Visiting Angkor Wat, the great temple site in Cambodia, was always on my bucket list. And though it is far away and expensive to get there, it was a trip I felt I finally had to make. I wasn't disappointed.
Angkor Wat, which means "City of Temples," is the largest religious monument in the world: a 500-acre complex that encompasses the remains of hundreds of temples. It is part of the larger Angkor region where 750,000 people of the mighty Khmer Empire once lived. Angkor Wat is also the name of the best preserved and most magnificent temple built in the early 12th century by a powerful Khmer warrior king.
Originally a Hindu temple honoring the god Vishnu, and now a Buddhist site, it is vast and beautiful and amazing. Angkor Wat is built on a swamp, yet its five towers are twice as high as the Tower of London, an architectural feat. Almost as amazing is the nearby Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom, which is filled with masterful carvings that depict Hindu epics as well as the daily life of the people of the time.
I was lucky to visit Angkor as part of an Abercrombie & Kent group tour, which meant staying at the elegant Raffles Hotel in Siem Reap, the bustling shop-filled town near the complex. We also had a shrewd and well-informed guide who led our group to Angkor Wat before 6 a.m. and positioned us in exactly the right spot to watch the sun rise between the temple's soaring towers.
Yes, Angkor is filled with tourists, mainly Chinese and Korean. And Cambodia is very hot and very poor — a country still struggling with the aftereffects of the brutal and genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. But I found spending three days at Angkor — visiting the temples in the cooler early morning and late afternoon — absolutely enchanting. What greatly added to my enjoyment was reading a historical novel called A Woman of Angkor, written by a colleague, John Burgess. Few records have survived from Khmer times; rather, the people were master builders and carvers whose history is in stone. But Burgess has managed to create a believable tale about a beautiful and remarkable woman, adored by the king, whose son just happened to be the architect of Angkor Wat. Is it a true story? In a place filled with such wonder, I believed every word.
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