to be sure, but when I looked on the map we were given with our temple passes, I couldn’t believe how many other temples there were to explore. I love that you needed an overflow piece of luggage – a sign of an extraordinarily good trip! 😉

      • I went with Overseas Adventure Travel company (OAT), and we joked that in SE Asia, OAT stood for “Oh, another temple.” They were all so beautiful and different from each other that I could have gone to 100 more. But I had that same type of exhaustion in Italy, where I was overstimulated by all of the Madonna and Child paintings.

        • Michelle, I completely agree with you about the Angkor Wat temples and could have visited many more as well. It’s one of those places I am truly grateful to have visited – exhaustion and overstimulation of the best kind! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experience!

  • What an amazing, otherworldly place. Your photos and descriptions are beautiful. This is a bucket list location – my conundrum is I have a startlingly low tolerance for humidity! Ha!

    • Thank you so much, Mary…”otherworldly” is a perfect description! It IS humid, but touring in the early morning and late afternoon made it extremely tolerable. Mid-November is the beginning of the dry season, and we found it to be a great time to visit, heat-and-humidity-wise. And truth be told, it’s so easy to get caught up in what you’re seeing and experiencing that the humidity doesn’t seem to matter!

  • Hello, I have read about Angkor Wat in many places, but your post has given very thorough information, I have no words to say about your beautiful photography. Your vivid photography is calling me to Angkor Wat.

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